Shakespeare's use of bawdy—sexually suggestive, crude, or humorously indecent language—became an area of serious critical interest in the twentieth century. Eric Partridge (1947) is credited with pioneering the critical study of bawdy in his 1947 book Shakespeare's Bawdy. Although it met with the approval of Elizabethans, bawdy has been dismissed by some commentators as simply playing to the lowest common denominator of the audience. Many critics have chosen to ignore the bawdy elements in Shakespeare's works, viewing them as unworthy of extensive comment, while others have elected to omit or change the objectionable passages. Throughout the centuries editors and directors have removed the potentially offensive portions of Shakespeare's works. In 1818, Thomas Bowdler published Family Shakespeare, a censored version of Shakespeare's plays which cut passages that he considered obscene. Most modern scholars, however, appreciate Shakespeare's bawdy jokes and puns, and find that the clever wit of his sexual innuendo not only has comic significance, but is used to develop character, themes, and plot as well. While no one denies the presence of bawdy in Shakespeare's works, critics do not agree on the extent of it. E. A. M. Colman (1974) cautions against reading too many indecent elements in Shakespeare, and finds that many critics distort the significance of bawdy in Shakespeare's plays and poems. Most critics do agree, however, that a knowledge of Shakespeare's bawdy language is crucial for a thorough understanding of his works.
Critics such as Marion D. Perret (1982) maintain that Shakespeare's bawdy sexual references “illuminate” his works and are used to develop character, theme, and plot. Perret argues that in The Taming of the Shrew the bawdy elements reveal aspects of character, noting that “[t]hrough their bawdry the tamer and the shrew show not only that they both have spirit, but that they both have spiritual values which make for a good marriage.” Perret also maintains that the female characters' use of indecent language in The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates their shrewishness, and notes that Kate and Bianca speak bawdily only when they are being portrayed as shrews. In his study of the carnivalesque elements of Romeo and Juliet, Ronald Knowles (1996, see Further Reading) contends that “bawdy is used not only for structural and thematic contrast, but for something larger and more positive—the carnivalesque embrace of existence.” Mary Bly (1996) also examines Romeo and Juliet, which is considered by some critics to be the bawdiest of Shakespeare's plays. Bly focuses on Juliet's lewd puns and considers the influence of her character on the comic heroines of Shakespeare's contemporaries. James R. Andreas, Jr. (2000) discusses the school censorship of the bawdy elements in Romeo and Juliet, and argues that students, in order to fully appreciate Shakespeare, need to be taught the whole text. The critic also notes that the removal of the bawdy passages creates an imbalance that favors the bloody violence of the play. Richard Halpern (1997) likens Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis to “a piece of soft-core pornography,” and contends that the poem is meant to produce sexual frustration in its female readers. Lastly, Joan Hutton Landis (1996) studies the homosexual bawdy in The Merchant of Venice; the critic also warns that “[b]awdy is a Pandora's box. Once opened, it is hard, if not impossible, to close the lid.”
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Partridge, Eric. “Introductory” and “Non-sexual Bawdy.” In Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary & Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary, pp. 3-11. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1968.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1947, Partridge studies Shakespeare's outlook and attitude toward sex and bawdiness, and examines both the sexual and non-sexual elements of bawdy in Shakespeare's works.]
Among the most generally interesting and particularly provocative books upon Shakespeare since (say) 1925 are Dover Wilson's magistral edition of Shakespeare's Works, H. Granville-Barker's brilliant Prefaces, G. Wilson Knight's profound studies, Hugh Kingsmill's thoughtful The Return of William Shakespeare, Chambers's authoritative William Shakespeare, and, in another order, Kenneth Muir & Sean O'Loughlin's The Voyage to Illyria and Hesketh Pearson's popular, wind-fresh A Life of Shakespeare. (This selection is not intended to belittle such important books as those by Edgar I. Fripp and Leslie Hotson.) None of them,1 however, attempts a serious study of the main subject treated in the ensuing pages, whether in the sketch that is this essay or in the glossary, which, self-contained, deals with many themes that, even at this date, could not be handled in an essay designed to...
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SOURCE: Colman, E. A. M. “What Is Indecency?” In The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare, pp. 1-22. London: Longman, 1974.
[In the following essay, Colman cautions against reading too many indecent elements in Shakespeare, and finds that many critics distort the significance of bawdy in Shakespeare's works.]
Now it is quite undeniable, that there are many passages in Shakespeare, which a father could not read aloud to his children—a brother to his sister—or a gentleman to a lady:—and every one almost must have felt or witnessed the extreme awkwardness, and even distress, that arises from suddenly stumbling upon such expressions, when it is almost too late to avoid them, and when the readiest wit cannot suggest any paraphrase, which shall not betray, by its harshness, the embarrassment from which it has arisen. Those who recollect such scenes, must all rejoice, we should think, that Mr Bowdler has provided a security against their recurrence; and, as what cannot be pronounced in decent company cannot well afford much pleasure in the closet, we think it is better, every way, that what cannot be spoken, and ought not to have been written, should now cease to be printed.1
Thus Francis Jeffrey, advocate, Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and formidable editor of The Edinburgh Review. True to character, the future law lord...
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SOURCE: Ross, Thomas W. “‘The Safety of a Pure Blush’: Shakespeare's Bawdy Clusters.” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 267-80.
[In the following essay, Ross studies the dual effect of certain word groups, or “bawdy clusters”—words that take on indecent meanings when they occur in clustered references.]
But love no man in good earnest, nor no further in sport neither, than with the safety of a pure blush thou mayst in honor come off again.
(AYL [As You Like It], I.ii.27-29)
There is no question that the most important twentieth-century innovation in Shakespeare scholarship is textual criticism. But a close second is the rediscovery of his multiple meanings, including his bawdy innuendo. Eric Partridge was the great pioneer, despite his occasional unscholarly exuberance. In E. A. M. Colman's study of the dramatic uses of bawdy in the plays and poetry there is a more disciplined sensitivity to these meanings.1
Neither Partridge nor Colman has, however, paid sufficient attention to the indecent meanings in clusters of references. These groups of words have a dual effect: first, they communicate on an innocent level, camouflaging sexual imagery behind a series of allusions to, let us say, archery or birds' nests; second, they create a countereffect to this first one—producing a mutual influence, one...
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SOURCE: Perret, Marion D. “Of Sex and the Shrew.” Ariel 13, no. 1 (January 1982): 3-20.
[In the following essay, Perret examines Shakespeare's use of bawdy in The Taming of the Shrew, and contends that the purpose of the bawdy is to comically introduce serious values.]
In considering any play we rightly pay attention to what is given dramatic emphasis, and in The Taming of the Shrew dramatic emphasis is on the relation of the sexes rather than the sexual relation. Critics of this play have not yet examined what the allusions to sex do besides amuse the audience,1 presumably because there seems little to examine. Although, Bianca's suitors remind us, the man who would “rid the house” of the shrew must not only wed but bed her (I.i.149-50)2 the play does not force us to consider sex by challenging conventional mores or by constantly alluding to sexuality3—The Taming of the Shrew is, statistically, one of Shakespeare's less indecent works.4 Nevertheless, the significance of bawdy lines cannot be judged solely by their number. For instance, position gives weight to Kate's first words and to Petruchio's last, both of which deal with sex. Shakespeare must have believed the bawdry important: he uncharacteristically5 went out of his way to “dirty up” his sources for the Induction, which in telling of a trick played upon a...
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SOURCE: Frantz, David O. “The Context of Erotica: Marston, Donne, Shakespeare, and Spenser.” In Festum Voluptatis: A Study of Renaissance Erotica, pp. 208-52. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Frantz studies the bawdy language of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and maintains that a reader's understanding of the play is enriched by a knowledge of Renaissance erotica.]
Imagine a course in Renaissance drama devoid of erotica in one form or another, and you eliminate most of the great (and a good many of the mediocre) plays of the era. Renaissance dramatists exploited sex and sexual innuendo to its utmost; a study on lust alone would run volumes, as would one on sexual innuendo. Sexual action and sexual innuendo are inseparable in Renaissance drama, since there could have been little realistic heterosexual action on the stage with an audience always aware that boys were playing the parts of women.1 A knowledge of plots of sexual intrigue found in a variety of sources, from novelle to jests, and a knowledge of the language of sexuality are essential for a full understanding of Renaissance drama, as both are used masterfully by a number of Renaissance dramatists to develop character, theme, and setting as well as plot. For example, the language of sexuality and the lust of certain characters become the means by which Malevole gains his revenge in The...
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SOURCE: Scragg, Leah. “‘Her C's, Her U's, and Her T's: Why That?’: A New Reply for Sir Andrew Aguecheek.” The Review of English Studies 42, no. 165 (February 1991): 1-16.
[In the following essay, Scragg argues that a passage from Act II, scene v of Twelfth Night—in which Malvolio reads the forged letter—can be read as both a bawdy joke and as a warning against pickpockets.]
Act II, scene v of Twelfth Night in which Malvolio falls victim to the letter device instigated by Maria is among the funniest in Shakespearian drama. Sir Toby, Fabian, and Sir Andrew, hiding in the box-tree, observe as Malvolio, day-dreaming about his relationship with his mistress, finds the letter ostensibly written to him by Olivia, and inspired by the ‘spirit of humours’ (Twelfth Night, II. v. 85)1 proceeds to read passages from it aloud and apply them to himself. The scene rarely fails to bring the house down in the theatre, but on the printed page a number of its lines pose problems that are not immediately apparent to a spectator in the course of performance. The passage in question occurs as Malvolio first takes up the letter.
Now is the woodcock near the gin.
O peace! and the spirit of humours intimate reading aloud to him!
[Taking up the letter] By my...
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SOURCE: Bly, Mary. “Bawdy Puns and Lustful Virgins: The Legacy of Juliet's Desire in Comedies of the Early 1600s.” Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 97-109.
[In the following essay, Bly examines Juliet's use of bawdy puns in Romeo and Juliet, and considers the influence of her character on the comic heroines of Henry Porter's The Two Angry Women of Abington and Thomas Dekker's Blurt, Master Constable.]
Romeo and Juliet is a play crowded with lewd puns. Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo toy with bawdy innuendoes; Gregory, Peter and Sampson delight in the proximity of maidenheads and their own naked weapons; the Nurse both puns and is punned about. The play's lyricism contends with language intoxicated by carnality. Even Juliet, the romantic centre of the play, quibbles with erotic meaning, most notably in her epithalamium of 3.2. Juliet is chaste and desirous, a unique combination in plays of the early 1590s. This essay argues that Juliet's erotic fluency had a marked influence on the shaping of comic heroines in the four to five years after the play's first performances. I look first at Juliet's language, and then at two parodic versions of Shakespeare's heroine, written between 1598 and 1607. Romeo and Juliet was often imitated; what interests me are those balcony scenes in which pseudo-Juliets express erotic desire in clever puns. These imitative plays are among the very few...
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SOURCE: Landis, Joan Hutton. “‘By two-headed Janus’: Double Discourse in The Merchant of Venice.” The Upstart Crow 16 (1996): 13-30.
[In the following essay, Hutton studies the homosexual bawdy in The Merchant of Venice.]
The very Janus of poets; he wears almost everywhere two faces; and you have scarce begun to admire one, ere you despise the other.
To begin behind the arras of decorum, my focus here will be the bawdy connotations that abound in The Merchant of Venice and, in particular, the nether regions of the male anatomy.
First, I want to look at the pioneering, if passé, Eric Partridge. Of course I risk appearing as another Polonius, setting “springes to catch woodcocks,” for although Partridge wrote bravely enough in that Victorian year of 1948, he now sounds to our sophisticated and liberal ears peculiarly akin to Chanticleer, Chanticleer “moralisé,” at that. For example, in a section of his introduction to Shakespeare's Bawdy entitled “Homosexual,” he lets us know that the true aliens in his view are not only homosexuals but those critics who are interested at all in the claim that Shakespeare himself might have been gay. He finds this “ludicrous.”1 He goes on to state,
Had Shakespeare, so frank and courteous, been a homosexual, he would...
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SOURCE: Halpern, Richard. “‘Pining Their Maws’: Female Readers and the Erotic Ontology of the Text in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.” In Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 377-88. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.
[In the following essay, Halpern likens Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis to “a piece of soft-core pornography,” and contends that the poem is meant to produce sexual frustration in its female readers.]
The prefatory material to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis is a study in disingenuousness and misdirection, beginning with the epigraph from Ovid's Amores: “Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flavus Apollo / Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.”1 (“Let cheap things dazzle the crowd; may Apollo serve me cups filled with water from the Castalian spring”). In what is at once a change of genre and a change of vocation, these lines apparently signal Shakespeare's conversion from popular playwright to classicizing poet.2 (In Sonnet 111 he would similarly disparage his playwrighting as “public means which public manners breeds.”) But of course his abandonment of the stage was hardly voluntary; he turned to writing Ovidian verse in 1593 not because he heard a higher calling but because the theaters had been closed on account of the plague.3 Moreover, Venus and Adonis bears more than a...
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SOURCE: Kermode, Frank. “Explorations in Shakespeare's Language.” Raritan 18, no. 1 (summer 1998): 73-86.
[In the following essay, Kermode examines the ways in which various critics have interpreted Shakespeare's language, including his use of sexual innuendo and bawdy.]
In his recent book, The Genius of Shakespeare, Professor Jonathan Bate explains that William Empson's concept of ambiguity was a decidedly Cambridge invention; by getting rid of the either/or mentality that had been prevalent in literary analysis, he was bringing to literary criticism a way of thinking inaugurated by Einstein but familiar in the university of Paul Dirac; the young and prodigious Empson, says Bate, was “the first man to see the literature of the past through quantum theory's altered notion of reality.” He is “modernism's Einstein.”
I do not think we need to speak of quantum theory, or indeed of modernism, in the anthropomorphic style the possessives here suggest, but I do agree that we need new terms to praise the early Empson, for it is a return to that body of work, to the spirit of that work, wherever he got it from, that offers us our best hope of restoring and invigorating the practice of critical analysis. Of course this cannot mean that we have no duty to disagree about at least some of the readings offered us in the three great central books. In the course of his essay Bate...
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SOURCE: Andreas, James R., Sr. “Teaching Shakespeare's Bawdry: Orality, Literacy, and Censorship in Romeo and Juliet.” In Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, edited by Maurice Hunt, pp. 115-24. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2000.
[In the following essay, Andreas discusses the school censorship of the bawdy elements in Romeo and Juliet, and contends that students, in order to fully appreciate Shakespeare, need to be taught the whole text.]
It is a curious phenomenon that we introduce Shakespeare to eighth- and ninth-grade students across the United States with a play like Romeo and Juliet, arguably one of Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedies and certainly his bawdiest. The violence of the play—the vendetta of the parents, the dueling of the young men, the clan-condoned murder, the suicides of the young lovers—particularly insofar as it is directed at and perpetrated by youths, has not much offended contemporary audiences. But the bawdry has. I am writing, of course, about the sexually charged exchange between Gregory and Samson in the opening scene; the Nurse's reminiscences about the weaning of Juliet; Mercutio's Queen Mab speech; and virtually every scene in which Mercutio, the Nurse, and servants appear—all scenes that are touchy to teach at whatever level. There was a time when A Midsummer Night's Dream was the introductory...
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Colman, E. A. M. “Verbal Gymnastics.” In The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare, pp. 35-46. London: Longman, 1974.
Traces Shakespeare's development of bawdy from easy crowd pleaser to the use of bawdy as an integral part of characterization and plot.
Cummings, Peter. “The Making of Meaning: Sex Words and Sex Acts in Shakespeare's Othello.” The Gettysburg Review 3, no. 1 (winter 1990): 75-80.
Considers Shakespeare's unsurpassed contributions to the language of love and sex.
———. “Shakespeare's Bawdy Planet.” Sewanee Review 101, no. 4 (fall 1993): 521-35.
Examines what Shakespeare's use of bawdy reveals about Elizabethan society.
Franke, Wolfgang. “The Logic of Double Entendre in A Midsummer-Night's Dream.” Philological Quarterly 58, no. 3 (summer 1980): 282-97.
Contends that the characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream must be unconscious of the double meaning of their words in order for the play to be effective.
Hedrick, Donald. “Flower Power: Shakespearean Deep Bawdy and the Botanical Perverse.” In The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism, and the Public Sphere, edited by Richard Burt, pp. 83-105. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota...
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