Opinion: comical, wicked, charming and offensive, Shakespeare's pimps and prostitutes remind us that it's all too easy to occupy the moral high ground

Kenneth Branagh’s recent biopic of Shakespeare, All Is True, emphasises Shakespeare’s ordinariness: although he is a literary genius, at heart he is a plain, hard-working family man. But other imaginings of Shakespeare’s biography have presented him as a playboy and poet of love. In the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, for instance, Joseph Fiennes’s Will brims with sex-appeal and he is eager to consummate his relationship with the promiscuous Rosaline, at least until he meets his true love Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow). In a 2007 episode of Doctor Who, Will swaggers about as a kind of Renaissance rockstar whose sexual allure entices men and women alike.

Each of these fictional biographies of Shakespeare look to his poems and plays for inspiration. In particular, they draw on the romantic lovers of his drama such as Romeo, Orlando, Benedick, and Ferdinand. However, there is more to Shakespeare than tales of love-struck youths and swaggering suitors and his life and literary output also reveal the dark side of sex and desire.

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Trailer for Shakespeare In Love

Illicit sex certainly had a significant impact on Shakespeare’s private life. His wife Anne Hathaway was already pregnant when they married in 1582 and his eldest daughter Susanna was accused of adultery (though this may have been a case of slander only).

In London where Shakespeare spent much of his adult life, sex-workers were a regular feature of the urban landscape. Writing in 1599 Thomas Platter, a Swiss visitor to London, observed that "good order is also kept in the city in the matter of prostitution" but, despite the authorities’ efforts, "great swarms of these women haunt the town in the taverns and playhouses".

Shakespeare would have seen sex-workers plying their trade on a daily basis then, but he is also likely to have known women like the notorious brothel-keeper Lucy Negro, either personally or by reputation. According to the Shakespearean scholar Duncan Salkeld, Negro, also known as "Black Luce", is also a likely candidate for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In Upstart Crow, the BBC sitcom about Shakespeare, Black Luce has been reimagined for the 21st century. Here, Miss Lucy appears as a proud African woman who has escaped from slavery to become a self-made businesswoman, in charge of her own tavern-cum-bawdy house.

From Upstart Crow, David Mitchell as Will Shakespeare, Jocelyn Jee Esien as Lucy and Steve Speirs as Richard Burbage. Photo: BBC

Although the word "whore" occurs over 50 times in Shakespeare’s works, actual prostitutes rarely feature, though pimps and brothel-madams appear in a few plays as memorable and entertaining characters. In the group of plays known as the Henriad, Mistress Nell Quickly runs the Boar’s Head Tavern but she may have a sideline in prostitution. Her surname suggests she is a "quick lay" and her tavern is frequented by Doll Tearsheet, the only self-proclaimed, professional sex-worker in Shakespeare’s canon.

Mistress Quickly is often concerned about her reputation, but her life ends in infamy: in Henry V, we learn that she has died of syphilis while her husband, Pistol, is away fighting in France. With the war over, Pistol’s job prospects are limited: disenfranchised and impoverished, he returns to England to become a thief and pimp. In Shakespeare’s England, sex-work was legally, socially, and morally taboo, but for the poor and vulnerable it was a means to survive during times of hardship.

Shakespeare’s 1604 comedy Measure for Measure is set in a seedy metropolis where crime and sin have become widespread because of the neglect of the authorities. When a reforming purge gets underway, the sex-workers are the obvious targets for the city’s governors. The brothel-keeper Mistress Overdone and the pimp Pompey are paraded as scapegoats, but they each challenge the judgement of those snootily occupying the moral high ground.

Trailer for Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre, Moscow's production of Measure By Measure

Mistress Overdone announces that the authorities themselves are corrupt; the snitch who has informed against her is a lecher and has fathered a child out of wedlock. In his defence, Pompey attacks the law as arbitrary: prostitution would be "a lawful trade...if the law would allow it". The city’s governors see the body as an object to be controlled and disciplined, but Pompey argues that sexual urges are natural. A pimp makes for a handy fall-guy, but sex-work is driven by demand. Pompey explains that the only way authorities could successfully eradicate prostitution and regulate desire would be to neuter "all the youth of the city".

In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a princess is kidnapped by pirates and sold into sexual slavery. To the brothel-keepers, it is evident that the princess, Marina, is a highborn virgin and thus a profitable investment. Customers flock to their door, but the brothel proprietors soon find that Marina is bad for business as she miraculously converts her clients. As the pimp Bolt comically complains, the saintly Marina has even sent one customer "away as cold as a snowball; saying his prayers too"!

This virtuous behaviour leads to a showdown between Marina and Bolt, who plans to essentially rape her into obedience. Marina physically and verbally resists, describing her captor as a despicable parasite. Bolt counters by arguing that pimping is a desirable alternative to other lowly professions, such as soldiering: "What would you have me do? Go to the wars, would you, where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one?"

Alex Murphy as Bolt, Amy Kidd as Bawd, and Éilish McLaughlin as Marina in the Lir’s production of Pericles, 2019. Photo: The Lir

In these scenes, Bolt is a dangerous criminal preying on the vulnerable, but he is also humanised. Marina sees a black-and-white moral problem – the pimp is guilty of a personal sin – but Bolt highlights the social problems and economic conditions that underlie his life choices. In the end, the only way Marina wins is by dealing with the pimp on his terms; she bribes him and so escapes from the brothel.

In their short time on stage, Shakespeare’s sex-workers are fascinating characters. These pimps and prostitutes are victims and villains, by turns comical, wicked, charming and offensive. They remind us that it is all too easy to occupy the moral high ground and to reduce complex problems to simplistic binaries of "right" and "wrong". Life is rarely black-and-white, and in challenging quick judgements and refusing to be scapegoats, Shakespeare’s sex-workers show us that it is the social, moral, political, and legal grey areas that need our attention.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ