William Shakespeare Shakespeare's Bawdy

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Partridge, Eric. “Introductory” and “Non-sexual Bawdy.” In Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary & Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary, pp. 3-11. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1968.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1947, Partridge studies Shakespeare's outlook and attitude toward sex and bawdiness, and examines both the sexual and non-sexual elements of bawdy in Shakespeare's works.]


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