Last week, the Government banned sex. Legislation laid before Parliament on the 1 June prohibited any gathering that is “indoors” and “consists of two or more persons”, and even went so far as to specify that a gathering is “when two or more people are present together in the same place in order to engage in any form of social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity with each other”. “Other activity”: we get it, Boris. You want us to keep our pants on.
And this week, debate raged on twitter as to whether the new “bubble” legislation allowing those who live alone to socialise exclusively with one other household was about sex or grandparents.
Upon reading about the legislation, I have to admit that my first thoughts were not fully focused on the sad prospect of yet more months with no hugs or contact with my friends or boyfriend. Oddly enough, my mind turned almost immediately to Shakespeare.
In the opening scene of Measure for Measure (1604) Vienna’s Duke leaves the city and its governance in the hands of his deputy Angelo. The Duke privately admits he has failed to enforce the “strict statutes and most biting laws” of Vienna, and as a result the city has run riot: “liberty plucks justice by the nose” and “the baby beats the nurse”. Too much like a “lion o’ergrown” sitting lazily inactive in his cave, the Duke cannot pursue his “prey” and enforce the rules. He has to hand control of “mortality and mercy” to his cruel aide.
The first rule that Angelo re-imposes on this city of pimps, prostitutes, and bars is a decree against extra-marital sex. The itinerant pimp Pompey tells Mistress Overdone that “all houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” – prostitute houses were in the suburbs of Elizabethan cities to avoid the jurisdiction of city authorities – and, in the same scene, Claudio is “led by the provost to prison” for having had “possession of Julietta’s bed”.
Significantly – both in our current sexless situation and within Shakespeare’s text – Julietta is “fast [Claudio’s] wife”. Elizabethan marriages were not only formalised in church: there were coexisting “contract marriages”. Betrothals could be de praesenti – an indissoluble commitment to the immediate status of marriage – or de futuro: a more conditional promise of marriage that could become binding if the couple had sexual intercourse. Claudio and Julietta are contractually married: the type of their betrothal is debated, but irrelevant. Having had sex, either contract sees them married. Angelo’s cruel treatment of Claudio – he tries to behead him, sexually harasses his sister Isabella, believes he has had sex with Isabella in return for Claudio’s life and still tries to kill him before being revealed as a perverted hypocrite by the Duke in a Friar’s disguise (Shakespearean plots!) – is all based upon a legally dubious decree.
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Claudio and Julietta had obeyed accepted law – contract marriages were legal in Great Britain until 1752 – and still were punished by the authorities. Evidently Shakespeare’s play is an exposition of bad governance – neither the Duke nor Angelo commands much respect – but it is also a depiction of the dangers of any government becoming too intimately involved in the private lives of their subjects.
For a government who has had no shortage of lockdown scandals – Neil Ferguson’s illicit tryst with his lover springs to mind – to bring in explicit restrictions on the nation’s bedrooms feels a little bit too on the nose. We’re all willing to accept some constraints on our lives for the health of the population, but the government explicitly barring access to bedrooms like the parents of untrustworthy teenagers pushes our everyday life ever closer to a Black Mirror episode.
Most couples living apart with their respective families do not want to break the rules and endanger those whom they live with and love; not having sex – or touching – is a choice thousands have made willingly. But now that we can go to zoos, sit on rides at theme parks, and “bubble” with our grandparents, the sudden Angelo-esque decision to arbitrate relationships is patronising, farcical, and verging on the voyeuristic. The nanny state is in the bedroom.
Alongside growing discontent, an awareness of oppression and police brutality, and an acerbic public discourse that sees justice in “haste” and “measure still for measure”, any onlooker could be forgiven for thinking that twenty-first century Britain is edging ever closer to Shakespeare’s imagined Vienna. All that remains is to find out if Boris is a weak and meddling Duke, or a flawed and forceful Angelo.