illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Shakespeare's Bawdy

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.”

Eric Partridge (essay date 1947)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 3350 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 meet the needs of students of literature and of lovers of Shakespeare. This is not an in camera monograph for professional sexologists.

Little-minded men and women, [as The Times Literary Supplement said in a leader entitled ‘Artist and Public’ in its issue of August 17, 1940], write and paint their rubbish and the public laps it up, to the degradation of its taste. But the large-minded artist will always find within himself a great deal in common with the common people. We have given up supposing that Shakespeare's sensational plots and bawdy jokes were only a high-brow's concessions to the groundlings.2 The modern consciousness of responsibility to the public in general will incline the large-minded artist to brave any exquisite sneers at the seductions of popularity, of royalties, of the box-office and so forth, and to make the most, not the least, of everything in him which is common to all men. It is no business of the artist, as artist, to educate the public. It is the very core of his business so to present his vision of truth that it can be shared and trusted by as many as possible when first he puts it forth, and by more and more as the public is trained in knowledge and judgment.

All this is almost what Shakespeare himself might have said for he knew what he was about in his plays and his poems; knew, too, that his work would survive. He sometimes regretted making himself ‘a motley to the view’ in his role of actor: he never expressed a doubt of posterity's opinion of his writings; he had good reason not to fret on that score.

No writer of even half the stature of Shakespeare could doubt that posterity would correctly appraise his worth; although perhaps only a second Shakespeare could adequately evaluate William Shakespeare. Much has been written about his ‘universal mind’. But what of his universal soul, his universal sympathy, his universal manhood?

I should not care to say that, during his life, Shakespeare was ‘all things to all men’,3 for that stock-phrase has, in certain circles, come to have une signification assez louche, but he does seem to have been ‘most things to all decent men’. Throughout his writings, as obviously in his life, Shakespeare reveals, occasionally in an explicit, generally in an implicit way, that in his spirit, his mind, his emotions, he strove to reconcile those opposites which, in fact (as sometimes he perceived), made him ‘the myriad-minded’, the universal-spirited, the catholic-emotioned man he so dazzlingly, so movingly, was in life and in print. In his general outlook and in his attitude towards sex and towards bawdiness, he shows that he was both an idealist and a realist; a romantic and a cynic; an ascetic and a hedonist; an etherealist and a brutalist; a philosopher and ‘the average man’; a saint and a sinner; a kindly tolerator and a Juvenal-satirist; an Illuminate and a Worldly-Wise; a strict moralist and a je-m'en-fichiste; a glowing optimist (‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world’) and a Werther-cum-Hardy victim of Weltschmerz; a believer in a God-lovelied heaven and a pedestrian with feet scarce-lifting from earth all too earthy; the most lambently lyrical and dew-sweet of poets (Romeo and Juliet) and the most materialistically terre à terre of soured prose-writers (Pompey, Apemantus, the Porter in Macbeth); the most exacerbated libido-driven, yet expert, sensualist and—via l'homme moyen sensuel—the purest, most innocent novice; the subtlest thinker and the simplest emotionalist; an Ariel of the further empyrean and a Caliban of the nearest mud; a dialectical Portia and a love-living Juliet; a Cordelia and a Goneril; an Imogen and a Gertrude; a Cleopatra and a Miranda; an Antony and a Brutus; a Coriolanus and a tribune, a married man—a bachelor—a monk. He was in his life, as he is to us now, all these persons and many more, with all the intermediary types and stages thrown in, with all their variations and nuances of character and temperament.

Not so strange, then, that Shakespeare's spirit, mind, and body, as expressed in his life and his works, should have been the arena on which was fought an almost continuous battle between forces the highest and the lowest, the best and the worst, the most spiritual and the most anti-spiritual; nor is it strange that he should bitterly have resented that compromise which he was obliged to make rather more often than was consonant with his deep-based contempt for compromise. Shakespeare was at the back of my mind when, in 1939, I wrote4 a passage elaborating this theme: the tragedies of unavoidable compromise and of ‘the world's slow stain’.

If ever there were a man filled with the joy and sap of life, it was Shakespeare; and if ever there were a man compact of spiritual needs and loveliest and noblest aspirations, it was Shakespeare. He could muse and meditate with the most meditative, also could he talk and do things with the best conversationalist and the most energetic man of action. Thinker, yet not remote from the stressful hurly-burly; dreamer, yet practical businessman; deliberate sater of that desirous, sex-hungry body, yet merciless contemner of his own yielding; condemning too his dark mistress, yet continuing to love the woman she might have been—and, for his happiness, should have been; never finding the ideal love, yet forever seeking it, for he knew that such love is, this side heaven, man's most abiding joy and content and safety; expressing the physical aspect of love in its most intimate details, either with frank joyousness and animal spirits or with a self-reviling brutality and as if moved by an irresistible need to cleanse, not merely his bosom but his entire system, of this most perilous stuff, yet with his eyes upon a starry portal that might allow him, spirit-weary, mind-lorn, body-aching, to enter a house of tranquillity: complete and enduring union with such a woman as could joyously, unquestioningly, bring him the peace and the bliss of perfect understanding, unreservèd sympathy, and an unflawed understanding. He never found that woman, that home, that peace.

If the world blamed him for the frankness that spared nothing, he did not care: he might almost have been the epigrammatist that declared, ‘A dirty mind is a constant joy’, or the literary critic that, of a novel by Maupassant, had the courage to say, ‘A book about cads, for cads; but jolly good reading’5: nevertheless, he deeply cared that, however often and however outspokenly he might describe the dirt, he should also praise that to which he aspired: the true, the beautiful, and the good.

Shakespeare was, physically, a pagan; also, he took a lively, very curious interest in sex. He was no mere ‘instinctive’ sensualist, but an intellectual voluptuary and a thinker keenly, shrewdly, penetratingly, sympathetically probing into sex, its mysteries, its mechanism, its exercise and expertise, and into its influence on life and character. And being the world's most supple as well as most majestic (he could out-play Milton on the verbal organ), subtlest as well as strongest writer, he expressed his views on love and passion and sex, with a power and pertinence unrivalled by other great general writers and with a picturesqueness unapproached by the professional amorist writers; the latter excel him only in technical details and in comprehensiveness, and then only because he was not concerned to write a bréviaire divin de l'amour, an ars amoris, a Married Love.

Before we pass to some account of the non-sexual bawdy, of homosexuality, and of sex in Shakespeare, let us obtain a prefatory idea of his approach to and treatment of sex by looking at that system of imagery which he exhibited in English and which was imitated by the 17th Century amatory poets, the 18th Century amorists, and by such 19th Century writers as Meredith (a little), Swinburne (much), and Maurice Hewlett (continuing into the present century): the geography and topography of the female sexual features.6

Vaguely topographical is the passage at Romeo and Juliet, II i 17-33, but as it is insufficiently general and various for our present purpose, it must be omitted. Much superior is the passage at Venus and Adonis, verses 229-240, where Venus, passionately hugging Adonis, seeks thus to convert his reluctance to ardent desire and amorous deeds:

‘Fondling,’ she saith, ‘since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
          Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
          Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
‘Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from the tempest and from rain:
          Then be my deer, since I am such a park;
          No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.’

The general sense is clear: clear, too, is most of the imagery. I do not care to insult anybody's knowledge or intelligence by offering a physiological paraphrase, nevertheless the inexpert reader would perhaps do well to consult the following terms in the glossary: park, deer, feed, mountain, dale, fountain, bottom-grass, plain, hillock, brakes.7

And, likewise ‘in the order of their first appearance’, the glossary will, at country, Ireland, buttocks, bogs, heir, cliff (sense 1), Spain, Belgia, Netherlands, low, prove not unuseful to those who, rightly or wrongly, have less than complete faith that the acuity of their perceptions will, in its full signification, elucidate every sexual reference in the famous passage at III i 110-136 of The Comedy of Errors, where Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse discuss the monstrously fat kitchen-wench that is being considered by the latter as a bride:

Then she bears some breadth?
No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
In what part of her body stands Ireland?
Marry, sir, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.
Where Scotland?
I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand. [With reference to agricultural infertility and to the legendary close-fistedness]
Where France?
In her forehead; arm'd and reverted, making war against her heir.
Where England?
I look'd for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no whiteness in them; but I guessed it stood in her chin, by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.
Where Spain?
Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.
Where America, the Indies? [I.e., the West Indies.]
O, sir, upon her nose, all o'er embellish'd with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.
Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
O, sir, I did not look so low.


To make of this a section, it is necessary to include the merely coarse and vulgar element, and even that element has to enlist several words and phrases that are vulgarisms only in the philological sense. Shakespeare was not a Rabelais: he took very little pleasure in the anatomical witticism and the functional joke unless they were either witty or sexual. Scatology he disdained, and non-sexual coprology he almost entirely avoided; if one may essay a fine, yet aesthetically important distinction, Shakespeare may have had a dirty mind, yet he certainly had not a filthy mind. But then Keats as well as Byron, Tennyson as well as Swinburne, had dirty minds, and I have yet to hear someone say that Keats, Byron, Tennyson, and Swinburne were the worse poets for having been dead neither above the ears nor below the waist. Dryden was no mealy-mouth; Pope had a sexually malicious mind (that of the frustrated weakling); the austere Milton could, in the Sin-Chaos-Night verses in Book II of Paradise Lost, emulate the Sycorax-Caliban material in The Tempest; the Poets' Poet, in The Faerie Queen, permitted himself some highly suggestive passages. Even the author of Songs of Innocence was not so innocent as English men and women seem to expect their poets to be. Not all Scots have been tolerant towards Dunbar and Burns. More briefly: these poets were not so very dirty-minded, after all. They were men, not lay figures.

But to return to Shakespeare's non-sexual bawdy. What does it comprise? Nothing more than a few references to urination and chamber-pots; to defecation and close-stools; to flatulence; to podex and posteriors. Shakespeare was no coprophagist: most of the references are cursory: only three or four references show any tendency on Shakespeare's part to linger over them; where he does linger, it was for the pleasure of indulging such abundance of wit as few commentators and readers have fully8 grasped.

The references to urine and urination are hardly worth mentioning,9 except for two. Of that clay-footed piece of austerity, Angelo, somebody tartly remarks, ‘When he makes water, his urine is congeal'd ice’ (Measure, III ii 111-112). And in Macbeth the Porter, listing urine as one of the three things of which drink is ‘a great provoker’, ends his enumeration with the concise and witty words, ‘In conclusion, [drink] equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him’ (II iii 26-37), where lie means not only ‘a falsehood’ but also ‘chamber-lie’ (urine). To which we might perhaps add Twelfth Night, I iii 126.

As for defecation, Shakespeare barely touches on it as a bodily process except at siege: at close-stool twice, and twice at jakes, he refers to the equivalents of the commode and the privy. Jakes, however, does in the allusive shape Ajax, afford the dramatist the opportunity of making a neat though scabrous pun in Love's Labour's Lost, V ii 571-572: and a pun not at all scabrous in Lear, II ii 125-126, ‘None of these rogues and cowards But Ajax is their fool’, which may fairly be described as ‘rubbing their noses in the dirt’. Shakespeare had not that simple type of mind, so common among the ‘hearties’, which guffaws its delighted appreciation of long and tedious stories about being ‘taken short’.

Flatulence was, in Shakespeare's day, the source and the target of humour and wit among all classes: nowadays, its popularity as a subject is, in the main, confined to the lower and lower-middle classes and to morons elsewhere. The days when, as at the end of the 17th Century, a pamphlet dealing with noisy venting and written by a pseudonymous Don Fartaudo could be published and enjoyed and when the ability to play tunes by skilfully regulating and controlling one's windy expressions was regarded as evidence of a most joyous and praiseworthy form of wit,—such days have ‘gone with the wind’. At break wind there is a punning on wind = breath = words on the one hand, flatulence on the other: at vent there are two direct statements. In Othello, at III i 6-11, occurs a passage that contains at least four puns: one on thereby hangs a tale, one on wind-instrument, one on tail, a fourth on tale, thus:

Are these, I pray you, wind-instruments?
FIRST Musician.
Ay, marry, are they, sir.
O, thereby hangs a tail.
FIRST Musician.
Whereby hangs a tale, sir?
Marry, sir, by many a wind-instrument that I know.

In Hamlet (II ii 396-401) we read:

My lord, I have news to tell you. When Roscius was an actor in Rome,—
The actors are come hither, my lord.
Buz, buz!
Upon mine honour,—
Then came each actor on his ass.

Hamlet, already possessed of the news, as, referring to Roscius, he subtly shows the far from subtle Polonius, is irritated by the old busybody's stupidity: to indicate his irritation, he makes that ‘rude noise’, imitative of the breaking of wind, which, from probably even before Shakespeare's acting days, has been ‘the gods’ and the groundlings' means of showing their disapproval of bad acting, and thus repeats his intimation that he knew all about the arrival of the actors. When Polonius, thinking that this unexpectedly coarse ‘raspberry’ (or rarzer, as the Cockney prefers to call it) signifies the prince's disbelief, solemnly avers, ‘Upon mine honour’, Hamlet puns on the word honour and impugns Polonius's conception of honour by saying, ‘Then came each actor on his ass’,10 thus passing from wind-breaking to the source of the noise.

This bring us, therefore, to Shakespeare's allusions to the butt of the human body: the bum, buttocks or holland or posteriors or tail (sense 3) or tale (sense 2) or rump or, to adopt the deliberate perversion, ass. In addition to referring the reader to the Glossary entries at those terms, I need only remark that, in these passages, Shakespeare is never filthy: he is broad, ribald, healthily coarse, unsqueamishly natural, and unaffectedly humorous, with a humour that would have appealed to that old lady who, on being asked by a youth that had noticed she was squashing one of her parcels, ‘Do you know what you're sitting on, mother?’, replied, ‘I ought to, young man: seeing that I've been using it for seventy years’. Shakespeare never exclaims ‘Oh, shocking!’, never sniggers: he fails—very naturally—to see that there is any occasion to be shocked: and to him the subject calls for a hearty laugh, not a prurient snigger. …


  1. Several of those books do, inevitably, touch briefly upon Shakespeare's attitude towards sex and bawdiness: and in a notable manner. At the risk of appearing egotistic, I intend to set forth the views of only one person.

  2. The italics are mine.

  3. ‘I am made all things to all men’, 1 Corinthians, ix 22. For the Greek original and the Vulgate rendering, see my A Dictionary of Clichés.

  4. In a long essay on The Spectator, published in San Francisco by the Book Club of California.

  5. I quote from memory and with conscious inaccuracy; that, however, is the true sense of the reviewer's verdict.

  6. That the same has, in English, never been done for men's is significant: social inhibitions, the restriction of women's emancipation to the spheres of politics and the professions, are the main causes: but a female ‘geographer’ will probably arise within the next twenty years.

  7. Heavy type in this Essay: words to be found in the Glossary.

  8. A claim that I am far from being fatuous enough to make for myself; probably I have missed some of Shakespeare's wittiest scabrosities.

  9. Nevertheless, I suppose that I should be shirking my duty if I did not refer the curious to chamber-lie, charged chambers, jordan, leak, make water, piss, stale (noun, sense 2), and urine.

  10. I owe the ‘ass = fundament’ explanation to the late Crompton Rhodes. (For further details, see raspberry in the 3rd edition of Songs and Slang of the British Soldier.)

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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 Press, 1994.

Focuses on the sexually symbolic flower imagery found in Shakespeare's works.

Knowles, Ronald. “Carnival and Death in Romeo and Juliet: A Bakhtinian Reading.” Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 69-85.

Explores the carnivalesque elements of Romeo and Juliet, including the use of bawdy in the play.

Rubinstein, Frankie. “Persistent Sexual Symbolism: Shakespeare and Freud.” Literature and Psychology 34, no. 2 (1988): 1-26.

Discusses Shakespeare's use of sexually symbolic words in terms of Freudian interpretations.

Traci, Philip J. “Suggestions about the Bawdry in Romeo and Juliet.South Atlantic Quarterly 71, no. 4 (autumn 1972): 573-86.

Describes how bawdy is used in Romeo and Juliet to convey innocence, maturity, and partial victory in death.

Williams, Gordon. “The Shakespearean Reputation.” In Shakespeare, Sex and the Print Revolution, pp. 7-13. London: Athlone, 1996.

Examines Shakespeare's reputation as an erotic poet, which was already well established in the seventeenth century.

Thomas W. Ross (essay date 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 upon the other, that increases the probability of latent indecent meaning. This dual effect permits the reader to enjoy the sport with the “safety of a pure blush.” He can read the lines on two or more levels—something that is of course possible in all poetry.2

I shall examine three such clusters, centering about caper, shin, and conceit. I have chosen these three words because they illustrate three different kinds of methods one may use in providing glosses for Shakespeare's poetry. None of the three is supported by the kind of internal evidence which states outright that the word has an indecent second sense. In the plays involved, no character provides us with an anatomy of the word that proves its wickedness. And nobody interrupts the speakers of these words with a “stop there!” that is supposed to prevent more scurrility. Shakespeare's bawdy wit would be a dull enterprise indeed if each such occurrence were accompanied by speeches of this sort.

The basic evidence for the meaning of each of my three words is to be found in its matrix, in the clusters of words in which we find it. For caper and shin I also have evidence from a recently published collection of seventeenth-century jests. Furthermore, in a familiar piece of Elizabethan nondramatic poetry, caper has an indecent sense; and shin plays a bawdy role in a play by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries. For conceit, Shakespeare himself offers the external evidence from other passages, other plays. To support my interpretations, therefore, I have employed contemporaneous prose, poetry, and drama.

All three words are sexual rather than scatological in their secondary meanings. All are comical, not revolting.3 When isolated from their infectious clusters, all are innocent. Shakespeare most often uses them in honest and untainted ways. I shall offer a single example of a neutral meaning for each (and the reader can multiply these at will): in Henry VI, Part 2, York describes Jack Cade in battle, his thighs bristling with enemy darts like a sharp-quilled (and presumably fretful) “porpentine”:

                                                                                                    I have seen
Him caper upright like a wild Morisco,
Shaking the bloody darts as he his bells.


Cade's performance is bizarre but not bawdy. His caper is simply a leap or a dance step.

Shin is most often simply that part of the leg most vulnerable to thorns, as in The Tempest when Ariel, with unearthly glee, describes to Prospero the plight of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo:

                                                                                                    So I charm'd their ears
That calf-like they my lowing follow'd through
Tooth'd briers, sharp furzes, pricking goss, and thorns,
Which ent'red their frail shins.


Conceit can also have a perfectly innocent meaning—indeed it usually does, in Shakespeare's works and in other Elizabethan writing. It has its older “etymological” sense of “concept, idea, fancy”—as in Hastings' evaluation of Gloucester's mood in Richard III:

His Grace looks cheerfully and smooth this morning;
There's some conceit or other likes him well,
When that he bids good morrow with such spirit.


Hastings' diagnosis is quite wrong: he cannot know that the Duke's happy “conceit” is the delicious thought of sending Hastings himself to the block. Elsewhere Shakespeare gives Richard of Gloucester phrases that reveal a prurient sexuality (for instance, when he calls the young princess' womb a “nest of spicery” [IV.iv.424]),5 but there is no sexual innuendo here.

Caper, shin, and conceit: tried and found innocent—at least in these passages. When grouped with other kinds of terms, terms with a demonstrated “criminal past,” they suffer (or flourish) from guilt by association. This heightened effect is, for some readers, enough to indicate the presence of a bawdy meaning; others require additional evidence, which I shall muster below—evidence from varied sources, here used for the first time.

Some skeptics will never be satisfied without the sort of proof that the poet himself provides for the changes in meaning through which occupy moves, into and out of bawdiness, in Henry IV, Part 2, II.iv.147-50. Doll Tearsheet, a whore, bewails the tarnished reputation of this good, clean word which had come to mean “fornicate with.”6 An explanation like Doll's is rare in Shakespeare's works. Less explicit are the lines in which one character stops another from proceeding with his (presumably) obscene innuendo, as does the sober Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet:

… like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bable in a hole.
Stop there, stop there.


Or Maria in Love's Labor's Lost:

Then will she get the upshoot by cleaving the pin.(7)
Come, come, you talk greasily, your lips grow foul.


Comically enough, neither Benvolio's remark nor that of Maria is sufficient to stop the flow of indecencies. But Shakespeare has achieved the desired effect, to call attention to the obscenities both before and after the “stop there” speeches.

When Shakespeare himself explains an obscenity or calls our attention to one, we can with assurance smile at the witticism, or perhaps turn up our noses in disapproval if we are that way inclined. Internal evidence, from the plays themselves, casts a shadow of guilt upon the words in the foregoing passages. Without this kind of evidence we must exercise due scholarly caution in interpreting a writer's meaning, whether it be Shakespeare's bawdy or Dryden's topicalities. The reader is uncomfortable if he does not understand allusions or jokes. Critics and editors should do what they can, in good conscience, to help him. But both reader and critic are embarrassed if they see an indecent jest where the evidence is dubious. We should heed Colman's prim warning that to find bawdiness where it is not “is to read with the distorting eye of early adolescence.”8

I turn, then—with the twenty-twenty vision of maturity, I trust—to external evidence and to the clusters in which caper, shin, and conceit occur. A generation after Shakespeare's time Sir Nicholas Le Strange (or L'Estrange) compiled a jestbook.9 It was evidently intended for private use. The “jeasts” are unashamedly bawdy, though many are attributed to the compiler's genteel neighbors, relatives, and even his own wife. Since Sir Nicholas probably did not plan to publish the collection but wrote it out, in his own hand, for amusement or as an aide-mémoire for his table talk, there was no need to use euphemisms: shit, turd, fart, and fuck are all there amongst the jests. The following Jeast No. 161 does not use these familiar obscenities but is nonetheless blunt enough:

A Gentleman that was a very able Reveller, had ill fortune in his Capering at a Masque; upon which, says an old Court Lady that satt by, These are not right Genoa, they'le ne're doe well in a Sallett; yes by my troth Madame says he, I'le warrant you, The Capers are good enough for any Crone Mutton.

(p. 56)

Crone is used here in its rare sense of “old ewe” (OED, [Oxford English Dictionary] Crone, sb.2) but of course it also means “old hag.” Mutton has its familiar Elizabethan sexual significance—a loose woman.10Sallett is, as usual, something improperly tasty, as in Hamlet, II.ii.441.11 And this leads to capers: the word has two obvious meanings in the Jeast: (i) leaps, dance steps; and (ii) herbal relish. These are insufficient, however, to explain the indignation of the Gentleman in the Jeast or the humor of his riposte to the scornful old Court Lady. We need a third sense—sexual gymnastics.

Dictionary makers have sidestepped this meaning,12 but Colman comes close when he concedes that “capers can suggest kidlike (even goatish?) leapings.”13 It is a courageous concession, and one cannot blame him for circumspectly protecting his scholarly objectivity with a pair of parentheses and an interrogation point. I think we can remove these cautious qualifying marks when we consider the Jeast just quoted. Certainly the word does mean goatish leapings, coital plungings.

Oddly enough, Colman himself has called attention to a passage by one of Shakespeare's most eminent contemporaries in which these very words appear in the same cluster and with the same humorously obscene intent. Ben Jonson's invitation of a friend to supper includes a mouth-watering menu that can be read with a pure blush—and with pleasure—in a perfectly straightforward way. We still use food to represent sexual objects: tomato, dish, jelly roll. If all these occurred together in the lyrics of a popular song we would have no trouble identifying the double meanings.

So too with Jonson's invitation. Within a few lines he offers capers, sallade (i.e., salletts), and mutton—along with other food-animal-sex terms such as a short-legged hen (full of eggs), a coney, and larks.14 In dealing with Jonson's verses, Colman points to the “coincidence of half-a-dozen salacious nether-meanings available within almost as many lines” (p. 10); in so doing, he identifies the principle of clusters and guilt-by-association. However, he does not give caper a second thought in the text of his study or in his otherwise comprehensive glossary (pp. 182-223).

It is clear that when caper and mutton occur together, as in Jonson's verses and in Jeast No. 61, their individual suggestiveness is heightened by mutual influence. When these two companion viands occur together again in a Shakespearean scene already rich in double meanings, we should enjoy both the feast and the alternate senses. Early in Twelfth Night occurs this exchange:

SIR Andrew:
Faith, I can cut a caper.
SIR Toby:
And I can cut the mutton to't.
SIR Andrew:
And I think I have the back-trick simply as strong as any man in Illyria.


Like Jonson in his poem, the characters in these scene are talking about food. The same thing happens frequently elsewhere in the play, with its many literal and figurative gastronomic references—when the Duke asks for more music, the food of love, or Toby mentions cakes and ale. In the scene from which the lines were just quoted, the two knights are also talking about dancing, of course, as Jonson is not.

The evidence from Jonson and the jestbook makes it more than probable that there is a third set of meanings: to cut a caper is to perform the act of love; the juxtaposition of mutton (“a loose woman”) supports this idea. Of course Sir Andrew is blissfully unaware of anything indecent in his remarks, here or elsewhere. With a knowing look at the audience perhaps, Sir Toby interjects his line, unnoticed by the foolish knight, and turns both of Sir Andrew's dance references into sexual double-meanings. For back-trick has its sexual sense too, especially when influenced by this cluster of wicked words. To have a strong back was to be potent in copulation.15

The reins (kidneys) are in the back, and they were thought to be a seat of the emotions. John Marston equates weak reins and a weak back in The Fawn (1604-06). Herod curses his impotent brother Sir Amoroso Debile-Dosso (i.e., Weak-Back): “As for my weak-rein'd brother, hang him! / He has sore shins” (II.i.173).16 We know why he is weak backed and weak kidneyed, but why should Sir Amoroso also have sore shins? The speech provides a convenient link between Sir Andrew's back-trick (and its associations with caper and mutton) and the second word I have chosen to treat, shin.

To understand why Marston's Sir Amoroso and Shakespeare's Costard (Love's Labor's Lost) both have sore shins, we must prepare—turn a little earth with the spade. In As You Like It Rosalind speaks of orators who “when they are out, they will spit” (IV.i.75-76), a crude remark in any event. Actually, there is another stratum, a sexual level, beneath the surface on which oratory is the subject. There are probable allusions to coitus interruptus and ejaculation. Rosalind continues: “for lovers lacking (God warn us!) matter, the cleanliest shift is to kiss” (ll. 76-77). Colman is less cautious in his comment on this passage: “spermal fluid and digital stimulation may well be implied” (p. 108). But Rosalind is not talking about fingers. One need hardly be told that a kiss—without the presence of fingers on, or in, the partner's body—may itself result in an emission of spermal fluid. The identification of matter and semen is correct.17 Colman is wrong, however, not only about those fingers but about the general meaning of the passage. Rosalind's lovers lack matter. They are deficient in love-balm. When the male lacks fluid and the female also comes up dry, intercourse is difficult. It is best to kiss and part, for the moment anyway. The phrase “God warn us!” seems to signal an impropriety.18 Lovers-plus-kissing-plus-matter are clustered, each influencing and heightening the other. The result is innuendo of a hearty bawdiness, just right for Ganymede (playing at “Rosalind” with Orlando) who in his (her) worldly and experienced fashion moralizes upon lovers' practices.19

I shall cite another preparatory passage before returning to matter and Costard's sore shin. In the Merry Wives Slender reports to Anne:

I bruis'd my shin th' other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence (three veneys [bouts] for a dish of stew'd prunes) and by my troth, I cannot abide the smell of hot meat since.


The smell of hot meat is suspicious, but I cannot prove its bad character. The dish of stewed prunes is, on the other hand, one of the commonest indecent camouflages in Elizabethan poetry, alluding as it does to whores. Everybody now recognizes this one, though Partridge missed it. Whether Slender's sword-and-dagger fights are real duels or merely sexual bouts is not important: the bruised shin is. Recall the passage from Marston's Fawn quoted above (weak back, weak kidneys, impotence, sore shins). Later on in the same play Marston has his Dulcimel complain to Philocalia:

… tell me if it be not a scandal to the soul of all being, proportion, that I, a female of fifteen, of a lightsome and civil discretion, healthy, lusty, vigorous, full, and idle, should forever be shackled to the crampy shins of a wayward, dull, sour, austere, rough, rheumy, threescore and four.


Compare Sir Nicholas Le Strange's Jeast No. 197: “One usd to say that Lawyers wifes had the sweetest lives of any woemen, because their Husbands returne allwayes Crura Thymo plena” (p. 66). The Latin phrase means “shins full of thyme.”20 Healthy shins were tireless in love-making; furthermore, such a shin could represent the male member, with a firm “bone” in it. The matter in a bone is of course its marrow, and marrow was a cant term for semen.21 Love was said to “burn” or “melt the marrow,” and, as Hulme tells us,

marrow-bone … as one of the many euphemisms for “penis” is still used in spoken English of the present time and may well have been current in earlier speech. No instances are found in Shakespeare of this usage, but “marrow” itself has the expected sexual connotation.22

Shin thus has two sexual senses: first, in a non-figurative sense, a lover's shins could grow weary from the exertion of love-making and develop shin-splints; second, without matter or marrow, a shin is a penis without semen. In either case the lover with a less-than-healthy shin could not ply his trade. Empty, hollow, or diseased shins are useless for love-making, as the bitter protagonist of Timon of Athens makes clear:

                                                                                                              Consumptions sow
In hollow bones of man, strike their sharp shins,
And mar men's spurring.


The Riverside editors gloss consumptions thus: “Used of all wasting diseases, including syphilis.” They provide no gloss for spurring, but it has been a familiar quibble for fornicating since the time of the Wife of Bath and even before.23 Employing once again the principle of mutual influence in clusters, we see that consumptions-plus-shins-plus-spurring equals a clear double meaning. Diseased phalluses are empty of matter and are of no use in love-making.

We are ready at last for Costard's shin and its matter. Love's Labor's Lost has more than its share of unsolved puzzles, gnarled witticisms, and irretrievable topical allusions. But we can now clear up a group of references that have baffled all commentators. In Act III, scene i, Costard enters crying for a plantain leaf to heal his broken shin.24 Most editors explain this as a clumsy joke. Costard means an apple and is used for the head, like noggin. A head with a wounded shin is clownishly comical. Richard David, the Arden editor, has more information:

Hart wrote: “References to the breaking of shins are so abundant at this time that one is inclined to think they must have been even more susceptible than nowadays.” The probable explanation … is that a “broken shin” had for the Elizabethans a metaphorical as well as a literal sense, and was in fact slang for a sexual disappointment.


To support this new and, as we now know, obviously correct recognition of the double sense, David cites A Merry New Song How a Bruer Meant to Make a Cooper Cuckold.25 The evidence adduced in the present study suggests that Hart was perhaps owlishly naive and that David's “sexual disappointment” is a donnish euphemism.

In this scene Costard's shin is mentioned five times. He has been caught in the act with the country wench Jaquenetta, but we later learn that she is apparently made pregnant not by this clownish Apple-Head but by the fantastico, Don Armado. This Spaniard is full of fire-new words and, evidently, plenty of matter. Costard describes his own performance with the country wench thus: “I, Costard, running out that was safely within, / Fell over the threshold, and broke my shin” (ll. 116-17). His shin was, he adds, lacking in matter (l. 119). The word is glossed by editors (if they gloss it at all) as “pus,” but we now know better. Costard's running out, after having been safely within, and falling over the threshold take on almost explicit comic sexual meanings, when we see them in the context of this scene. Love's Labor's Lost is a play about words: shin and matter, along with their dubious lexical comrades in these passages, take on a new patina of humorous sexual significance. The influence of the cluster goes beyond shin and matter, though they are the targets here.

In Taming of the Shrew the word matter is utterly innocent. It occurs seven times, always with the neutral sense illustrated by Hortensio's “How now, what's the matter” of I.ii.20. But conceit in this play is something else. It occurs only twice, in succeeding lines:

Well, sir, in brief, the gown is not for me.
You are i' th' right, sir, 'tis for my mistress.
Go take it up unto thy master's use.
Villain, not for thy life! Take up my mistress' gown for thy master's use!
Why, sir, what's your conceit in that?
O, sir, the conceit is deeper than you think for:
Take up my mistress' gown to his master's use!
O fie, fie, fie!


Conceit is certainly meant to conjure up conceive here, with the familiar equation of conceive as “become pregnant” implied.26 Both Gloucester (in Lear) and Hamlet make this salacious pun—and as a matter of fact Colman cites a later passage from Shrew itself to illustrate this very meaning:

Thus I conceive by him.
Conceives by me! how likes Hortensio that?
My widow says, thus she conceives her tale.
Very well mended. Kiss him for that, good widow.


But to return to the earlier exchange between Petruchio and Grumio: the conceive/conception quibble may be present here as well as in the exchange involving the widow. But in the dialogue with Grumio, it is accompanied by yet another bawdy meaning: cunt, a sense that is brought to the fore by the presence of taken up … gown … deeper. Both Partridge and Colman assert that the blunt four-letter word for the female pudendum is present in Hamlet's country matters (III.ii.116) and perhaps also in country mistresses (Cym, [Cymbeline] I.iv.57-58) and country copulatives (AYL, V.iv.55-56). The spelling of conceit has perhaps hidden from modern readers the same taboo monosyllable.

A passage from a minor prose work attributed to Nashe illustrates what appears to be a transitional sense for conceit, moving from concept to conception to cunt. The lines allude to the “myncing Dame of Rochester with the golden locks, whose conceipt was so quick, that shee caught a childe whilst her husbande was from her.”27 Here there are three levels of meaning possible: (1) wit, intelligence; (2) conception (becoming pregnant); and (3) cunt-seat.

Could concei(p)t be pronounced in early modern English in such a way as to suggest these three senses—particularly the latter? Kökeritz treats fully the phenomenon of the excrescent [t] in Shakespeare's English; it occurs at ends of words, “as in assistants (assistance),” in LLL, [Love's Labour's Lost] V.i.128.28 It is perhaps over-fastidious to insist that the [t] in conceit is intrusive not excrescent, since it occurs in the middle of the word. The same phonetic phenomena are involved in both assistance and conceit: [ns] invites the intrusion or excrescence of [t]. I have not searched all the quarto editions of Shakespeare's plays for spellings of conceit that might throw light upon these phonetic facts, as does the spelling of assistants cited by Kökeritz. In the First Folio the compositors invariably spell the word conceit or conceite, neither of which provides a clue.29

Other occurrences of conceit (conceit's, conceits) in Shakespeare's works apparently provide no passage parallel with that in Shrew. However, when one at first reads the following, one's ears prick up: “With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits, / Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats” (MND, [A Midsummer Night's Dream] I.i.33). If only the donor of these gifts were a woman! But Egeus, the speaker, is referring to Demetrius. We are familiar of course with the sexual imagery of Donne's bracelet of bright hair about the bone, and Shakespeare's wordplay upon ring is a commonplace. Both are obvious references to the elusive monosyllable, the cunt. Therefore conceits in the foregoing passage at first seems to glow with a naughty aura because of its context. If only Hermia were the bestower of the gifts! But perhaps that is just the point: the presents, at least some of them, are ludicrously inappropriate for a man to give a woman—if one recognizes the bawdy second meanings. Stubborn old Egeus is wrong about Demetrius anyway, and the inappropriate bracelets of hair, rings, and conceits may constitute a joke of which Egeus is unaware.

One cannot insist upon a sexual meaning for Egeus' lines. The Shrew passage thus appears to be the only one in Shakespeare's works in which conceit probably has a sexual double meaning. It could be pronounced [klunt sit] or [klant sit],30 and if that pronunciation occurred in the right situation in a play—with the appropriate speaker and amidst appropriate lexical surroundings—an indecent meaning might well be conveyed. Jonson again provides some support. Early in Bartholmew Fayre Little-wit says, “I doe feele conceits comming upon mee, more then I am able to turne tongue too” (I.i.32-33).31 As Little-wit's humour-character name suggests, he is a naif who utters imbecilities and double-entendres without knowing whereof he speaks. I do not think I need to point out the dubious companions with which conceit finds itself in this Jonson passage.

When we now return to conceit in IV.iii.155-63 of Shrew, we are persuaded that there is a probable allusion to Kate's private part, hidden beneath her skirts and “deeper than you think for.” The last phrase is the clincher: a conceit (concept) may be deep and so may a vulva. A conception (an impregnation) cannot. The conceit with which Petruchio and Grumio play—as Kate stands by, fuming and mute—appears to combine the monosyllable and seat. If it were not for the presence of deeper and the lifted skirts, we would perhaps exonerate conceit. The cluster makes a triple meaning likely: concept, conception, pudendum. Shin and caper also suffer from bad company, as I have shown above. These words can hide behind the safe pudicity of a pure blush, retaining their innocent meanings, but if we take into account the clustered references in which they sometimes occur, parallel indecorous senses emerge.

No doubt many other bawdy clusters exist in Shakespeare's works. The foregoing analysis, employing three different kinds of evidence, will, I hope, make us more responsive to the subtle but hardly corruptive wit in these kinds of word groups.


  1. Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York: Dutton, 1960); E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1974) mentions a couple of groups of words that I would include in my concept of clusters: foul and fault, and lovers, meeting, son (pp. 7, 15). However, he does not examine fully the function of the cluster principle. Hilda Hulme, Explorations in Shakespeare's Language (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962) deals from time to time with mutual influence but, again, without examining the principle; she quotes J. R. Firth with approval: “A word is known by the company it keeps” (p. 100). In my Chaucer's Bawdy (New York: Dutton, 1972), pp. 20-21, I have described the heightening effect produced by clusters of indecent innuendos.

  2. Hulme, p. 114, describes the problem: “To ‘prove’ the existence of an indecent joke which the dramatic context seems strongly to suggest is not always easy. Evidence which is available in the minor sources of Elizabethan and Jacobean English may not be noted in dictionary collections; readers who come upon such evidence may not be concerned with its relevance to Shakespeare's text”; and she adds (p. 124), “both innocent and less innocent senses are of equal importance.”

  3. As Colman points out (pp. 112-42), Shakespeare uses his bawdy language both for comic purposes and to reveal a character's sexual revulsion—an idea proposed by previous critics, though none has treated it as thoroughly as Colman.

  4. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974); all quotations are from this ed.

  5. Colman, p. 205, equates this nest with the female genitalia; however, he says that the sexual allusions of this play are instruments of policy and “none of them are strictly bawdy” (p. 60).

  6. Doll gives the impression that occupy bore a naughty sense for only a brief time, but it persisted through the seventeenth century and probably longer. See OED, [Oxford English Dictionary] 8, which also points out that the verb fell into desuetude until the end of the eighteenth century because of its “vulgar employment”; I am indebted to Professor R. W. Dent for guiding me to this information. Hulme (p. 124) adds: “It is noteworthy that the verb occupy, ‘to cohabit with’ was, in Shakespeare's day, in process of being dropped from decent usage, so that the meaning of ‘Occupation’ which Othello himself ignores would be more vividly present to the Shakespearean audience.”

  7. Most commentators dismiss this line by explaining what it means in archery. The Riverside editors affirm that the pin holds the clout or cloth in the center of the target; Richard David, the Arden editor of the play (London: Methuen, 1968), provides fuller evidence of the same thing. Partridge, p. 87, gives a hint of the “greasiness” of the phrase (“To cause emission in a male”), but only Colman is explicit enough to make us understand Maria's indignation. He explains that it means “masturbation of male by female” (p. 188).

  8. Colman, p. 14. Amusingly, Hulme (pp. 108-09) counsels the opposite: “What might be regarded as an adolescent alertness to sex innuendo is more valuable than a high academic seriousness.”

  9. Merry Passages and Jeasts: A Manuscript Jestbook of Sir Nicholas Le Strange (1603-1655), ed. H. F. Lippincott; Salzburg Studies in English Literature, No. 29 (Salzburg: Institut f. englische Sprache u. Literatur, 1974), cited below as Jeasts. See also Lippincott's “‘Merry Passages and Jeasts’ and Sir Nicholas L'Estrange,” Library Chronicle, 41 (1977), 149-62.

  10. Colman, p. 204, finds this meaning in Shakespeare's works but claims that the poet never used it in its slang sense of “prostitute.”

  11. Ibid., pp. 10, 212.

  12. See n. 2 above.

  13. P. 10. Partridge does nothing with caper; nor does the OED, together with its new Supplement, ed. R. W. Burchfield (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972); nor do old standards like J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, eds., Slang and Its Analogues, rev. ed. (New Hyde Park, N. Y.: University Books, 1966). These sources have been routinely checked, when appropriate, for material treated later in this paper.

  14. Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, VIII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947), 64-65. The hen is a probable double-entendre; the eggs are a familiar aphrodisiac, scorned by Falstaff as unnecessary in Wiv., [The Merry Wives of Windsor] III.v.30-31; and larks are loose women. The limon might be equated with lemman (sweetheart), but I can find no suggestive meaning for olives. The coney stands for a light woman or for her pudendum (OED, sb., 5 and 5b). For an earlier use of hare and coney in indecent senses, see my Chaucer's Bawdy, pp. 101-02. Jonson offers “an oliue, capers, or some better sallade / Vshring the mutton” (ll. 10-11). I can find no bawdy meaning for usher; however, in Epicoene, IV.i.125-27, True-Wit explains how one should woo a woman: “Nor will it be out of your gaine to make love to her too, so shee follow, not usher, her ladies pleasure.” Usher keeps suspicious company in both these Jonson passages. The OED, Usher, sb., 2b, gives as an obsolete sense “a male attendant on a lady.” The earliest citation, from Fletcher (1621), does not have an obscene meaning; but in 1649 Davenant wrote, “Consumptive ushers that are decay'd In their Ladies service.” For consumptive, see Colman, p. 189, where he states that consumption alludes glancingly to gonorrhea; and compare the reference to Timon in this paper. Most modern commentators agree that service can mean sexual attention. The quotation from Davenant may be a little late to provide a dependable gloss for Jonson's usher, but it deepens one's suspicions. Usher occurs in Shakespeare only a few times; of these, perhaps Berowne's hushering (LLL, V.ii.328) may have a double meaning. He is speaking of Boyet, whose relationship with the Princess and her ladies is too familiar.

  15. Colman, p. 183, equates the back-trick and copulation. The Riverside editors identify the gustatory and terpsichorean senses of caper in this passage from TN [Twelfth Night] and they state that the back-trick was “steps taken backward in the galliard.” J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, the Arden editors (London: Methuen, 1975), explicitly deny any quibble on mutton here; they also claim that the back-trick is not known as a technical term in the dance. However, they continue, “if it is coined by Sir Andrew, there may be unconscious indecency,” and they quote a number of contemporaneous works that equate strong backs with sexual prowess. See OED, Reins, 3: “The seat of the feelings and affections,” with several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century citations. This sense is present in Falstaff's remarks to Bardolph when the latter tells him that Mistress Quickly is approaching (Wiv., III.v.21-22): “Come, let me pour some sack to the Thames water; for my belly's as cold as if I had swallow'd snowballs for pills to cool the reins.”

  16. John Marston, The Fawn, ed. Gerald A. Smith, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965). Shakespeare's Sir Andrew is funny not only because he is stupid but because he is also effeminate, like Sir Amoroso in Marston's play. Sir Andrew also has physiognomic characteristics that betray his effeminacy (like Chaucer's Pardoner and Absolon in the Miller's Tale); see my Chaucer's Bawdy, pp. 100-01.

  17. OED, Matter, 3: “the fluids of the body, excrementitious products, etc.”

  18. It serves a function, it would appear, like “(God) bless the mark,” which can indicate something off-color or can forestall an ill omen. See TGV, [The Two Gentlemen of Verona] IV.iv.19, and MV, [The Merchant of Venice] II.ii.24. It also resembles the exclamation “sir reverence!” as seen in Err., [The Comedy of Errors] III.ii.91, and Rom., [Romeo and Juliet] I.iv.42.

  19. Some people are offended by this less than ladylike Rosalind. Her forthrightness startled readers like Coleridge. As Colman sees her, there are moments of “blunt physicality,” but there is “nothing brazen” in her character (p. 108).

  20. The allusion is found in Virgil's Georgics, IV.181, where he speaks of bees returning with crura thymo plena [things laden with thyme-scented honey]. On some occasions, when this lovely phrase was not “contaminated” by proximity with sexually suggestive words, it probably referred to husbands' golden moneybags.

  21. OED, Marrow, 1b; it cites Ven., 142, which, however, is a line spoken by Venus: “My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow burning.”

  22. Hulme, p. 128. She illustrates her point by quoting AWW, [All's Well That Ends Well] II.iii.279-81: “He wears his honor in a box unseen, / That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home, / Spending his manly marrow in her arms,” and Middleton's Mad World, B1v (1608): “all her wanton Pamphlets, as Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis, oh two lushious mary-bone pies for a yong married wife.” The Riverside editors gloss Shakespeare's manly marrow as “manly essence.”

  23. I neglected this meaning, together with other horse-rider double-entendres, in my Chaucer's Bawdy. See Beryl Rowland, Animals with Human Faces (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1973), on horses (pp. 103-12); and the same writer's Blind Beasts: Chaucer's Animal World (Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1971), on the Wife of Bath (pp. 118, 136-37).

  24. Plantain was evidently a real remedy for scrapes and scratches. The dictionaries and herbals do not include it among the aphrodisiacs. Some of the humor lies precisely here: no plantain leaf can heal Costard's malady! There is wry self-mockery in Romeo's reference to plantain and broken shins in Rom., I.ii.51-52. He can expect no more help from the homely remedy than can Costard.

  25. STC 22919, dated around 1590 and attributed to H. Kirkham. There is a copy in the British Library. I am indebted to Professor Dent for directing me to this information.

  26. Colman, pp. 20-21, discusses this passage, though for a different purpose. He says, rather confusingly, that Grumio makes these bawdy remarks, thus abusing “the already victimized tailor by making him the butt of a series of quite imaginary scurrilities.” It would perhaps be more accurate to say that Grumio deliberately misinterprets Petruchio's remarks, imputing them to the tailor, who is listening to this dialogue.

  27. In Thomas Nashe, Works, ed. R. B. McKerrow (rpt. Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), I, 100 (ll. 5ff.). Concerning the Dame of Rochester, McKerrow (IV, 64) says, “I know nothing of her.”

  28. Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1953), p. 301. Though Kökeritz has been taken to task for assuming that compositors' spellings represent Shakespeare's (or any Elizabethan's) pronunciation, his work is still useful.

  29. E. J. Dobson, English Pronunciation 1500-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957) treats excrescent [t] as does Kökeritz, but he also explains that “in late ME and ModE there is a tendency for ‘inorganic’ or ‘excrescent’ stops to develop after nasals” (II, 1001), a statement which would include the intrusive stop [t] in conceit.

  30. Dobson cites an orthographic manual published in 1649: “the same sound is expressed by different letters in sea-ted, con-cei-ted” (I, 167), a passage that employs precisely the examples we need to illustrate the off-color pun in Shr.!

  31. Ben Jonson, VI, 20.

Marion D. Perret (essay date January 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 sexuality3The 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 drunken sleeper to illustrate the vanity of life do not include sex among life's fleeting pleasures.6 What Shakespeare considered important enough to add is certainly important enough for us to consider.

We should not avoid this subject just because classifying a passage as indecent exposes our thinking as well as the playwright's. Enrichment of the text rather than the critic's character should be the basis upon which to decide whether there is bawdry in, for instance, Grumio's assessment of Bianca's aged suitor:

So shall I no whit be behind in duty
To fair Bianca, so beloved of me.
Beloved of me; and that my deeds shall prove.
And that his bags shall prove.


The few editors who bother to gloss “bags” explain it as “moneybags,” but Gremio's “that my deeds shall prove” already contains a reference to money in the pun on deeds as titles to property, and for Grumio to repeat the boast by saying that cash as well as property will show the strength of Gremio's love would be pointlessly anticlimactic. If, however, the bags Grumio refers to are not moneybags but what the Wife of Bath terms a man's “nether purs,” Grumio's aside interestingly suggests that the only one of Bianca's suitors we do not see adopting a disguise is in effect already wearing one, presenting his senile lechery as youthful capability. Because Shakespeare's use of sexual references illuminates the play, it needs to be more carefully studied. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

We should not, of course, rush from prudery into prurience. Shakespeare cautions his audience against lascivious imaginings through an exchange between Petruchio and Grumio after Petruchio tells the tailor to take back the gown ordered for Kate:

Well, sir, in brief, the gown is not for me.
You are i' the right, sir, 'tis for my mistress
Go, take it up unto thy master's use.
Villain, not for thy life: take up my mistress' gown for thy master's use!
Why, sir, what's your conceit in that?
O, sir, the conceit is deeper than you think for:
Take up my mistress' gown to his master's use!
O, fie, fie, fie!


Like Petruchio, we may feel that Grumio protests too much, for he censures a lechery undreamt of by Petruchio, the tailor, or the tailor's master. Grumio's ostentatious rebuke of the immorality only he imagines criticizes Petruchio for phrasing which seems to authorize adultery, but Shakespeare clearly means us to see Grumio as “dirty-minded.”

Because Grumio's misinterpretation is more laboured than laughable, we recognize that this indecency is different from others in the play—that in this instance effort is more apparent than wit, moral or immoral. This recognition is accompanied by a far more important one, that in this play sexual innuendo is almost always morally instructive. The purpose of Shakespeare's indecencies is that of other Renaissance art forms: to teach as well as to delight. The punning of the bawdy wordplay comically introduces serious values, and the action leads us to see in the shrew-tamer a moral sensitivity defined negatively.

The subject of The Taming of the Shrew, as the title proclaims, is transformation, and our first perspective on this process comes from the Induction, which presents sexual desire as a powerful influence for bringing about transformation or acceptance of transformation. This perspective makes us wonder why Petruchio refuses to use such an effective means of taming his shrew, especially when he has the right to demand this marital duty, when others expect him to do so, and when he manipulates his bride through her other bodily needs. Obviously, Petruchio can “scarcely be expected to tup Kate onstage,”7 but the playwright could easily indicate that such action occurs offstage—as he does in Petruchio's final “Come, Kate, we'll to bed” (V.ii.184), which bespeaks sex rather than sleep. The tamer's rejection of sex as a means of subduing his shrew shows his understanding of the “right supremacy” which will bring him and Kate “what not, that's sweet and happy” (V.ii.110). Our understanding of Petruchio's refusal comes largely from our awareness of the difference between his behaviour and that of the Lord and Sly in the Induction.

When he first comes upon the besotted Sly, the Lord sees the tinker as a “monstrous beast … like a swine” (Ind. i.33); since the swine had long been a symbol of lechery as well as gluttony,8 the Lord consciously or unconsciously connects the first transformation in the play, the apparent turning of a reasonable man into a senseless brute, with sex. Liquor and lechery have ever been closely linked, though as the Porter in Macbeth observes, the value of this relationship is dubious: “Lechery, sir, [drink] provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance” (II.iii.32-33). The association of drunkenness with sensuality apparently suggests that the “swine-drunk”9 tinker can be manipulated through his desire for sex, for when the Lord begins to specify how to “manage well the jest” (Ind. i.45), almost the first detail he thinks of is “wanton pictures” (Ind. i.47), illustrations of Ovid's Metamorphoses depicting preludes to rape which show lust in pursuit of satisfaction as the cause of transformation. The Lord's judgment proves correct: the tinker, who in his stupor calls out for ale and a wench (Ind. ii.89), specifically rejects as unfit for the likes of him the offered clothing, delicacies, and fine drink, but he does not reject the prospect of viewing those “wanton pictures.” After the servants describe the titillating scenes, Sly opportunisticly decides to accept appearance as reality—and the “lady” at his disposal if he is a lord. Our awareness that the Lord fosters Sly's lust for his own “sport” (Ind. i.91) helps us see that Petruchio, in contrast, deprives Kate of sex for their mutual good, to bring about “love and quiet life” (V.ii.107). He denies Kate food, sleep, and sex less to make her crave the physical necessities of life than to make her appreciate spiritual values she has neglected, so she can become a wife who will be a friend and companion rather than a mere sexual convenience.

Petruchio's wedding night refusal to indulge in sex contrasts with Sly's attempt to capitalize on the discovery that he has a “wife” at his command. When the tinker is informed that as a lord he has at his service “a lady far more beautiful / Than any woman in this waning age” (Ind. ii.64-65), he forthwith adopts his new identity and its advantages:

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
.....Upon my life, I am a lord indeed
And not a tinker nor Christophero Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither.

(Ind. ii.70,74-76)

The “lady's” lament at languishing “abandoned from [his] bed” (Ind. ii.117) is to Sly more a cue for passion than evidence of his identity; after he is introduced to his supposedly sex-starved “wife,” he immediately proposes to do what comes naturally.

                                                            Servants, leave her and me alone.
Madam, undress you and come now to bed.

(Ind. ii.118-19)

We laugh at both Sly's advances toward the “lady” and Petruchio's wedding night “sermon of continency,” but Sly's eagerness to bed a “wife” he has barely met makes us respect Petruchio's refusal to enjoy Kate's body before their minds are properly matched. The Induction helps shape our reaction to Petruchio's refraining so that our initial surprise is followed by appreciation rather than puzzlement.

Yet another insight into Petruchio's behaviour on the first night of his marriage comes from Sly's reaction to the need for continence on what is for him a sort of wedding night. Eager to play the lord to the hilt, but cautioned to restrain himself a little longer lest he relapse into believing himself a tinker, Sly refrains most unwillingly “in despite of the flesh and the blood,” though “it stands so that [he] may hardly tarry” (Ind. ii.128-29). How reluctantly Sly contains himself is shown by the puns on “stand” and “hardly” and by his hope that the substituted diversion will have a similar appeal: when his “lady” assures him (Ind. ii.139-43) that their entertainment will be “more pleasing” than “a comonty, a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick,” what Sly thinks of as more pleasing is “household stuff,” and “stuff,” as Partridge tells us, is “a pejorative collective noun for whores10 If Petruchio is to tame rather than be tamed by his shrew, he must reject uxoriousness like Sly's.

The Induction's theme of the power of sexual desire reappears in the suitors plot in a minor key. To go back to Grumio's pun it seems that the contest of Bianca's suitors will be decided on the basis of “bags,” in one sense or another. Baptista's aim for his daughter is moneybags, with all the gold he can get in them; Bianca's aim is somewhat lower—at least one of her suitors accuses her of this. Hortensio, finding that in courtship Bianca and Lucentio are “quick proceeders,” gives up his futile wooing of “such a one as leaves a gentleman, / And makes a god of such a cullion” (IV.ii.20). Since “cullion” means not only “low fellow” but also “testicle,” Hortensio implies that the relationship of the lovers is not courtly adoration but common lust. He may to a certain extent be right: the words of the outraged suitors who eavesdrop on Bianca and Lucentio contain stage directions which indicate that the lovers do not exactly observe the proprieties:

See how they kiss and court!


See how beastly she doth court him!


Physical expression that feels heavenly can look ungodly, but even granted that perspective is likely to affect attitude toward sex, Tranio's “beastly,” a term implying animalistic appetite, underlines and supports Hortensio's perception of disorder and intensity. After the disgusted Hortensio leaves, forswearing his suit, Tranio greets the lovers bawdily:

Mistress Bianca, bless you with such grace
As 'longeth to a lover's blessed case!


Since Shakespeare often puns on “case” as “pudendum,”11 the blessing Tranio wishes is both heavenly and earthy. Shakespeare gives no evidence that Lucentio and Bianca have slept together, but Tranio's observation that he has caught the lovers “napping” encourages the suspicion that they are quite ready for bed.

Lucentio's words to Tranio on first discovering he is in love reinforce the idea that physical passion is irresistible and disorderly:

[Thou] art to me as secret and as dear
As Anna to the Queen of Carthage was,
Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,
If I achieve not this young modest girl.


This whole speech is exaggerated to suggest extreme emotion, but Lucentio's violation of decorum in comparing men to women without derogation is so striking it calls attention to the result of overindulging desire. The comparison suggests that Lucentio gives sex too much importance, for Virgil's Dido, who pined and perished of her burning passion for Aeneas, represents not only desire's intensity but also its destructiveness to self and society.12 Lucentio should master the passion he allows Bianca to control.

These suggestions of sensuality and social disorder in Bianca's relationship with her lover prepare us to see Bianca's bawdiness and her domineering as a bride. We should not be surprised that by the end of the play Bianca and Kate seem to have reversed roles; as Bianca changes from sweet to shrewish, the emphasis on her character shifts from docility to sensuality. In this play Shakespeare uses indecency as a mark of shrewishness in his female characters: Kate speaks bawdily only when she is a shrew; Bianca does not speak bawdily until she shows herself a shrew.

Shakespeare's association of sensuality and shrewishness is deliberate rather than dictated by the anti-feminist tradition: though sensuality is a dominant characteristic of the Wife of Bath, it does not appear in Xanthippe or Noah's wife. The native dramatic tradition allows Shakespeare to choose whether or not to indicate shrewishness by disorderly sexuality. Although in John John, Tib, and Sir John the shrewish wife has taken the parish priest for her lover, in Tom Tyler and His Wife the shrew's sexual behaviour is not an issue. In The Taming of the Shrew lewdness shows the unbalanced self-interest of shrewishness which contrasts with the balanced wholeness brought about by a proper love relationship. Through bawdry Kate protests being treated as a sex object; through bawdry Bianca announces that she is one.

The play presents transformation motivated by sexual desire as neither real nor lasting. The page may be “transformed” into a “lady” to lead Sly to accept his “transformation” into a lord, but the Induction makes clear that both transformations are illusory and temporary. The suitors plot also shows that transformation brought about by sexual desire cannot be lasting if it involves a distortion of natural and social order, for Hortensio scorns his disguise when he finds its end unworthy, and Lucentio and Bianca shed theirs once they are safely married. In the Induction and in the suitors plot transformation is clearly linked to desire; in the taming plot transformation is carefully divorced from desire.

As the taming plot begins, the shrewish Kate is presented to us as a sexual object. When Kate's father offers his daughter for wooing by Gremio or Hortensio, Gremio retorts (I.i.55) that she is “too rough” and should be not courted but carted, that is, punished as a prostitute is punished, by being driven around in an open cart. Responding to this suggestion that she has not found a proper means of expressing her sexuality13 Kate's first words in the play proclaim to her father that she wants no part of any marriage which is simply a kind of sanctioned prostitution: “Is it your will to make a stale of me among these mates?” (I.57-58). In her opinion Gremio and Hortensio are “mates” (low companions) and therefore not fit to be her “mate” (husband); she feels that her father's arranging to join such unequal spirits in a union which could only be physical would make her a “stale” (laughingstock) no better than a “stale” (prostitute). Despite the unavoidable commercialism of the dowry negotiations, Kate's love cannot be purchased, and Petruchio does not treat Kate as a “stale.” Though he publicly announces that his wife is a chattel like “[his] horse, [his] ox, [his] ass, [his] any thing” (III.ii.232), on his wedding night he does not use Kate as though she were merely an ass he bought. As a bachelor Petruchio assumes that to wive wealthily is to wive happily; as a husband, however, he seems aware that money alone cannot make marriage happy, for he uses bawdry to point out to Kate's father that a man and woman go to bed with each other, not with the material trappings of a respectable union:

To me she's married, not unto my clothes:
Could I repair what she will wear in me
As I can change these poor accoutrements,
'Twere well for Kate and better for myself.


Money cannot restore to Petruchio what he will give of himself to Kate. Through 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.

That the marriage of these two will be a match, not just a mating, appears in the extended bawdry of their first encounter (II.i.200-19, 226-28), where Petruchio's lewdness in wooing Kate shows his awareness of natural order, and Kate's lewdness shows her different understanding of it. The arguing between these two is distinctly ad hominem and ad feminam. When Petruchio observes that Kate would make a good mother, Kate retorts that Petruchio would make a poor father: by calling him a jade she impugns his sexual staying power of virility—as the O.E.D. points out, the primary sense of “jade” (a worn-out horse) is almost never applied metaphorically to a man, and its alternative sense (a disreputable woman) also disparages his masculinity. The proposition they dispute, that “women are made to bear, and so are you,” can refer either to a woman's position during the sexual act or to a woman's carrying a child. Kate rejects the first possibility (“no such jade as you”) and Petruchio reassures her about the second (“I will not burden thee”), shifting the responsibility for her not bearing a child from his inability to hers (she is “but young and light”). And so it goes, as their wordplay moves from a discussion of things made to bear and of the burdens proper to them, into an analysis of the nature and fitness of male animals: the buzzard, a hawk useless for hunting, which cannot take (capture) even a turtle (dove) but can take (copulate with) a buzzard for a turtle (lover); the gentleman, who cannot use force on a woman and remain a gentleman; and the combless cock, which to impress a mate must stand up rather than cower. Though the wooing scene is usually played as such knockabout farce that the words get lost in the scuffle, these lines should not be thrown away. Petruchio's indecency makes a serious point, that as a woman Kate is designed for marriage and motherhood. Kate's response makes a different yet equally good point about what is fit for her: she should not be matched with a jade or country boy, but with her equal.

Kate's retorts reveal both a sense of order and an inability to recognize how it applies to her. She accuses Petruchio of not seeing how unmatched they are, of mistaking her for a lover as a stupid hawk mistakes a dove for another hawk. We see, as she does not, that in challenging his replies she shows herself more hawk than dove, and that she accepts her wooer's comparison of her to a wasp as she compares him to one. In the convolutions of their sparring about where their stings are, Kate misses the point her punning assumes: they are buzzards both, fitted for each other in tongue and tail. Their bawdy exchange, however, makes clear to Petruchio that it takes more than the assertion of his masculinity and the appeal to her femininity to win Kate's respect, for to approach Kate as a “combless cock” is to strike Kate as craven—that is, to flaunt his virility as his chief virtue is unmanly. The man she will accept as her proper mate must challenge her on her own terms and conquer her “in her own humour” (IV.i.183). Kate in effect asks from her wooer what she gets from her husband.

Petruchio does not present himself to his bride as a combless cock, though according to Elizabethan theory, sex implies marriage, and marriage, sex: the wedding service enjoins man and wife to copulate for the increase of God's kingdom.14 Whether or not this was their motivation, Shakespeare's contemporaries demonstrated considerable enthusiasm for sex; The Book of Common Prayer reflects the need for admonition that marriage not be entered into “wantonly, to satisfie mens carnal lusts and appetites.”15 For a married couple, however, abstinence from intercourse was no more acceptable than lust. Elizabethan manuals of domestic conduct regularly quote St. Paul's insistence (I Cor. 7:3-5) that between man and wife intercourse is a debt or “due benevolence,” and a widely read discussion of married life terms the sexual relation the “actual worke of marriage.”16 Whether the attraction between the bride and groom is spiritual, physical, or financial, the woman could count on finding out, as Petruchio puts it, “to [a man] she's married, not unto [his] clothes.” Petruchio's refusal to do his marital duty is thus both unorthodox and unexpected.

How Kate looked forward to this conjugal duty we can only guess,17 but we know her reaction to Petruchio's postponing it:

                                                                                She, poor soul,
Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak,
And sits as one new-risen from a dream.


In our amusement at Petruchio's timing of his “sermon on continency” we must not forget the Elizabethan audience would initially be as stunned as Kate at his refraining.18 Petruchio has made it plain he will not be married in name only: to a Gremio shocked that he is “marvellous forward” in setting about his wooing, Petruchio explains, “I would fain be doing” (II.i.74), and “doing” as the OED notes, is euphemistic for “copulating”; while wooing he informs Kate that he means to warm himself in her bed (II.i.269) and that “women are made to bear, and so are you” (II.i.201). Petruchio is not indifferent to Kate's physical charms, for he tells her that her beauty “doth make me like thee well” (II.i.266). Nor is he disheartened by the shrew's spirit, for the sight of Hortensio crowned with a lute only makes him proclaim, “Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench. I love her ten times more than e'er I did” (II.i.161-62). Petruchio's reaction shows the truth of his earlier declaration (I.ii.73) that no amount of shrewishness can remove his “affection's edge”; it will, to borrow Hamlet's phrase, cost Kate a groaning to take that edge off. Petruchio's abstaining from intercourse, unexpected because of his intention to consummate his marriage, is further surprising in that the wedding night is the natural time for the tamer to establish physical mastery over his shrew.

That it was acceptable for a man to use sexual power to give his wife a taste of male superiority appears in many versions of the shrew-taming story. In the play's popular analogue, A Merry Iest of a Shrewd and Curst Wyfe, the husband who intends that his wife should “shrinke / And bow at my pleasure, when I her bed”19 capitalizes upon the occasion of the wedding night to introduce his wife to the force of a will other than her own, and even his shrewish mother-in-law approves! When in the morning the bride complains that because of her husband's rough lovemaking she “could not lye still, nor no rest take / Of all this night,” her usually sympathetic mother merely says “here is nothing done amis” and offers her another nightgown to replace the torn one. In the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew Sander cannot understand why his master has not taken the direct approach to taming Kate:

And I had been there to have woode hir, and had this
Cloke on that you have, chud have had her before she
Had gone a foot furder.

(Scene V, II.64-65)20

In Shakespeare's play Grumio, who knows his master well, predicts that Petruchio will use his virility21 to tame his shrew: “An she stand him but a little, he will throw a figure in her face and so disfigure her with it that she shall have no more eyes to see withal than a cat” (I.ii.113ff.). Petruchio is well aware that sex can be used as a weapon, for he informs Kate's father that even a “meacock wretch” can make the “curstest shrew” tame “when men and women are alone” (II.i.314-15). Furthermore, he can expect Kate to make her bed a battlefield, for a shrewish wife psychologically emasculates her husband—indeed, a scolding woman may have been called a shrew partly because this venomous mouse supposedly attacked male sex organs.22 Yet on his wedding night, against all expectation, Petruchio refuses to take the advantage allowed him.

Petruchio's refraining does not necessarily mean that he wishes to stimulate a hunger for sex in order to lure Kate into submission. This interpretation, chosen for the film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, is attractive in that it emphasizes the consistency of the tamer, who in bed as at board provokes desire but takes away performance, and in that it makes the refraining immediately intelligible in terms we can understand.23 Nevertheless, Shakespeare does not encourage this interpretation of Petruchio's motives. In a soliloquy (IV.i.201-10) the shrew-tamer explains that the purpose of the sermon on continency is to deny Kate sleep; he does not suggest that the purpose of the continence is to cause her sexual frustration. In The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare mentions how sex can be used destructively only to make us aware that Petruchio and Kate do not use it thus.

We know what Petruchio tells us is his reason for refraining; we can only speculate about what he tells Kate in his “sermon on continency.” Since he presents all his actions as motivated by “perfect love” (IV.iii.12) and “reverend care” (IV.i.117) of her, he may have explained that he abstains from intercourse because, as many conduct books caution, husbands are not “to turn their wiues into whores … by [their] immoderate, intemperate, or excessive lust.”24 Or he may have recommended that he and Kate devote themselves to prayer rather than to sex: St. Paul allows couples to “defraud” each other by continence “for a time only” to give themselves to fasting and prayer (I Cor. 7:5), and Petruchio and Kate are already fasting. Of course, if Petruchio is still applying the technique he used as a wooer, asserting that the shrew's behaviour is precisely the opposite of what it appears, he may have exhorted Kate to control her excessive desire for him! Both Petruchio and Kate are choleric, and according to Elizabethan medicine those of “an hot dispositiō are very much inclined to lust and venerie.”25 Odd as it may seem, this is thus an appropriate time for a sermon to the passionate on restraint of passion.

Whatever Petruchio may have preached to Kate, Shakespeare comically illustrates a point which Elizabethan preachers make seriously, that “vnlesse there be a ioyning of hearts and a knitting of affections together, it is not Mariage in deed, but in shew and name.”26 As the most compendious Elizabethan analysis of marriage duties observes, because the husband “may force the bodie, but not the will, in the which all loue and amitie doth consist,” he “ought not to be satisfied that he hath robd his wife of her virginitee, but in that he hath possession and vse of her will.”27 Since on their wedding night the tamer and shrew are not yet one in mind and will, Petruchio shows both moral awareness and sensitivity in not sealing his marriage with a rape sanctioned by ceremony.

That Petruchio and Kate can be matched in mind appears in their indecencies, which characteristically direct attention beyond the physical relation to a spiritual one. After marriage, however, they abandon sexual puns. As Kate learns obedience she turns from shrewish bawdiness to the modest dignity appropriate for a wife; she is “ashamed to kiss” in the street (V.i.151) and does not contribute to the randy banter at the wedding feast. Petruchio turns from bawdy puns to the moral lectures expected of an Elizabethan husband: the bachelor who informs Kate she cannot leave “with [his] tongue in [her] tail” (II.i.218) becomes the husband who insists that grace be said at his table (IV.i.162). The timing of Petruchio's wedding night sermon may surprise us, but his sermonizing should not. Nor should the fact that in the bawdy repartee of the wedding banquet he acts primarily as “straight man,” setting up Hortensio's puns.

Bawdy banter is to be expected at a wedding feast—Petruchio invites the guests at his to “carouse full measure to Kate's maidenhead” (III.ii.227)—but even here the indecent puns enforce morality:

He that is giddy thinks the world turns round.
Roundly replied.
Mistress, how mean you that?
Thus I conceive by him.
Conceives by me? How likes Hortensio that?
My widow says, thus she conceives her tale.
Very well mended. Kiss him for that, good widow.


Petruchio's mock alarm (“Conceives by me?”) calls attention to the bawdy implication in the Widow's words, yet he deflects this from himself by passing the question to Hortensio; Petruchio's deferring functions as an indirect reproof of the Widow, who should refer matters of conception to her husband. When Hortensio in attempting to correct the suggestion of his wife's straying simply slides into another bawdy pun, Petruchio sets things in good order, instructing the Widow to kiss her husband for the legitimate conception of her tale. But when Petruchio bets that in the wives' verbal combat Kate will put the Widow down, Hortensio objects, protesting “That's my office” (V.ii.36). In Petruchio's “taming school” (IV.ii.54) Hortensio has learned at least one lesson, the technique of instructive innuendo. Because his bawdry advocates proper social and sexual order, he wins Petruchio's approving toast, “Spoke like an officer: ha' to thee, lad!”

Petruchio, however, does not approve of Bianca's part in the bawdy conversation.

How likes Gremio these quick-witted folks?
Believe me, sir, they butt together well.
Head, and butt! an hasty-witted body
Would say your head and butt were head and horn.
Ay, mistress bride, hath that waken'd you?
Ay, but not frighted me; therefore I'll sleep again.
Nay, that you shall not: since you have begun,
Have at you for a bitter jest or two!
Am I your bird? I mean to shift my bush;
And then pursue me as you draw your bow.
You are welcome all.


Gremio describes the thrust and parry of wits by playing on “butt” as a verb and as a conjunction; Bianca, who thinks of a different kind of thrust, plays on “butt” as a noun, making the stock Elizabethan jest about head and horn, phallus and symbol of cuckoldry. Vincentio's question, “Mistress bride, hath that awaken'd you?”, both teases Bianca by alluding to her wedding night awakening and reproves his new daughter-in-law, who as a bride should display virginal blushes instead of bawdry. Bianca's retort that her bridegroom's horn impresses her so little she'll go to sleep is such a put down that Petruchio intervenes, promising a “bitter jest or two,” which would doubtless instruct her that any putting down should be of the wife by the husband. Bianca, however, does not stay to listen to his jests but departs with a suggestion unlikely to delight her bridegroom—that Petruchio pursue her with his weapon drawn. The bawdy banter of the last scene prepares for Kate's winning the contest in obedience and for her lecturing the other women on the right relationship of husband and wife.

Shakespeare's treatment of sex in The Taming of the Shrew as a whole makes certain that Petruchio's last speech, “Come, Kate, we'll to bed,” signals not only sexual desire but the “marriage of true minds” expressed in the physical union of man and wife. The amusing bawdry of the Induction, by establishing wedlock as “bedlock,” frees Shakespeare to concentrate in the rest of the play on marriage as a social rather than physical relationship. The dramatic importance of lust in the Induction leads us to expect that in the taming plot sexual desire will have an importance it simply does not have. This expectation, however, makes us note that neither Petruchio nor Kate uses sex as a weapon and that neither offers sex as a means of persuasion. Where the Induction shows a “husband” who refrains most reluctantly, the taming plot shows a husband who does not ask for his conjugal right until his wife can give it gladly. When we consider the Induction we realize that the tamer and the shrew are lusty but not lustful; when we consider their bawdry, we see through the indecency their consciousness of moral order and responsibility. In The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare uses sex as a touchstone for character and values.

Those who study Shakespeare's references to sex naturally turn first to the plays after 1600, for here indecency is clearly used seriously and significantly. In these plays it cannot be ignored: not only are references to sex more frequent than in the early comedies and histories, but the references are integral, for the “bawdry of disillusion and insanity”28 reveals how character can be distorted by the pressure of tragic experience. Critics have not ignored the indecencies of the problem plays, tragedies, and romances, but have earnestly studied the sexual references as images of disorder and reordering. They need, however, to recognize that one reason Shakespeare is able to use sexual references so seriously and skilfully in the plays after 1600 is that before 1600, as early as The Taming of the Shrew, he learned how to use them comically to question or embody values.


  1. E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1974) treats the bawdy in this play almost entirely as “verbal gymnastics”; he does not adequately explore his most astute observation about this play, that Shakespeare here begins “the controlled use of bawdy as one indicator of dissident or anarchic traits in a personality” (p. 41). Though I arrived at my somewhat different conclusions independently, we necessarily deal with some of the same material. Michael West, “The Folk Background of Petruchio's Wooing Dance: Male Supremacy in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Studies, VII (1974), 65-73 is aware of the sexual tension between Kate and Petruchio, but he deals with the sexuality of their courtship only generally. The interpretation by William J. Martz, Shakespeare's Universe of Comedy (N.Y.: David Lewis, 1971), pp. 25-26, 50 strikes me as grossly wrong-headed.

  2. All citations are from Hardin Craig's edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1971).

  3. Colman notes that “apart from the wooing scene and the wedding-feast, The Shrew's scurrilities are only intermittent and inessential” (p. 40).

  4. Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York: Dutton, 1948), pp. 54-55.

  5. Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions (London, 1952; rpt. N.Y.: Barnes & Noble, 1968) demonstrates that “the popular school of dramatists not only failed to cultivate chances for erotic treatment but took considerable pains to avoid it” (p. 206). In noting that Shakespeare expurgated his source for the subplot of this play, he does not notice how Shakespeare added the emphasis on sex to the Induction: we tend to see what we expect to see.

  6. Most of these versions, which probably derive ultimately from the tale “The Sleeper Wakened” in the Arabian Nights, are printed together in Appendix II of F. S. Boas' edition of The Taming of a Shrew, Being the Original of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (London, 1908). A translation of the letter from Juan Luis Vivis to Francis Duke of Béjar, most likely known to Shakespeare as related by Heuterus, can be found in Foster Watson, “Shakespeare and Two Stories of Luis Vivis,” Nineteenth Century, LXXV (1919), 303-304. Grimeston's translation (1607) from Goulart is given in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 1957), I, 109-10. Shakespeare added sex to the delights offered the dreamer and subtracted the more elevated pleasure of a Lord's privilege at worship; while the solemnity of the sacrament obviously had no place in the Induction, Shakespeare need not have substituted sex for it.

  7. West, p. 71.

  8. An Elizabethan explanation for this appears in Christs Teares Over Iervsalem, in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow (London, 1910), II, 113: “Luxury, ryot, and sensuality we borrow from the Hogge: and therefore we call a leatcherous person a boorish companion.”

  9. This Elizabethan expression for Sly's condition is implicit in the comparison the Lord makes; Shakespeare uses this term in AWW [All's Well That Ends Well] I.iii.286.

  10. Page 197.

  11. Partridge, pp. 84-85; Colman, p. 187.

  12. On the difference between the historians' and the poets' view of Dido see Don Cameron Allen, “Marlowe's Dido and the Tradition,” in Essays on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo.: Univ. of Mo. Press, 1962), pp. 55-68.

  13. The play as a whole does not suggest that sexual frustration causes shrewishness: Bianca reveals her shrewishness when her desire is about to be fulfilled, and Kate abandons hers before her marriage is consummated.

  14. “The Forme of Solemnization of Matrimonie,” The Book of the Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the Church: after the use of the Churche of England (London, 1549), fol. xiii, proclaims that marriage was ordained primarily for “the procreation of children,” and only secondarily for “a remedie agaynst sinne” and for “the mutuall societie, helpe, and coumfort.”

  15. Ibidem, fol. xii.

  16. Heinrich Bullinger, The Christian State of Matrimony, tr. Myles Couerdale (London, 1575), fol. 26.

  17. A feminist critic could rightly point out that Kate may feel pleasantly surprised rather than deprived at not being bedded by a man who seems totally insensitive to her needs despite his verbal concern for her well being. Though Kate is a “lusty wench” (II.i.161), in Shakespeare's day “lusty” could mean “full of vitality” instead of “full of sexual desire.” That Kate has no wish to “lead apes in hell” (II.i.34) does not mean that she's hot for the nearest male—the assumption that women are ruled by lust smacks more of medieval misogynists than of Shakespeare. If we grant to Kate and Petruchio the depth of comic characters rather than the flatness of farcical ones, we must recognize that at this moment Kate might well feel relieved at Petruchio's refusal to push a point.

  18. Although Vives in The Office and Duetie of an Husband (quoted in Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman, N.Y.: Elsevier Press 1952, p. 102) advises newlyweds to abstain from intercourse for the first three nights of their marriage so they may be blessed with healthy children, this pious act seems to have been honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

  19. A Merry Ieste of a Shrewd and curst Wufe, Lapped in Morrelles Skin, for her good Behauyour (London, 1580), p. 49. The importance of this work is noted by Richard Hosley in “The Sources and Analogues of The Taming of the Shrew,Huntington Library Quarterly, XXVII (1963-64), 295-98.

  20. Bullough, p. 78.

  21. On the erotic meaning of this speech see Richard Levin, “Grumio's ‘Rope-Tricks’ and the Nurse's ‘Ropery’,” Shakespeare Quarterly, XXII (1971), 82-86.

  22. Edward Topsell, The Historie of Fovre-Footed Beastes (London, 1607), p. 538; Noel Hudson, An Early English Version of Hortus Sanitatus (London, 1954), p. 58.

  23. Shakespeare's contemporaries would also have understood them. In John Fletcher's The Woman's Prize or the Tamer Tamed, Petruchio's second wife barricades the bedroom against her new husband, showing him the power of sex from a new perspective by refusing him his conjugal rights.

  24. R[obert] C[leaver], A Godlie Forme of Hovseholde Government (London, 1598), p. 158.

  25. Petrus Pomerius Valentinus, Enchiridion Medicum: Containing an Epitome of the Whole Course of Physicke (London, 1608), p. 10. Although the sanguine temperament is more prone to lechery than the choleric, some authorities, such as Batman vppon Bartholome his Booke De Proprietatibus Rerum (London, 1582), note that choler “also provoketh to the works of Venus” (fol. 32).

  26. The Sermons of Maister Henrie Smith, gathered into one volvme (London, 1593), p. 36.

  27. Cleaver, pp. 216, 168.

  28. Colman, pp. 117.

David O. Frantz (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Malcontent; both elements turn out to be unmasking devices for Volpone in his attempted seduction of Celia, and our understanding of Volpone's world is greatly informed by our knowledge of Italian erotica. The love of Romeo and Juliet is put into focus not only by the early posturings of Romeo as a Petrarchan lover but also by the bawdy humor of the Nurse and Mercutio; even in King Lear the subject of lust plays an important role; one could go on and on, for sex is everywhere in Renaissance drama in both major and minor ways. In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor we can see both the jest literature and sexually suggestive language used in an exemplary manner.

It is true that there is no pornographic action in The Merry Wives of Windsor; there is bawdy language in good plenty, but it is not used to shock or arouse. On the surface, then, it would seem an unpromising play for study even under the category of “the context of erotica.” But the actions of the play, the plots, are everywhere informed by a knowledge of ribald stories, especially in the form of jests or merry tales; and the English language, “hacked” and made “fritters” of, is bawdy run rampant to great comic effect.

The commonplace with regard to the sources for The Merry Wives is that there is no one known source for the plot of Falstaff and the wives, but there are many analogues.2 Editors have singled out stories from Ser Giovanni, Straparola, and Tarlton. Surely the merry tales and jests of the kind examined in chapters 1 and 6 of this book are what inform Shakespeare's plots, particularly the variations Shakespeare plays on them. Obviously, Shakespeare counted on his audience's familiarity with the jest material; his title was undoubtedly meant to remind playgoers of the many collections of “merry tales” that continued to be printed throughout the English Renaissance. We recall that the conventional sexual jest story is one of cuckoldry in which a lusty wife usually manages to trick a foolish husband as she has an affair with a virile young lover. What Shakespeare does in the Falstaff-wives line of his play is to invert the conventional plot in several ways. In The Merry Wives of Windsor both the lover (an aging, money-grubbing lecher) and the jealous husband are duped and shamed by wives who are chaste.

It is confusing to talk about main plot and subplots in this play. The action might be described as follows. The play opens with Justice Shallow and his cousin Slender complaining to the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans, about wrongdoings perpetrated on them by Sir John Falstaff. As has been noted many times, Shakespeare quickly drops this line of the plot and puts before the audience the question of the marriage of Anne Page. Shallow pushes his reluctant cousin to pursue this young maiden. The wooing of Anne Page thus provides the play with one major plot line, the conventional story of romantic comedy. In quick succession we understand that in addition to Slender, Anne Page has as suitors Dr. Caius, the French physician, and Fenton, the rake. This plot is complicated not only by the conventional parental intervention (Page on behalf of Slender, Mrs. Page on behalf of Dr. Caius), but also by the use of go-betweens. Slender engages Sir Hugh Evans on his behalf (who in turn solicits the help of Mistress Quickly), and both Dr. Caius and Fenton engage Mistress Quickly. This use of go-betweens in turn leads to conflict between Sir Hugh and Dr. Caius, a conflict fanned on to comic effect by the Host of the Garter Inn. The bringing together of these would-be combatants by the Host and the exposure of their foolishness leads ultimately to the cozenage of the Host by Sir Hugh and Dr. Caius.3 So much for the bare bones of the romantic comedy plot.

The jest plot of Sir John and the merry wives also springs from the opening scene, where we see Sir John having troubles not only with Shallow but with his own followers as well. Falstaff discharges Nym and Pistol in the opening scenes and launches his campaign to seduce the wives with his page, Robin, as go-between. The wives in turn counterplot, using Mistress Quickly as their messenger. Mistress Quickly is thus involved as a go-between in both plots, and other characters interact as well. Early in the play Nym and Pistol, discarded by Falstaff, reveal the fat knight's plan to the jealous Mr. Ford. From this follows Ford's plot to revenge himself on Falstaff by disguising himself as Brook and using the Host as an entree to the knight. The Host thus operates in both plots. Within the Falstaff-wives plot there are two major jests before act V—the basket jest and the old woman jest. By the beginning of act V, the two major plot lines have come together with one additional factor: Fenton has engaged the Host to aid him in his plot to secure Anne Page. The minor conflicts between the Host and Sir Hugh and Dr. Caius have been played out, the wives and Ford are working together, and only the final unmasking of Falstaff and marrying of Anne Page are left to be accomplished.

Such an accounting of the plots of The Merry Wives does not do justice to the sprightliness of the action, but it is necessary, I think, in making the central point about the plot or plots of the play—they are joined thematically throughout by being precisely that, plots or schemes of the kind found in jest books. Even in a play with so notable a character as Falstaff, all, even characterization, seems subordinated to plot.4 This is not to say that the characters are not well drawn, but it does emphasize the primacy of the plot and plotting. References to “jest,” “cosenage,” “revenge,” “plot,” “trick,” “invention,” “device,” “knaveries,” “deceit,” “foppery,” “comedy,” “scene,” and “sport” abound in the play.5 Our attention is constantly drawn to the “jest,” the “comedy,” the “sport” of the action, and of course the “sport” that all would play involves sexual intercourse—for the Anne Page plot within marriage, for the Falstaff plot in adultery. This is also a play in which Shakespeare creates a good deal of the humor from verbal sport, especially in his use of bawdy, which, given the nature of the plot, is never gratuitous but is always reminding us of the “sporting” game here. It is not insignificant that most of this very earthy play is in prose. To say all of this about the plots and language is not to deny the emphasis given The Merry Wives in earlier studies, studies that have approached the work as Shakespeare's Garter play or Shakespeare's only fully domestic comedy; rather, it is to emphasize what the plots and language of the play itself emphasize.6

Let us focus first on the plots of the play. In her introduction to the Riverside edition of the play Anne Barton makes the salient point that Shakespeare's Merry Wives is a “play which extends and, in a sense, violates the calculatedly limited form the merry tale.”7 She is not precisely clear on how the form is violated. She correctly points out that the wives are merry but chaste (as they are not in the analogous Italian stories), but she goes on to say that in Shakespeare's play. “It is the would be lover … who is cleverly deceived, not the husband.”8 The fact is that Shakespeare has it both ways; both the husband (the typical jealous type) and the lover (here transformed into a fat, old, money-seeking lecher) are deceived, and the wives remain chaste.

Shakespeare uses two major jest traditions, I think, in developing the plots of The Merry Wives—the Italian sexual jest and the English cony-catching jest exemplified by Greene's cony-catching pamphlets. Playgoers familiar with jest books, merry tales, and stories of cozenage would have seen from the outset that there was more than mere complication of the plots going on in terms of the thematic significance of such actions.9 Even in the first plot, Shallow's argument with Falstaff, which goes nowhere in the play, the trouble has come from the cozenage of Slender by Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, characters Slender calls “cony-catching rascals” (I.i.124). In Falstaff's plot to gain the merry wives the two jest traditions are joined. Falstaff tells his cronies, “I must cony-catch, I must shift” (I.iii.33-34), and the way in which he will cony-catch leads him into the machinations of a comic Italian sexual jest.

Falstaff's language as he describes his project is instructive. He tells his cronies “what he is about,” and a series of puns follow:

Two yards, and more.
No quips now, Pistol! Indeed I am in the waist two yards about; but I am now about no waste; I am about thrift. Briefly—I do mean to make love to Ford's wife. I spy entertainment in her. She discourses, she carves, she gives the leer of invitation. I can construe the action of her familiar style, and the hardest voice of her behavior (to be English'd rightly) is, “I am Sir John Falstaff's.”
He hath studied her well, and translated her will, out of honesty into English.


Shakespeare seems to have been fascinated with the possibilities of punning on the language of grammar in the play, and this scene gives an early indication of what proves to be a rich mine for him. Falstaff wishes he were in a “waist” (we are reminded of “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”) with his yard, but he is not. He spies “entertainment” like a grammarian, for she discourses, and he construes her style and voice. Falstaff continues by employing some of the typically suggestive geographic imagery of Renaissance love poetry as he describes what he has taken to be Mrs. Page's affection for him:

O, she did so course o'er my exteriors with such a greedy intention, that the appetite of her eye did seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass! Here's another letter to her. She bears the purse too; she is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty. I will be cheaters to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me. They shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both. Go, bear thou this letter to Mistress Page; and thou this to Mistress Ford. We will thrive, lads, we will thrive.


Traditional love imagery, yes, but we notice more in this speech. “Purse” may well have sexual connotations here, but the primary meaning for Falstaff is the financial one, and we note throughout this speech that Falstaff is at least as interested in money as in sex. It is financial cozenage above all that he wishes to practice, and this is surely a departure from the norm of Italian jests; it is in fact the typical concern of English cony-catching jests.10

What follows on the stage is not lewd behavior on the part of Falstaff; he never even gets as close as Volpone to stealing any secret fruits. What follows is intrigue upon intrigue, messengers, disguises, ruses—all the manipulation of foolish men by clever women. We know from the very moment that we see Mistresses Ford and Page together that Falstaff will not victimize them. They are not squeamish; their own conscious verbal dexterity as they compare their letters from Falstaff shows us this:

MRS. Page.
Letter for letter; but that the name of Page and Ford differs! To thy great comfort in this mystery of ill opinions, here's the twin-brother of thy letter; but let thine inherit first, for I protest mine never shall. I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for different names (sure, more!); and these are the second edition. He will print them, out of doubt; for he cares not what he puts into the press, when he would put us two. I had rather be a giantess, and lie under Mount Pelion. Well—I will find you twenty lascivious turtles ere one chaste man.
MRS. Ford.
Why, this is the very same: the very hand; the very words. What doth he think of us?
MRS. Page.
Nay, I know not; it makes me almost ready to wrangle with mine own honesty. I'll entertain myself like one that I am not acquainted withal; for sure unless he know some strain in me that I know not myself, he would never have boarded me in this fury.
MRS. Ford.
“Boarding,” call you it? I'll be sure to keep him above deck.
MRS. Page.
So will I; if he come under my hatches, I'll never to sea again. …


Falstaff of course is not the only victim; Ford, the jealous husband, must also learn a lesson. Both would-be lover and husband are to be victims of chaste wives; that is the marked departure from norms we have seen from Poggio on.

Ford furthers his own victimization by conceiving his plot of going to Falstaff as Brook, a would-be lover of Mrs. Ford's. Brook's approach to Falstaff highlights the issue of financial cozenage. Falstaff, we recall, noted that the wives would be “exchequers” to him, but until they become so, he has been spending, paying Mistress Quickly to help him (II.ii.131), but he has hopes: “Wilt thou, after the expense of so much money, be now a gainer?” (II.ii.140-41). Brook offers first sack and then money, “Such Brooks are most welcome,” to Sir John. Whether the primary motivation for Falstaff is avarice or lust is not important; both are surely there, and the entrance of Ford as Brook into the plot reminds us that this is basically a cuckoldry story of the kind found in Poggio or Ser Giovanni or Tarlton. And Shakespeare keeps the business of cuckoldry before us by his use of the plot, the language, and visual presentations. By having Brook press Falstaff about Ford in their initial meeting, Shakespeare contrives to let the jealous fool fry in Falstaff's verbal fire. Does Falstaff know Ford?

Hang him, poor cuckoldy knave, I know him not. Yet I wrong him to call him poor. They say the jealous wittolly knave hath masses of money, for the which his wife seems to me well-favor'd. I will use her as the key of the cuckoldly rogue's coffer, and there's my harvest-home.


This speech would seem to reemphasize the financial motivation in Falstaff, and it does do that, but there is more. Falstaff sees Ford as a “cuckoldly knave,” “a jealous wittolly knave,” and he does hope to “use” Mrs. Ford; thus the image of the key and coffer is one of interesting transformation here. Falstaff parts from Brook speaking thus of Ford, “Hang him, mechanical salt-butter rogue! I will stare him out of his wits; I will awe him with my cudgel; it shall hang like a meteor o'er the cuckold's horns. Master Brook, thou shalt know I will predominate over the peasant, and thou shalt lie with his wife” (II.ii.278-83). Ford is left to contemplate “Terms! names!”:

Amaimon sounds well; Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils' additions, the names of fiends; but Cuckold! Wittol!—Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass; he will trust his wife, he will not be jealous. I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aquavitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself. Then she plots, then she ruminates, then she devises; and what they think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect. God be prais'd for my jealousy! Eleven o'clock the hour. I will prevent this, detect my wife, be reveng'd on Falstaff, and laugh at Page. I will about it; better three hours too soon than a minute too late. Fie, fie, fie! cuckold, cuckold, cuckold!


We see here the power of the term “cuckold.” Shakespeare is careful to maintain a comic tone throughout this speech; we never sympathize with Ford, but we are conscious of the horror the epithet holds for Ford. What Shakespeare makes comic here, he is able to turn frighteningly horrible in his later tragedies and tragicomedies with characters like Othello and Leontes.12

Through the meeting of Brook and Falstaff, the plot is prepared for the knight's first visit to Mrs. Ford. Ford has invited his friends to accompany him home, “You shall have sport; I will show you a monster” (III.ii.81), but the women have already made their plans to use the “buck” or wash basket. The entrance of Mrs. Page with news of the arrival of Ford cuts short Falstaff's first attempts at seduction, and he is quickly stuffed into the buck basket with the foulest of linen, taken past Ford and dumped into the Thames. Ford enters the scene with:

Pray you come near. If I suspect without cause, why then make sport at me, then let me be your jest, I deserve it. How now? Whither bear you this?
To the landress, forsooth.
MRS. Ford.
Why, what have you to do whither they bear it? You were best meddle with buck-washing.
Buck! I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! ay, buck! I warrant you, buck, and of the season too, it shall appear. Gentlemen, I have dream'd to-night; I'll tell you my dream. Here, here, here be my keys. Ascend my chambers, search, seek, find out. I'll warrant we'll unkennel the fox. …


As Parson Evans notes, “This is fery fantastical humors and jealousies,” and Ford is the obvious object of the jest here; he wishes he were rid of his horns, and of course we know that he is not one of the forked order. But Falstaff must not be forgotten; Mrs. Ford later says, “I know not which pleases me better, that my husband is deceiv'd, or Sir John” (III.iii.178-79), and the wives decide to “lay a plot” to try Ford's jealousy and “have more tricks with Falstaff” (III.iii.190-91).

Falstaff's reaction to his ducking in the Thames is recorded first in conversation with Mistress Quickly, sent once again as a go-between by the wives. Mistress Quickly announces that she has come from Mrs. Ford, and Falstaff exclaims, “Mistress Ford? I have had ford enough. I was thrown into the ford; I have my belly full of ford” (III.v.35-37). Mistress Quickly responds with a wonderfully appropriate malapropism: “Alas the day! good heart, that was not her fault. She does so take on with her men; they mistook their erection” (III.v.38-40). Falstaff plays upon the nonbawdy sense of “erection” in his rejoinder. “So did I mine, to build upon a foolish woman's promise” (III.v.41-42), but we understand this in a sexual sense as well, knowing that Falstaff has indeed mistaken his “erection.” Falstaff blames the failure of his mission to Brook on the jealousy of “the peaking cornuto,” Ford. He has escaped, he explains, through a clever “invention” of the ladies, but he promises Brook he will carry on his plan, for he is on his way to Mrs. Ford's again, having received word that the jealous Ford has gone birding. Ford repairs to his house once more, hoping to catch his wife and Falstaff in flagrante, and this time he is tricked as Falstaff passes out of his house disguised as the old lady of Brainford. In this disguise Falstaff is roundly beaten as “an old cozening quean.” The wives decide, finally, to reveal all to their husbands, for they have not yet done with Falstaff:

MRS. Ford.
I'll warrant they'll have him publicly sham'd and methinks there would be no period to the jest, should he not be publicly sham'd.
MRS. Page.
Come, to the forge with it, then shape it. I would not have things cool.


Thus does the cuckoldry plot move toward its great final scene, where it is joined by the wooing plot of Anne Page. The wives plan to have Falstaff meet them in Windsor forest at the oak disguised as Herne the Hunter with his “great ragg'd horns.” Page asks that the “plot go forward. Let our wives / Yet once again (to make us public sport) Appoint a meeting with this old fat fellow …” (IV.iv.12-14). The “device” (l. 42), the “plot” (l. 46), is set, and Sir Hugh delightedly comments, “Let us about it. It is admirable pleasures and fery honest knaveries” (IV.iv.80-81). This has been one of Shakespeare's ironic reversals throughout, that the virtuous characters are the ones duping the plotting sinners; these have indeed been “honest knaveries,” and this ironic reversal is brought home visually in the final scene in the forest.

Shakespeare links the cuckoldry and wooing plots through the very notion of plotting. With the scheme to humiliate Falstaff set, Page plans to have Slender steal his daughter away in the confusion. Mistress Page also plans to take advantage of the situation by having Dr. Caius carry off Anne. But Fenton is not to be caught off guard. He tells the Host that “Fat Falstaff / Hath a great scene; the image of the jest … ( He knows of Page's plan to take advantage “While other jests are something rank on foot” ( and Mrs. Page's plot “While other sports are tasking of their minds” (, but he himself has what the Host calls a “device.” Before this scene can be played out, however, indeed, before Fenton hatches his plot, Shakespeare introduces the scene where the Host learns he has been cozened. Whether we see the scene as unrelated to the Host's trickery practiced on Dr. Caius and the Parson or as part of an undeveloped revenge plot is not so important as the plot itself.13 The scene opens with an apparently curious exchange between Simple, Slender's servant, and Falstaff, where Simple asks Falstaff if the old lady of Brainford knows “whether one Nym, sir, that beguil'd him of a chain, had the chain or no” (IV.v.32-33). Falstaff replies that the old lady said “that the very same man that beguil'd Master Slender of his chain cozen'd him of it” (IV.v.36-38). Is Shakespeare at the eleventh hour resurrecting the Falstaff-Shallow plot? I think not. His concern here is to remind us of the thematic importance of plotting, for in rushes Bardolph shouting “cosenage! mere cozenage” (IV.v.63), and the Host Story follows. The scene draws to a conclusion with Falstaff's nothing:

I would all the world might be cozen'd, for I have been cozen'd and beaten too. If it should come to the ear of the court, how I have been transform'd, and how my transformation hath been wash'd and cudgell'd, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen's boots with me. I warrant they would whip me with their fine wits till I were as crestfall'n as a dried pear. I never prosper'd since I forswore myself at primero. Well, if my wind were but long enough to say my prayers, I would repent.


The greatest transformation is yet to come, of course, as the “sport” devised by the citizens moves to a conclusion.

The final scene of the play begins with Falstaff's excursus on transformations brought on by lust, and here for once we see him motivated more by lust than greed:

The Windsor bell hath strook twelve; the minute draws on. Now the hot-bloodied gods assist me! Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa, love set on thy horns. O powerful love, that in some respects makes a beast a man; in some other, a man a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love of Leda. O omnipotent love, how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in the form of a beast (O Jove, a beastly fault!) and then another fault in the semblance of a fowl—think on't, Jove, a foul fault! When gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do? For me, I am here a Windsor stag, and the fattest, I think, i'th' forest. Send me a cool rut-time, Jove, or who can blame me to piss my tallow? Who comes here? My doe?


Mrs. Ford enters, and Falstaff thinks he will finally play out his adulterous act:

My doe with the black scut? Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of “Green-sleeves,” hail kissing-comfits, and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.


As Anne Barton comments, “scut” is a slang term “for the female pudenda,” “sweet potatoes” were thought to stimulate sexuality, “Green-sleeves” was a popular love song, kissing-comfits were “perfumed candies, used by women to sweeten their breath,” eringoes were thought an aphrodisiac, and “provocation” here means “sexual incitement.”14 Falstaff is ready for sexual action, and the entrance of Mrs. Ford only incites him further:

Divide me like a brib'd-buck, each a haunch. I will keep my sides to myself, my shoulders for the fellow of this walk—and my horns I bequeath your husbands. Am I a woodman, ha? Speak I like Herne the hunter? Why, now is Cupid a child of conscience, he makes restitution. As I am a true spirit, welcome!


But the horns, which Falstaff would graft upon the husbands' heads, are his indeed as a sign of one who has been fooled. He learns that he is the object of the jest as the “faeries” assault him.15 When the jest is revealed, Mrs. Ford says, “Sir John, we have had ill luck; we could never meet. I will never take you for my love again, but I will always count you my deer.” Falstaff replies, “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass”; to which Ford adds, “Ay, and an ox too” (V.v.116-20), so that transformations, which began verbally with Falstaff's invocation to the gods, then were brought visually into play on the stage, are reinforced verbally once again as the scene draws to a close. The play ends with the revelation of the “cosenage” of Slender and Dr. Caius, and Fenton notes that since all has been for the good “this deceit loses the name of craft” (V.v.226). Ford remarks that “In love, the heavens themselves do guide the state; / Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate” (V.v.232-33). Mrs. Page wishes Fenton well and bids “us every one go home / And laugh this sport o'er by a country fire” (V.v 241-42). All has been turned to “admirable pleasures and fery honest knaveries”; the would-be horner wears the horns, although even he is included in the festive circle at the end in Shakespeare's reworking of the typical cuckold jest.

If reversal of the cuckold jest explains much of The Merry Wives of Windsor, it does not explain a scene like IV.i, where young William Page is run through his schoolboy's paces by his teacher, Parson Evans. The scene is one filled with sexual innuendo provided by the Welsh accent of the Parson and the bawdy inferences of Mistress Quickly. The scene is not gratuitous bawdy provided for the groundlings, as has been suggested (when commented on at all; most editors leave much of the scene conspicuously uncommented); rather, it is a scene that plays upon the already developed comic characteristics of the Parson and Mistress Quickly and upon the “sport” that this play is about. Parson Evans provides comedy throughout the play as one who “makes fritters of English,” but Mistress Quickly provides humor as one who both inadvertently speaks bawdy and willfully hears bawdy where none is intended. As Anne Barton has noted, “Mistress Quickly is scandalized by what seem to her to be the bawdy syllables uttered by a small boy rehearsing his Latin declension, but herself habitually blunders into unconscious obscenities about which Freud might have had a good deal to say.”16

In Act I scene iv, Mistress Quickly is caught by her master, Dr. Caius, with Simple at the Doctor's house. Simple is soliciting her aid in Slender's pursuit (through Parson Evans) of Anne Page. Quickly assures the Doctor that the young man “is an honest man” and that he need fear nothing. Dr. Caius decides that he will handle this situation initially by writing a letter to Sir Hugh, and a relieved Mistress Quickly (unaware that Dr. Caius is penning a “shallenge”) speaks to Simple in an aside:

I am glad he is so quiet. If he had been throughly mov'd, you should have heard him so loud and so melancholy. But notwithstanding, man, I'll do you your master what good I can; and the very yea and the no is, the French doctor, my master (I may call him my master, look you, for I keep his house; and I wash, wring, brew, bake, scour, dress meat and drink, make the beds, and do all myself)—
'Tis a great charge to come under one body's hand.
Are you avis'd o' that? You shall find it a great charge; and to be up early and down late; …


How much of the bawdy play is intended here on the part of Mistress Quickly is not entirely clear. Shortly after, her penchant for malapropisms leads her into a bawdy blunder when she says to Fenton, now come to enlist her aid:

… Have not your worship a wart above your eye?
Yes, marry, have I, what of that?
Well, thereby hangs a tale. Good faith, it is such another Nan; but (I detest) an honest maid as ever I broke bread.


Mistress Quickly thinks she is a mistress of language, one attuned to nuances, for when she comes to Falstaff in Act II he greets her:

Good morrow, goodwife.
Not so, and't please your worship.
Good maid then.
I'll be sworn
As my mother was the first hour I was born.


Falstaff's response is that he believes the swearer, for he senses she is no maid. Mistress Quickly's erring tongue leads her into other comic blunders; she tells Falstaff that Mrs. Page is “as fartuous a civil modest wife … as any is in Windsor,” and that Mrs. Page wants Falstaff to send his little page to her for “Her husband has a marvellous infection to the little page …” (II.ii.97 and 114-15).18 Mistress Quickly worries about the use of the page as go-between, however. She urges Falstaff to use care so that “the boy never need to understand any thing; for 'tis not good that children should know any wickedness. Old folks, you know, have discretion, as they say, and know the world” (II.ii.127-30).

It is as the protector of children from licentiousness that Mistress Quickly reads into the innocent drilling of William Page by Parson Evans in Act IV scene i a host of dirty meanings. Through the Parson's Welsh renderings and Mistress Quickly's bawdy inferences, Shakespeare presents a scene entirely in keeping with the business of the play. We have seen elsewhere his propensity for punning on grammar, printing, and books themselves. In this scene he reminds us of Harington's presentation of dictionary searching as he gives us a rollicking bawdy scene. Mistress Quickly, the child-protector with the mind ready to see bawdy anywhere, is the key to the scene, for it is she who invests the contextually innocent terms with “dirty” meanings. Shakespeare shows us that he understands precisely how a “dirty” mind works, for it can invest anything with a bawdy meaning. Evans's fractured pronunciation is partly to blame, of course, and critics, especially Colman, have stressed Parson Evans's unconscious use of sexual innuendo, but it is Mistress Quickly, with her willful mishearings, who provides most of the humor.

Mistress Quickly begins mishearing innocently enough. When William Page says there are two numbers in nouns, Mistress Quickly thrusts in with “Truly, I thought there had been one number more, because they say, ‘Od's nouns’” (IV.i.23-24). Thereafter, it is bawdy she hears. At William's rendering of “fair” as “pulcher” she interrupts. “Poulcats? There are fairer things than poulcats sure” (IV.i.28-29). She understands “poulcats” as a cant term for whores. Mistress Quickly does not comment on a rare pun by Shakespeare on “fuck.” Evans asks William, “What is the focative case, William?,” and William replies, “O-vocativo, O.” (IV.i.50-52). In Colman's opinion “there is the jingle focative/fuck, arising through Evan's Welshified pronunciation. And … there is the coital suggestion, in such a context, of case (as meaning vagina) and of the repeated O sound, which can be thought of as either a pudendal symbol or the echo of an orgasmic cry.”19 Mistress Quickly does supply the bawdy when Parson Evans tells William that “focative is caret.” This elicits from Mistress Quickly the idea that “that's a good root” (IV.i.53-54). And when William gives the “genitive case plural,” “Genitivo, horum, harum, horum,” Mistress Quickly cannot contain herself: “Vengeance of Jinny's case! Fie on her! never name her, child, if she be a whore” (IV.i.56-63). Mistress Quickly invests “case” with its bawdy meaning of vagina, as she hears “horum” as whore and “genitive” as Jinny. She tells the parson:

You do ill to teach the child such words. He teaches him to “hic” and to “hac,” which they'll do fast enough of themselves, and to call “horum,”—fie upon you!


As the scene draws toward a conclusion, Evans asks William to decline pronouns, something William has forgotten how to do. This elicits some final unintentional bawdy from the Parson, who tells William, “It is qui, quae, quod: if you forget your qui's, your quae's, and your quod's, you must be preeches” (IV.i.77-79). Colman is dubious about allowing a pun on “qui's” (keys/penises); “quod's” (cods/testicles) he feels is likely. Given what we have in this scene an argument for the pun, as made by Helge Kökeritz, does not seem at all far-fetched.21

Colman has commented on this scene as a whole that “Although we are nowadays too many removes from Lily's Latin Grammar to enjoy Sir Hugh Evans and Mistress Quickly to the full, it is easy to imagine that some word-conscious theatergoers of 1597 or 1598 would have found them funny. If, also, we bear in mind that the audience at any court performance—during a Feast of the Garter, for example—would have had a great deal more than ‘small Latine’, it becomes easy to envisage Shakespeare indulging himself and them by returning, at least for one short scene, to bawdy for simple laughter's sake.”22 It may be that we as casual theatergoers are too many removes from the propensities of the past to appreciate this scene fully, but those knowledgeable in the kinds of literature examined in this study can of course appreciate the humor fully. This scene may be bawdy “for simple laughter's sake,” but it is not at all out of place in a play that is informed by bawdy literature throughout.23 And it is a brilliant example of Shakespeare's ability to create a mind bound to see bawdiness everywhere, as he does with Mistress Quickly.

The reader of Shakespeare's Merry Wives finds his understanding of the play enriched throughout by a knowledge of Renaissance erotica, for such a reader understands the variations Shakespeare plays on the typical jest plot, appreciates the rich punning throughout, and admires the comic use Shakespeare makes of a mind bound to see bawdiness even in the most innocent of places. Even if The Merry Wives is not one of Shakespeare's great plays, it is one that we can still enjoy immensely, and it is one in which the enjoyment grows within the context of erotica. …


  1. For an illuminating discussion of this problem see Gordon Lell, “‘Ganymede’ on the Elizabethan Stage: Homosexual Implications of the Use of Boy-Actors,” Aegis (1973): 5-15.

  2. Editors have cited Ser Giovanni's Il Percorone, Day I story 2; Straparola's Le tredici piacevoli notti, “The Story of Nerisio of Portugal”; and Tarlton's Newes out of Purgatorie, “The Tale of Two Lovers of Pisa.”

  3. See note [13] below.

  4. Commenting on the play as farce in his introduction to the Pelican edition, Fredson Bowers notes that in such plays “The plot itself—usually of the intrigue variety—is the normal center of interest, and characters are necessarily subordinate … the plot concerns itself with being a plot—with the rapidity, absurdity, and ingenuity of its twists and turns—and scarcely at all with holding a mirror up to life” (The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969], p. 336).

  5. Words meaning “trick” appear at least fifty-eight times in the play.

  6. One may call this a Garter play in terms of the occasion of composition, setting, and topicality of allusions, but the notion of the Order of the Garter has little to do with the central actions of the play. Even William Green, who argues most strongly for the play's being Shakespeare's Garter play in his book Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962), admits at one point that “not one of the Court-Garter passages is essential to the action of the Merry Wives” (p. 96).

  7. Anne Barton in her introduction to Riverside edition, [Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974] p. 288.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Some very early punning by Falstaff is important in reminding us that many of the jest books built their jokes on precisely the kinds of misunderstandings Shakespeare presents in Act I scene i. At the outset we see that Slender has little mastery of English and Parson Evans even less, so that when Sir Hugh warns Sir John in his accented Latin and English, “Pauca verba; Sir John, good worts,” Sir John replies, “Good worts? Good cabbage” (I.i.120-21). As readers familiar with The Sackful of News know, the whole of jest 16 is built around a foreigner's misunderstanding of the word “coleworts.”

  10. [E.A.M. Colman. The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare. London: Longman Group, 1974] p. 78, notes that Falstaff “has a surprisingly small share of the bawdy lines in the earlier scenes. This may be because his plans to subvert the two wives are at this stage less lustful than financially interested: he spies entertainment (which means employment as well as sexual amusement), and he proposes to trade (sexually, but also for profit).”

  11. Colman, p. 85, argues, “The bourgeois wives, although ‘merry’ enough for an occasional vulgar quip, are essentially too prim to be outspoken on sexual matters.”

  12. See Othello, III.iii.258-77 and IV.i.60-73; and The Winter's Tale, I.ii.179-207.

  13. This scene has troubled all commentators on the play. Green dismisses the idea that this is the culmination of an undeveloped plot by Dr. Caius and Parson Evans to get even with the Host, and he explains it as topically related to events surrounding the Duke of Wurtemberg's election to the Order of the Garter and some notorious horse-stealing affairs of the time. I myself think that it is part of an undeveloped plot by Dr. Caius and Parson Evans because they both appear to “warn” the Host, one right after the other, and they both assure the Host that they do this for “good will”:

    Have a care of your entertainments. There is a friend of mine come to town, tells me there is three cozen-germans that has cozen'd all the hosts of Readins, of Maidenhead, of Colebrook, of horses and money. I tell you for good will, look you. You are wise and full of gibes and vlouting-stocks, and 'tis not convenient you should be cozen'd. Fare you well.
    Vere is mine host de Jarteer?
    Here, Master Doctor, in perplexity and doubtful dilemma.
    I cannot tell vat is dat, but it is tell-a-me dat you make grand preparation for a duke de Jamany. By my trot, dere is no duke that the court is know to come. I tell you for good will; adieu.


    That both men should come out of “good will” within ten lines makes it look suspiciously like an agreed-upon phrase, bound to hit the Host where he feels most proud, in his “good will.” Nothing evil need be thought of the Doctor and the Parson, for nothing in fact need to have happened except for them to have employed Bardolph.

  14. Riverside Shakespeare, p. 319n.

  15. Colman, pp. 79-80, sees the scene in terms of ritual.

  16. Riverside Shakespeare, p. 288.

  17. We are reminded here of the exchange between Mistress Quickly as hostess of the Boar's Head Tavern and Falstaff in 1 Henry IV:

    I am no thing to thank God on, I would thou shouldst know it. I am an honest man's wife, and setting thy knighthood aside, thou art a knave to call me so.
    Setting thy womanhood aside, thou art a beast to say otherwise.
    Say, what beast, thou knave, thou?
    What beast? why, an otter.
    An otter, Sir John, why an otter?
    Why? she's neither fish nor flesh, a man knows not where to have her.
    Thou art an unjust man in saying so. Thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou!


  18. In Act III scene iii ll. 236-37, Dr. Caius, because of his accent, is made to say, “If there be one or two, I shall make-a turd.”

  19. Colman, p. 82.

  20. Colman, p. 82, points out that the “puns genitive case/Jenny's case and horum/whore are straightforward enough. Less obvious to the modern ear is what may also be a pun Harum/hare—assuming, that is, that in Shakespeare's own day the Latin word would have been given the pronunciation ['hearan]. From classical times, and very extensively in medieval art, both the hare and the rabbit have enjoyed associations with lust and fecundity, and if a director of The Merry Wives were to ask his Mistress Quickly to register indignation over William's Harum he could quote in support Mercutio's “old hare hoar' jingle. …”

  21. Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1953), p. 119.

  22. Colman, p. 83.

  23. Since Colman is interested in tracing Shakespeare's development in his use of bawdy, he sees the play as a whole in the following terms (p. 84):

    In broad outline, then, the use of bawdy in The Merry Wives of Windsor comes to look like this: Falstaff speaks commercially at the start, erotically near the end, thus providing some immediate pretext for his ill-treatment, but also, paradoxically, increasing the kind of authority with which the play endows him; the Host speaks with corpological mockery of the French physician, who in turn helps Sir Hugh Evans and Mistress Quickly to mangle and confuse the language of everyday middle-class life. Ford, lonely in his supposed cuckoldom, mutters and shouts jealously, obsessed by the thing he fears. The bourgeois wives, although ‘merry’ enough for an occasional vulgar quip, are essentially too prim to be outspoken on sexual matters. Slender, for all his awkwardness, only once blunders into impropriety—‘three veneys for a dish of stewed prunes’; whereas his contrasting rival, the courtly young Fenton, never sullies his elegant verse with anything indecent.

    In 1602 the First Quarto promised on its title-page “A Most pleasaunt and excellent conceited Comedie”. If some loose ends in the plot and an air of hurry in the writing somewhat limit the excellence of its ‘conceit’, this is still a viable farce that has stood the searching test of the stage. Where the study of Shakespeare's developing use of bawdy is concerned, we should note that the indecencies here are more varied in tone and effect than in any other play so far. The Merry Wives can be regarded as a signpost to the increasingly specialised types of bawdy that are to operate in the plays Shakespeare writes after the turn of the century.

Leah Scragg (essay date February 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 life, this is my lady's hand: these be her very C's, her U's, and her T's, and thus makes she her great P's. It is in contempt of question her hand.
SIR And.
Her C's, her U's, and her T's: why that?
[Reads] To the unknown beloved, this, and my good wishes.

(II. v. 84-93)

The most obvious difficulty to arise here is the absence, consistently remarked upon by the play's editors, of two of the letters that Malvolio specifies from the superscription, neither ‘c’ nor ‘p’ occurring in the words with which the letter is addressed. Two explanations suggest themselves for this omission. Either Shakespeare expected his audience to imagine the existence of some additional words that Malvolio neglects to read aloud, or he was aware that such discrepancies pass unnoticed in the playhouse and was indifferent to an exact correspondence between the letters and the lines. In either case, the primacy of the characters over the words from which they are supposedly drawn is clearly indicated, and their importance is signalled, as Lothian and Craik point out in their edition of the play (II. v. 88-9 n.), by Sir Andrew's repetition of them and his bewilderment over their significance.

The four letters are crucial in terms of plot development in that it is their execution that convinces Malvolio that the forged epistle is in fact in his mistress's hand. Any four (indeed, any number of) letters, however, would plainly have served this purpose equally effectively, the lengthy superscription offering the dramatist a considerable number from which to choose. In fact, the selection of ‘c’, ‘u’, ‘t’, and ‘p’ depends not upon their palaeographic value but upon the humour to which they give rise, in that the letters have sexual connotations, as Shakespeare's contemporaries, aided by Sir Andrew's emphasis, were no doubt immediately aware. As a succession of commentators have noted, ‘c’, ‘u’, and ‘t’ spell out ‘cut’, a slang term for the vagina, while ‘thus she makes her great P's’ is similarly bawdy, drawing on the common abbreviation for ‘piss’.2 While fulfilling the immediate dramatic objective in allowing Malvolio to misidentify the source of the letter, the characters thus contribute to his deflation, in that his social pretensions are in sharp contrast to the vulgarity of the language he unwittingly employs. The collision between his fantasy of coming ‘from a day-bed’ (II. v. 48) where he has ‘left Olivia sleeping’ (II. v. 49) and his formation of the bawdy term ‘cut’ enforces the grotesque nature of the steward and the perversity of his aspirations, while the letters he singles out might be seen as an unconscious revelation of the darker aspect of his imaginings.

The self-exposure at work in Malvolio's perusal of the superscription is characteristic of the scene as a whole in which he consistently construes words, phrases, and single characters into an amorous epistle directed to himself. Nevertheless, a fundamental difference exists between Malvolio's response to the letter's direction and his interpretation of its contents, giving rise to a second problem that Sir Andrew's innocent question locates. Whereas in the main body of the letter Malvolio responds directly to the characters and words with which he is supplied, when he first takes up the paper the selection of letters on which he focuses is determined, not by the conspirators, but by the speaker himself. The contrast between the passage quoted at the outset of this paper and the lines relating to the spelling of Malvolio's own name illustrate the point.

[Taking up the letter] 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 she her great P's. It is in contempt of question her hand.
SIR And.
Her C's, her U's, and her T's: why that?

(II. v. 87-91)


[Reads] I may command where I adore;
                              But silence, like a Lucrece knife,
                              With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore;
                              M.O.A.I. doth sway my life.
A fustian riddle!
Excellent wench, say I.


‘M.O.A.I.’ This simulation is not as the former: and yet, to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for every one of these letters are in my name.

(II. v. 106-41)

In the second instance, both the exposure of Malvolio's folly and his subsequent conduct towards Olivia are a direct consequence of the plan conceived by Maria—as Sir Toby's exclamation, ‘Excellent wench, say I’, confirms—whereas in the first the steward is rendered ridiculous, not by a deliberate ploy on the part of his enemies, but by his own lack of linguistic awareness. The joke enacted during the reading of the letter might thus be said to be Maria's, while the laughter arising from the superscription is more directly ascribable to the dramatist himself.

The divergent sources of laughter in the two phases of the scene may be equated with a shift in audience/actor relationships that occurs as the action evolves. At the outset of the episode, although Sir Toby, Fabian, and Sir Andrew, nursing their grievance against Malvolio, are told by Maria that her letter will ‘make a contemplative idiot of him’ (II. v. 19-20), they are not actively involved in the instigation of the device, and function as mere observers when the steward enters rapt in his fantasy of becoming Olivia's husband. At this stage, though the conspirators act as an internal audience to Malvolio's posturings, they do not control them, and their grasp of the situation is fuller than his only by virtue of his ignorance of their presence and the trap that has been laid for him. Malvolio, in short, at this stage of the scene is autonomous, and it is in his extravagant imaginings that the spectator is caught up. Once he opens the letter, however, the superior understanding of Sir Toby, Fabian, and to a lesser extent Sir Andrew alters this position. The audience perceives the steward through the eyes of the conspirators, who now function as part of the mechanism that controls his conduct. The movement between the reading of the superscription and the opening of the letter thus marks a division in the scene as a whole—as the action evolves from a play, to a species of play within a play.

Two dramatists, not one, might therefore be said to be at work in Act II, scene v. In the first half of the scene the characters exhibit themselves at the instigation of the dramatist, and the jokes may be regarded as his, while the second part of the scene is part-scripted by Maria, with her fellow conspirators functioning as an audience to her work. The jokes on the letters ‘c’, ‘u’, ‘t’, ‘p’ and ‘m’, ‘o’, ‘a’, ‘i’ are thus by different hands, and they depend, in part, for their effect upon a different kind of interaction between the speaker and the theatre audience. In the first instance Malvolio is very much down stage, and his random culling of the letters invites both levels of spectators to impose a meaning on the characters that he singles out. Sir Andrew's repetition of the letters involves the internal audience in the execution of the joke, his puzzled reiteration encouraging those outside the play world to form the word ‘cut’. In the second instance the comedy is of a different kind. The presence of the internal audience between the speaker and the spectator is much more strongly felt, while the attention of the audience is focused, not upon the letters themselves, which present no difficulty, but on Malvolio's application of them to himself. Maria's joke thus rests upon self-exposure, while Shakespeare's involves a much greater degree of audience participation, with a species of music-hall interaction taking place as the word ‘cut’ is spelled out.

The tradition of involving an audience in what proves to be a bawdy joke is an old one, reaching back into medieval drama—cf. the fifteenth-century Mankind in which the vices lead the spectators in what proves to be a lewd song. Such jokes frequently depend upon substitution or interruption, with a failure to complete a rhyme, or an unexpected pause, tricking the spectator into completing an indecent line for himself. A straightforward example occurs in IV. v of The Dutch Courtesan (a scene indebted to Twelfth Night) in which Cocledemoy sings a bawdy song, omitting a crucial rhyme word which the members of the audience then supply:

Maids in your night-rails,
Look well to your light—

(IV. v. 84-5)3

In the scene under discussion a similar invitation may well be extended. While on the one hand Sir Andrew's repetition of ‘c’, ‘u’, and ‘t’ ensures that the spectator formulates the word ‘cut’, Malvolio's seemingly random selection of letters implies the presence of others, to which those that he supplies provide the clue. While laughing at the incongruity of ‘cut’ and ‘pee’ in the mouth of the steward, the members of the audience are thus encouraged to visualize ‘cut-P——’ and in doing so a seventeenth-century spectator may well have been prompted to transfer an anxious hand to his side.

The activity of pick-pockets in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century playhouses is well attested. An Act of Common Council passed by the City of London in 1574 included purse cutting among the ‘disorders and inconvenyences’ necessitating the strict regulation of the theatres,4 while the Middlesex justices in 1612 made an order for the suppression of the ‘jigs’ that commonly closed the plays of this period because of the cutpurses (among other socially undesirable personages) that they attracted.5 William Hawkins, a barber, was charged with taking a purse at the Curtain in 1600,6 while Alexander Fulsis was accused of a similar offence at the Red Bull in 1614.7 Even performances at court were not exempt from such depredations. According to a contemporary commentator, ‘chaynes, jewels, purces and such like loose ware’ were all lost to their owners in the course of Jonson's Mask of Blackness (1605),8 while another writer observed of a masque celebrating the marriage of Sir Philip Herbert and Lady Susan de Vere (1604), ‘There was no smal loss that night of chaines and jewells, and many great ladies were made shorter by the skirts, and were well enough served that they could keep cut no better’ (my italics).9 The last example is a particularly significant one in relation to Malvolio's selection of characters from Maria's letter in that the bawdy play on the words ‘serve’ and ‘cut’ in this context helps to confirm that a pun on ‘cut’ (= vagina) and ‘cut’ (of purses) was current during this period.

The attraction that the crowds thronging the playhouses exercised for the ‘nip’ and ‘foist’ is not indicated solely by records of specific incidents, however. It is also borne out by the ‘conny-catching’ literature of the period. Greene's The Second Part of Conny-Catching (1592) devotes an entire ‘discourse’ to the ‘nature of the Cutpurse and Pickpocket’, singling out the playhouse as a particularly lucrative field of operation, and describing the way in which its light-fingered patrons went to work:

At Plaies, the nip [cutpurse] standeth there leaning like some mannerly gentleman against the doore as men go in, and there finding talke with some of his companions, spieth what euery man hath in his purse, & wher in what place, and in which sleeue or pocket he puts the boung, and according to that so hee worketh, either where the thrust is great within, or els as they come out at the dores: but suppose that the foist [pickpocket] is smoakt, and the man misseth his purse, and apprehendeth him for it, then straight, he either conueith it to his stall, or els droppeth the boung, and with a great braue, hee defieth his accuser: and though the purse be found at his feet yet because hee hath it not about him, hee comes not within compasse of life.10

The justice meted out to those who failed to convince their accusers of their innocence was not always of a legal kind. Kempe's Nine Days Wonder records the custom of tying cutpurses to ‘a poast on our stage, for all people to wonder at, when at a play they are taken pilfring’,11 and his account is authenticated by the anonymous Nobody and Somebody (c.1592, rev. 1603-6?) in which, during the mutual recriminations that take place towards the close of the play, Somebody's imputation that Nobody is responsible when ‘Pockets [are] pickt, and purses cut in throngs’ (l. 1878)12 is answered with:

Once pickt a pocket in this Play-house yard,
Was hoysted on the stage, and shamd about it.

(ll. 1893-5)

References to the operation of pickpockets among gatherings of all kinds are typical of the plays of the period and clearly served to alert the spectator to keep a wary eye, or hand, on his own purse. In the opening scene of Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c.1589-92), for example, the fool, Ralph, implies the ubiquity of the ‘nip’ when he advises his master to have himself transformed into his mistress's purse as the surest means of gaining access to her person:

If thou be'st a silken purse full of gold, then on Sundays she'll hang thee by her side, and you must not say a word. Now, sir, when she comes into a great prease of people, for fear of the cut-purse, on a sudden she'll swap thee into her plackerd; then, sirrah, being there, you may plead for yourself;

(I. i. 105-10)13

while in James IV (Greene, c.1590) the clown, Slipper, declares that he ‘cannot abide a full cup unkissed, a fat capon uncarved [or] a full purse unpicked’ (I. ii. 21-3),14 and that he can ‘pick a purse as soon as any thief in [the] country’ (III. i. 48-9), only to have his own pocket picked in the course of a dance in which he is encouraged to participate by three ‘Antics’ (IV. iii. 101ff.). Slender, in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, accuses the significantly named Corporal Nym of picking his purse of ‘seven groats in mill-sixpences and two Edward shovel-boards that cost [him] two shilling and two pence apiece of Yead Miller’ (I. i. 149, 140-2),15 while the pedlar, Autolycus, in The Winter's Tale, having relieved the Clown of his purse in IV. iii, explains his modus operandi to the audience in terms directly relevant to themselves, in that they have formed part of the eager crowd of listeners he describes:

Ha, ha! what a fool Honesty is! and Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman! I have sold all my trumpery: not a counterfeit stone, not a ribbon, glass, pomander, brooch, table-book, ballad, knife, tape, glove, shoe-tie, bracelet, horn-ring, to keep my pack from fasting: they throng who should buy first, as if my trinkets had been hallowed and brought a benediction to the buyer: by which means I saw whose purse was best in picture; and what I saw, to my good use I remembered. My clown (who wants but something to be a reasonable man) grew so in love with the wenches' song, that he would not stir his pettitoes till he had both tune and words; which so drew the rest of the herd to me, that all their other senses stuck in ears: you might have pinched a placket, it was senseless; 'twas nothing to geld a codpiece of a purse; I would have filed keys off that hung in chains: no hearing, no feeling, but my sir's song, and admiring the nothing of it. So that in this time of lethargy I picked and cut most of their festival purses.

(IV. iv. 596-616)16

Such pointed illustrations of the pickpocket's art were not uncommon. Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, for example, written not long after the prohibition against jigs, and set in a location notorious for the ‘lifters’ it attracted,17 features a cutpurse and his ballad-singing accomplice among the principal characters, and demonstrates the way in which those who exploited the rich pickings that any tightly packed gathering of people represented went about their work. In II. iv, Edgworth (the cutpurse) tells Nightingale (the ballad singer) where to bring the purses that he passes him, and instructs him in both the choice of suitable places in which to sing, and the means by which to indicate where their victim's purse is to be found:

All the purses and purchase I give you to-day by conveyance, bring hither to Urs'la's presently. Here we will meet at night in her lodge, and share. Look you choose good places for your standing i'the Fair, when you sing, Nightingale.
Aye, near the fullest passages; and shift 'em often.
And i' your singing, you must use your hawk's eye nimbly, and fly the purse to a mark still—where 'tis worn and o'which side—that you may gi'me the sign with your beak, or hang your head that way i'the tune.

(II. iv. 35-44)18

In II. vi he picks the pocket of a young Squire, Bartholomew Cokes, while he is listening to an oration by Justice Overdo, initiating an altercation in which a whole series of characters is accused of picking pockets, while in III. v he tricks Cokes out of a second purse by tickling his ear with a straw in the course of a song sung by Nightingale, and thus obliging him to let go of his money in order to scratch. The last scene is an important one, not least in the levels of interaction that it sets up between play and spectator. Cokes initiates the action by challenging the unknown thief to gain possession of his second purse, before listening to the song sung by Nightingale, which itself issues a warning against pickpockets. The song thus functions as a species of dramatic performance, corresponding, in terms of content, to the play itself, with Cokes representing the members of Jonson's own audience, and Edgworth the cutpurses within its ranks. An elaborate game is thus instituted between the dramatist and those who seek to exploit the spectators he brings together, with Jonson effectively challenging the former to match Edgworth, while warning the latter against becoming a Cokes. The scene is too long to quote in full, but a selection of lines affords an indication of the nature of its development:

I would fain see that demon, your cutpurse, you talk of, that delicate-handed devil; they say he walks hereabout: I would see him walk, now. Look you, sister, here, here, let him come, sister, and welcome.
                                                                                He shows his purse boastingly
Ballad-man, does any cutpurses haunt hereabout? Pray thee raise me one or two: begin and show me one.
Sir, this is a spell against 'em, spick and span new; and 'tis made as 'twere in mine own person, and I sing it in mine own defence. But 'twill cost a penny alone, if you buy it.


My masters and friends and good people draw near,
And look to your purses, for that I do say;
Ha, ha, this chimes! Good counsel at first dash.
And though little money, in them you do bear,
It cost more to get, than to lose in a day.
          You oft have been told,
          Both the young and the old;
And bidden beware of the cutpurse so bold;
Well said! He were to blame that would not, i'faith.


At plays and at sermons, and at the sessions,
'Tis daily their practice such booty to make:
Yea, under the gallows, at executions,
They stick not the stare-abouts' purses to take—
          Nay, one without grace,
          At a far better place,
At court, and in Christmas, before the King's face.
That was a fine fellow! I would have him now.


Look you, sister, here, here, where is't now? which pocket is't in, for a wager?
                                                                                          He shows his purse again.


Edgworth gets up to him and tickles him in the ear with a straw twice to draw his hand out of his pocket.
Good, i'faith! O, he has lighted on the wrong pocket.
He has it, 'fore God, he is a brave fellow; pity he should be detected.
But O, you vile nation of cutpurses all,
Relent and repent, and amend and be sound,
And know that you ought not, by honest men's fall,
Advance your own fortunes, to die above ground.


O God! my purse is gone, my purse, my purse, &c.

(III. v. 32-177)

While this scene might well be entitled ‘A Caveat against cutpurses’, like Nightingale's song (III. v. 31), the treatment of Edgworth himself is a far from hostile one. Though the play's wits, Quarlous and Winwife, observe the whole process by which Cokes is relieved of his purse, they have no sympathy for the victim, but use the power that their knowledge over Edgworth gives them to enlist him in their own cause (III. v. 236ff.). Edgworth himself is the aristocrat of the play's criminal society. Justice Overdo, echoing Mooncalf, describes him as a ‘civil young man’, a ‘proper penman’, with a ‘good clerk's look’ (II. iv. 29-33), while the people of the Fair regard him as generous and free-spending (cf. II. iv. 24-6, 65-70). This attitude to those who risked their lives to take purses is not exclusive, moreover, to Bartholomew Fair. Greene's The Second Part of Conny-Catching, for example (to which the play may well be indebted), paints a picture of the cutpurse that places considerable emphasis upon his skill and daring:

Therefore let all men take this caueat, that when they walke abroad amid any of the forenamed places, or like assemblies, that they take great care for their purse, how they place it, and not leaue it carelesse in their pockets or hose, for the Foist is so nimble-handed, that he exceeds the iugler for agilitie, and hath his legiar de maine as perfectly. Therefore an exquisite Foist must haue three properties that a good Surgeon should haue, and that is, an Eagles eie, a Ladies hand, and a Lions heart. An Eagles eie to spy out a purchase, to haue a quicke insight where the boung lies, and then a Lions heart, not to feare what the end will bee, and then a Ladies hande to be little and nimble, the better and the more easie to diue into any mans pocket.19

The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore, a play associated with the Shakespearian canon through the debate surrounding ‘hand D’, also portrays a ‘lifter’ in a not unfavourable light. In the course of the opening scenes, in which Moore's understanding of the common people is demonstrated, a cutpurse is brought before the Lord Mayor in order to be sentenced. Though the man's guilt is beyond question, Justice Suresbie argues that the blame for his offence, and thus responsibility for his death, lies in part with his accuser, who, by flaunting the contents of his purse, effectively lured him into crime:

Heare me Smart, thou art a foolish fellowe,
If Lifter be conuicted by the lawe,
As, I see not howe the Iurie can acquit him:
Ile stand too't, thou art guiltie of his death.


I tell thee plaine, it is a shame for thee,
with such a sum to tempte necessitie.
No lesse then ten poundes Sir, will serue your turne,
to [c]arie in your pursse about with ye,
to crake and brag in Tauernes of your monie.
I promise ye, a man that goes a broade,
with an intent of trueth, meeting such a bootie
may be prouokte to that he neuer meante.
what makes so many pilferers and fellons,
but such fond baites that foolish people lay:
to tempt the needie miserable wretche.

(ll. 125-41)20

It is this argument that Moore turns, on Lifter's behalf, against Suresbie himself. Having asked the Lord Mayor to defer passing sentence, he persuades the accused man to steal Suresbie's own (bulging) purse, thus extending ultimate responsibility for the man's plight to the members of the bench who sit in judgment upon the poor while tempting them into crime. The play does not merely proffer an apologia for cutpurses, however. Like Bartholomew Fair it affords a demonstration of the way in which the light-fingered operate, and thus serves to alert the members of the audience to the tricks that they employ. Having convinced Lifter that he will come to his assistance if he agrees to steal Suresbie's purse, Moore acts as his ‘setter’ (l. 189), arranging a meeting in which the pickpocket gives the Justice a lesson on the way in which the members of his profession go to work.

There be Sir diuers very cunning fellowes,
that while you stand and looke them in the face:
will haue your pursse.
Th'art an honest knaue.
tell me what are they? where they may be ca[ug]ht
I, those are they I looke for.
you talke of me Sir
Alas I am [a] punie: t[her]'s one indeed,
goes by my name he puts down all for pursses


This fellowe Sir, perhaps will meete ye thus,
Or thus, or thus, and in kinde complement,
pretend acquaintaunce, somewhat doubtfully,
And these embraces serue.
I marie Lifter, wherfore serue they?
Only to feele
whether you go vnder full saile or no,
Or that your lading be aboord your Barke.
In playner English Lifter, if my pursse be storde or no?
ye haue it Sir.
Excellent, excellent.
Then sir, you cannot but for manners sake,
walke on with him, for he will walke your way:
Alleadging either you haue much forgot him,
or he mistakes you.
But in this time has he my pursse or no?
Not yet Sir, fye: / No nor I haue not yours.

(ll. 222-52)

Here, while the methods employed by the foist are clearly exhibited by the dramatist for the benefit of his audience, a species of admiration is simultaneously elicited for the skill that is displayed. This admiration is not confined, moreover, to those outside the play world. Suresbie himself is patently fascinated by the pickpocket's art, while Sir Thomas Moore, who functions in these scenes as the embodiment of wit and wisdom, has not only helped Lifter in the past (cf. ll. 159-61), but reveals an appreciation of his adroitness even while warning him not to attempt to profit from his victim's gullibility:

                                                  see that thou diminish not
one penie of the monie, but give it me,
It is the cunning act, that credits thee.

(ll. 194-6)

It is The Roaring Girl (Middleton and Dekker, 1611), however, that probably demonstrates most vividly both the ambivalent attitude that existed towards those whose living lay in other men's purses, and the interaction that took place between the players and that section of the audience seeking to exploit their clientele. The play celebrates a well-known figure of the day, Mary (or Moll) Frith, who customarily dressed as a man, smoked, and, according to the records of the Ecclesiastical court before which she was summoned in 1611/12, ‘vsually associated her selfe wth Ruffinly swaggering & lewd company as namely wth cut purses blasphemous drunkards & others of bad note & of most dissolute behaviour’.21 Moll appears in the play as Moll Cutpurse, and is treated favourably throughout, constantly frustrating the intentions of those who seek to exploit her, and asserting the positive value of her own conduct. The play was produced at the Fortune, a theatre patronized by the historical Moll herself, and in the course of one performance at least the gap between art and life was bridged when the real Moll made a personal appearance on stage.22 Nevertheless, in the course of the action the presence of pickpockets among the theatre audience is alluded to more than once, and in hostile terms, clearly designed to curtail their activities. In I. ii, for example, Sir Alexander Wengrave, commenting on the ‘room’ in which he and his companions find themselves, describes the playhouse in which the action takes place, concluding with the spectators themselves, and the pickpockets among their ranks:

Within one square a thousand heads are laid
So close, that all of heads, the roome seemes made,
As many faces there (fill'd with blith lookes)
Shew like the promising titles of new bookes,
(Writ merily) the Readers being their owne eyes,
Which seeme to moue and to giue plaudities,
And here and there (whilst with obsequious eares,
Throng'd heapes do listen) a cut purse thrusts and leeres
With haukes eyes for his prey: I need not shew him,
By a hanging villanous looke, your selues may know him,
The face is drawne so rarely,

(I. ii. 19-29)

while in V. i Moll herself exposes a cutpurse, whom her companions mistake for a gallant, and having revealed the way in which he and his accomplices operate, obliges him to make restitution for a purse taken on a previous occasion. Once again, the scene is too long to quote in full, but an extract from it affords an indication of the emphasis that is placed upon the activities of pickpockets in the playhouses:

Enter a Cutpurse very gallant, with foure or fiue men after him, one with a wand.
L[ORD] Nol[an].
What gallant comes yonder?
T[HOMAS] Long.
Masse, I thinke I know him, 'tis one of Cumberland.
1. Cut.
Shall we venture to shuffle in amongst yon heap of Gallants, and strike?
2. Cut.
'Tis a question whether there bee any siluer shels amongst them, for all their sattin outsides.
ALL Cut.
Let's try?
Pox on him, a gallant? shaddow mee, I know him: tis one that cumbers the land indeed; if hee swimme neere to the shore of any of your pockets, looke to your purses.
Is't possible?
This braue fellow is no better then a foyst.
Foyst, what's that?
A diuer with two fingers, a picke-pocket; all his traine study the figging law, that's to say, cutting of purses and foysting; one of them is a nip, I tooke him once i'the twopenny gallery at the Fortune


Do'st not ken mee man?
1. Cut.
No trust mee sir.
Heart, there's a Knight to whom I'me bound for many fauours, lost his purse at the last new play i'the Swanne, seuen Angels in't, make it good you'r best; do you see? no more.

(V. i. 242-76)

The Roaring Girl was not the only play to exploit the notoriety of Mary Frith. She appears under the name of Moll Cutpurse in Field's Amends for Ladies (c. 1610-11), while some scholars have argued that she is referred to in Twelfth Night.23 Taken in isolation, such allusions appear to be no more than one species of topical reference, but seen in conjunction with other evidence, they emerge as part of a cat and mouse game played throughout the period between the playwrights and one section of their audience. The most striking example of this kind of game occurs in a pre-Shakespearian play, Apius and Virginia (Richard Bower? 1559-67), in which the dramatist attempts not merely to frustrate the pickpocket but even to catch him in the act. At a number of points in the action, the Vice, Haphazard, who functions as a machiavellian counsellor to Apius, turns to address the spectators directly, abruptly reminding them to beware of the thieves among the crowd. At line 409, for example, he leaves the stage with:

Well, fare ye well now, for better or worse,
Put hands to your pockets, haue minde to your purse:

(ll. 409-10)24

while at 531 he responds to Apius's decision to commit himself to him by raping Virginia with:

At hand (quoth picke purse) here redy am I
See well to the Cut Purse, be ruled by me.

(ll. 531-2)

At the close of the play, when on his way to execution, he pauses to claim the light-fingered among the audience as his kinsmen, and to invite them to follow him to the gallows:

Must I needes hange, by the gods it doth spight me,
To thinke how crabbedly this silke lace will bite me:
Then come cou[si]n cutpurs, come runne haste and folow me,
Haphazard, must hange, come folow the lyverie.

(ll. 1174-7)

Clearly, at each of these points the spectator was intended to clap his hand to his pocket, and possibly even encounter a hand on the way to relieving him of his ‘boung’.

The second of these examples is a particularly useful one, in that it admits a return to the Shakespearian corpus. The phrase ‘At hand quoth pickpurse’ was a proverbial one, and it occurs in Henry IV Part I prior to the robbery at Gadshill. II. i is set in the inn yard at Rochester in the early hours of the morning, as the carriers are preparing to set out, and the concept of theft runs throughout the scene. The carriers refuse to lend Gadshill their lanterns for fear that he might steal them, while the following exchange takes place when the Chamberlain is summoned:

What ho! Chamberlain!
Enter Chamberlain.
‘At hand, quoth pick-purse.’
That's even as fair as ‘At hand, quoth the chamberlain’: for thou variest no more from picking of purses than giving direction doth from labouring; thou layest the plot how.

(II. i. 46-51)25

Given the universal awareness of the danger that the playhouses represented to the preservation of private property, it is highly unlikely that the members of Shakespeare's audience wouldn't have been prompted here to check the safety of their own valuables.

The laughter occasioned in Twelfth Night by Malvolio's selection of characters from the superscription of Maria's letter depends, as noted above, on incongruity on the one hand, and an interaction between player and spectator on the other. The puritan steward picks out a sequence of letters to which the members of the audience, in music-hall style, assign a bawdy significance, with laughter arising first from a recognition of the letters' meaning, and then from the dichotomy between the character of the speaker and the nature of the words he unwittingly forms. This species of humour, and the deflation of the steward that accompanies it, is clearly not dependent upon the use of any particular bawdy term, and a number of alternatives current during the period readily suggest themselves. Shakespeare himself frequently puns upon the word ‘prick’, and the letters ‘a’, ‘r’, ‘s’, and ‘e’, solemnly spelled out by the ‘affectioned’ (II. iii. 147) Malvolio would no doubt be equally effective in convulsing an audience with mirth. The choice of ‘c’, ‘u’, ‘t’, and ‘p’ is thus a self-conscious one, and in electing to use these particular letters Shakespeare may well have been engaging in a kind of interplay between play and spectator that functions on more than one level. While on the one hand the members of the audience are encouraged to spell out a bawdy term, and to laugh at the steward's deflation, on the other they are being led to form the word ‘cut-P——’, and thus being reminded of the repeated warnings against pickpockets they had heard in other plays, or of the cutpurse tied to the post supporting the stage. In short, aided by the added emphasis to the letters afforded by Sir Andrew's innocent enquiry, the members of Shakespeare's audience may have found their own answer to ‘why that?’, and have hurriedly taken fresh precautions against those mannerly young men pressing rather too close to their sides.


  1. All references to Twelfth Night are to the Arden edn., ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London, 1975).

  2. For a discussion of the bawdy innuendo here, see Lothian and Craik, Twelfth Night, II. v. 88-9 n.

  3. The Selected Plays of John Marston, ed. Macdonald P. Jackson and Michael Neill (London, 1986). The suggestion that the audience was intended to supply the missing word was first made by J. A. B. Somerset, ‘The Comic Turn in English Drama, 1470-1616’, Ph.D. diss. (University of Birmingham, 1966), 471.

  4. See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923, corrected 1951), i. 283.

  5. Ibid. i. 304.

  6. Ibid. ii. 403.

  7. Ibid. ii. 447.

  8. Quoted ibid. iii. 376.

  9. Quoted ibid. iii. 377.

  10. A Notable Discovery of Coosenage 1591: The Second Part of Conny-Catching 1592, ed. G. B. Harrison, Bodley Head Quartos (1922, repr. Edinburgh, 1966).

  11. Quoted by Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, ii. 546.

  12. References to Nobody and Somebody are to Richard Simpson's edn. in The School of Shakespeare (New York, 1878).

  13. Five Elizabethan Comedies, ed. A. K. McIlwraith (London, 1934).

  14. All references to James IV are to the Revels edn., ed. Norman Sanders (London, 1970).

  15. The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. H. J. Oliver, Arden edn. (London, 1971).

  16. The Winter's Tale, ed. J. H. P. Pafford, Arden edn. (London, 1963).

  17. See Greene's The Second Part of Conny-Catching, p. 33.

  18. All references to Bartholomew Fair are to the Revels edn., ed. E. A. Horsman (London, 1960, repr. Manchester, 1979).

  19. The Second Part of Conny-Catching, p. 34.

  20. All references are to The Book of Sir Thomas More, ed. W. W. Greg, Malone Society Reprints (Oxford, 1911), revised, with a supplement by Harold Jenkins (1961).

  21. Quoted by Cyrus Hoy in his Introductions, Notes, and Commentaries to Texts in ‘The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker’ (Cambridge, 1980), iii. 1. All quotations from The Roaring Girl are from The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, 1958).

  22. See Hoy, Introductions, pp. 1-4.

  23. See Twelfth Night, ed. Lothian and Craik, I. iii. 124 n. and Amends For Ladies, ed. A. Wilson Verity, Nero and Other Plays (London, 1888), 432 n.

  24. All quotations from Apius and Virginia are from the Malone Society edn., ed. R. B. McKerrow and W. W. Greg (Oxford, 1911).

  25. The First Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys, Arden edn. (London, 1960).

Mary Bly (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 extant Renaissance comedies portraying virginal heroines who make self-referential bawdy jokes. It seems that the act of parodying the enormously popular Shakespeare play created an odd sub-genre, that of romantic comedies whose heroines display a ribald humour.1

Balcony scenes litter Renaissance plays; the popularity of Romeo and Juliet has caused most amorous balcony exchanges to be labelled imitative. I limit my discussion to Henry Porter's The Two Angry Women of Abington (1598) and Thomas Dekker's Blurt, Master Constable (1607) because these two playwrights explicitly borrow language as well as plot devices from Shakespeare's play.2 I also look more briefly at the balcony scene in an anonymous play, The Puritan (1607). Romeo and Juliet was an enduring favourite with Elizabethan audiences; its language apparently filtered into normal conversation. Several works written after 1600 mock those who borrow its verse. For example, Gullio, the foolish courtier of 1 Return from Parnassus (1606), imitates Mercutio: ‘the moone in comparison of thy bright hue a meere slutt, Anthonies Cleopatra a blacke browde milkmaide, Hellen a cowdie.’ But Ingenioso (an impoverished scholar) leaps on the theft: ‘Marke Romeo and Iuliet: o monstrous theft.’3Romeo and Juliet's popularity suggests that the dual presence of a balcony scene and ‘monstrous theft’ would make the connection immediately apparent to a contemporary audience.

Porter and Dekker make two fundamental revisions of Romeo and Juliet: their plays end with marriage rather than death, and their heroines display skill at erotic innuendo in conversation, rather than in soliloquy. Punning duels are, of course, found in other Shakespeare plays. Berowne's and Beatrice's witty exchanges are sexually charged, if not explicitly sexually allusive. Yet virginal heroines rarely make bawdy jokes. In the context of romance, heroines tend to stay within conventional lyric guidelines.4 In Much Ado About Nothing (1598), for example, Hero's maid Margaret tries to cheer up the heavy-hearted bride by joking that she will ‘be heavier soon by the weight of a man’; Hero scolds her for immodesty: ‘Fie upon thee, art not ashamed?’ (3.4.25-6). For the most part, erotic innuendo in drama remains the province of marginal characters. Old women, clowns, malcontents and male sidekicks, Parolles, Pandarus, Iago, lewdly mock and are mocked, but it is hard to find a young heroine referring even indirectly to copulation.

Why, then, should these two plays be among the very few whose heroines are ribald jokers? Significantly, the plays are not simple burlesques; they are romantic comedies in their own right, and their connection to Romeo and Juliet has so far been considered merely a matter for footnotes. If a blunt expression of lust is an inappropriate statement for a virginal heroine, what is the position of a witty expression of desire? The nature of the expression is clearly important. Porter's and Dekker's heroines are not straightforwardly lustful; they speak in puns. If desire is revealed in clever puns, does that wit protect the heroine from a charge of immodesty? Certainly, the very elaboration of rhetoric involved in puns removes them from clear revelation. Puns impose an order on speech: face-value relinquishes its place to paradox, plain definition to the imagination. For example, Porter's Mall's ‘quarterly I must receive my rent’ plays on secondary meanings: ‘rent’ does not, in itself, carry an erotic meaning, although the sexual reference is easily surmised from her definition of ‘income’ as ‘kisses and embraces every day’.5 Puns, Walter Redfern writes, ‘are a means of circumventing taboos, as are euphemisms, which play a similar hide-and-seek game with the listener/reader’.6 The audience's attention may be redirected from the titillating double entendre to admiration of rhetorical cleverness. This argument assumes that erotic puns act as a masking device for desire, that Porter and Dekker are able to circumvent cultural restrictions on female speech by clever phrasing. However, I would argue that bawdy puns do not mask desire but flaunt it.

A bawdy pun is a word placed in such a context that it points to a secondary, sexual, reference, as in Juliet's ‘Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die …’ (3.1.21). Juliet's ‘death’ is both ceasing to be and erotic ecstasy. The sexual innuendo Juliet uses was a common one in Renaissance literature.7 It is important to recognize that in the case of a pun as ordinary as this, a Renaissance audience would definitely grasp its double meaning. As James Brown says of puns, ‘When we know enough … failure to perceive a pun is impossible; we cannot wilfully suspend our ability to see puns.’8 Obviously, seemingly non-sexual speech often carries an inference of carnal desire, as when Miranda calls Ferdinand a ‘thing divine’ (1.2.422). But if Miranda had been conscious enough of that carnality to construct a witty play with words, had she offered a bawdy pun, the effect of her statement would have been radically different and quite surprising. Miranda's innocence is stressed throughout The Tempest, and her explicit lack of knowledge is echoed in her speech. As an audience grasps the double entendre behind Juliet's ‘die’, they grasp her sexual knowledge and her consciousness of carnal desire at the same time. That sexual knowledge was a dubious virtue in light of Elizabethan conceptions of a chaste young woman's education; it may explain why witty heroines in Renaissance plays rarely offer immodest puns.

It is common for female characters' rhetoric to produce an inadvertent sexual reference, as in Juliet's Nurse's protest: ‘thou must stand by, too, and suffer every knave to use me at his pleasure’. Peter replies: ‘I saw no man use you at his pleasure. If I had, my weapon should quickly have been out’ (2.3.145-8). Eyre's wife Margery in Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599) provides a similar example. Her robust tone leads to puns—when her husband swears to ‘firke’ her if she doesn't stop quarrelling, she responds: ‘Yea, yea man, you may vse me as you please.’9 The prolonged scenes between Margery, Firke, and Hodge, in which the servants slyly mock her wrinkles, aged body and social ambition, are typical. These two female characters, the Nurse and Margery, are laughable precisely due to their age, sexual unattractiveness and inadvertent sexual references. It is their choice of words—‘use’ interpreted as ‘copulate with’—that creates a bawdy innuendo. The sexual pun arises from the word's two interpretations, not from the women's deliberate command of those two meanings.

On the other hand, Juliet's invitation to Romeo in 3.2—to ‘Hood my unmanned blood’—offers an elaborately rhetorical, self-consciously erotic image. Juliet's long soliloquy strings together six separate invocations, each specifically alluding to the physical pleasure she expects that night. The epithalamium's metaphorical flourishes allow her desire to be latent and yet obvious; they are particularly surprising in view of the dense Petrarchan rhetoric of the play.10 Romeo first loves Rosaline who, in a fine Petrarchan tradition, ‘hath forsworn to love’ (1.1.220). She is invulnerable to Cupid's arrow, ‘in strong proof of chastity well armed’ (1.1.207). To Romeo, both Juliet and the absent Rosaline are archetypal Petrarchan mistresses: chaste, undesirous and beautiful. Certainly Romeo believes Juliet and Rosaline to be untouched by desire:

She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide th'encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold.
O she is rich in beauty …


Romeo's construction of Rosaline's beauty ties it directly to her chastity. He also sees Juliet's beauty as ensuring her chastity: ‘Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear’ (1.5.46). The energy of Romeo's Petrarchan rhetoric is bound up in fruitless pursuit, rather than in an anticipation of lovers' meeting.

It is Mercutio who envisions union: ‘O Romeo, that she were, O that she were / An open-arse, and thou a popp'rin' pear’ (2.1.37-8). Mercutio speaks of sex only in puns. Erotic humour predominates. Love, for him, is a chase towards copulation: ‘this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole’ (2.3.84-5). Romeo's solemn poetry sits uneasily in a play where it is ridiculed by Mercutio's banter (‘Laura to his lady was a kitchen wench … Dido a dowdy, Cleopatra a gypsy, Helen and Hero hildings and harlots’ (2.3.37, 39-40)) and mocked by Friar Laurence: ‘Thy love did read by rote, that could not spell’ (2.2.88). Even Juliet offers a mild rebuke: ‘You kiss by th'book’ (1.5.109).

Juliet is unsuited to the role of Romeo's Petrarchan mistress. She is desirous, and moreover, she is long-winded in anticipation: ‘O, I have bought the mansion of a love / But not possessed it, and though I am sold, / Not yet enjoyed’ (3.2.26-8). Juliet is not precisely bawdy—but neither is she modest.11 Remarkably, Shakespeare gives her the epithalamium traditionally spoken by a bridegroom. Act 3 scene 2 opens with her invocation to the night: ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds’, an inversion of Ovid's ‘lente currite, noctis equi’.12 Juliet's soliloquy is a mixture of plainly expressed invitations and artfully phrased metaphors. Her initial call to Romeo, ‘Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen’ (3.2.7), echoes one of the most beautiful passages in Marlowe's Tragedy of Dido (1587):

                                        If thou wilt stay
Leap in mine arms; mine arms are open wide;
If not, turn from me, and I'll turn from thee …(13)

The passage comes from Dido's final plea to Aeneas to remain in Carthage; it is spoken by a sexually knowing woman, intoxicated with love.

Juliet turns from Marlovian invitation to a lengthy series of sexual metaphors: ‘Come, civil night … And learn me how to lose a winning match / Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods’ (3.2.10, 12-13). This is a good example of the complexity of Juliet's speech.14 ‘Winning’ is turned to a pun meaning both victorious and appealing. Moreover, the ‘match’ Juliet hopes to lose and win is, at once, a wedding and an erotic game. At the pun's heart, obviously, is the fate of her virginity: it is a match in which she will lose a ‘stainless’ maidenhead, while she gains a ‘match’ or marriage with Romeo.15

The rest of her speech is similarly full of doubles entendres:

Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle, till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.


Talking to her Nurse, Juliet's linguistic stress turns from sex itself (‘true love acted’) to Romeo's beauty. Romeo has a ‘flow'ring face’; he is a ‘gorgeous palace’, a ‘mortal paradise of such sweet flesh’ (3.2.73, 85, 82). But the epithalamium itself stands as a lyric anticipation of erotic pleasure:

Come night, come Romeo; come, thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.


I would suggest that Juliet's cleverly phrased desire for consummation acts as a bridge between desirous, tragic heroines and comic plots. Shakespeare bestowed sexual metaphors on a young heroine; Porter and Dekker follow his example, moving into comedy. They use Romeo and Juliet as a distant subtext, fashioning heroines who are virginal and wittily desirous. Like Juliet, these heroines are intensely interested in the fate of their maidenheads, and their wit similarly reveals a specific understanding of sexual congress.

Henry Porter's The Two Angry Women of Abington turns Romeo and Juliet into a subtext for a comedy. Porter appropriates Juliet's wit; at the same time he manipulates famous bits of the play (such as the balcony scene) to jest at Romeo's lyric dedication. Juliet's nimble metaphors are turned wholly to sexual puns. Porter shapes his heroine, Mall, around the epithalamic Juliet. Mall speaks only in erotic quibbles and sexual metaphors.

The Two Angry Women is constructed around a breach between two neighbouring families, which the fathers hope to patch by marrying their son and daughter. The young couple, Frank and Mall, are introduced, woo and agree to marry in a bare three minutes. Although the plot summary seems in line with conventional romantic comedies, Mall's character is radically opposed to Petrarchan idealization. She is, her brother says, ‘a wicked wench to make a jest’ (8.25). She is not merely witty, like Rosaline or Beatrice, but lusty, and her jokes are overtly sexual. For example, Mall opens the ninth scene by musing on conies—rabbits but also slang for women:

Good Lord, what pretty things these conies are;
How finely they do feed till they be fat!
And then what a sweet meat a coney is,
And what smooth skins they have, both black and gray.
They say they run more in the night than day …
But when that Francis comes, what will he say?
‘Look, boy, there lies a coney in my way.’

(9.7-11, 24-5)16

Mall's sexual bravado extends past sly puns. When her father asks Mall if she has a mind to marry, she points out that since she is a maid, she ought to ‘blush, look pale and wan, / And then look pale again’ (3.124-5). However, she decides to ‘speak truth and shame the devil’ (3.133). In fact, she has lately ‘let restrained fancy loose, / And bade it gaze for pleasure’ (3.158-9). Mall urges her father to a quick match: ‘If I shall have a husband, get him quickly / For maids that wears cork shoes may step awry’ (3.163-4). The scene ends with her blunt summary of the evils of letting maids lie alone:

Lying alone they muse but in their beds
How they might lose their long-kept maidenheads.
This is the cause there is so many scapes …
Therefore, come husband, maidenhead adieu!

(3.205-7, 10)

Her mother bitterly labels her ‘lusty guts’; certainly Mall's forthright acknowledgement of her own physical desire is extraordinary. I would argue that Porter is deliberately abrogating romantic ideals—perhaps most clearly in his veiled mockery of Romeo and Juliet.

At various points in The Two Angry Women of Abington, Romeo and Juliet is invoked as a romantic model, and then burlesqued by Porter's rewriting.17 We can see an echo of Juliet above, in Mall's response to her father's query: ‘hast thou a mind to marry?’ (3.120). Lady Capulet asks Juliet a similar question: ‘How stands your dispositions to be married?’ and Juliet responds ‘It is an honour that I dream not of’ (1.3.67-8). Mall lampoons Juliet's answer on two levels: she announces that she does dream of marriage, and she rejects a modest answer as dishonest. The textual crux behind the Shakespearian line (q2 reads ‘It is a houre that I dream not of’) creates an even sharper counterpart, since Mall specifically alludes to maidens dreaming of that hour:18

How many maids this night lies in their beds
And dream that they have lost their maidenheads.
Such dreams, such slumbers I had, too, enjoyed …


Considering that the balcony scene (in which Juliet initiates the idea of marriage) supposedly occurs only a few hours after the scene between Juliet and her mother, Juliet's demure answer does appear conventional rather than truthful. In the balcony scene Juliet actually emphasizes the cultural restrictions on her speech: ‘For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight. / Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny / What I have spoke; but farewell, compliment’ (2.1.129-31). Mall's refusal to respond with ‘close-clipped civility’ may also point to Juliet:

                                        With true-faced passion
Of modest maidenhead I could adorn me,
And to your question make a sober cursey,
And with close-clipped civility be silent;
Or else say ‘No, forsooth,’ or ‘Aye, forsooth.’
If I said ‘No, forsooth,’ I lied, forsooth.


Mall's emphasis on maidenheads is characteristic of Porter's humour: marriage is seen as consummation, not ceremony. Mall and the other characters often conflate the two.

Mall and Frank meet and woo in a balcony scene which apes the parallel scene in Romeo and Juliet. Both balcony scenes involve rapid wooing between near strangers. Juliet takes no joy in a contract ‘too rash, too unadvised, too sudden’ (2.1.160); Frank's reaction is more confident: ‘Now in good faith, Phillip, this makes me smile, / That I have wooed and won in so small while’ (8.135-6). The scenes are remarkably similar in concept and choreography, but quite different in language, a difference which I would suggest grows from the dominant topic of conversation in each scene. Romeo and Juliet, famously, talk of love; Mall and Frank, of sex.

Mall's brother Phillip brings Frank to her bedroom window. Phillip calls up: ‘'Tis I.’ Mall's response is raucously far from Juliet's dignified ‘What man art thou that, thus bescreened in night, / So stumblest on my counsel?’ (2.1.94-5). Mall shouts back: ‘'Tis I? Who I? “I, quoth the dog”, or what?’ (8.45). Romeo and Juliet speak in verse strewn with loving metaphors: ‘thou art / As glorious to this night, being o'er my head, / As is a wingèd messenger of heaven’ (2.1.68-70). Their conversation moves adroitly between lyrical metaphors and conventional phrases. Romeo, in particular, strikes extravagant chords in his praise: Juliet is a sun; her eyes are stars; her cheeks are brighter than starlight.

Mall's and Frank's dialogue is diametrically opposed to Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene, in that they fall into metaphors of sexual innuendo, not those of romantic love. They begin by talking of Venus's chariot, punning on the similarity of couch and coach, a joke which also alludes to the ‘carting’ of prostitutes:

I pray, sir, tell me, do you cart the Queen of Love?
Not cart her, but couch her in your eye,
And a fit place for gentle love to lie.
Aye, but methinks you speak without the book.


Mall's ‘methinks you speak without the book’ is a mocking rewriting of Juliet's ‘You kiss by th' book’ (1.5.109). Whereas Juliet chides Romeo for his ready command of conventional sonnet conceits, Mall's retort to Frank's play on ‘couch’ is a direct recognition of the unconventional manner of their conversation. To woo ‘by th' book’ is to gild one's language with sonnet rhymes and conceits: Romeo and Frank are quite opposite in this respect. Frank does speak ‘without’ the book. Mall's brother Phillip had earlier advised Frank to woo her by setting ‘such painted beauty on thy tongue / As it shall ravish every maiden sense’, a neat summary of sonneteers' ornate love language (8.10-11). Phillip himself speaks in Romeo-esque metaphors. He opens scene 10, one of the nocturnal scenes, with a soliloquy on the night:

The sky that was so fair three hours ago
Is in three hours become an Ethiope,
And, being angry at her beauteous change,
She will not have one of these pearléd stars
To blab her sable metamorphesy.


Phillip is faintly echoing Romeo's praise of Juliet:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.


Porter's use of Romeo's famous speech (also adapted by Dekker in Blurt, Master Constable) plays to the audience's theatrical knowledge: much of the humour in this play depends on acquaintance with the language of Romeo and Juliet. Phillip's echoing of Romeo refers not only to the play, but to the convoluted phrasing of stately love language in general. However, Frank discards Phillip's advice to use ‘painted beauty’ in wooing.

Mall's retort to Frank's superficially gallant wish to ‘couch’ Venus in her eye leads to an even more explicit dialogue:

Where will you have room to have the coachman sit?
Nay, that were but small manners and not fit.
His duty is before you bare to stand,
Having a lusty whipstock in his hand.
The place is void. Will you provide me one?
And if you please, I will supply the room.
But are you cunning in the carman's lash?


The kind of metaphor by which Mall and Frank build a conversation is very different from the parallel set of metaphors which Romeo and Juliet build between them (their play on ‘tassel-gentle’, for example). Romeo's and Juliet's conceits are elaborately matched: she wears a ‘mask of night’, he has ‘night's cloak’.20 Mall and Frank build a series of metaphors which point not to conventional conceits but to sexual metaphors. Romantic love, and the metaphors of romantic love, are here replaced by puns of sexual wit. Porter's lovers manipulate a rhyming exchange to create not a sonnet, but an extended set of bawdy riddles about Mall's virginity:

Nun, votary, stale maidenhead, seventeen-and-upward?
Here be names! What, nothing else?
Yes, or a fair built steeple without bells.
Steeple, good people? Nay, another cast.
Aye, or a well-made ship without a mast.
Fie, not so big, sir, by one part of four!
Why, then ye are a boat without an oar.
O, well rowed, wit!


The relentless puns on male sex organs—or the lack thereof—are helped by the fact that the dialogue falls into couplets. If puns rely on displacement of face-value meanings, rhyming puns allow an even greater disjuncture from apparent sense, and rhyming puns characterize the entire balcony scene. ‘I had both wit to grant when he did woo me’ Mall says, ‘And strength to bear what ere he can do to me’ (8.209-10). Frank later echoes her: ‘Well, I must bear with her—she'll bear with me’ (9.65). I would argue that Mall and Frank are able to dance further into obscenity because their puns tumble onto each other, delighting the ear before comprehension strikes. Gillian Beer writes that the second rhyme word moves in on the first and tricks it into rhyme, ‘sound dominates sense’.21 In one sense a pun is itself a compressed rhyme; fixing one or the other possible definition as correct is less important than grasping the contexts linked together in one syntactic unit.

This joining of contexts makes puns vulnerable to the passing of time. If Mercutio's quibbles with ‘prick’ are still understood, it is only because of the durability of that particular reference. Mall's joke about the danger of wearing cork heels is a case in point. Many such puns are understandable only with a dictionary in hand. The problematics of phallic references in the language of female characters and, therefore, of boy actors point to another context which may be missed by a modern reader. Porter's The Two Angry Women of Abington was written for Henslowe's (adult) company at the Rose; the Admiral's Men is not a company generally discussed as employing doubles entendres which reference the boy behind the female role.22 But Mall's and Frank's exchange, quoted above, certainly raises the possibility:

Aye, or a well-made ship without a mast.
Fie, not so big, sir, by one part of four!
Why, then ye are a boat without an oar.

On one hand, Frank's jokes refer to Mall as a virgin in need of an oar. At the same time, the dialogue could be construed as a pointed reference to the boy actor's smaller sex organ: ‘not so big, sir, by one part of four!’ Thus Porter's puns link three contexts: literal meaning, erotic innuendo, and extra-textual, actorial reference.

When Mall descends from the bedroom she defines the contract between them in rhyming puns:

Francis, my love's lease I do let to thee,
Date of my life and thine. What sayest thou to me?
The entering fine or income thou must pay
Are kisses and embraces every day,
And quarterly I must receive my rent.
You know my mind.
                                                            I guess at thy intent.
Thou shalt not miss a minute of thy time.


The difference between the two romances is encapsulated in Juliet's wish for marriage (‘thou wilt perform the rite, / And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay, / And follow thee, my lord, throughout the world’ (2.1.188-90)) and Mall's demand of ‘rent’. In the majority of Renaissance comedies, well-born heroines speak in Petrarchan measures; low-born females speak a kind of rolling dialect, marked by indecorous jokes and coinages. It is a source of extra dramatic interest if a low-born woman is able to use Petrarchan metaphors. The protagonist of Thomas Heywood's I The Fair Maid of the West (1610), for example, is a barmaid and later a tavern owner who loves chastely and expresses herself in Petrarchan hyperboles. The entire play revolves around this social anomaly. It is similarly remarkable when well-born heroines play with erotic puns.23 By Elizabethan standards, Mall's punning banter with Frank sails dangerously close to shameful. I would suggest that the popularity of The Two Angry Women of Abington came at least partially from its heroine's defiance of the conventions prescribing a well-born maiden's concerns and behaviour.24 Wit here is not merely verbal dexterity but the daring involved in staging a virgin's expression of sexual desire.

In this regard, the discrepancies between the bad quarto (q1) of Romeo and Juliet [1597] and the ‘newly corrected, augmented, and amended’ q2, published in 1599, are interesting. q1 retains only the first four lines of the epithalamium. The Arden editor, Brian Gibbons, suggests the lines may have been cut in anticipation of a provincial audience, and there is some evidence that travelling versions of plays were deliberately shortened in such a way as to tone down sexual content.25 I would suggest that the excised epithalamium points to the fact that Juliet's expression of erotic desire represented a breach of cultural expectation. Mall's transgressive speech is acknowledged in the play itself: her suitor says her wit is ‘held a wonder,’ and her brother acknowledges that she can ‘make blush / The boldest face of man that ere man saw’ (8.127, 5.10-11). The heroine of the anonymous play The Puritan has similarly impressed her suitor: ‘th'art a mad wench Moll’.26

If Romeo and Juliet influenced Porter's creation of a bawdy heroine, Porter's play, in turn, seems to have garnered an imitator. The Puritan was printed in 1607 as having been acted by the Children of Paul's. The play involves foolery plotted by a witty scholar and his nefarious compatriots, who pretend to raise both the devil and a man from the dead, in order to wrangle freedom from prison and the hands of a rich widow and her eldest daughter, Franke. The younger daughter, Moll, is in love with Sir John Penny-dub, and is fluently bawdy: ‘Ide as soone vow neuer to come in Bed. / Tut? Women must liue by th'quick, and not th'dead’ (a4r, lines 6-7).

The heroine is known as Moll, basically the same name as Porter's Mall, and at various points the Puritan Moll appears to echo the earlier character. In The Two Angry Women, for example, Mall is agonized by the frustration of her wedding plans: ‘A starved man with double death doth die / To have the meat might save him in his eye / And may not have it—so am I tormented’ (12.17-19). When the Puritan Moll's marriage plans are thwarted, she is similarly wrought: ‘A double torment … a double curse’ (d2r, lines 3, 27). The most notable parallel between the plays is found in The Puritan's balcony scene. Sir John appears below: ‘Whewh Mistris Mol, Mistris Mol.’ Moll appears above, ‘lacing of her clothes’. Like the earlier Mall, she calls ‘Who's there?’ And just as does Phillip in Porter's play, Penny-dub replies, ‘Tis I’ (h2, lines 26-7). What ensues is a wild series of puns, instigated solely by Moll, not by Penny-dub. In The Two Angry Women of Abington, Mall generally answers Frank's sallies with a rhyming couplet; but this Moll is bolder than her predecessor: ‘O you'r an early cocke ifayth, who would haue thought you to be so rare a stirrer’ (h2r, lines 28-9). Penny-dub offers to climb into Moll's bed-chamber, but she refuses. ‘No by my faith Sir Iohn, Ile keepe you downe, for you Knights are very dangerous if once you get aboue’ (h2r, lines 31-32). She explains her refusal by a bawdy quibble: ‘Sir Iohn you must note the nature of the Climates your Northern wench in her owne Countrie may well hold out till shee bee fifteene, but if she touch the South once, and come vp to London, here the Chimes go presently after twelue’ (h2, lines 34-6 - h2r, lines 1-2).

One subject which seems to mark the group of heroines I discuss in this paper is an anxious regard for their virginity. Porter's Mall is a gentlewoman who three times explains her urgent desire to lose that virginity. Her own family jokes about her maidenhead: ‘by my troth, my sister's maidenhead / Stands like a game at tennis: if the ball / Hit in the hole or hazard, fare well all’ (3.327-9). Juliet's epithalamium speaks to the same issue; hearing Romeo is banished she takes to her bed: ‘I, a maid, die maiden-widowèd. / Come, cords; come, Nurse; I'll to my wedding bed, / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!’ (3.2.135-7). Her maidenhead is a topic of conversation, notably of the Nurse, but also of her mother. Quibbles about virginity are common throughout Renaissance drama, particularly when spoken boastfully by male characters (Sampson's vow that he will cut off the heads of Montague's maids is a good example). But in these plays virginity skips from the provenance of Sampson and the Nurse, to that of the upper classes: Juliet's despairing attention to her maidenhead, Mall's dreams of her wedding night.

Thomas Dekker's Blurt, Master Constable (1602) is another play which exploits the ribald potential of a desirous virgin. Like Porter, Dekker borrows both plot and language from Romeo and Juliet. The main plot grows from the love of Violetta and Fontinelle, who meet at a ball. Fontinelle is a member of the enemy (France) and is later thrown into prison by Violetta's aristocratic suitor, Camillo. In Act 4, the lovers are secretly married by a friar. Thus marked parallels exist between the two plays: a ball-room scene depicting instantaneous love between members of warring factions, a secret marriage, even borrowed language. Violetta's admirer, Camillo, adapts Romeo's praise of Juliet:

And of Beautie what tongue would not speake the best, since it is the Jewell that hangs upon the brow of heaven, the best cullor that can be laide upon the cheeke of earth?27

Fontinelle also adopts Romeo's language. He refuses to dance: ‘bid him whose heart no sorrow feeles / Tickle the rushes with his wanton heeles’ (1.1.181-2), as does Romeo, who lets ‘wantons light of heart / Tickle the sense-less rushes with their heels’ (1.4.35-6). Romeo characterizes himself as having a ‘soul of lead’ (1.4.15); Fontinelle declares he has ‘too much lead’ in his heart (1.1.183). Falling in love at the ball, Fontinelle is as bombastic and Petrarchan as Romeo: ‘Oh what a heaven is love! oh what a hell!’ (1.1.212).

The last act appears to offer a startling reversal of Shakespeare's play: Fontinelle falls in love with another woman, a prostitute, and Violetta is forced to arrange a bed-trick to consummate her marriage. Yet one of the aspects of Romeo's character that has interested many commentators is the passion of his initial love for Rosaline, instantly displaced by an equal ardour for Juliet. Fontinelle shows that same inconstancy, and makes a similar use of Petrarchan rhetoric to describe both women. In the last act he defends his (supposed) night with the courtesan, Imperia: ‘who dyes / For so bright beauty, is a bright Sacrifice’, and returns to language nearly identical to that which he applied to Violetta in the first act: ‘She is my heaven; she from me, I am in hell’ (5.3.77-8, 183).

If Fontinelle is a Romeo pushed to the extremes of Petrarchan shallowness, Violetta is also a parodied version of Juliet. In the ballroom scene of Blurt, Master Constable, Fontinelle dances with another woman, while Violetta watches: ‘In troth a very pretty French man; the carriage of his bodie likes me well; so does his footing, so does his face, so does his eye above his face, so does himselfe, above all that can bee above himselfe’ (1.1.187-90). Violetta repeatedly swears by her maidenhead and answers respectful questions with bawdy puns: ‘What breeds that desire?’ asks Camillo when she ends their dance. ‘Nay I hope it is no breeding matter: tush, tush, by my maiden-head I will not …’ (1.1.173-5). As a whole, the play is bawdier than Romeo and Juliet; jokes to do with maidenheads embellish virtually every scene, and many of these scenes burlesque Shakespeare's play. In 4.1, for example, a would-be lover tries to climb a rope to his mistress's window, borrowing Romeo's phrasing—‘Ile hang a Jewell at thine eare, sweet night’—but he is doused with urine when he pulls the cord (4.1.20).

The balcony scene in Blurt, Master Constable takes place in 3.1, between Violetta, her suitor (but not beloved) Camillo, and her brother Hippolito. Camillo, in response to Fontinelle's presumption in loving Violetta, has thrown the Frenchman into prison. Camillo and Hippolito are accompanied by musicians singing in an effort to ‘pleade to a stonie heart’ (3.1.120). The scene which ensues is marked by Violetta's lusty wit. She baits the anger of Camillo by risqué references to her desire for Fontinelle: ‘Let him pleade your love for you; / I love a life to heare a man speake French / Of his complection’ (3.1.164-6). She uses Fontinelle's nationality as a metaphor for consummation: ‘I would undergoe / The instruction of that language rather far, / Than be two weekes unmaried (by my life)’ (3.1.166-8). Like Mall, she ties a wish for marriage specifically to a desire for sex: ‘Because Ile speake true French, Ile be his wife’ (3.1.169). Her defiance is underlined by the boldness of her expression: ‘the French-man's mine, / And by these hands Ile have him’ (3.1.157-8). After Camillo and Hippolito leave, Violetta receives a letter from the imprisoned Fontinelle. Her response evokes Juliet's wish that night come with her ‘black mantle’: ‘Blest night, wrap Cinthia in a sable sheete, / That fearefull lovers may securlie meete’ (3.1.188-9).

One very important shift has occurred between Shakespeare's play and its parodic siblings. When Mercutio juggles puns, as in his ‘Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down’ (1.4.28), he does so to display his wit. He relies for humour on the fact that he has wrangled three priapic references into one sentence. But Juliet's erotic puns and metaphors are not directed, for the most part, at a display of her wit. Eroticized humour does steal into the balcony scene. Romeo cries ‘O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?’ and Juliet responds ‘What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?’ (2.1.167-8). Satisfaction, in her hands, becomes a demure play on the sating of desire. But in general Juliet's wordplay does not demand laughing applause. Mall's and Violetta's puns, on the other hand, are spoken in joking exchanges, similar to those Shakespeare gives to Romeo and Mercutio. In fact, Mall's quibbles about Venus's coach can be matched to Mercutio's jokes about Queen Mab's chariot. The Queen Mab speech ends in a bawdy pun: ‘This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, / That presses them and learns them first to bear, / Making them women of good carriage’ (1.5.93-5). Yet Mall is not simply a female Mercutio. Her puns, like Juliet's, are self-referential. Juliet's epithalamic images of Romeo lying on her, like snow on a raven, like day on night, are personally referent. Mercutio does not address his own desire; Juliet, Mall and Violetta do. Thus while Mercutio jokes about maids being taught ‘to bear’, Mall makes the same joke about herself, boasting she has ‘strength to bear what ere he can do to me’ (8.210).

These women offer self-referential sexual puns, not bawdy quibbles which rise solely from the punning potential of the English language. I would argue that Mercutio's delight in ribald double meanings leads to a different kind of banter than that which Mall and Frank engage in. If Mercutio's quibbles are funny, bawdy puns spoken by virgins are both comic and transgressive. The woman's revelation of desire may strengthen the audience's belief in the romantic relationship being staged, but it also violates a fundamental convention regarding the behaviour of a marriageable young female.

Puns desert surface rationality, turning instead to an emphasis on linguistic cleverness. I would argue that it is this emphasis on cleverness which precludes them from the language of virginal heroines in the majority of romantic comedies. Puns challenge a claim to chastity; the speaker is too knowledgeable. To understand the connotation of ‘die’ is to reveal carnal knowledge. To apply such a pun to one's own desire is even more damning. Thus these puns cannot operate as a mask, using ambiguity of interpretation to allow transgression of cultural expectations regarding virginal female speech. Not only does the commonplace nature of puns such as Mall's on ‘oars’ and Juliet's on ‘die’ preclude a censorious audience member from mistaking them, but the particular parallelism involved in a romantic balcony scene also operates to dispel the necessary ambiguity. The puns of parodic Juliets bring together more contexts than surface meaning and erotic implication. The audience sees yet another balcony scene, yet another desirous ‘Juliet’.

I would suggest that the sexual jesting of Porter's and Dekker's heroines certainly looks in part to Juliet's remarkable epithalamium. She expresses, if in metaphor, a joyful anticipation of sexual pleasure not found in the language of a virginal heroine preceding her in English drama. Imitation of this aspect of Juliet's character seems to be divided: on the one side, a few Renaissance balcony scenes stage outspoken, lustful pseudo-Juliets, and on the other, there are the punning pseudo-Juliets I have discussed in this essay. The balcony scene in Jonson's Poetaster (1601), for example, takes place between Caesar's daughter, Julia, and the newly banished Ovid. Julia's wrath at Ovid's banishment grows from anticipated celibacy: ‘Let me vse all my pleasures: vertuous loue / Was neuer scandall to a Goddesse state.’28 Notably, Poetaster is no romance. Parody traditionally attacks the ideals of a famous predecessor: when Julia hysterically invites Ovid to climb up to her room (‘enioy me amply, still’ (4.9.691)), Jonson burlesques Juliet's chastity at the same time as he mocks her sexual desire. Both types of balcony scenes involve a brutalizing of the passion that permeates the Shakespeare play, but Porter's and Dekker's emphasis on punning wit creates a very different kind of burlesque.

In the punning balcony scenes, Juliet's deeply felt sexual metaphors are turned to shallow banter, but the emphasis on wordplay as an appropriate vehicle for a female revelation of desire remains. Shakespeare used puns in two ways in Romeo and Juliet: as witty conversation (between Mercutio and Romeo, for example) and as a device by which Juliet expresses erotic anticipation. Dekker and Porter conflate the two. Bawdy conversation turns to self-referential sexual wit, an important shift.

When Porter and Dekker move Mercutio's decorative puns to the central female figure of a romance, the playwrights explicitly renounce the lyric concept of wooing. Their lovers speak ‘without the book’ as Mall observes. Romantic hyperbole is abandoned for a heady acknowledgement of sexual interest. Petrarchan idealization is mocked as representative of blind foolishness, and desire that grows from bodily appreciation is contrasted to insincere similes comparing eyes to suns. That alteration is certainly foreshadowed in Shakespeare's play. It is Juliet—so adroit at wordplay that reveals carnal desire—who tells Romeo that he kisses ‘by th' book,’ and begs him not to make empty vows. Perhaps the presence of that distant subtext, Romeo and Juliet, can explain why Mall and Violetta are practically unique among Renaissance heroines in their use of bawdy puns. If puns themselves cannot operate as an excuse for the expression of female desire, the faint burlesque of Juliet may. In this case, parody offers protection.


  1. Since I spend most of this paper discussing bawdy puns, I want to address a problem with terminology. The puns I discuss are difficult to label. ‘Bawdy’ is a word used by Shakespeare, and it carries a definition, according to Webster's, of humorously coarse. On the other hand, it also has connotations of obscenity and Victorianesque naughtiness. Other adjectives tend to be more pejorative (licentious, lewd, indecent, obscene); I use ‘ribald’ or ‘bawdy’ because of the implication of humour as well as sexual reference.

  2. Another play which exhibits a similar combination of Romeo and Juliet tags, desirous virgins, and ribald jokes is Edward Sharpham's Cupid's Whirligig (1607). Sharpham borrows Shakespearian metaphors, describing the court, for example, as a place where ‘so many earth-treading starres adornes the sky’ (see Capulet's description of his dance, 1.2.22-3). Marston's Jack Drum's Entertainment (1600) also stages a parodic balcony scene. Marston satirizes cloying love language, but his Katherine offers no sexual puns. Michael Scott, while making a claim for a parody of Shakespeare's balcony scene in The Insatiate Countess, argues that Romeo and Juliet was at a height of popularity around 1600. See ‘Marston's Early Contributions to “The Insatiate Countess”’, Notes and Queries, n.s. 24, 222 (1977), 116-17, and Andrew Gurr, for a discussion of the play's influence on Henslowe's repertory. Shakespeare Quarterly, 38 (1987), pp. 189-200.

  3. 1 Return from Parnassus, The Three Parnassus Plays, ed. J. B. Leishman (London, 1949), 3.1.988-92. In another example, John Marston's 10th satire mocks the play's followers: ‘Luscus, what's play'd to-day? Faith now I know / I set thy lips abroach, from whence doth flow / Naught but pure Juliet and Romeo.’ ‘Satire xi’, The Scourge of Villainie, Works, vol. 3, ed. A. H. Bullen (London, 1887), pp. 37-9.

  4. See Linda Woodbridge's discussion of dramatic treatments of female desire, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana, 1984), especially pp. 244-63.

  5. Henry Porter, The Two Angry Women of Abington, ed. Marianne Brish Evett (N.Y., 1980). Modern editors have divided the play into thirteen scenes. 8.150-2.

  6. Walter D. Redfern, Puns (Oxford, 1984), p. 91.

  7. ‘Die’ is frequently used by female characters, as in Marston's and Barksted's The Insatiate Countess (1610). Isabella goes to her nuptial bed reluctantly: ‘When my loath'd mate / Shall struggle in due pleasure for his right, / I'll think't my love, and die in that delight!’ John Marston and others, The Insatiate Countess, ed. Giorgio Melchiori (Manchester, 1984), 1.2.259-61. For further examples, see James Henke, Courtesans and Cuckolds: A Glossary of Renaissance Dramatic Bawdy (Exclusive of Shakespeare) (N.Y., 1979), p. 67.

  8. James Brown, ‘Eight Types of Pun’, PMLA, 71 (1956), pp. 15-16.

  9. Thomas Dekker, The Shoemaker's Holiday, The Dramatic Works, vol. 1, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, 1953), 2.3.39. Firke and Hodge view the Wife as a natural butt of sexual innuendo. For example, Hodge: ‘Maister I hope yowle not suffer my dame to take downe your iourneymen.’ Firke: ‘If she take me downe, Ile take her vp, yea and take her downe too, a button-hole lower.’ 2.3.29-32.

  10. See Gayle Whittier's definitive study of Petrarchan conceits in the play, ‘The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), pp. 27-41. Also M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1957), p. 61, and Jill Levenson, ‘The Definition of Love: Shakespeare's Phrasing in Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare Studies, 15 (1982), pp. 21-3.

  11. Juliet's erotic epithalamium has distressed many critics, particularly those from the nineteenth century. I quote from the appendix to the Variorum edition: N. J. Halprin argued in 1845 that bridal ceremonies must have been common in the 1590s: ‘hence may be inferred her familiarity with thoughts and expressions not likely in any other way to have obtained entrance into the mind of an innocent and unsophisticated girl of fourteen’ (374); Massey in 1866 argues for emendation of the speech, or ‘the sole incentive of this appeal for night to come was Juliet's eagerness for the perfecting of her marriage. It is not so. That would make of Juliet a forward wanton, and of her speech an invocation most immodest’ (392); and A. de Lamartine rants in 1865: ‘the most scandalous obscenity usurps the place of that virgin purity’ (440). A New Variorum Edition of Romeo and Juliet, vol. 1, ed. Horace Furness (Philadelphia, 1871).

  12. Noted by Harry Levin, ‘Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet’, Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays, ed. John F. Andrews (N.Y., 1993), p. 49. See Gary McCown's thorough study of the genre of epithalamium in terms of Juliet's speech. McCown points out that the bridegroom should speak the epithalamium and the bride, like Junia in Catullus 61, is supposed to be afraid and weep to demonstrate modesty. ‘“Runnawayes Eyes” and Juliet's Epithalamium’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 27 (1976), pp. 150-76.

  13. Christopher Marlowe, The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage, Works, vol. 1, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (London, 1933), 5.1179-81.

  14. I have tried to limit my discussion of sexual puns to those I think audiences would readily grasp. Frankie Rubinstein finds a more obscure series of puns in the following line from Juliet's epithalamium: ‘Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night’ (3.2.5): ‘Juliet's amorous impatience is conveyed in (1) the spreading of the “close” (genitals) curtain; (2) the love-performing … “night”, her “knight”, as she calls Romeo in the last line of the scene.’ A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and their Significance (London, 1984), p. 251.

  15. See Brown, ‘Eight Types of Pun’, pp. 20, 22.

  16. In John Day's Isle of Gulls, Dametas uses ‘coney’ with a similar implication: ‘I would thou shouldst know, we olde Courtiers can hunt a Cony, and put her to the squeake, & make her cry out like a young married wife of the first night.’ The Isle of Gulls, ed. Raymond S. Burns (N.Y., 1980), 1.4.16-19. For an extended discussion of the sexual implications of ‘coney’, see James Henke's glossary, Courtesans and Cuckolds.

  17. One of the most exact borrowings occurs between Lady Capulet's ‘I would the fool were married to her grave’ (3.5.140) and Mistress Barnes's ‘I'll rather have her married to her grave’ (8.175). R. W. Dent lists Porter and Shakespeare as the only users of the phrase until Fletcher's The Night Walker in 1611. See Proverbial Language in English Drama Exclusive of Shakespeare 1495-1616 (Berkeley, 1984). For a list of all verbal parallels between the two plays, see Evett, The Two Angry Women, pp. 51-4. An unlikely argument has been made that Porter's play was written earlier than 1597 and that Shakespeare looked to his play, rather than the reverse. See J. M. Nosworthy, ‘The Two Angry Families of Verona’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 3 (1952), pp. 219-26.

  18. The generally accepted reading of this line (an ‘honour’) is taken, in fact, from q1 (the ‘bad’ Quarto). The ‘newly corrected’ q2, q3 and q4 all read ‘It is an houre that I dreame not of.’

  19. See Shakespeare's sonnet 27: ‘Which like a jewel hung in ghastly night / Makes black night beauteous and her old face new’ (27:11-12).

  20. See Edward Snow for an intricate analysis of the gender differences in Romeo's and Juliet's use of matched metaphors. ‘Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare's ‘Rough Magic’. Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark, 1985), pp. 168-92.

  21. Gillian Beer, ‘Rhyming as Comedy: Body, Ghost and Banquet’, English Comedy, eds. Michael Cordner, Peter Holland and John Kerrigan (Cambridge, 1994), p. 181.

  22. Boys' companies are generally singled out as prone to boy-actor innuendo, a fact often attributed to a more exaggerated acting style. On the other hand, considerable work has been done on proposed doubles entendres in Shakespeare's plays. Many studies of the erotic potential of transvestism have been recently published: see, for example, Susan Zimmerman's claim that Jacobean playwrights deliberately privileged transvestism for purposes of erotic titillation. ‘Disruptive Desire: Artifice and Indeterminacy in Jacobean Comedy’, Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. S. Zimmerman (N.Y., 1992), p. 39.

  23. Puns and malapropisms, writes William C. Carroll, ‘offer the sexual low road, the eruption of the carnivalesque sexual into high discourse …’ ‘The Virgin Not: Language and Sexuality in Shakespeare’, Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994), p. 109.

  24. The Two Angry Women of Abington is surmised to have been popular, considering Henslowe paid the sum of £7 (as against a standard £6) for its sequel. The sequel went into production in February 1598, and Porter was paid the final £2 on 12 February. There was apparently a third sequel planned (The Two Merry Women of Abington); on 28 February Henslowe records the following payment: ‘Lent unto harey porter at the Requeste of the company in earnest of his boocke called ij mery women of abenton the some of forty shellengs & for the Resayte of that money he gave me his faythfulle promysse that I shold have alle the boockes wch he writte …’ Qtd. Evett, The Two Angry Women, p. 5. The only comparable arrangement was made with Chettle. While the entry indicates Porter's desperate financial straits, it also points to the popularity of his first two plays.

  25. See Romeo and Juliet, ed. Brian Gibbons (London, 1980), p. 8. The British Library owns a copy of the first quarto of Edward Sharpham's The Fleire, bowdlerized some time in the seventeenth century with cuts congruent with a provincial performance of the play. Apparently many bawdy jokes, in particular, were cut. See Clifford Leech, ‘The Plays of Edward Sharpham: Alterations Accomplished and Projected’, Review of English Studies, 11 (1935), 70-4.

  26. W. S., The Puritan, or the Widow of Watling Street, ed. John S. Farmer (London, 1911), p. h2r, line 3.

  27. A Critical Old-Spelling Edition of Thomas Dekker's Blurt, Master Constable, ed. Thomas Leland Berger (Salzburg, Austria, 1979), 1.1.90-3. See Romeo 1.5.44-6.

  28. Poetaster, Ben Jonson, vol. 4, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson (Oxford, 1952), 4.9.63-4.

Joan Hutton Landis (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

John Dryden

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 have subtly yet irrefutably conveyed the fact. Had he even been much interested in the subject, he would have mentioned it far more often: as it is, he speaks of homosexuals in much the same way as he speaks of eunuchs.2

And later.

The male buttocks, as a sexual feature, do not interest Shakespeare at all (yet had he been a homosexual they would have done so) and as a physiological feature, only a little, as will be seen from the bum, buttocks, rump entries in the Glossary, unless it be to make a pun on ass and on posteriors: but the female buttocks, despite the paucity of the references thereto, did undoubtedly attract his attention.3

Of the female breasts he wonderfully crows that Shakespeare's interest in them exhibited “the healthy tendencies of a healthy, well-balanced male mind.”4 Shakespeare's own sexuality aside, Partridge's special pleading shows how peculiarly meaning lies in the eye of the beholder and that it is as hard to see through cultural bias as to pass through the eye of the needle. His guidance in regard to the buttocks is a bum steer indeed. If I were to annunciate my own certainties about Shakespeare's interest in male genitals beyond the latitudes of Venice and Belmont, beyond the sonnets and beyond comedy, I would argue that Shakespeare's theory of tragedy—insofar as he may have had one—finds its locus classicus precisely in the phallus, in that “turban'd Turk” so uncannily imaged by Othello in his final speech, in those centaurs that recur, like photographic negatives, Nessus, Lamord, Sagittarius, throughout the histories and tragedies. Shakespeare uses body images in every genre and in every registration as correlatives to his own exploration of motive and his particular obsession with the versions of desire for power and displacements of that desire.

My entry to The Merchant will be the critically recrudescent matter of Portia's ring which, like Mistress Overdone, has had much recent business.5 I am not going to re-argue the dynamics of the play; suffice it to say that I do read the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio as a homosexual one and, while it may be only latent, it charges the play with its tensions. Homosexuality is as much a subject of The Merchant as property, valuation, bonding, justice, or mercy. In the donné of the drama itself, Antonio's condition is linked clearly enough to sterility, gelding, self-hatred and the death wish as if “to die” were also, if Bassanio were “by,” to achieve sexual release. “I am the tainted wether of the flock, metest for death,” he admits (IV. i. 114-5).6 The language of the play allows it; interpretation awards it. Certainly, this view of Antonio has been current for many years although critics still write as if viewing the possibility with a “wild surmise” or, like Partridge, do not see it at all. Shakespeare's Venice is the place of male bonding that is both homosocial—to use Eve Sedgwick's term—and homoerotic, a bonding contingent on the gelding commercialism of its ethos.7 Homosexuality is, at one level, an effect of such a society and an aspect of Shakespeare's critique of it.

What happens to the interpretive possibilities if we review the play from the vantage point of Act V? As A. D. Nuttall asks in his discussion of The Merchant, “What gives the business of the ring-begging … its extraordinary tension if it is not the half-buried conflict between male love and heterosexual love?”8 Just so, and, as we all know, ring is bawdy for the pudendum, vulva, along with “circle,” “O,” “quaint,” “cherry,” “con,” “crown,” “eyes,” and “home,” among others, epithets confirmed not only by Partridge and E. A. Colman but by the relative newcomer in the world of sexual allusion, Frankie Rubinstein.9

Let us recall that we have seen Portia present the ring to her new “lord,” Bassanio, and warn him never to let the ring part from his finger. It stands for their marriage vows, their union, as well as that traditional circle of spherical harmony. It means, too, the actual riches bestowed on him, Portia's house, servants, and self. Next, we watch as Balthasar requests the ring in payment for his legal services. Bassanio acquiesces at Antonio's urging:

My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring,
Let his deserving and my love withal
Be valued 'gainst your wive's commandment.

(IV. i. 449-51)

It is sent, via Gratiano, to Balthasar. Antonio has prevailed. The ring is then produced by Portia after her mock discovery that Bassanio lacks it just as Gratiano is missing his ring. Portia then manipulates its return via Antonio so that the ring makes its own circular journey through the rival and back to its proper Jason.10 These rings make the occasion for a bawdy joke that both lightens and deconstructs the sexual malaise created by a rivalry and an apparent infidelity and prepares us for the imminent reunion of husband and wife which we expect will take place in duplicate or, if we count Jessica and Lorenzo, in triplicate. Quadruplicate, if Launcelot's pregnant Moor is on the premises.

However, it is worth remembering that the Latin word for ring is “ano,” or “anulus.” If ring is bawdy for female parts it may, as well, stand for the anus, or locus amoenus of male lovemaking. The word provides an encoded lexical pun of the sort which seduced Shakespeare regularly. Taking one's cue from Partridge, one asks where else such an improbable ring joke is inscribed. One answer is—precisely in the tail of the many male names which Shakespeare chose for his characters: Bass-anio, Grati-ano, Sol-anio, Steph-ano. Antonio's name contains a ring in it too, if anagrammatically, as does that of Solarino, the Ql precursor of Salerio. If we “English” these names, we have even grosser bawdy; for Gratiano might be translated as “gracious,” “free,” or “thankful” hole. Rubinstein tells us that “gracious” meant “sexually well-endowed.” Solanio has the one-and-only or “single” hole and Bassanio's sobriquet offers us the choice between “low,” “base,” or a tongue-in-cheek jest devolving from the fact that the Latin “basium” means “kiss.” We have the option of construing his name as “kiss my arse.” Shakespeare would use this pun more openly in Henry IV, Part 2 when the Dauphin is called “Basimecu,” (IV. vii. 25). Antonio is the name of the adorer of Sebastian in Twelfth Night and the ardor he expresses is, or so it seems to me, forthrightly homosexual. (Sebastian in its Italian form contains another ring and may, therefore, have guided Shakespeare to choose it for Julia's male persona in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.) I will have more to propose about Antonio's name later, an instance of true “antonmasia.”

This kind of bawdy insight will be found improbable, unsavory, and infuriating. “Haud credo,” as Holofernes might have said. After all, one wants to argue, those are all Italianate names, quite suitable for these Venetians on a realistic basis. It proves little to remind ourselves that in Shakespeare's main source for The Merchant, Il Pecorone, Antonio's prototype was named Ansualdo, Bassanio's Gianetto and Portia's simply “the Lady.” And, it could be maintained, no one would hear the double-entendres in a performance even if the names are reiterated. When Shakespeare wants to identify bawdy characters, he calls them names as plain as Pompey Bum, Froth, Kate Keepdown, Boult, Doll Tearsheet, Pistol or Ganymede! And even if we allow the pun, does it affect or infect similar names in other plays—Bassianus, Lucianus, Coriolanus? My answer would be either “no” or “it might.” Shakespeare writes in the total context of a given dramatic situation. As homosexuality is an explicit orientation in The Merchant, his imagination, so associative, could quite consciously play in this manner. “Lancelot” is overtly bawdy. Even Tubal and Balthasar could be included as genital puns. The homosexual material is, as Nuttall suggests, “half-buried,” and many of its traces are planted obliquely as well.

If one grants that the ring exchange in Act V is identifiable not only as heterosexual bawdy—as Portia's brilliant ploy in the manipulation of her husband's bosom friend and so of Bassanio's allegiance to her—but as homosexual bawdy as well, what are the architectural consequences, what does that “do” to the play itself? Can bawdy be isolated as if in a cell? What motives could Shakespeare have had to play in this specific way in a comedy which has such deeply serious content and which ends, in some views, with such an apparently harmonious closure, the play itself as true metaphysical ring? If the names act as signifiers of a double script, the playwright must have been aware of his own strategies as early as Act I, scene i, or even before composition began.

I am going to presume here that Shakespeare was experimenting with just such a double script, that it was encoded not only because homosexuality was a volatile subject for an Elizabethan playwright but because the play itself depended on doubleness of many kinds for its hedged meanings. As Keith Geary put it in his excellent assessment of The Merchant,

All the main characters in the play have double selves, and so sustain the apparently contradictory critical readings that Rabkin has noted, one predominating, then the other, making our responses and judgments difficult, shifting, relative. This Janus-like duality is built into the larger design of the play. The Merchant of Venice contains a number of “tricks”—elements that appear to mean one thing but turn out to mean another or, more exactly, to have two meanings simultaneously.11

This is wonderfully apt and points up, if inadvertently, the use of Janus, invoked by Solanio in I. i. Even the god who oversees the Venetians has a “ring” in the tail of his name. Shakespeare uses Janus with stunning efficiency, for not only is he the god of beginnings—of the year, of January, of this play—but of shipping and of doorways and entrances. “The New Year's Day presents of the Romans included coppers with two-faced Janus on one side and a ship on the other. … Janus was the inventor of agriculture, of civil laws, of religious worship, of coinage; he was the protector of shipping and trade.”12 One might add that here he is the god of entrances that are both structural and anatomical. Perhaps this kind of deriving can illuminate Portia's name as well. She is overtly linked to “Cato's daughter,” the wife of Brutus and the politically involved Roman woman. In Julius Caesar, of course, as in history, Portia commits suicide, the honorable male mode of coping with defeat. In this comedy, Portia deflects male dominance and homosocial preference by manipulating it. She may also be characterized in The Merchant by her own synechdochic portal, gate, or doorway, be it female or male. I suggest it is both, delaying until later my own explication of the name's provenance.

There are, then, two stories being told at once in The Merchant. The first is that of the quest for Portia by Bassanio and that of the double triangle embodied in Antonio-Bassanio-Portia and Antonio-Bassanio-Shylock. This is the fiction we watch unfold on the stage or read in our studies. The second, or subtext, I shall place on the margins of the fictive or aesthetic realm. It appears only in response to the bawdy in the play and gestures, or so I will argue, towards the life lived in the world of the Globe Theatre, the actual private lives of some of the actors or audience who found the boys who played girls and women of special interest and attraction. The two worlds will mirror one another in the same way that Bassanio describes when he finds his own image reflected in Portia's eyes. That is, in the world of The Merchant of Venice, heterosexual love wins the day; homosexual love is treated as “tainted,” sterile, endemic to that male mercantile ambiance which inhibits conventionally defined “charity” or reproductive possibility. His love for Bassanio is precisely the cause of Antonio's sadness, his masochism, and his sadism. Shylock is clearly not homosexual but his “impotence,” his skewed mode of valuation and eventual symbolic castration are linked to the same ethos. Indeed, his usury, from the Christian point of view, is not only sinful or masturbatory, but is “ewe-sury,” which is considered a kind of sodomy. However, if homosexual love gets bested in Belmont, Portia's ring, in its secondary sense of anus, signals its recrudescent and ongoing presence. The ring's sly passage from one man to another can be seen as an encoded in-joke to which the actors would have been privy. As Lisa Jardine has argued so persuasively in her book, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, the erotics of the stage were often overtly homoerotic, insisting on the fact that boys played female roles and that this reality underlay all Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.13 Such a reality breaks through the artifice of the staging in the same way as the “metadramatic” does when we watch plays-within-plays or find characters lecturing on acting on the stage. Thus, when Gratiano delivers his final odd line “Well, while I live I'll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring” (V. i. 306-07), his meaning is overseen by Janus; it can refer to any one of his wife's three rings or to the ring in the tail of the boy acting the role of Nerissa. If one wants to play with a tantalizing but improbable source for this line, see Genesis, XIX: 4-9. The place is Sodom. The townsmen have surrounded Lot's house and wish to know his two visitors. Lot offers to send them his two virgin daughters in place of the men-angels. As he exhorts them, they exclaim:

Stand back. And they said again, this one fellow came back in to sojourn, and he will needs be judge; now we will deal worse with thee than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door.14

“Stand back” means to sodomize; to “press sore” needs no gloss. Again, in Bassanio's long rhapsodic speech in III. ii., discovering that he has chosen the right casket, he and Portia use the word “stand” and “stand high” three times. It is then that Portia delivers her ring. Speaking of sodomy, look closely at Gratiano's speech in response to the outraged Nerissa who has just threatened to scratch the hair from the face of the clerk who had the ring.

Now, by this hand, I gave it to a youth,
A kind of boy, a little scrubb'd boy,
No higher than thyself, the judge's clerk,
A prating boy that begg'd it as a fee.
I could not for my heart deny it him.

(V. i. 161-65)

“Scrubbed,” as Rubinstein suggests, derives from the Latin scrobis, hole, ditch, grave, vulva. Nerissa is “scrubbed” in her female guise but she is also a boy, perhaps in the sense of passive homosexual. A “prating” boy is both one who talks or prattles and one who has a “prat,” or buttocks. The boy “begg'd” the ring as a fee and so was a beggar boy or, homophonically, a bugger. The word “beggar” is used eight times in the play in some form.

As I have said, Shakespeare valued heterosexual love over homosexual love in his play. He may have done so in life as well, but the buried bawdy, encoded as it is, subverts the text, deconstructs his own fabrication and reveals, as it were, the male bodies under the female costumes. Concomitantly, he inscribes the double or “two-headed” aspect of all things.

Even if one assents to implications of bawdy as I have very generally sketched them here, one might take Partridge's line that there ought to be homosexual or bisexual connotations, gestures, and imagery everywhere. Although one is always in danger of looking too hard through the microscope of one's own bias or focus, a revisionary scan should produce clues or evidence other than the questionable names I have put forward, or the root meanings of a few tainted words. I shall amplify.

Consider, for example, Salerio's rhetoric in I. i. It has often been noted as florid, nearer to the language of love than to the realistic verbiage of merchants. Addressing Antonio, he says:

Your mind is tossing on the ocean,
There where your argosies with portly sail—
Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood,
Or as it were, the pageants of the sea,
Do overpeer the petty traffickers
That cur'sy to them, do them reverence,
As they fly by them with their woven wings.

(I. i. 8-14)

I should not see the sandy hour-glass run
But I should think of shallows and of flats,
And see my wealthy Andrew dock'd in sand,
Vailing her high top lower than her ribs
To kiss her burial. Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone,
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching but my gentle vessel's side
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,
And in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing?

(I. i. 25-36)

Although ships are usually feminine in gender, Salerio compares them to “signiors and rich burghers” to whom smaller ships curtsy. His “wealthy Andrew” is given the female pronoun. While “Andrew” was, literally, the name of a galleon captured by the English in 1596, Shakespeare has his Venetian make of it a kind of transvestite figure. It is “stone” and “rocks” that “touch my gentle vessel's side” and cause his ship to “scatter all her spices on the stream.” While this language is not explicitly bawdy, it encodes the displacement of male love for females onto the merchandise that is not only valuable in the sense of commodity but for its homoerotic aspect. The ships are clearly male in female dress and cause their owners, in fantasy, to “scatter” their spice. Again, when Gratiano describes the beauty of the chase, he makes the following analogy:

How like a younger or a prodigal
The scarf'd bark puts from her native bay,
Hugg'd and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return,
With over-weathered ribs and ragged sails,
Lean, rent, and beggar'd by the strumpet wind!

(II. vi. 13-18)

Overtly sexualized, his argosy is a prodigal son, dressed extravagantly, then “rent and beggar'd.”15 Gratiano, Bassanio's vulgar double (in the sense of dopplegänger), like Salerio, images his shipping in transvestite or ambisexual fashion. The merchant's language helps to create the atmosphere appropriate to Venice, a city which Elizabethans knew not only as a great commercial capital and seaport but as a place infamous for sexuality and perversion; whose very name echoes that of Venus, venery, venereal. Like Sodom, Venice was linked to buggery. Male in its geography when opposed to Belmont—or beautiful mountain—or “mons generis,” we have all come to think of the landscape as divided into sexually identifiable domains. Yet, even there the lexical basis is debatable, for “mountain” can be glossed as “buttocks”16 and has phallic connotations in its verbal form as well. There are other, better ways of describing the relationship of the two places, but once we begin to study Venice or Belmont through the lens of bawdy, odd perspectives emerge. It is seemingly far-fetched to ascribe Antonio's “my ventures are not in one bottom trusted” (I. i. 42) to bawdy, yet, if we admit that Bassanio is the “one place” in which his interest is vested, we might accept such figures as part of a system of puns that stud this play. When Antonio insists, “My purse, my person, my extremest means, / Lie all unlock'd to your occasions” (I. i. 138-39), the genital and sexual meanings seem clear and uncontestable because they belong to the play and its inner dynamics. If Shylock binds fast and locks up his treasure, it is dramatically right that Antonio wishes to spend his, in both senses of that word, for his beloved. Such allusion is not, then, “subversive” because it is apparent and intentional. It does not belong to the second kind which I am distinguishing as encoded.

Another aspect of the play clarified by sexual allusion too dark to be conventionally “bawdy” is the uncanny doubling that exists between Shylock and Antonio. It has always seemed certain to me that Antonio's hatred of Shylock and his disgusting treatment of him were motivated by the unconscious recognition of himself in the Jew. They both attempt to make barren metal breed. Behind it lurks the desire for variations on the pound of flesh. Shylock is linked to the bestial through the ram and the ewes; Antonio, the wether. Shakespeare consistently makes doubles of rivals and enemies, as René Girard has argued so forcefully.17 Neither man attains his ultimate goal. Both will suffer a gelding by gold even though Antonio does end up in possession of three of his argosies, those ships which I have called substitute transvestites. It is a trinity which stands in place of Bassanio and his triune genitals. Antonio's spitting on Shylock's gaberdine and voiding his rheum on Shylock's beard are especially perverse. Partridge confirms that “spit” refers to seminal emission.18 We learn that Antonio also “spurned” Shylock like a “dog” or “cur.” Second meanings for those words are “to copulate” or “prick” and “to sodomize.” Antonio reroutes his self-hatred outwardly against a virtual twin so that his assaults signify both masturbation—“self-abuse” would be a more apt term—and buggery. Shylock's hatred of Antonio, while not identical, is expressed as an “ancient grudge” that he desires to “feed fat.” The pound of flesh he wants to cannibalize is, concomitantly, phallic, the act one of castration. (It is probable that when Shylock speaks of raising up “the gross of full three thousand ducats,” he is, like other characters, mixing his metaphors, using the parlance of his trade that is also, simultaneously, anatomical. Raising ducats is the equivalent of male erection, male power.) Shylock, of course, will be gelded by his daughter's theft of his gold, stones and jewels; Antonio already is gelded by Bassanio's quest for the golden Portia. She is the golden fleece that is sought and won so that, on the level of bawdy, we might quibble that as that fleece belonged to a ram, Portia is connected to the male sex as well as to her own apparent female sex.

Before continuing on this revisionary progress, examining those sites that seem especially green in bawdy, I want to look briefly at two mythic heroes to whom Bassanio is compared: Jason and Hercules. Jason's similarity to the Venetian quester for gold has been nicely studied by Elizabeth Sklar, who emphasizes Jason's double reputation in medieval literary tradition.19 Dante placed him in the eighth circle of hell as a betrayer. His double-dealing was clear to Chaucer in The Legend of Good Women where Jason was described as a “devourer and a dragoun.” Moral Gower treated him as a breaker of oaths. Sklar suggests that Bassanio betrays Portia jasonically when he sends her ring to the “civil doctor” so soon after his marriage. Thus Jason and Bassanio are replications of Janus by virtue of their two-facedness in love and their valuation of gold. Hercules, too, was known in various guises, but traditionally he was known as bisexual. He was an Argonaut. It was at the beginning of Jason's voyage that Hylas, Hercules' beautiful page boy, was sent off the ship in search of water. When he failed to return, Hercules went in search of him. Unable to wait any longer, the Argo sailed without him. This is the episode on which his reputation as a homosexual is based. (He was also a transvestite by virtue of his service to Omphale.) Portia refers to Bassanio during the casket-choosing as both Alcides and Hercules. Her, “Go, Hercules” (III. ii. 60) is wonderfully moving in its context and signifies her own anxiety. Yet, as always, when we place the mythic allusion close to the play itself, to the nature of the rivalry of Portia and Antonio for this hero, we might see that there are counterpassions that she will, in potentia, have to contend with, that passion which Alcides felt for Hylas. Listen to the song which is being sung in response to this exhortation just noted and as Bassanio is in the process of choosing Portia:

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
                              Reply, reply.
It is engend'red in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and fancy dies,
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy's knell.
I'll begin it, ding, dong, bell.

(III. ii. 64-70) (my italics)

It asks where infatuation or sexual desire is begun. The answers are all double-entendres. “Heart” may mean “arse or bowel,”20 “head” means maidenhead, prepuce or testes. It is engendered in the “eyes.” While this organ can stand for all the human orifices, it most often means pudendum or anus. Fancy itself, we learn, means not only amorous inclination but homosexual love. Rubinstein quotes from Spenser's Fairie Queene:

The first was Fancy, like a lovely boy,
Of rare aspect, and beautie without peare's
Matchable either to the ymp of Troy,
Whom Jove did love, and chose his cup to beare,
Or that great daintie lad … so deare
To great Alcides …(21)

Ganymede and Hylas are the subjects of this periphrasis which pointedly connects fancy and catamites in one figure. The theme of Bassanio's whole cogitation is that of appearance and reality, how the world “is still deceived with ornament,” and so, as encoded meaning, doubly appropriate.

Launcelot Gobbo's circular reasoning in II. ii as he feigns a dialogue with the Devil and his conscience is easily limned as a homosexual joke. The Devil—famed for his bisexuality as well as his monstrosity—is urging the “servant” with the “lance” to “budge” or bugger. His “hard conscience” urges him not to budge. As the fiend gives the friendlier counsel, pro-buggery wins the day. (“Con,” according to Rubinstein, can signify the female or male organs and the arse.) A “servant” was a euphemism for a pimp or male whore so that Shakespeare could avail himself of this second meaning by virtue of the character's role as well as the actual word. Because Launcelot is a clown figure, one tends to dissociate the jokes of the servant (as with Launce and his dog in Two Gentlemen of Verona) from the main thrust of the play, yet Launcelot's rhetoric is a mirror of the homosexual material here and shines like the light of a candle in a “naughty world.” Launcelot does, at III. v., raise the belly of the pregnant Moor, and he has just taunted Jessica for raising the price of pork by her conversion to Christianity. Shylock, too, had refused to eat pork with Christians. Pigs and swine were, as well, connected with sodomy. The phrase bougre de cochon, was current. I suggest, though I cannot offer more than my own intuitions as proof, that the image of the pig is encoded in The Merchant's subtext in several ways, indicated by Launcelot's jokes on buggery and pork and hogs, by Shylock's reference to the forbidden meat, and his evocation of the image of a “gaping pig,” or pig with his mouth open at IV. i. 47. Antonio is the name which encodes this meaning. St. Anthony was the patron saint of swineherds. He was often represented with a pig or hog to symbolize his striving with temptation, sensual temptation in particular.22 (The name has come to be attached to the smallest pig of the litter, also known as a “tantony pig.”) If Shakespeare associated Antonio with this saint, and his pig or hog, and his striving with desire, and added in the connotations of sodomy which underscore the play in such a variety of ways, one might also cite the name of Portia. According to Karen Newman, the name is derived from the “Latin porcus, pig, and the Roman clan, the Porcii, breeders of pigs.”23 Bassanio's two lovers are Christians, pork-eaters, and their names encode the sign of the pig and its iconic signification as sodomite. A “lewd interpreter's” fantasy, perhaps. An “ane” is also an ass. (The play's imagery is a veritable bestiary, mentioning, aside from pigs, wolves, lions, horses, dogs, oxen, rams, ewes, sheep, lambs, muttons, beefs, goats, monkeys, cats, parrots, swans, doves, geese, nightingales, the cuckoo, a rat, and the serpent.)

Bawdy is a Pandora's box. Once opened, it is hard, if not impossible, to close the lid. Each scene in the play is interpretable in ways governed by secondary and tertiary meanings of a word or action. One might prose at length on the signification of “torch” and “torch-bearer” at II. iv.24 Jessica's “shames” at wearing the garb of a “boy” preface the cross-dressing of Portia and Nerissa and the language invites the reader to cross gender lines, and customary costume lines in just those provocative ways highlighted by Jardine and others who believe that Shakespeare's plays often transgressed the boundary between artifact and audience, appearance and reality, rule and misrule, inviting the elite to read as cults and sects have always read, gnostically. Or, as sensitive and canny readers and viewers have always attempted to respond, wholly.

Finally, one asks how the business of Jessica's traded ring, Shylocks's turquoise ring, is connected to the double rings that appear as both prop and symbol at the end of The Merchant of Venice. This interchange (III. i.) is not overtly “bawdy” as the second is because the incident, aside from being unstaged, the ring unseen, remains securely within the fiction of the play itself and does not, initially, refer to the homoerotic underscene. We have seen Jessica in her boy's garb, but she is reported by Tubal in Genoa to be spending his hoarded money, his diamond worth 2000 ducats. We have already heard of Jessica's theft of her father's money and his “two sealed bags of ducats, double ducats … and jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones” (II. vii. 20-22), as well as witnessing her own “casket scene.” Related in cruel parody by Solanio, it is clear that Shylock has been robbed of both money and testicles. He is sacrificed, as it were, and being gelded, shorn of his own pound of flesh, and will now even more obsessively seek to perform the same ritual on Antonio. (The play on “wreck” and “wrack” involves the angst in all the important emotional bonding.) Just previous to the report of the “turkis” is Shylock's deadly serious speech concerning the likeness of the Jew and his organs to all other men. Yet, Tubal, Shylock's tribesman, taunts or “wracks” Shylock with the news of his daughter's profligate behavior in Genoa, interlarding his news with the placating report of Antonio's losses. One must ask whether “Tubal” can be a genital joke. It can, I think, especially in the light of his tribesman's own recent loss of “two stones.” The ring in question was Leah's betrothal gift. The fact that it contained a “turkis” has been interestingly studied by Jackson Campbell Boswell, who tells us, not surprisingly, that there were two traditions of this stone; the first, an Eastern European folk tradition, which endowed it with “safety, prosperity and love.”25 Thus, Leah's gift would have been conventional. However, the European tradition connected it with sterility. On the threshold of the Christian world, on her way to Belmont, Jessica exchanges the token for a monkey which, iconographically, signified a type of lechery.26 We need no gloss to see that Jessica is repudiating both parents and her tribe and inviting a new dispensation in which sexuality and, presumably, fertility, will be present. If we want to press the matter further, of course, we can find that Leah's ring has Shylock's “turkis” in it and that the word referred not only to those pagan Turks reputed to be castraters, ambisexual, and sodomites,27 but to the circumcised penis which Shylock would have had. This image of the Turk, so uncannily evoked by Othello as the seat of his own vulnerability—Iago, too, was a “Turk”—is Shylock's as well. In retrospect, then, the ring does, or can, refer to the sexual organs of both parents. Its figuring prepares us for the exchange of Portia's and Nerissa's rings and enacts the dangerous truth that bonds are profoundly difficult to keep, that oaths are most often broken or forgotten, family relationships are, in the final instance, not legislatable by any law, that meaning is almost always contingent, and, in the registration of the bawdy that re-tunes the end of the play in particular, that rings may be substituted, exchanged and re-engendered in surprising ways. These ways seem very different from one another but can be seen to partake of their own “merry bond.” Rings are necessarily and functionally part of all our bodies, they appear in rituals, in our symbolism that stands for those rituals, and they provide the object and the word, par excellence, for bawdy. Bawdy insists on our bodies and also on reality at its most real and most tangible, even when cloaked with those “scarfs” that hide an “Indian Beauty” (III. ii. 98-99).

I began this essay under the aegis of the god Janus and so, in the service of roundness (which Rubinstein glosses as a code word for homosexuality28) and doubleness, I will end by invoking his name once more. He is a paradigm, as Geary suggested, both for the play itself and for each character in the play. Portia takes the name of her servant, Balthasar, and dons the garb of a male with the name Balthasar.29 She is of both sexes, two classes, two professions. Antonio and Shylock are doubles. Bassanio sees himself as a “double self” (V. i. 245) in both of Portia's eyes. Bawdy teaches the reader to “play” in lexical ways that are instructive and most particularly so when one dismisses the areas to which they may seem to lead. That is, to “play” in C. L. Barber's “festive” sense is surely one function of the bawdy in drama; we can misinterpret or read wildly so that we can return to the conventional more responsibly, from holiday to everyday.30 For example, let us look at the neglected Morocco and Arragon and watch them, in Nerissa's phrase, “turn to men” (III. v. 78). Both Princes come to woo Portia, who is unquestionably the female heroine of the play. She is bound by her father's will to be chosen. We may ask if the legal will is connected to the “will” or sublimated incestuous wish of the dead father, or whether her father is Will Shakespeare who has engendered her and can, in all senses, choose her fate for her. What has been involved in hazarding for this rich prize? For Morocco, a Moor, a barbarian, whose name allies him with buttocks31 and with rocks, his failure to win Portia will exact the oath “Never to speak to lady afterward / In way of marriage” (II. i. 45). The name Arragon is also open to lexical violation for “a rag” is a “hard, rough stone” or “lopped off stone,” or a “whore.”32 Arragon finds a fool's head in the silver casket and says, “With one fool's head I came to woo, / But I go away with two” (II. ix. 75-76). Like Janus, Arragon leaves “two-headed.” But, in the contexts of the homosexual puns with which their speeches and remarks are studded and which send up all the oath-taking in The Merchant, Morocco and Arragon may now be legally released from the cultural prescriptions which send all men out to woo and marry women—they never can woo maid—and so we might congratulate them on their newly found freedom from heterosexual “will.” Morocco has uttered the following lines to Portia long since:

If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand:
So is Alcides beaten by his page,
And so may I, blind Fortune leading me,
Miss that which one unworthier may attain,
And die with grieving.

(II. i. 32-38)

He invokes the Hercules who will be “beaten,” or “cudgelled sexually” by his page, or boy,33 and so he may be said to speak in encoded script. Later, just before he will choose the golden casket, he says:

                                                  … They have in England
A coin that bears the figure of an angel
Stamp'd in gold, but that's insculp'd upon;
But here an angel in a golden bed
Lies all within. Deliver me the key.

(II. vii. 55-59)

The “angel” who stands for Portia is also the term for “catamite,”34 which she is not but may be, and leads Morocco on to his fate. He has hazarded and may have won. Likewise, Arragon is lectured by the scroll in the silver casket:

Some there be that shadows kiss,
Such have but a shadow's bliss.

(II. ix. 66-67)

“Shadow,” according to Rubinstein is a “homosexual, who mates with his like. One of Plato's homosexual half-men, created when Zeus cut original men in half.”35 Sending these two liberated princes not to their conventional “deaths” but to life in a land where women have no claim upon them and watching Shakespeare end his play with a Gratiano who may be gesturing toward sore rings and the love that dare speak its name only under the sign of “two-headed Janus” or of Argus, that monster with one hundred eyes in his peacock's tail (invoked by Portia at V. i. 230 to watch over her potential infidelities), one might retire with Hamlet's “the rest is silence.” Or, taking Portia's final promise to “answer all things faithfully,” one can frame the questions that ask themselves. To what do we ascribe this sort of bawdy? Does it signify Shakespeare's black sense of humor? His critique of Venice only? Is Venice London and the Globe? Does his insistence on and nearly obsessive interest in sodomy and buggery, in male love, signal his subversion of Elizabethan norms and prescriptions or his “perversion”? Partridge's injunctions to the contrary, was Shakespeare representing reality or speaking of it to a “happy few”? The safe and sensible answer would be that we cannot know. I have always argued so particularly in regard to Shakespeare's own sexual orientation. I would agree with Rubinstein, who writes:

The higher incidence of sexual, including homosexual, references in my definitions and consequent interpretations of the plays has, for me, no bearing on Shakespeare's sexuality; male writers have created great fictional women, women have created male characters, and homosexuals have created both—to say nothing of not having to be a murderer to create a Macbeth.36

She does go on to point out the fact that boys under eighteen played the women's roles and the ambiguities that stemmed from such a reality. Yet, to study bawdy in this play and in all the plays is to be convinced of Shakespeare's sexual ambivalence and even of his bisexuality. The extraordinary number of double entendres and their nature are not Freudian slips; they attest to a reality behind the facade, the double vision so variously inscribed, perhaps to the scribe himself.

Bawdy, in all of Shakespeare's plays, is that facet of represented human life which, while often comic, mirrors the fact that we are all sexual beings and that gender is often less strictly defined than we might think. We accept the various messages and innuendoes of bawdy on the stage even though we might repress or deny them in reality. Bawdy is a source of subversive democratization. We can react with laughter and enjoyment, or profound horror, because it is already a part of our most intimate, or intimately imagined, experience.


  1. Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York: Dutton, 1969), p. 16.

  2. Partridge, p. 16.

  3. Partridge, p. 16.

  4. Partridge, p. 19.

  5. See, for example, Karen Newman's “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and The Structure of Exchange,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 38 (1987), 319-333; Lisa Jardine's “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's learned Women,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 38 (1987), 1-18; Keith Geary's “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Survey, 37 (1984), 55-68; A. D. Nuttall's chapter on the play in A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (London: Methuen, 1983), 120-31.

  6. All references to the play are from The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1974).

  7. See Eve Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), p. 1.

  8. Nuttall, p. 126.

  9. E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman's, 1974) and Frankie Rubinstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance (London: Macmillan, 1984). I thank Susan Snyder of Swarthmore College for leading me to this indispensable book.

  10. For an excellent account of the ring's journey, see Newman, p. 28.

  11. Geary, p. 56. In The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 193-94, René Warnicke cites the 1534 statute which came to be known as “the buggery statute” in which the act itself was not directly named. Later, Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) would refer to sodomy as “this shameful sin,” “an act not to be named,” and a “cruelty not to be spoken.” Shakespeare would seem to demonstrate, in his own encodings, just how circumspect reference to the act had to be. (Thanks to Professor Joseph Kramer of Bryn Mawr College for this reference.)

  12. Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (New York: Funk and Wagnall, 1949), vol. 2, p. 539.

  13. Lisa Jardine. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press. 1989). It is interesting that Jardine stresses male eroticism in her book, the “women's part” being so clearly male, but fails to bring out this element in the discussion of Portia in her more recent article in the Shakespeare Quarterly where she focuses on cultural ambivalence towards smart women in the Renaissance.

  14. Rubinstein quotes this same section under her definition at “stand back.” p. 253.

  15. In this light, the “burghers” of Salerio's comparison are also “buggers” and the “ragged” sails of Gratiano's analogy may carry the meaning of “rough stone” or “damaged scrotum.” See Rubinstein on “rags,” p. 212.

  16. Colman, p. 204.

  17. René Girard, “To Entrap the Wisest,” in Literature and Society, Selected Papers of the English Institute, 1978 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), 100-19.

  18. Partridge, p. 187.

  19. Elizabeth Sklar, “Bassanio's Golden Fleece,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 18 (1976), 500-09.

  20. Rubinstein, p. 122.

  21. Rubinstein, p. 95.

  22. George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1954), 104-05. It is interesting to note that Antonio meant homosexuality to James Joyce and that he, too, read The Merchant of Venice as a tale of submerged homosexuality. In the “Eumaeus” chapter of Ulysses, the old ranconteur and sea-going liar whose purported name is Murphy, shows Stephen and Bloom a tattoo of the profile of a man, a drowned sailor, named Antonio who is also the artist of the trompe l'oeil tattoo, which, when expanded by certain manipulations of the fingers, shows not only the artist but the number sixteen. Don Gifford announces this number as European code for homosexuality. Joyce connects this artist with the Antonio of The Merchant of Venice and with Shakespeare himself.

  23. Newman, p. 23. See also, Charlotte Younge, History of Christian Names (London: Macmillan & Co., 1884), pp. 151-52.

  24. See Rubinstein, p. 279.

  25. Boswell's article is summarized in The Garland Shakespeare Bibliography, The Merchant of Venice, compiled by Thomas Wheeler.

  26. Colman, p. 204.

  27. Rubinstein, p. 284.

  28. Rubinstein, p. 224.

  29. It is interesting to note that Portia is also called “Daniel” in the trial scene, first by Shylock and then by Gratiano. The Biblical Daniel was given the name of Belteshazzar by the master of Nebuchadnezzar's eunuchs. Even Daniel had two names, or identities. Shakespeare may have derived Portia's lawyerly name from that of Daniel's alias. It echoes “hazard” too.

  30. See C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study in its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959).

  31. Rubinstein, p. 21.

  32. Rubinstein, p. 212.

  33. Rubinstein, p. 22.

  34. Rubinstein, p. 12.

  35. Rubinstein, p. 234.

  36. Rubinstein, p. xiii.

Richard Halpern (essay date 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 little resemblance to the plays that Shakespeare seems to be rejecting. The poem divides rather neatly into comic and tragic halves, and the former of these explores issues central to Shakespeare's early romantic comedies. By depicting the sexual fascination exerted by a beautiful and androgynous young man, Shakespeare draws on the appeal that the boy-actors added to his crossdressing plays. Indeed, Venus' frustration at the sight of a physically compelling but sexually unforthcoming youth foreshadows Olivia's plight when confronted with the disguised Viola in Twelfth Night. Despite the Apollonian pretensions of its epigraph, Venus and Adonis is neither nobler nor purer than Shakespeare's “cheap” plays.

The suggestion that Shakespeare wanted to abandon a popular literary form for a more elite one is reinforced by the poem's dedication to the Earl of Southampton. Having deserted the crowd, Shakespeare apparently tries to accommodate the cultural tastes of the aristocracy. Yet if Venus and Adonis was meant to perplex and annoy the vulgar, it failed miserably. The poem was, in fact, immensely popular, going through sixteen editions by 1640.4 If the Earl of Southampton read it, so, according to contemporary accounts, did tapsters and courtesans.5

Shakespeare misidentifies not only the class composition of his audience but also its gender. The dedication to Southampton suggests an ideal or intended reader who is not only aristocratic but male. Recent critics of English Ovidian verse have had relatively little to say about the composition of its readership, but there seems to be a general if sometimes unstated assumption that such verse was written for, and read by, men. And there is good reason to think so. The humor of Venus and Adonis, like that of much Ovidian verse, is intensely and often viciously misogynist. Moreover, the English tradition of Ovidian poetry was fostered in the universities and the Inns of Court,6 exclusively male bastions that cultivated a homosocial style.7

While plausible, however, the hypothesis of a predominantly male readership is contradicted by most of the early references to Venus and Adonis. Contemporaries tended to depict Shakespeare's poem as the reading matter of courtesans, lascivious nuns, adulterous housewives, or libidinous young girls.8 In Thomas Middleton's A Mad World My Masters (1608), the jealous Harebrain confiscates his wife's copies of Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander, declaring: “O, two luscious marrow-bone pies for a young married wife!” Conversely, in Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the Exchange (1607), Bowdler tries to seduce Mall Berry by reading passages aloud from Venus and Adonis.9 Young women were often imagined as hiding copies of the poem about their persons or rooms, and imbibing loose morals or illicit sexual pleasures from it. The most vivid portrait of the poem and its readers comes from John Davies' Paper's Complaint (1610-11):

Another (ah Lord helpe) mee vilifies
With Art of Love, and how to subtilize,
Making lewd Venus, with eternall Lines,
To tye Adonis to her loves designes:
Fine wit is shew'n therein: but finer twere
If not attired in such bawdy Geare.
But be it as it will: the coyest Dames
In private read it for their Closet-games:
For, sooth to say, the Lines so draw them on,
To the venerian speculation,
That will they, nill they (if of flesh they bee)
They will think of it, sith loose Thought is free.

(ll. 47-58)10

Davies himself, like the women he imagines, is rather coy here, for the very vagueness of his language prompts “venerian speculations” in the reader. What exactly are “closet games,” and what is the “it” about which female readers find themselves compelled to think (the poem? the sexual act?)? By implicating Venus and Adonis in an autoerotic, possibly masturbatory scene, Davies may tell us more about the way men fantasized female readers than he does about the fantasies of those readers; yet his lines reflect widely expressed anxieties about the effects of Venus and Adonis on women.

The reactions of Davies and other contemporary moralists and playwrights underscore the ironies of Shakespeare's epigraph from Ovid. While Venus and Adonis announces itself as an Apollonian exercise as pure as the Castalian spring, it is in fact a piece of soft-core pornography. While it distinguishes itself from “cheap” drama, moralists feared it would provoke the same kinds of lascivious desires and acts as did stage comedies. And while it poses as an offering to a male, aristocratic readership, it actually appealed to a broadly popular and (to judge by contemporary accounts) a largely if not predominantly female audience. As I shall argue, however, the ironies of the poem's reception are by no means accidental. Venus and Adonis is largely “about” the paradoxical status of Ovidian verse, which is at once a high literary form and a source of pornographic thrills. It is also intensely self-conscious about the effect of such verse on female readers.

John Davies' lines on Venus and Adonis open the way to a reading of the poem by suggesting parallels between female readers and Shakespeare's Venus. Just as Venus is captured or overcome by Adonis' beauty, so the female readers of Shakespeare's text are depicted as the victims of a somewhat involuntary eros generated by the poem itself: the poem's lines “draw them on / To the venerian speculation,” so that “will they nill they … they will think of it.” Moreover, the phrase “venerian speculation” indirectly compares the readers' imaginations and Venus' more literal “speculation” or act of looking at Adonis. Shakespeare's Venus is, in fact, a prisoner in the realm of speculation or vision. Overcome by Adonis' charms but frustrated by his lack of sexual response, she can do nothing more than gaze at him. “Be bold to play,” she urges, “our sport is not in sight” (l. 124). Later, she invokes one of a series of interlocked Ovidian allusions by comparing Adonis in all but name to Pygmalion's statue:

Fie, liveless picture, cold and senseless stone,
Well-painted idol, image dull and dead,
Statue contenting but the eye alone,
Thing like a man, but of no woman bred!

(ll. 211-214)

Adonis is, according to Ovid, the great-grandson of Pygmalion and the transformed statue. Venus' phrase “of no woman bred” may thus refer not only to Adonis' birth from the myrrh tree but to his more distant descent from a piece of female sculpture.

In John Marston's poem “The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion's Image,” Pygmalion actually attempts to make love to his statue; he kisses it, rubs its breasts, and lies against it: “Yet viewing, touching, kissing (common favour,) / Could never satiate his loves ardencie.”11 This scene depicts the power of the artwork as its capacity to frustrate the viewer—to provoke, yet not fulfil, an erotic desire. Here the viewing subject is male, and when Pygmalion berates his uncooperative beloved as “relentless stone,” it is clear that she simply materializes the spiritual qualities of the traditional Petrarchan mistress. Shakespeare's innovation with respect to the Pygmalion myth—as in Venus and Adonis generally—is to explore the “comic” possibilites of reversing this situation. Hence he places Venus in Pygmalion's place, lusting hopelessly after an unresponsive image—a situation which is highly ironic, since it was Venus who granted Pygmalion's prayers by transforming the statue into a real woman. Here she proves unable to effect a similar change, and the failure of her erotic power is thus matched by the failure of her metamorphic power. Ironically, the first half of Shakespeare's Ovidian poem depends on the denial of a wished-for “metamorphosis.”

The interest of John Davies' analogy, with which I began, is that it is subject to reversal: that is to say, Venus' sexual frustration at the hands of an arousing but unresponsive artwork allegorizes the plight of the female reader of Shakespeare's erotic text. As a mildly pornographic poem, Venus and Adonis is meant to generate some kind of sexual thrill or tension. But since it is, in the end, only a book, the female reader, like Shakespeare's Venus, must content herself with “venerian speculation” alone. The theological gap that separates Venus from the merely mortal Adonis stands in for the ontological gap between the female reader and the empty imaginations generated by the poem.

The misogynist humor of Venus and Adonis centers on Shakespeare's debasing and slightly grotesque portrayal of female sexual desire. The resentment of every male sonneteer who ever wooed a lady in vain doubtless found satisfaction in the spectacle of Venus, the very embodiment of female sexual power, grovelling helplessly before a beautiful, androgynous man. But Shakespeare considerably deepens this troubling strain by extending it allegorically to his female readers. Venus and Adonis, in other words, is not only a poem about female sexual frustration; it is meant to produce such frustration. Just as Adonis' beauty arouses Venus but refuses to satisfy her, so Shakespeare's poem aims to arouse and frustrate the female reader. If Shakespeare was himself no Adonis, his art produced a similar though somewhat mediated effect.

This somewhat peculiar allegory of reading becomes unmistakably evident in the three stanzas that occupy the numerical center of the poem. Adonis has announced his intention to hunt the boar, whereupon Venus, overcome with both sexual frustration and fear for his life, faints, pulling Adonis on top of her as she falls:

“The boar!” quoth she, whereat a sudden pale,
Like lawn being spread upon the blushing rose,
Usurps her cheek; she trembles at his tale,
And on his neck her yoking arms she throws.
          She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck,
          He on her belly falls, she on her back.
Now is she in the very lists of love,
Her champion mounted for the hot encounter;
All is imaginary she doth prove,
He will not manage her, although he mount her,
          That worse than Tantalus' is her annoy,
          To clip Elysium and to lack her joy.
Even so poor birds, deceiv'd with painted grapes,
Do surfeit by the eye and pine the maw;
Even so she languisheth in her mishaps,
As those poor birds that helpless berries saw.
          The warm effects which she in him finds missing
          She seeks to kindle with continual kissing.
But all in vain, good queen, it will not be!

(ll. 589-607)

Commentators on Shakespeare's poem have scrupulously avoided this tasteless passage. Venus' sexual pratfall, her vain attempts to coax Adonis into an erection by kissing him, and the crude sexual innuendo behind the figure of the useless grapes, are both socially offensive and erotically unappealing. Nevertheless, these lines offer a rather complex statement on the relation between eros and art, and manage in some sense to move through, if not quite beyond, their own misogyny.

At least three classical references, all of them more or less implicit, organize this passage: the Ovidian myths of Pygmalion and Narcissus, and Pliny's story of the competition between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasios. All three, moreover, pertain to Shakespeare's extended allegory of the female reader of the erotic text. Pygmalion returns in the general problem of the appealing and unresponsive image, but in reversing the genders of Ovid's tale Shakespeare anatomically specifies the failure of the artwork: it lacks the phallus. The female reader who is somehow aroused by Shakespeare's poem will find herself in Venus' position, missing the member which, this poem assumes, provides the only possible satisfaction for female sexual desire.12 I think it is safe to assume two things here. First, while Shakespeare meant his poem to be mildly titillating, he could not possibly believe that it would produce the kind of desperately intense desire experienced by Venus. Second, he surely knew that in the unlikely event that any female reader of the poem found it seriously arousing, she possessed the means to satisfy her own needs, and did not require the magical incarnation of an imaginary phallus. Nevertheless, the strategic absence of Adonis' erection locates the ontological lack structuring the literary artwork, and particularly the erotic artwork. The point is that literary imagination, without some sort of physical intervention, lacks the means to satisfy erotic desire.

This moral is reinforced by the allusion to Pliny's famous story of the Greek artist Zeuxis, whose painted grapes were so realistic that they fooled birds into trying to eat them. Zeuxis, who thinks he has thus won his competition with the painter Parrhasios, nevertheless finds that he has lost when he tries to part the veil covering Parrhasios' painting and discovers that the veil is the painting. The point of this little parable is missed, I think, if it is read as suggesting that the power of art rests solely in mimesis or illusion. For Pliny's tale suggests that the power of mimesis depends in turn on its ability to frustrate the viewer, to arouse a desire which it then does not fulfill. The force of art lies not its capacity to grant some kind of aesthetic satisfaction, but precisely in its capacity to deny satisfaction and thus assert its mastery over the viewer.

The tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasios offers a stunning riposte to a Platonic ontology of art. For Plato, the mimetic work of art is a mere simulacrum, an empty shadow of the real. The painting of a grape is an ontological nullity in comparison with a real grape, just as the shadows on the wall of the cave are nothing in comparison with the real objects that cast them. Pliny's tale also contains a moment that manifests the merely simulacral status of the image. But now to reveal the image's emptiness is precisely to confirm its power. Zeuxis' temporary victory occurs when his grapes prove unable to feed the birds; and Parrhasios' ultimate victory comes when he subjects Zeuxis in his turn to the emptiness of the image. Indeed, a kind of metamorphic inversion occurs between viewer and object, for the unsatisfied hunger of the birds indicates their own emptiness in relation to the image, which is complete unto itself. In the paradoxical ontology of the artwork, it is the real birds who are hollow and the painted grapes that are full.

In Shakespeare's poem, of course, it is not birds but women who “surfeit by the eye [but] pine the maw.” Caught in the toils of the erotic text, the female reader is presumed to be afflicted with need, mastered by the mimetic power of a poem that renders her unsatisfied, empty. Earlier, the text seemed ontologically hollow in relation to the reader because it lacked the phallus. Now the text is full and the reader is empty. It is not the text but the reader—particularly the female reader—who represents the void of castration.

This ontological reversal is represented within the poem by the fact that Adonis, a mere mortal, triumphs over the divinity of Venus. I say “triumphs” because, paradoxically, in this episode of sexual failure or uninterest it is Venus, not Adonis, who appears more ridiculous. Adonis' presumed incapacity is balanced by his emotional self-containment, while Venus is made risible by the intensity of her unsatisfied need. Like the birds in Pliny, she is left absurdly pecking at a painted grape. Venus' “pining maw” has become the poem's primary signifier of lack.13

I remarked earlier that this episode provides an allegory of reading, but it is more accurate to say that its allegory concerns textual consumption. After all, the birds in Pliny do not “read” the grapes, they try to eat them. Earlier in the poem, Venus is likewise depicted as trying to “consume” Adonis sexually:

Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast,
Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh, and bone,
Shaking her wings, devouring all in haste,
Till either gorge be stuff'd, or prey be gone;
Even so she kiss'd his brow, his cheek, his chin,
And where she ends, she doth anew begin.

(ll. 55-60)

Venus as eagle is a frighteningly powerful magnification of Pliny's delicate birds. Her frenzied efforts at sexual consumption make her precisely into an image of the consumer of a pornographic text. Such a consumer does not “read” in the academic sense, insofar as this activity suggests some attention to the literary or figurative status of the text. Rather, pornography requires, at least at some level, a naive submission to the representational claims of the work. Venus and Adonis is, as I shall argue later, intensely aware of the mimetic claims of pornography. If Pliny's bird is to represent the frustrated consumer of the text, the text itself must aspire to the condition of a perfectly painted grape, a pure mimetic surface without textual depth.

While the passage I have been interpreting is ostensibly organized by Pliny's tale of Zeuxis, it is also more subtly permeated by another, Ovidian, tale: that of Narcissus. Various commentators have noted the importance of Narcissus to Shakespeare's poem, but they invariably identify Adonis as the poem's Narcissus-figure. In so doing they are following Venus' lead, for she herself berates Adonis by comparing him to the self-absorbed youth:

Is thine own heart to thine own face affected?
Can thy right hand seize love upon thy left?
Then woo thyself, be of thyself rejected;
Steal thine own freedom, and complain on theft.
Narcissus so himself himself forsook,
And died to kiss his shadow in the brook.

(ll. 157-162)

One of the ironies of the passage I have been addressing is that Venus, not Adonis, now occupies the narcissistic position. For it is she who attempts to kiss a shadow or empty image in the reluctant Adonis. Like Narcissus, who wastes away while peering at his reflection, Venus “surfeits by the eye and pines the maw.”

In one sense, Narcissus just rounds out the cast of mythological characters who unsuccessfully attempt to embrace an image. In his De Pictura, Leon Battista Alberti employs the myth of Narcissus to depict art's attempt to grasp the world of alluring surfaces: “Consequently, I used to tell my friends that the inventor of painting, according to the poets, was Narcissus, who was turned into a flower; for, as painting is the flower of all the arts, so the tale of Narcissus fits our purposes perfectly. What is painting but the art of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool? (Quid est enim aliud pingere quam arte superficiem illam fontis amplecti?)”14 Like Pygmalion, who makes love to a statue, or the birds in Pliny who peck at the painted grapes, Narcissus falls prey to the power of the image and mistakes it for the real. He thus represents once more the ontological and sexual dilemmas of Shakespeare's imagined female reader.15 Yet Narcissus diverts the problem of frustration into new directions. In the story of Pygmalion, the spectator's desire eventually wins out over the coldness of the image when the statue is metamorphosed, with Venus' aid, into a real woman. But the tale of Narcissus reverses this plot, for here the image remains intransigently empty, and it is the viewer himself who is therefore transformed by his own desire. In Golding's translation of Ovid (1567), Narcissus perfectly reverses the Pygmalion story by becoming like a piece of sculpture: “Astraughted like an Ymage made of Marble stone he lyes, / There gazing on his shadowe still with fixed staring eyes.”16 Narcissus' tale differs from that of Zeuxis' birds as well, for after his initial mistake, Narcissus comes to understand that what he loves is his own reflection. But he is no less captured for having recognized the emptiness of the image, and he continues to adore it until he dies and is metamorphosed into a flower. Pliny's birds, one assumes, eventually abandon the painted grapes once they come to learn that they cannot be eaten. The birds, that is, are temporarily fooled by an illusion. But the desire of Narcissus survives even this moment of disillusionment and remains impossibly attached to its object. If Pliny's birds are captured by some ontological misrecognition, Narcissus' desire absorbs into itself the ontological discrepancy between spectator and image.

This difference between human and animal desire occupies Jacques Lacan at the opening of his famous essay on the mirror stage, where he contrasts the responses of a monkey and a human child when confronted with their images in a mirror: “This act, far from exhausting itself, as in the case of the monkey, once the image has been mastered and found empty, immediately rebounds in the case of the child in a series of gestures in which he experiences in play the relation between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it duplicates—the child's own body, and the persons and things, around him.”17 In this moment, which constitutes the birth of the imaginary, the child moves through the emptiness of the image, thereby incorporating the simulacrum as such into the structure of its desire. The power of the image no longer resides exclusively in its capacity to “dupe” the spectator, to make a monkey of him or her.

It is in this Lacanian and anachronistic sense that one must read the word “imaginary” in Shakespeare's line: “All is imaginary she doth prove.” Like Pliny's birds, Venus is duped into hoping for real sustenance from a mere image. But unlike the birds, she does not abandon the image once it is ascertained to be empty. Her impossible love for Adonis survives even this decisive proof that she can expect nothing from him in the way of sexual satisfaction. Here we discover the difference between an erotic ontology and a philosophical one. Desire sustains the reality of its object even when that object has proven disappointing or frustrating.

If Venus' continued attachment to Adonis, beyond any hope of sexual consummation, signifies a kind of enslavement and hence a continued degradation, the tone of her representation nevertheless undergoes a change. After this episode she takes on an increasing grandeur, becoming less a comically failed suitor than a tragically failed protector. Just as the unresponsiveness of his reflected image provokes a metamorphosis in Narcissus as spectator, so Adonis' unresponsiveness causes a change in Venus. It is as if these stanzas, occupying the very center of the poem, were the mirroring pool in which the two halves engage in a chiastic and transformative reflection.

The erotic ontology of the text, which sustains it beyond the exhaustion of its sexual use-value, also transforms Venus' role as symbol of the female reader. For the frustration of sexual need has enabled the emergence of a desire which accords more harmoniously with the nature of the poetic object. The failure to receive physical satisfaction from the text passes over into a state in which the text is desired as a simulacrum. In effect, then, this episode registers the birth of the aesthetic from the sexual. And none too soon, for from this point on the poem offers nothing in the way of erotic pleasure or titillation. As the poem metamorphoses from a comically erotic to a tragic mode, so Venus as representative of the female reader evolves from the frustrated consumer of a pornographic text to the subject of an (aesthetic) desire which incorporates the death or emptiness of its object. I am not claiming that this movement in any way mitigates the misogyny of Venus and Adonis. It may even be said to deepen it. The best that can be said here is that Venus transcends her own degradation. Like Narcissus' image, she is not depleted by being emptied out.


  1. Ovid, Amores, I.xv.35-36. All quotations of Shakespeare's works are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, Harry Levin et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. In Amores I.xv, Ovid gives thanks for the privacy and leisure needed for lyric poetry. Early in that poem he thanks Envy for not “prostituting my voice in the ungrateful forum” (“me / Ingrato vocem prostituisse foro”) (5-6), thus clarifying what he later means by the “vilia” that please the crowd. Ovid, Les Amours, ed. and trans. Henri Bornecque (Paris: Société d' Edition des Belles Lettres, 1968). This reference to public oratory makes it even likelier that Shakespeare takes “vilia” to refer to public theater.

  3. See, e.g., Leeds Barroll, Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare's Theater: The Stuart Years (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), 17.

  4. Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987), 15.

  5. In George Peele's Merry and Conceited Jests, Shakespeare's poem is read by “a tapster … much given to poetry.” Dramatic and Poetical Works of Robert Greene and George Peele, ed. Alexander Dyce (London: Routledge, [n.d.]), 619. Venus and Adonis is listed as part of the courtesan's library in Thomas Cranley, The Converted Courtezan (1639) sig. E4v.

  6. William Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and their Contemporaries (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1977), 31-33.

  7. See Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 25-37: “The Inns of Court as a Socioliterary Milieu.”

  8. See the references to Venus and Adonis in volume one of The Shakespere Allusion-Book: A Collection of Allusions to Shakespere From 1591 to 1700, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1932).

  9. Shakespere Allusion-Book, 1: 189, 177.

  10. The Complete Works of John Davies of Hereford, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 2 vols. (New York: AMS, 1967).

  11. John Marston, “The Metamorphosis of Pigmalions Image,” Elizabethan Minor Epics, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (New York: Columbia UP, 1963), stanza 20.

  12. The image of the phallic text appears in Richard Brathwait's The English Gentlewoman (1631), which warns women against reading Shakespeare's poem: “Venus and Adonis are unfitting Consorts for a Ladies bosome. Remove them timely from you, if they ever had entertainment by you, lest, like the Snake in the fable, they annoy you” (139; quoted in The Shakespere Allusion-Book, 354). In Brathwait's imagination, Shakespeare's Ovidian poem undergoes something very like a metamorphosis. Brathwait's image of the snake at the bosom recalls Shakespeare's Cleopatra and her phallic “joy o' the worm.” (Cleopatra, it should be recalled, fashions herself after Venus in Shakespeare's play.) Paradoxically, then, Brathwait's warning constitutes a virtual wish-fulfillment for Venus, since the text becomes the living phallus that she longs for. The danger of the poem is precisely its capacity to produce pleasure.

    An interesting inversion of this problem occurs in Sonnet 20, which compares Shakespeare's “master-mistress” to the painting of a woman: “A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted / Hast thou …” (1-2). Here, however, it is the presence, rather than the absence, of a penis which inhibits sexual consummation:

    And for a woman wert thou first created,
    Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
    And by addition me of thee defeated,
    By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
              But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
              Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.


    The image of Nature as an artist or sculptor who “fell a-doting” over her creation recalls Venus' position as female Pygmalion.

  13. The association of Venus and castration is made explicit by sonnet IX of The Passionate Pilgrim:

    Fair was the morn when the fair queen of love,
    .....Paler for sorrow than her milk-white dove,
    For Adon's sake, a youngster proud and wild,
    Her stand she takes upon a steep-up hill.
    Anon Adonis comes with horns and hounds;
    She, silly queen, with more than love's good will,
    Forbade the boy he should not pass those grounds.
    “Once,” quoth she, “did I see a sweet fair youth
    Here in these brakes deep-wounded with a boar,
    Deep in the thigh, a spectacle of ruth!
    See in my thigh,” quoth she, “here was the sore.”
              She showed hers, he saw more wounds than one,
              And blushing fled, and left her all alone.
  14. Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture, trans. and ed. Cecil Grayson (London: Phaidon, 1972), II.26. Leonardo da Vinci probably has Narcissus' pool in mind, although he does not directly mention it, in the section of his Treatise on Painting entitled “How the mirror is master of painters”: “The painting is intangible insofar as that which seems round and detached cannot be surrounded [circondare] with the hands, and the same is true of a mirror” (Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting, trans. A. Philip McMahon, 2 vols. [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1956], 1:160).

  15. The ontological dilemmas of the reader are suggested by Shakespeare's apostrophe to Venus at the end of the above-quoted passage: “But all in vain. Good Queen, it will not be!” (l. 607). It is no accident that the pretense of direct address to a fictional character occurs just at the end of a passage depicting the non-responsiveness of the work of art. Here, I think, Shakespeare imitates Ovid's apostrophe to Narcissus in Metamorphoses III.432-436, which in turn anticipates Narcissus' vain address to his own image in lines 477-479. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921).

    Shakespeare has in effect “split” the attributes of Narcissus between his two protagonists. Adonis embodies the problem of self-love while Venus represents desire for the image.

  16. Shakespeare's Ovid, Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the Metamorphoses, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1961), III.523-524.

  17. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), 1.

Frank Kermode (essay date summer 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 discusses one of Empson's examples of the seventh type of ambiguity, the type that occurs when “the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the author's mind.” This type was of special importance not only because of the degree of “compaction” to be observed in the relation of the opposites, but because it represents somehow the deepest poetry, what Empson calls, with only a little irony, “the secret places of the Muse,” rather wickedly adapting some lines from Dante which show the poet and Virgil too intimately involved in the body of Satan: another type of ambiguity.

One example of the seventh type, cited by Bate, comes in a speech in Measure for Measure, where Claudio, under sentence of death for fornication, agrees that his sister, the novice Isabella, might, with some hope of success, go to the Deputy Angelo and plead for her brother's life.

                                                                                for in her youth
There is a prone and speechlesse dialect
Such as moue men. …


Dr. Johnson “could scarcely tell what signification to give the word ‘prone,’” and after laboring at it for a while he suggests emending “prone” to either “pow'r” or “prompt.” A modern reader may scorn these rather feeble suggestions, and even agree that this passage, far from suffering a loss of sense from that “distortion of words” which “is not uncommon in our author,” comes from the secret places of the Muse where distortions make poetry; a wonderful piece of language, one of those that provoke the sort of attention Eliot had in mind when he spoke of the bewildering minute, the moment of dazzled recognition, from which one draws back and, having regained composure, tries to think of something to say about an experience too disconcerting to be thought of as simply pleasant. Empson found in Claudio's words an example of his “complete opposites”:

This is the stainless Isabel, being spoken of by her respectful brother. Prone means either “inactive and lying flat” (in retirement or with a lover) or “active,” “tending to,” whether as moving men by her subtlety or by her purity, or as moving in herself, for pleasure or to do good. Speechlesse will not give away whether she is shy or sly, and dialect has abandoned the effort to distinguish between them. The last half-line makes its point very calmly, with an air of knowing about such cases; and, indeed, I feel very indelicate in explaining Claudio's meaning. …

Bate now develops this reading, perhaps wanting to strengthen its sexual suggestiveness; Empson, to whom the conflicting senses of “prone” (inactive/active) are the central issue with support from subtle/pure, shy/sly, has “lying flat … with a lover,” and the suggestion about Isabella's movement, and the final hint about Claudio's street wisdom; but more, perhaps, can be done along these lines. Mention of Isabella's youth, it is alleged, brings in “the heat of sexuality,” while “prone” introduces the fleeting idea of Isabella lying flat on her back. But this is a mistake, and Empson just avoided it. Prone can certainly mean an extraordinary number of things, but it never means “flat on the back,” as the O.E.D. (which, surprisingly, does not give this example) makes perfectly clear. Perhaps Professor Bate would have been happier if Shakespeare had written supine, a word he somehow omitted to use anywhere, though it was available and clearly differentiated from prone, as in the Dictionary's example from a book published in 1615 (“the position or manner of lying … eyther prone that is downeward, or supine that is vpward”). Of course it is true that we might still somehow get from the lines the idea that Claudio, delicately, ambiguously, even unwillingly, entertains the notion that his sister may exercise an appeal that is partly sexual—as if, by a masculine intuition that against probability turns out to be shared by the precise Angelo, he sees that her nun's habit could be an element in her success as an advocate, the more apposite in that the Deputy might get from the encounter some sense of the strength of the temptation to which he, Claudio, had yielded, though given the young woman's religious vocation and the celebrated rigor of Angelo's life, one would not have expected either of them to fall. Of course we know that the action of the play will turn on Angelo's inflamed sexual reaction to Isabella, so that we may read this expressly erotic consequence back into Claudio's speech, to the point where it can be overlooked that he could be thinking first of his sister simply as an advocate made the more persuasive by her feminine grace and a habit which, though some might find it provocative, inevitably suggests chastity.

But the sexual suggestion can't be wholly dispelled. J. W. Lever in his Arden edition of 1965 allows that “prone,” “move,” and, in the next line, “play,” are “capable of suggesting sexual provocation,” though he insists that the “overt drift” concerns psychology and rhetoric, usefully quoting from T. Wright's The Passions of the Mind (1601): “superiours may learn to coniecture the affections of their subiectes mindes, by a silent speech pronounced in their very countenances. And this point especially may be obserued in women.” Lever thinks prone here suggests “the abject posture of submission or helplessness.” This sense, which doesn't eliminate but probably reduces the flagrancy of the Empson-Bate interpretation, can more easily be admitted if we insist that whatever else it may mean, prone does not mean supine. The commonsense view might be that Claudio is cheering himself up by arguing that Isabella might impress Angelo in two ways, by being submissive and silent, and, alternatively, by proving she is a good arguer; or both, at appropriate moments. Critics are rightly required to be resistant to such simple explanations; as Stephen Booth remarks in his edition of the Sonnets, sometimes “a reader will see the speaker's point without understanding (or knowing that he has not understood and cannot in any usual sense understand) the sentence that makes the point.” He makes this valuable proposition while discussing Sonnet 16, but adds that in general “even where the lines are vaguest and most ambiguous they are usually also simple and obvious.” This is a paradox worth bearing in mind when one is engaged in discussions of the present kind. The ordinary reader and the commentator have somewhat different interests.

I don't feel that Empson, who elsewhere wrote so finely about Measure for Measure, has in this instance quite met the challenge of the lines I've been discussing, and I doubt if Bate has helped him much. So this is a good moment to turn to Hilda Hulme's remarkable book, Explorations in Shakespeare's Language. Hulme, for some years my respected colleague, was, as she remarks in her introduction, “on the language side,” and she knew a lot about Elizabethan English. It is the purpose of her book to apply that knowledge to the language of Shakespeare's plays. She remarks at the outset that an interest in the “total meaning” of units of language has been a “special distinction of recent criticism.” She may have had Empson in mind, though she cites him only once (with approval, although his method, despite his reliance on the O.E.D., is of course very different from hers). Unlike Dr. Johnson, who admired Shakespeare most when he was writing with “ease and simplicity,” and regretted his tendency towards “ruggedness or difficulty,” we now, she remarks, “take pleasure … in all the various modes of complex meaning,” the more various and complex occurring naturally in rugged and difficult passages rather than in easy and simple ones; and so we convince ourselves that our response is closer to that of Shakespeare's contemporaries than to that of his editors from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. Hulme reminds us that Heminge and Condell, though they boasted about their author's fluency, acknowledged that his readers would have various degrees of skill, “from the most able, to him that can but spell.” It has always seemed a great mystery of the early Jacobean years that there was an audience able to take in, at a hearing, at least some of the sense of passages in a dozen great plays (think, for instance, of Coriolanus) which in some cases continue to baffle modern editors. Of course they had been taught by Shakespeare and had also listened to some very long sermons ruggedly dividing the word of God. And here Booth's remark is apposite; one can follow, catch the drift, without truly understanding, and even more in a play than in a sonnet, for the onward drive of the action will not permit one to linger over puzzles.

Hilda Hulme, as one would expect, has a look at Claudio's “prone,” reminding the reader as she often did that Latin senses can lurk behind Shakespearean words, and citing Cooper's Thesaurus on the expression aures pronas, for which he gives, as one of a number of instances, “auribus pronis aliquid accipere [to receive something with prone ears]. Tacit. Willingly to hear.”1 This is useful because it connects “prone” with “speechlesse” in a quite characteristic Shakespearean (and Elizabethan) manner. Indeed Empson uses, in another example of the seventh type, Donne's line “Even my opprest shoes, dumb and speechlesse were,” making the point that “Dumb and speechlesse have the same meaning, but their sound describes the silence and the noise, respectively.” If we remember both Cooper and Wright we can perhaps think of “prone” and “speechlesse” as being two ways of saying the same thing, though we are still struck by the apparent strangeness of “prone” and the oxymoron of “speechlesse dialect”: could it mean making the plea by a kind of eloquence of demeanor rather than in words? Perhaps, but Claudio does add that his sister is an accomplished speaker, as indeed the sequel proves.

It is worth adding that the word prone has other senses some of which, in defiance of the full Empsonian doctrine (though he admitted the need for exceptions) should be ruled out as irrelevant to the present case, some more readily than others. Shakespeare uses the word seven times. Among the other usages “prone to mischief,” “I never saw one so prone,” meaning “ready,” “prone [willing] to labor,” can be ruled out, though Sonnet 141 calls the sense of feeling “to base touches prone” and in The Rape of Lucrece we find “O that prone lust should stain so pure a bed!”(l.684), where, as F. T. Prince correctly and modestly remarks in his Arden edition (1960), one can gloss “prone” as “headstrong, impulsive,” but “the meaning of ‘prostrate’ as ‘face downwards’ enters in.” It is indeed an odd word, for it can mean “servile, submissive, cringing” and also “headstrong and impulsive,” and it can qualify “lust.” Even the commoner senses, surviving into our own English, may not gain admission: “easy, apt, liable, having a natural disposition to something” (as in Hermione's “I am not prone to weeping, as our sex / Commonly are” (Winter's Tale, II.i.108-9). We impose some limits or explanation gets lost in mere noise. The limits can be so drawn as to exclude much, but not to exclude sexual innuendo; and Dr. Hulme, who has a learned chapter on “The Less Decent Language of the Time,” would not disapprove of this.

For the sake of completeness one should here consider the verb “move” in the quotation, since it is plural though its subject is singular. This discord is by no means unusual in Shakespeare. I agree with Lever that the plural occurs by affinity with “prone and speechlesse,” the verb deserting its singular subject “dialect,” and so has the effect of bringing “prone and speechlesse” into an even firmer association than their senses (some forms of proneness being understandably speechless) have already done.

It may be helpful at this point to remark on the prevalence of such affinities in Shakespeare, not least in the plays between Hamlet and Othello, say 1600-1604, the probable dating of Othello and of Measure for Measure. We can call them, in a general way, doublings, as in “prone and speechlesse.” Sometimes these doubles can seem very forced, very rugged. As I expressed it in Forms of Attention, the “ponderous and marble jaws” of Hamlet can be read easily enough as jaws that are ponderous and also marble. But Laertes' “the perfume and suppliance of a minute” is a little different because the “suppliance”—“entertainment” or “passing the time” or such—has got itself scented by the perfume, and the perfume of a minute cannot work without the suppliance. So with “the gross and scope of my opinion,” “the shot and danger of desire,” “the teeth and forehead of our faults,” and a good many other examples in Hamlet, some notably rugged and easily distinguished from more inert couplings like Ophelia's “I of all ladies most deject and wretched” and “the glass of fashion and the mould of form” or Polonius's “gather and surmise” or “heed and judgment” or Guildenstern's “Heaven make our presence and our practices / Pleasant and helpful to him.” All these merely say the same thing twice over. With the more rugged pairings we move across a border between a world of simple doublets and the domain of the rhetorical figure called “hendiadys,” which is used with extraordinary frequency in Hamlet—indeed it might be called its ruling trope, and possibly a reflection of the play's concern with incest. George T. Wright has written brilliantly about hendiadys in Hamlet, pointing out that Shakespeare used it far more often there than anywhere else; in fact he used it very little in earlier work, and his use of it tailed off after this peak. Wright remarks that hendiadys can introduce unease and mystery by means of what Eliot, in another connection, called “a perpetual slight alteration of language,” in this case by doing something other than we expect from words joined by “and”—by a sort of violation of its promise of simple parataxis.

Some of the importance of this observation lies, I think, in the fact that hendiadys, the doubling that transcends mere doubling, can induce a sort of giddiness not unlike the effect, according to Eliot, of a sudden meeting with another person, perhaps never before known. As it happens Shakespeare uses it most often in a series of plays that have strong sexual themes, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Othello. Of course there are instances where the effect seems to be merely rhetorical and offers no coup de foudre; but the point to notice is the sexual element in the pleasure we, as against Dr. Johnson, seem to take in certain rugged passages where this criticism does not apply. I have already mentioned that Eliot in particular sought some way of explaining what it meant to feel “the full surprise and elevation of a new experience of poetry,” and he insisted that the first response to some great line—an impression of “overpowering beauty”—is emotional rather than intellectual. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” he cites, for the first but not the last time, those lines of Tourneur which gave him his words for the experience of poetry: “the bewildering minute,” the quasi-sexual, quasi-orgasmic moment of recognition, an explanation which is not unlike the cooler Empson's coming upon and recognizing the secrets of the muse.

If we have any interest at all in poetry, we are likely to have a reasonable idea what Eliot and Empson are talking about; in our own measure we feel it when we encounter a piece of prone and speechless dialect. When we have recognized it, as Eliot says, we draw back, and, if we are critics, try to think of something to say. That is what Empson was doing, and he found plenty to say. He was, as I've remarked, a great believer in the O.E.D. But the O.E.D. is far from knowing everything, and anyway is concerned to separate senses rather than compact them—a point valuably discussed in the closing pages of The Structure of Complex Words. Whether we seek simply to make sense of a passage, or to understand why we have found it obscurely thrilling, we need as much help from other sources as we can muster. And we have good reason to be grateful to all the scholars, commentators, and lexicographers, who, in a cumulative endeavor, have applied to Shakespeare their knowledge of the writings of his contemporaries. A good deal we take as self-evident we owe to their labors. The work of Hilda Hulme is in that tradition. She seeks to explain rather than to emend.

I have often heard myself saying that the emendations of eighteenth-century editors, who knew nothing about modern Shakespearean bibliography, were usually the ones we have come to value, or have come to accept without much more inquiry as part of the received text; and I had a particular admiration for an emendation proposed by Hanmer. The Folio reads “The hearts / That pannell'd me at heeles, to whom I gaue / Their wishes, do dis-Candy, melt their sweets / On blossoming Caesar” (Antony & Cleopatra, IV.xii.20-23). This could be another of those dismaying, even orgasmic passages; an investigation of its power might lead one to attribute it partly to the way it expresses the disappointment, sexual dismay, or disgust of Antony and partly to the obscurity and richness of the word pannelled, of which the O.E.D. has nothing to say except that it is “app. an error of some kind.”

Sharing this view, Hanmer proposed the emendation I have cited as an admirable instance of editorial acumen. He must have noticed the context of dogs and slavering, and seen or sensed an image-cluster long before Miss Spurgeon described it in 1935 in Shakespeare's Imagery, and he must have noticed the relation of the passage to an earlier speech by Cleopatra (III.xiii.158ff) which introduces the notion of melting (“discandying”) that started Antony off on his fantastic hearts-candy-dog idea. He therefore suggested that what Shakespeare wrote was not “pannelled” but “spannelled,” later identified by the Oxford editors as a dialect form of “spanieled,” which is usually the reading in modernized editions and even “spannell'd” in the Oxford Original Spelling edition. (The O.E.D. recognizes the dialect form “spannell.”) For almost any emendation that seems fairly sane, it is usually possible to find reasons in the vagaries of secretary hand or in the working habits of Elizabethan compositors as they are now understood, and there seemed no reason why one shouldn't accept “spannelled” or the modernized “spanielled” as the right reading. I certainly did so, and warmly applauded the intuitive brilliance of Hanmer, who after all was working, unlike the Oxford editors, without the benefit of modern scholarship.

But doubts were to arise about this pleasant conclusion (a piece of disinterested flattery addressed to an eighteenth-century editor who, according to G. Blakemore Evans in the Riverside Shakespeare, “may, so far as the text is concerned, be passed over quickly,” and, by implication, to me, for having the insight to applaud him in this single instance, in spite of his general incapacity). I was following Johnson, who said often of this emendation that “it was reasonable to expect that even rival commentators would be satisfied.” But then I read what Dr. Hulme, a rival commentator who saw no need to follow Johnson and preferred something a bit more rugged, had to say about “pannelled” in her chapter on “The Less Decent Language of the Time.” She wondered, as Upton had done before her, and as all editors should, whether any sense could be made of the original “pannelled.” And her acquaintance with “the less decent language of the time” suggested that there was some sense to be made, provided one could “suspend belief” in that persuasive eighteenth-century reading. It turns out that “pannel” or “panel” is an attested dialect word for prostitute, alluded to in Dekker's almost contemporaneous Satiromastix (1602) and also, it seems, enshrined in colloquial American, in which bawdy-houses are, or more probably were, called “panel-houses.” Since the O.E.D. shows that panele was also, at least from 1562, a word meaning brown sugar, we don't need the spaniel to account for either the venality of Antony's cowardly followers or for the image of candy and sweets, and Hanmer's emendation might now be thought more ingenious than necessary.

Of course some might say the same of Hulme's conjectural restoration of the original reading.2 But it is worth repeating that she offered not a single emendation; indeed one purpose of her work was to get rid of emendations that were redundant because founded on misunderstandings of the original texts. Of course not all of her arguments have won acceptance, and her book often reminds us that what it offers is merely a sample, merely one contribution to what she believed must be a continuing scholarly process. And it is true that all attempts to establish a wider semantic horizon for the language of the original texts are valuable. Of course that language has to continue its existence within horizons much changed, and established according to different principles; narrowed, in Johnson's edition, broadened again in our modern commentaries.

It will be obvious that I have a simple motive in bringing together, with the excuse of those lines from Measure for Measure, the work of two scholar-critics, roughly contemporary, one “on the language side” and the other now acknowledged by many to be the most distinguished literary critic of our time. The years during which they flourished were also the years of F. R. Leavis and L. C. Knights and of the now despised and rejected American New Critics, a time when rugged reading was the rule. And they were the years when in most English universities there was still a simple dual structure—“language and literature.” Sometimes these separate parts, though occasionally at odds, came together to very good effect. Empson benefited from the Cambridge arrangement, which allowed him to be a critic as well as a mathematician and offered him I. A. Richards as his teacher. It did not offer him anything as strenuous on the language side as he might have had in many other universities, Oxford for instance, but he was of course passionately and idiosyncratically interested in language, as his titles suggest—ambiguity, complex words—and in the remarkable history of particular words such as sense and dog. Of course he benefited from the work of many more learned philologists. They in their turn needed well developed critical faculties, for the intimate study of Elizabethan language is of use to the interpreter of Shakespeare only when the scholar capable of it is also capable of critical reading.

All this probably sounds very obvious, but it must be said in order to allow me to make the point that this kind of complementarity seems to have become rather rare. As Empson himself remarked, in a letter to the Hudson Review in 1966, “the basic problems before Eng-Lit in our two countries are much the same. Gross misuses of it for political and sectarian purposes are bound to crop up, and might destroy it; but with periodic sanitary efforts it can probably be got to continue in a sturdy, placid way, as is needed.”

It's unnecessary at the moment to commend the prescience of this remark, but it is worth observing that the kind of reading it implicitly commends as valuable is not nowadays in vogue, and the reason why it is not is precisely that the study of literature is now frequently misused for political and sectarian purposes. I hardly need to adduce evidence that this is so; on the very morning I was writing these words I came across Denis Donoghue's remark in a recent Sewanee Review that he has “found it hard to convince students that a work of literature is not an editorial or a political manifesto and that the experience of reading a novel does not consist in finding one's prejudices confirmed.” Not that I doubt the existence of readers who still understand the prone and speechless dialects of poetry; but they are not as easily to be found in the universities as they were, and there is less of the kind of teaching that trains such readers in the work of reading and recognition.

I return finally to Shakespearean exploration. An incautious student, reading Hilda Hulme or Stephen Booth, to say nothing of specialist works on Shakespeare's dirty jokes, might come away with the impression that almost anything said in Elizabethan English has a bawdy sous-entendre. Yet presumably there are also more innocent connotations of which we are not aware, or won't be until somebody explains them. So the possibilities for further Hulmean work are virtually endless. I will end with one more instance of endless exploration in one particular area, and this time I have no help from Hulme, because she excluded the Sonnets from her quest. But there is no shortage of guides.

Sonnet 20 is a famous puzzle, and much depends on the solution. “A Womans face with natures owne hand painted, / Haste thou the Master Mistris of my passion …” Is the poem about homosexual affection? How do we read “master-mistress” (the usual modern version of the Quarto's “Master Mistris”)? Stephen Booth says that “this sonnet has been carelessly cited as evidence of its author's homosexuality”; he is sure that the sonnets tell us nothing whatever on that subject, and is also sure that they are right not to, and that it is wrong to expect it of them. As to “master mistress,” he denies us the hyphen inserted by many editors, and says the expression “plays on ‘supreme mistress’ and ‘male beloved,’” reminding us that “mistress” was not yet a euphemism for “concubine.” Anyway, the allusion may be to the game of bowls, in which the jack was called both “master” and “mistris.” Directly contrary is Joseph Pequigney, who regards the sonnets as deeply homoerotic, and this sonnet as a turning point in a narrative of love; having exhausted himself explaining the need to perpetuate the young man's beauty, and his intention to preserve it in verse anyway, the poet moves on to the point where he says “you are so beautiful that I have fallen passionately in love with you, my ‘Master Mistris,’ and I seek your love in return, though I am willing to leave your genitals to women's pleasure.” According to Pequigney there is another stage, in which the last proviso is dropped; and either from Sonnet 24, or Sonnet 33, or Sonnet 52, the young man and the poet have become lovers in the full sense. He ignores Booth's strictures about the possible senses of “Mistris” (pertaining more to the object of courtly love than to “a man's illicit woman”). Other readings are the “evasive ploys” of commentators.

The Penguin editor, John Kerrigan, unresponsive to Pequigny, remarks that “the hint of eroticism flusters the commentators and drives them into extremes,” either of exculpation or homoerotic endorsement; in his judicious and learned Introduction he warns us that it is remarkably difficult, in view of the savage Elizabethan official attitudes to homosexuality, to interpret certain sorts of language when they are applied to same-sex addressees. He decides that Sonnet 20 is “shiftily comic,” and proves neither one thesis nor the other. In a more recent edition G. Blakemore Evans calmly surveys this endless controversy and agrees with the poet that a young man may be very like a young woman, though one thing spoils the resemblance. He does concur with Pequigney that the whole sequence takes a new turn with Sonnet 20. We have now a new and extraordinarily full commentary by Helen Vendler, who calls the poem a jeu d'esprit, and “a little myth of origin”: nature changed her mind between planning this person and adding the finishing touches—deciding to reserve the product for her own use, she made it male. Vendler also stresses the element of the less decent language of the time, but does not explain the final couplet:

But since she prickt thee out for womens pleasure,
Mine be thy loue and thy loues vse their treasure—

which means, roughly, I'll have the capital and women can enjoy the interest. Booth suggests that the interest may not just be sexual pleasure but children.

In one respect most modern commentators are in agreement—they are not interested in who this young man may have been. Their eyes are chastely on the poem itself. Yet even within these limits, interpretative variations are of course endless, ingenious, and always interested in the less decent language of the time. If I in my turn have seemed to draw rather heavily on that language, that is because there was evidently so much of it about, unsuspected by earlier and less knowing commentators. Bowdler, who used to be celebrated for his skill in detecting dirty bits, is now blamed for his failure to spot a good many of them. Of course I don't believe that all complex words have sexual undersenses, only that there is a continual need to understand the language of Shakespeare in as full a context of contemporary usage as possible. And Hilda Hulme, following the tradition she admired, worked always towards that end.

Finally, we must not forget the necessary complement, the need for accurate and imaginative critical reading in the Empsonian tradition. I have dwelt on these two requirements, largely because one shouldn't lose an opportunity to do some propaganda for the skills that our profession seems at present most prone to neglect. They are both essential to the practice of vigilant reading; and that ought always to be our primary business.


  1. The Latin sense of pronus is “leaning forward,” and by extension “inclined towards,” “favourable,” and, mostly in post-Augustan Latin, “easy, without difficulty.” Later still it could mean “ready, willing.” (So Lewis and Short.) Note that although the word is capable of so many senses, it never seems to mean “lying face upward.” One sense of the Latin that may persist in Shakespeare's usage is “willing to obey, anxious to please,” though to press that might take us back into the matter of sexual ambiguities.

  2. Professor Gould informed me that in Ireland a “parnel” means “a priest's concubine or mistress, a harlot, a wanton young woman,” and that in Lincolnshire dialect there is a variant form, “panel.” The origin of the word is said to be Old French “peronelle” or “Pernel.” Professor Gould therefore wonders if Shakespeare wrote “parnelled.”

James R. Andreas, Sr. (essay date 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 play for junior high and high school students around the country, but that was before the unilateral decision to eliminate comedy from the national Shakespeare curriculum.1 Dangerous sexual sentiments and innuendos permeate comedy, as they should, but merely punctuate tragedy, as Michael Bristol, Susan Snyder (Comic Matrix), and others have shown. And tragic bawdry, the kind indulged in by Hamlet, for instance, is more easily explained away in introductions to the text as comic relief or qualified by being glossed as something else or strategically excised from the text altogether as extraneous and even dangerous to public morals.2 The decision to introduce students to Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet was followed by systematic expurgation of the texts of the play and selective approaches to sexuality in filmed and live productions that would be viewed by students.3

My classes afford a synoptic view of how Romeo and Juliet is taught in middle school and high school as well as in college and graduate courses. I teach a Shakespeare telecourse that includes twenty-five undergraduate students in the television studio on campus and twenty-five middle and high school teachers across the state of South Carolina, who receive the class by satellite at their home schools, usually in groups of two or three teachers. The course is live and fully interactive; teachers call in their responses to questions, discussion, and film clips and even recite or perform over the phone. The course is tied in directly with the Clemson Shakespeare Festival, which features five or six live productions of plays we study in class. Romeo and Juliet is the perennial favorite during the festival having been featured recently in productions by Shenandoah Shakespeare Express and the Warehouse Theater of Greenville, South Carolina. The play was also performed by the Acting Company of New York along with a production of West Side Story presented by the Booking Group, also of New York.

Discussion of Romeo and Juliet in the telecourse invariably tiptoes around sensitive curricular issues. Teachers want to know how their colleagues approach the play, and the college students are interested in discussing how the play was presented in middle or high school. The touchiest subject in these discussions is Shakespeare's bawdry. Teachers worry about introducing sexually sensitive material to fourteen-year-olds, students precisely the same age as the play's young protagonists. The telecourse format provides us with the means to study the play and the play's pervasive sensuality in three forms: as a printed text (an easily censored medium), including the early quarto editions, the Folio, and modern editions of the play; in film versions that recontextualize the play in terms of historical preoccupations with sexuality; and in live stage productions that approximate conditions of Elizabethan staging while reflecting contemporary issues, including bawdry, in the play. The representation of the play's vibrant sexuality is conditioned by the medium of expression, a fact that would not have been lost on Shakespeare, who deals in the play with themes of literacy and orality and their impact on sexual freedom and choice.4

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare seems preoccupied with orality and suspicious of literacy, which is, in a sense, deconstructed in the play by the persistent deprecation of letters, books, and reading. The servants in Romeo and Juliet, agents of both orality and vulgarity, are illiterate. Romeo and Juliet meet because the servant-clown of Lord Capulet cannot read the list of invitations he is sent to deliver to assemble the Capulets at the home of Juliet's father for a ball. Students find the following exchange interesting, because they themselves are often accused of a sort of lazy illiteracy in their persistent and understandable preferences for visual media:

God gi' god-den. I pray, sir, can you read?
Ay, mine own fortune in my misery.
Perhaps you have learn'd it without book.
But I pray, can you read any thing you see?
Ay, if I know the letters and the language.
Ye say honestly, rest you merry!
Stay, fellow, I can read.


Romeo proceeds to read the list aloud, and after some banter with the servant, Romeo and Benvolio make plans to crash the party. The improvisational nature of speech is apparent here: because the servant cannot read, the Montagues and Capulets are allowed to mix in social and ritual ways that throw Romeo and Juliet together into a coupling that eventually will reconcile the two families. The servant, even before he meets Romeo in the street, demonstrates the happy accidents that result from oral exchange in his consternation over the list his master has handed him.

Find them out whose names are written here! It is written that the shoemaker should meddle with his yard and the tailor with his last, the fisher with his pencil and the painter with his nets; but I am sent to find those persons whose names are here writ, and can never find what names the writing person hath here writ. I must to the learned. In good time!


The servant already has the words out of sequence here in his prose rendition of his master's poetic instructions: in reality, the tailor has his yard, the shoemaker his pencil, and the fisherman his nets. Lists are often a problem in European culture, which since the sixteenth century has mapped and demarcated the world in order to partition, administer, and dominate it. The Montagues and Capulets have each other on their lists of enemies. Moreover, in the quotation above, Romeo suggests that his melancholy, no doubt conditioned by a bookish, Petrarchan attitude toward his affection for Rosaline, has been “read” as his “fortune” of “misery.” Literary texts, like lists, are fixed and—once written or printed—do not evolve into solutions to the difficulties the texts project. The plot of the play, of course, hinges on the fate of the young lovers being fixed or “star-crossed” (prologue 6) by Friar Lawrence's letter, which arrives too late to inform Romeo of the confessor's harebrained plan to reunite the lovers. As if to remind us of this antibookish theme, Benvolio, the normative character in the play, announces that the Montague entrance to the Capulet ball will not be anticipated by any bookish prologue, “Nor no without-book prologue, faintly spoke / After the prompter, for our entrance” (1.4.7-8). The entrance of the Montagues will be unprompted, spontaneous, and unrehearsed. They will crash the party.

Other passages in the play reveal a suspicion of literacy and reading like that advanced by Shakespeare's contemporary Miguel de Cervantes in the narrative of a knight beguiled by his readings in chivalric romance. Paris, Juliet's unwanted suitor, is praised by Lady Capulet as a weighty tome and “golden story” (1.3.92), a book just waiting to be opened and read by Juliet. As if recommending a good book, Lady Capulet urges Juliet to accept Paris on her parents' recommendation, sight unseen:

Read o'er the volume of young Paris' face,
And find delight writ there with beauty's pen;
Examine every married lineament,
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscured in this fair volume lies
Find written in the margent of his eyes.
This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him, only lacks a cover.
The fish lives in the sea, and 'tis much pride
For fair without the fair within to hide.
That book in many's eyes doth share the glory,
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.


What an anatomy of reading we have here at the end of the century that produced the first printed book: reading, volume, pens, lineaments, content, margent, books, unbound papers, covers, clasps, golden stories—all enumerated by the mother who is a sworn enemy to the Montagues and to her own daughter's love interests and choices. The book is the text that eliminates free choices and fixes outcomes according to the dictates of propriety and the canons of authority. The Latin word for “read,” lego, is the root of the word lex, or “law.” In this play, the spirit of the lovers is literally defeated by the letter—the letter that doesn't arrive in time to allow Romeo and Juliet's safe reunion.

I am always quick to point out to students that early in the play the servants, Mercutio, and the Nurse are free to undercut the authority and predictable, legalistic morality of their superiors. When Lady Capulet praises Paris, the Nurse, who has already delivered her paean to nursing—and oral activity—and sexual pratfalls, is there to undercut her lady's literary conceit:

LADY Capulet.
So shall you [Juliet] share all that he doth possess,
By having him, making yourself no less.
No less! nay, bigger; women grow by men.


In the Nurse's back talk, Juliet is represented as a natural woman who will not be made “less,” or reduced, to a cover beautifying the book of Paris. She will “grow” beyond the limits of the book in pregnancy. She will be inspirited, “blown up,” as Shakespeare says of pregnancy in other contexts (see All's Well 1.1.118-19).

Romeo's affections for Rosaline early in the play—archaically bookish and Petrarchan—are undercut initially by Mercutio in the Queen Mab speech and then again in the first, chance encounter of Romeo and Juliet at the masked ball. I like to show filmed versions of that meeting beginning with the line “If I profane with my unworthiest hand” (1.5.93), where the lovers construct one of the most ingenious sonnets in all English literature, a collaborative, recitative poetic improvisation that is so spontaneous, students rarely recognize the sonnet form. Yet, with the kiss that concludes the sonnet, Juliet reminds Romeo that he, under the influence of his amatory reading, still “kisses by the book” (1.5.110). By the second act, Romeo himself is suspicious of names that fix character and reputation, names that are inscribed permanently on lists of enemies. Speaking of his name, he confesses, “Because it is an enemy to thee; / Had I it written, I would tear the word” (2.2.56-57). Romeo looks for something (like a book) to “swear by” as testimony to his love for Juliet, but his mate is smarter than that. She replies:

                                                                                Do not swear at all;
Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I'll believe thee.


By this time Romeo has apparently unlearned his bookish approach to lovemaking. Love teaches its own lessons and has no need of books or schoolrooms: “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, / But love from love, toward school with heavy looks” (2.2.156-57).

Mercutio, perhaps the bawdiest and most mercurial of Shakespeare's characters and therefore a favorite of young students, also undercuts the rhetoric of Petrarchan sentiment, particularly when it comes to Romeo's manufactured feelings for Rosaline. Undoubtedly all teachers linger over the improvised stand-up of Mercutio, whose Queen Mab speech mocks the bookish pretensions of lovers, lawyers, parsons, and soldiers alike. Mercutio has his own pet peeves against literacy and bookishness, particularly when it comes to Tybalt, the robot soldier who fences by the worst of all kinds of manuals, the mathematical textbook:

No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am pepper'd, I warrant, for this world. A plague a' both your houses! 'Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic!


Even as Mercutio is dying, he challenges the ability of scripted language to render puns humorously. Mercutio the trickster will become a “grave man” tomorrow, for like Tybalt he is grave bound. He is also engraved, his body marked like a text by the predictable fencing passes of Tybalt, who “fights by the book of arithmetic.” As Susan Snyder has argued (Matrix), the yuck stops here, with the death of Mercutio at the play's heart. The grace of the “comic matrix” has given way to the gravity of a tragic “patrix,” if I may coin a term. The open-endedness of the plot represented by fun and games; the flaunting of love's conventions; and the shameless, bawdy punning of the first half of the action have been short-circuited. Mercutio is dead, the Nurse is silenced, and the servants are in retreat for most of the rest of the play. Destiny is fixed; the lovers are at this point “star-crossed.”

It is no wonder Shakespeare so frequently celebrates orality and excoriates literacy in his plays. The language of his stage is ear candy. Audiences, not spectators, attend Shakespeare's plays. With the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London, we have rediscovered what theater architects in Shakespeare's era knew implicitly: the Elizabethan stage is a huge sounding board like the case of a grand piano or the rounded body of a cello. With airplanes booming overhead and buses accelerating all around the theater, the lines of the actors resound and reverberate in the arena, surpassing all acoustic expectations. To be sure, scholars contemporary with Shakespeare must have complained about the threat to reading as a principal pedagogical mode represented by an upstart playwright and his fellow actors and writers in this new, unruly, folk or vulgar theater. Schoolmasters probably said something like, “My students aren't reading Homer or Sophocles anymore, not to mention Plutarch and Ovid. They congregate down in Southwark near the brothels and bearbaiting pits to watch Troilus and Cressida, which desecrates Homer, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, which turns Ovid on his head. What a pity! What a waste! They need to be reading Cicero, not watching Sejanus.” We, of course, advance the same sorts of arguments to defend literature against film, television, and most recently the computer with its multimedia and Internet capacities. But Shakespeare made a conscious career choice to turn away from the sonnet and from poetic narratives like Hero and Leander to devote himself to a more direct and unmediated form of literary expression—live popular theater. I like to tell my students that theater was reinvented by Shakespeare and his dramatic colleagues as a technology with a new shape, space, and form, a technology developed to deliver the riches of a rapidly evolving language apparently at the peak of its powers. And Shakespeare, I point out, obviously preferred to deliver that language in its purest form—orally—rather than in print. Otherwise he certainly would have shown signs that he would one day authorize the publication of his plays, as did his contemporary Ben Jonson in composing his Works.

Oral language is, of course, the medium of bawdy exchange because it is open and relatively immune to the censorship, excision, expurgation, abridgment, and prosecution to which written or literate texts are subject. Print may well have been encouraged and developed as the major medium of exchange in European culture because it was so easily controlled through licensing, selective expurgation, and listing on various indexes. Shakespeare certainly exercised his bawdy sense of humor on the stage to secure and sustain interest and to extend dramatic language into new and popular registers with jargon, slang, and billingsgate derived from the scurrilous profanity of fishmongers and pickpockets. How else do we explain the sheer abundance of vulgar slang in the tirades of Petruchio, Pompey, Thersites, Autolycus, and even Hamlet, not to mention the insults on stage that teachers the world over use to inspire interest in the oral Shakespeare. The comments of the servants, the Nurse, and Mercutio all sustain dramatic interest on the stage, if not the page, through the sexual innuendo that is an important theme in the play—at least according to Friar Lawrence, who announces, “The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb; / What is her burying grave, that is her womb” (2.3.9-10). Tomb and womb are locked in a cycle in which each is linked to and generated out of the other. The sexuality of the womb is a crucial motif in the opening scene and throughout the first three acts of the play.

The editors of the standard school texts—sometimes professionals with no educational experience hired by the publishing conglomerates but often Shakespearean scholars—have, for all practical purposes, neutered these texts of Romeo and Juliet by undermining the play's comic core, sexual allure, satiric thrust, and ironic ambiguity. Some four hundred lines of the play are customarily eliminated, including virtually all the comic and satiric as well as the bawdy lines of the Nurse, Mercutio, and the servants. The following passages are typically excised: the sexual braggadocio of the servants in 1.1, the discussion of the weaning and the sexual “fall” of infant Juliet in 1.3, the scatological elements of the Queen Mab speech and of the comic exchanges in the death scene of Mercutio in 1.4 and 3.1, and the raucous entrance of the musicians after the apparent death of Juliet in 4.5.

Cuts in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet, a scene that I always encourage students to act out in both expurgated and full-text versions, illustrate how the censorship process works. As Northrop Frye suggests about this scene, “The macho jokes, ‘draw thy tool’ and the like, are the right way to introduce the theme that dominates this play: the theme of love bound up with, and part of, violent death. Weapons and fighting suggest sex as well as death, and are still doing so later in the play, when the imagery shifts to gunpowder” (“Romeo” 16).

The Montague and Capulet servants exchange off-color jokes about maidenheads and dried-up codpieces that delay the violence which erupts when the servants' social betters rush in to start fighting for real, with swords instead of words (see Andreas, “Wordplay”). Gone in the student texts I examined is the boast of Samson, who says, “Me [the maids] shall feel while I am able to stand, and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh” (1.1.28-29). Gone as well are all the Aristophanic jokes about naked tools and naked weapons. References to thrusting women against the wall, to taking maidenheads instead of real heads, and to Samson's “pretty piece of flesh,” which hangs dry and dead like a cod (a sword at rest) rather than standing and drawn—all this bawdy fun is deleted. In the student texts, when Gregory commands Samson to draw his “tool” against the Montagues (31), there is no bawdy innuendo, no sexual ambiguity. The weapon is “naked” (34)—unsheathed—but it is not the “prick” (2.4.113) or the “fiddlestick” (3.1.48) Mercutio will later allude to but the “naked weapon” itself, the sword (1.1.34). The high school texts pick up after Gregory's line with Samson's cry: “My naked weapon is out. Quarrel, I will back thee” (1.1.33-34). The oral resonance here is deadened: the phallic references to “tool” and “piece” all give way to one inescapable, literalized meaning: weapon. The naked weapon is an unsheathed sword. The humor of the passage is expurgated here to be sure, along with the bawdry, but so are the stated and associative meanings. The comic option that the reader of an unabridged edition enjoys until the muzzling of the Nurse and the murder of Mercutio is here canceled out immediately. The characters are cornered into a mean little street brawl with none of the capacities for comic chaos that are Shakespeare's design in the opening scene. For all the students know from their textbooks, real lethal weapons are drawn the moment the servants first appear onstage. And students, of course, are left uninformed about the reasons for the excisions. They think they are reading Shakespeare, and their suspicions about this stuffy dead white man whom they never expected to enjoy are confirmed. What students still (I bet) call “the good parts” are generally cut from student texts: references to tools, codpieces, nipples, maidenheads, and pricks all fall under the censor's knife. Whatever these texts of Romeo and Juliet are, they simply are not Shakespeare, not in form or spirit. Somebody has slipped a bra on the Venus de Milo and slapped a fig leaf on Michelangelo's David to protect our students from art as it was conceived and executed, and we are expected not to notice, or, worse yet, we are expected to approve. The artistic work has supposedly been improved. The considerable violence in the play—the stabbings and the poisoning—has not been touched, but the jokes are cut most unkindly, and the comedy is simply murdered.

Missing also from student texts are the spontaneous, meandering lines about the Nurse's weaning of baby Juliet, including these:

When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it teachy and fall out wi' th' dug!


Gone are the lines about the “fall” of the baby Juliet anticipating her fall back on the marriage bed. More ominous, gone are all the typically teenage and often obnoxious jokes of Mercutio, the class wiseacre. To characterize these deletions generally, in language Shakespeare ascribed to Friar Lawrence, the imagery of the “tomb” is privileged, while allusions to the “womb” are excised. The version of the play the students read is one-dimensional, a neat illustration of Freud's concept of the death wish. Much of the human and humorous interest has been removed in order to sanitize the text and to displace some of the play's principal themes—the renewal of life through the pleasures of eros and the playfully illicit humor that verbalizes such pleasures. Derogatory comments about the church and the law in the Queen Mab speech are also removed. In the expurgated version Romeo and Juliet is reduced to a brutal, mechanistic tragedy with little humor, erotic appeal, grace, or depth. As in the eighteenth century, notorious for its comic amendments of tragic plays, the resulting text is offered by its editors as an improvement, the perfection of Shakespeare's abortive early attempt to re-create tragedy in the Renaissance mode.

To sum up the dramatic argument against what Elspeth Stuckey calls the “violence of literacy,” I emphasize that literary texts, as Shakespeare seems to know, are easily manipulated and even transformed by authority. During the five hundred years since the invention of the printing press, states and communities have devised strategic ways to contain dangerous literary texts, particularly those that are faithful to their vulgar (from vulgus, meaning folk) oral roots: revocation of the license to publish, excision, abridgment, bowdlerization, selective translation, indexing, book banning, book burning, and, of course, systematic, strategic censorship.5 With the advent of moving pictures a hundred years ago, censorship had to be reinvented: questionable films could be clipped and snipped—and often were, by local theater owners—but they could also be licensed, banned, burned, and, in a recent turn of events, theatrically rated, a process that, curiously, has never been applied to books.

What, then, of the filmed versions that we all use in teaching Romeo and Juliet, and what of the live productions that the lucky few among us are able to encourage our students to attend? How is the bawdry handled in these resources for teaching? To illustrate the importance of the Nurse in the first half of the play, I show students five versions of the “weaning scene,” where she ruminates on and reminisces about the deaths, fourteen years ago, of her husband and her child, Susan. These tragic events—remembered in connection with an earthquake!—the Nurse conceives as evidence of a huge cosmic “jest” epitomized in the pratfall little Juliet takes the day she learns to walk. The Nurse remembers:

And then my husband—God be with his soul!
'A was a merry man—took up the child.
“Yea,” quoth he, “dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit,
Wilt thou not, Jule?” and by my holidam,
The pretty wretch left crying and said, “Ay.”
To see how a jest shall come about!


As I have pointed out, this passage and others like it are clipped from the textbooks, but what about the films? In the film productions I show students—by George Cukor (1936), Renato Castellani (1954), Franco Zeffirelli (1968), and Baz Luhrmann (1996)—this speech and the reference to wormwood on the nipple are cut, and no visual analogy is offered. In the Zeffirelli production Juliet's breast is exposed on the wedding night, but I know teachers who feel compelled to block out this scene lest students (or parents) be offended. Only the BBC production (1978) leaves the entire weaning scene intact, but the Nurse in that production is so cold and humorless, and Juliet so stiff, that the speech does not resonate the way it should as thematically central to the play.

In live productions, I am happy to report, the comic heart of the play—Mercutio—is alive and well. In the Mercutio of the BBC production or even in Baz Luhrmann's black Mercutio, students see a hothead, a carbon copy of the warlike Tybalt, who fuels the disastrous feud in Verona. On stage, however, Mercutio is usually portrayed as a wise guy, a smart-ass, who revels in displaying a vulgar wit he seems to lift right off the street. Even John Barrymore, in his only speaking role as a Shakespearean character (Cukor version), plays up this element of Mercutio's character. The Mercutios in recent productions of Romeo and Juliet at the Clemson Shakespeare Festival were real hams, reveling in intimate and bawdy contact with the young members of the audience and providing masturbatory and coital gestures to drive home the innuendos. One Mercutio was so scandalous that the festival got letters protesting the suitability of such lines and gestures in a play for young audiences of students. The students, in fact, were approximately the same age as the teen actors (playing teen characters) who delivered the jokes onstage in Shakespeare's day.

In conclusion, Romeo and Juliet is a play fully suspicious of the expectations about literacy and of the propriety literacy was to instill in young people of the new Europe that was about to take control of the world. To strip the play of its life-affirming erotic language of the womb is to eliminate the real source of the play's attraction to young people and to reconstitute the play as a mechanistic moral exemplum about disobedient children predestined for the tomb. Romeo and Juliet alternately moves in the direction of the womb or the tomb, or, as Freud put it, toward affirmation of Eros or the defeat of Thanatos. Some teachers and students do find the references to genitalia, intercourse, and nursing offensive or, at best, write them off as incidental comic relief. Worse yet, exposed to expurgated versions of the play, students think they are reading or watching Shakespeare and are later surprised to see deleted passages restored in unabridged versions on the page or stage or screen. To ensure that students appreciate Shakespeare fully, we need to teach the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text—at least in spirit, if not to the letter.


  1. On the turbulent and well-documented history of Shakespearean pedagogy, see Frey, “Teaching”; Stephen Brown; and Levin, “Core.”

  2. “As the situation now stands, students who wish to investigate the bawdry at the opening of Julius Caesar or at various points in Twelfth Night must resort to the less-than-impeccable scholarship of Partridge, Rubinstein, and others, which may serve only to reinforce the entirely reasonable suspicion that the Shakespeare of their collected editions has been ‘set up’ in objectionable ways” (Frey, “Teaching” 555).

  3. See Andreas (“Neutering” and “Silencing”) for an extensive consideration of the topic. The high school teacher Maureen Logan outlines the frustrations of trying to teach a truncated text of Romeo and Juliet.

  4. For a study of Shakespeare's “kinesthetic” imagery—including the bawdry—and how to teach it, see Frey, “Making Sense.”

  5. See Jansen for an invaluable study of these various methods of censorship.

Andreas, James R. “The Neutering of Romeo and Juliet.Ideological Approaches to Shakespeare: The Practice of Theory. Ed. Robert Merrix and Nicholas Ranson. Lewiston: Mellen, 1992. 229-42.

———. “Silencing the Vulgar and Voicing the Other Shakespeare.” Nebraska English Journal 35.3-4 (1990): 74-88.

Brown, Stephen J. “The Uses of Shakespeare in America: A Study in Class Domination.” Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature. Ed. David Bevington and Jay L. Halio. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1978. 230-38.

Frey, Charles. “Making Sense of Shakespeare's Language: A Reader-Based Response.” Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century. Athens: Ohio UP, 1997. 96-104.

———. “Teaching Shakespeare in America.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 541-60.

Jansen, Sue. Censorship: The Knot That Binds Power and Knowledge. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Levin, Harry. “Core, Canon, and Curriculum.” College English 43 (1981): 351-62.

Logan, Maureen F. “Star-Crossed Platonic Lovers; or, Bowdler Redux.” English Journal 74.1 (1985): 53-55.


Shakespeare at Work: 'Attributed Dialogue'


Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks