Act 2, scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth -- the famous scene with the porter – contains various instances of “bawdy” (or sexual) humor. Examples include the following:
- In lines 11-12, the porter refers to “an English tailor come hither for stealing out of a French hose.” The Cambridge edition, edited by A. R. Braunmuller, suggests that this phrase “may be sexual innuendo,” with “tail” suggesting “vagina” and “hose” implying penis.
- In line 12, the porter says that the tailor “may roast [his] goose.” Braunmuller notes that “goose” was
a slang word for ‘prostitute’, a source of venereal disease, the ‘French pox’ for which a sufferer roasted literally . . . and spiritually (in hell).
- In lines 24-25, the porter says that lechery “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance,” a phrase whose bawdy implications are fairly obvious. Braunmuller also hears bawdy implications in lines 26-30. The phrase “stand to and not stand to” clearly alludes to male sexual powers and the lack thereof.
- In line 29, the phrase “giving him the lie” alludes again to failure of a male’s erection and thus of his sexual performance.
In passages such as these, Shakespeare reveals his frequent tendency to mix humor with serious matters. His reasons for doing so seem to have included the following:
- By doing so, he added to the complexity of the tones of his plays.
- By doing so, he mocked the human body – a frequent tendency of Renaissance literature, since many Renaissance writers believed that the body was ultimately far less important than the spirit and soul.
- By doing so, he showed his wit and inventiveness, not only of thought but also of language.
Later writers, such as the famous English critic Dr. Samuel Johnson, were impatient with Shakespeare’s puns and were often shocked by his bawdy humor. Shakespeare and his original audiences, however, apparently felt there were good reasons for both.