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  • Polymorphously Normal Sexuality
  • Warren S. Poland

At times, the clinician leaves his office and is fortunate enough to wend his way to the theater. One exceptional venture led him to rare enchantment. He came across so riveting a performance that it not only moved him but changed his perspective once he returned to seeing patients in his office. Ideas about gender and adolescence, gender and early infancy, gender and the delights of life were all transformed by the evening at the theater.

Adolescence is a time of glorious but painful agonies when, in the face of great uncertainties about oneself, a gender identity gels. Yet the pressure to settle that sexual identity is not the only force exploding tumultuously within the young person. For while adolescence is subject to the compelling command of both lusty and romantic desires, it is also a time when everything is thrown off balance by a tidal pull toward individuating self-definition, often manifested by a rash readiness to discard established constraints.

As gripping as are the feminine and masculine urges of adolescents and the pressure for independence, behind these remains the desire for fusion, for an oceanic unity of being, for a self fully at one with the whole human fabric and, concomitantly, for a sexuality not differentiated by gender. It is often forgotten that there is a unity that precedes individuation and a sexuality that is non-gendered but comes before both bisexuality and male/female identity. Growth does not dissolve these prior states, which continue to lie behind and alongside the later aspects more familiar to our view.

This early sexuality, one that might be called polymorphously normal (as opposed to polymorphously perverse), can nowadays be seen most easily from a distance. Shakespeare, whose breadth of view is ever astonishing, not only brings us [End Page 479] a mimesis of the life we know but also, awakening us from the cultural fashions of the present, reminds us of early states we have learned to obscure. It is manifest in his Protean nature and his ability to bring to life female characters who can successfully be portrayed by males.

The place of undifferentiated sexuality in Shakespeare's plays informs us of its origins in individual development. This parallel demands fresh notice, because the "progress" of civilization since Shakespeare's day has brought with it repression as well as liberation. Open recognition and appreciation of an underlying ungendered sexuality has become culturally hidden. Reclaiming comfortable access to such unfettered equal-opportunity sexuality enriches our understanding of our patients and ourselves, as well as of Shakespeare.

Much of the above became clear when the clinician attended (perhaps too detached a word for the engagement he actually experienced) a specific performance of an already well-known and well-loved play, Twelfth Night. It is a play he had read innumerable times through life's proverbial ages from school days on, one he had already seen many times produced by companies from the severely amateur to the most professionally accomplished, and one that had never ceased to delight him. But this particular performance, directed by Mark Rylance for the Globe Theatre in London, was different because all efforts were aimed at bringing the play to life in a way that conformed as closely as possible to how it would have been staged in Shakespeare's time.

Seeing Twelfth Night in the theater that evening amazed, raised unexpected questions, and stimulated fresh thoughts. The effect was to induce the clinician to revisit not only his sense of Shakespeare but also his understandings of sexuality and bisexuality. It suddenly seemed clear that Freud's thinking was closer to Shakespeare's than to conventional twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century psychoanalytic thinking. As modern discoveries and postmodern theories have turned away from drives and libido, much of great value has been left behind.

It is improbable that any single evening in the theater could change the views of someone who had attended innumerable performances of Shakespeare for more than six decades. How could a single production lead to the reevaluation of all that [End Page 480] had gone before? But such was the effect of a play staged as Shakespeare...


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pp. 479-483
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