William Shakespeare Shakespeare's Bawdy - Essay


(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.]


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...

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Thomas W. Ross (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Marion D. Perret (essay date January 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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David O. Frantz (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Leah Scragg (essay date February 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Mary Bly (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Joan Hutton Landis (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Richard Halpern (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Frank Kermode (essay date summer 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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):...

(The entire section is 301 words.)