Years ago, my high school English teacher had a fantastic talent for rendering Shakespeare so painfully dull that we used to hang out for maths classes or death or a revolution or something. I’m not sure how he managed it, but he did.
If the teacher had said: ‘Shakespeare’s stuff is filled with really, really dirty jokes, I mean jam-packed with totally rude bits’, the class would likely have paid rapt attention.
Shakespeare is, you see. Rude, I mean. The plays are absolutely crammed full of the crassest jokes imaginable, made funnier because Shakespeare sidled up to them – a brilliant technique because it makes the imagination work, multiplying the comedy. Know what I mean? Wink wink. Say no more. There’s the scene, for instance, in Twelfth Night where Malvolio tries to convince the comic foil, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, that a letter is by the Countess Olivia, and in the process manages to spell out a very rude word while simultaneously referring to two other things also off the list of genteel conversation topics – all three of them twice, just in case the audience missed it first time:
Malvolio: 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 Andrew: Her C’s, her U’s and her T’s: why that?
Of course the word’s gained a letter since, though in Netherlands (‘Dutch’) it’s still the original spelling. Either way it’s off the acceptable list to this day. That’s interesting, given the way English evolves (the rudest word of the Elizabethan period was ‘fie’, which by the 1700s could happily be incorporated into kids’ fairy stories).
In fact Shakespeare was far cleverer – and far ruder – than we think. It turns out that if you pronounce his material in the accent of the day – when English was changing fast – it’s riddled with off-colour word-play. For instance, there’s the line in As You Like It where Jacques says: ‘and so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot’. This is a supremely rude pun about prostitutes, missed today because ‘hour’ and ‘whore’ don’t rhyme. But they did back then.
Writing stuff that cleverly makes people go ‘oo-er, that sounds a bit rude, hee hee hee’ is a long-standing English entertainment tradition – deployed in recent decades by the Goons, Benny Hill, Dick Emery, Morecambe and Wise, David Croft and the rest. All stand in the shadow of the Immortal Bard. Even some of his poetry was a bit rude. Witness ‘Venus and Adonis‘: ‘Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry/Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.’
Or take this quote from Hamlet:
Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
Hamlet: No thing.
Ophelia: You are merry, my lord.
Very puzzling for us, until you know that in the Elizabethan era ‘nothing‘ was more salacious slang, less rude than the term spelled out by Malvolio, but the same thing. Shakespeare worked the term into the title of one of his other plays, about which there has been much ado, and which instantly gains a double meaning. In today’s slang, ‘merry’ meant ‘up for it’ (British), ‘randy’ or ‘horny’; while ‘country matters’ was a euphemism for what, today, we euphemise as ‘consenting adult marital activity’. It was also a pun on the same term Malvolio had spelt out. So the whole sequence was a completely crass chat-up, played for laughs through slang and pun-filled euphemisms – as I say, Shakespeare knew it was a lot funnier to make the audience’s imagination work than to spell it out.
So why the sniggery schoolboy smut? Shakespeare wasn’t writing to torment high school kids, centuries later – or creating a pretentious device by which high-brow literati could validate their intellectual snobbishness. He was writing for the audience of the day, for whom an afternoon or evening at The Rose or The Globe was their main entertainment. They were a people beset with a brutal police state where dissent from dictated ideology was criminalised. Many were oppressed, victimised because the period social panic defined them as targets, whether they had done anything or not, and where period doctrine intellectualised their defence away from them. Shakespeare, among other playwrights, provided escapism that tested social norms at every level. He knew what he was doing.
Shakespeare’s plays, in short, were the period equivalent of a Star Wars movie, variety show and joke-fest rolled into one. Of course they were going to be rude. And fun. And now let Shakespeare have the anti-penultimate word with his 151st sonnet, which he wrote for Mary Fitton (a ‘gentle cheater’, meaning he was two-timing his wife, Anne Hathaway) and was about what he called his ‘nobler part’, which sounded like a reference to moral and ethical principles, but wasn’t:
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love: flesh stays no further reason
But rising at thy name doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize.
Ooer, that’s a bit rude, innit? Meanwhile, here’s a video about how Shakespeare’s language was actually spoken:
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016