My final research paper for my ENG203 class was a look at the Elizabethan sexual references made by Shakespeare. Today’s audiences miss some of these juicy, sexy and downright bawdy jokes. Censorship was rampant during Shakespeare’s times but he still had to entertain his groundling and penny stinkards at the Globe Theater. This paper only looks at a few of the bawdy jokes from the plays we studied this last Spring Term 2010. All of his plays are full of raunchy sex jokes that were the X rated movies of the Elizabethan era. As a Non Traditional Student, I wanted to write my final paper for my instructor on a subject that he so vividly illustrated in his lectures. Only Shakespearean Scholars (geeks) usually get these jokes today, but during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Bard kept them rolling in the aisles with a steady stream of sexual double entendres. Even though I have completed this series of English Literature classes, I will continue to research and write posts on this topic here on Reaching Lifelong Goals.com just for fun!! I hope you enjoy this research paper.
X Rated Shakespeare
William Shakespeare knew what his audiences wanted. He produced plays that were topical, controversial, and also quite risqué! Ask any advertiser in the 21st century and they will tell you, “sex sells!” It seems that some things never change. Similar to Shakespeare’s use of topical references, many of the more bawdy lines go unappreciated by modern audiences. Shakespeare used bawdy humor in his dialogue to entertain theater-goers in the same way that current day stand up comedians and PG rated films does.
Gordon Williams published a rather detailed dictionary of sexual language in 1994 in which he states, “On the whole, and certainly in discursive writings of Shakespeare’s day, the blunt monosyllable gets into print chiefly by way of punning allusion” (Williams.10). It is well established that William Shakespeare was the master of the pun in all of his works. It is interesting that this skill was also used to weave into plays some of the most outrageous sexual references right under the censor’s noses.
Pauline Kiernan, in her book Filthy Shakespeare, makes an interesting point about the Elizabethan audience, “Shakespeare’s audiences were fine-tuned to hearing what we now call subtext in a way that we can hardly begin to imagine. When they talked of going to the theater, they called is going to hear a play, not to see one” (Kiernan.12).
Enough with the tease, shall we take a closer look at the bawdy references in the plays studied this Spring term 2010; Twelfth Night, Othello and The Tempest. There are several examples in each of these plays of how Shakespeare kept things lively in the Globe, regrettably have space for only a sample in this format.
Perhaps the wildest lines that made it past the censors were in Twelfth Night, where the Puritan Malvolio says, “By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very C’s, her U’s aNd her T’s and thus makes her great P’s” (12thN.2.5.72-74). Shakespeare has great fun in presenting Malvolio, a Puritan as a fool, with his aspirations to social climbing and class envy. The groundlings would have been rolling in the isles over this one. This line is often cut from productions. It would seem that the Puritans had their way with this passage, even to modern times.
In Act 1, scene 3, Sir Toby Belch has an exchange with Sir Andrew where he makes fun of “hair”. “Excellent, it hangs like flax on a distaff, and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off” (12thN.1.3.84-85). A fairly tame sounding line, to today’s audience. The references are to a penis (distaff) and a woman (whore) masturbating (spin it off) Sir Andrew. Again, this line is also over the heads of modern audiences, who laugh without really getting the joke.
There are many sexual references in the play, Othello, the Moore of Venice. Perhaps one of the lines that a modern audience would get the meaning of is given by Iago in Act I. “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs (O.I.1.115). This is an Elizabethan slang term that was documented by Eric Partridge in his book Shakespeare’s Bawdy. This book was written in the early 1950s and was quite controversial for the times. The sensibilities of the era are reflected in his definition of Iago’s obscenity, “A man and a woman in coitu obviously resemble a two-headed animal with two backs, four arms, and four legs”. (Partridge.144). This definition was a polite way of saying “doggie style” today.
Another famous quote from Iago is both racial and sexual. “Even now, now, very now, and old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (O.I.1.89-90). This reference is fairly easy to understand, in any culture, and any era. Both of the texts make reference to “tup” as a term for sex. Other references are found in this play which revolves around the sexual puns exchanged between Iago and Desdemona. In Act V, Scene 1 there is a reference to the sexual double standard that allowed men to be unfaithful while women who did so were considered whores. Emilia says, “I do think it is their husband’s faults if wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties and pour our treasures in foreign laps…And have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?” (O.5.1) This would be defined as what is good for the goose is also good for the gander.
The final play studied was The Tempest, which is fairly “clean” as far as sex goes. Prospero warns Ferdinand in Act 4, Scene 1 that “If thou dost break her virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies …be ministered” (T.4.1.15-17). Here the reference to virginity is illustrated with a period term that is fairly straight-forward. An interesting reference in regard to the late Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Kiernan tells of a quote by Ben Johnson where he said “that she had a membrane on her so thick that no man could penetrate her, though for her delight, she tried many” (Kiernan.283). Johnson went on to publish this story in Conversations with Drummond in 1618-19.
The topic of bawdy language in Shakespeare’s works is a discipline all on its own to research. There are more references and puns in his works that it is an area that a Shakespearean scholar could spend a lifetime researching. Perhaps Pauline Kiernan states it best, “His plays and poems are stuffed with the kind of double entendres and obscene wordplay that would make our most risqué stand-up comics blush” (Kiernan, 12).
Kiernan, Pauline. Filthy Shakespeare. New York: Gotham Books. 2006.
Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. London: Routledge. 1968
Williams, Gordon. Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and
Stuart Literature. New Jersey: Athalone Press. 1994