Jillian Keenan, one of my favorite writers, has a new book: Sex with Shakespeare.
When it came to understanding love, a teenage Jillian Keenan had nothing to guide her—until a production of The Tempest sent Shakespeare’s language flowing through her blood for the first time. In Sex with Shakespeare, she tells the story of how the Bard’s plays helped her embrace her unusual sexual identity and find a love story of her own.
Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, Keenan’s smart and passionate memoir brings new life to his work. With fourteen of his plays as a springboard, she explores the many facets of love and sexuality—from desire and communication to fetish and fantasy. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Keenan unmasks Helena as a sexual masochist—like Jillian herself. In Macbeth, she examines criminalized sexual identities and the dark side of “privacy.” The Taming of the Shrew goes inside the secret world of bondage, domination, and sadomasochism, while King Lear exposes the ill-fated king as a possible sexual predator. Moving through the canon, Keenan makes it abundantly clear that literature is a conversation. In Sex with Shakespeare, words are love.
I know Keenan’s work through her writing against corporal punishment of children. She persuasively argues it’s sexual abuse. She’s also written extensively on kink as identity.
What I find interesting here is the way that we need to process aspects of our identity that society deems deviant (or at least atypical) through broadly accepted cultural products. It’s a way of finding patterns that give us permission to be ourselves (even if most of us don’t then take our complex self and place it in the pages of the New York Times, as Keenan did). For Keenan, it was Shakespeare, but as K, a literary critic and friend of mine pointed out, there’s a world of people who have found similar self recognition in the world of Jane Austen, or other modes of fiction.
In the end, as always, my argument is this: Representation matters. So does the ability to read and process great literature.