November 15, 2007


Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. By Pauline Kiernan. Gotham Books. $19.99.

      The fact that Shakespeare had a dirty mind is scarcely unknown. Even middle-schoolers performing a truncated version of Twelfth Night have been known to titter when the unctuous Malvolio, reading a forged letter that he thinks comes from the woman he desires, examines the penmanship, sounding out a specific part of the alphabet letter by letter: “These be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus she makes her great P’s.” But the nervous laughter is quickly controlled: that couldn’t mean what we think, could it, even if “and” is pronounced “n”? After all, this is Shakespeare. But yes, that’s exactly what it means.

      And then there’s the wonderful Sonnet 129, which opens with “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action.” That’s pretty plain even if you only hear “spirit” as meaning something, well, spiritual; but the fact that it also means “semen” isn’t exactly a secret. And the poem’s concluding angry/wistful/thoughtful couplet – “All this the world well knows, yet none knows well/ To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell” – is marvelously effective even if you are unaware that “hell” can be a pun on women’s genitals.

      But these are but the tip, so to speak, of the iceberg, as Pauline Kiernan shows in her meticulously researched and very well written Filthy Shakespeare. How many modern scholars – and high-school and college students – have tried to understand why lower-class audiences sat still for Shakespeare’s soaring rhetoric when there was some fantastic bear-baiting going on nearby, and an entertaining drawing and quartering of a petty criminal happening just down the street? One answer, as Kiernan amply shows, is that the plays were so packed with sexual puns and out-and-out graphic nastiness that it was worth staying through the highfalutin poetry to get to the naughty bits. (A lot of the poems, not just The Rape of Lucrece and the tremendously popular Venus and Adonis, were packed with naughty bits, too.)

      Kiernan offers a by-no-means-comprehensive set of examples of Shakespearean lines “pertaining to” 23 elements of human sexuality. So far are we from Shakespeare’s unashamed bawdiness that only a few of Kiernan’s chapter titles can even be included in a family-oriented publication: Erection, Ejaculation, Transvestite, Lesbian, Homosexual, Brothels, Impotence, Virginity, Pimps (and not all self-proclaimed family publications will even want to print all of those). It’s worth remembering – and Kiernan reminds you, in case you have forgotten – that Shakespeare’s very name can be a rude sexual pun. It was probably psychologically inevitable, as well as good for theater audiences, that he include the sort of stuff extracted by Kiernan in this book.

      So here you will find a clear answer to the question sometimes bruited about by less-aware scholars: did Hamlet have carnal knowledge of Ophelia? You bet. After Hamlet says, “I did love you once,” Ophelia replies, “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.” That is, “in deed, my lord,” the deed they did being quite clear enough. But of course Hamlet’s sexual confusion, shown powerfully through his railings at his mother, is obvious enough in the play (and parsed quite thoroughly by Kiernan). How about Antony and Cleopatra, where the latter’s line, “Husband, I come,” has an obvious double meaning? Or Troilus and Cressida, in which the latter’s line to her uncle, Pandarus (whose name means “pimp”), is also pretty direct if you focus on it: “You bring me to do – and then you flout me too.” There is little question of what this pimp brings Cressida to do before he scoffs at her.

      It is interesting that Shakespeare did not confine his strong sexual language – some of it very strong indeed – to lower-class characters, who usually speak in prose. There is great poetry in many of these lines, and great tragedy (King Lear’s comments on women are vulgar in the extreme, showing the depths to which his mind has become unbalanced). There is plenty that seems to titillate in this book – the plethora of four-letter words outdoes anything in any rap song – but what turns out to matter most is the use to which Shakespeare put the crudest language he knew. It is always employed in the service of characterization, not merely to get a low laugh (in contrast to, say, the Ben Jonson who wrote Bartholomew Fair, a hysterically funny play in which smut is there entirely for its own sake – even the title, pronounced “bottle-mew fair,” can be read as a pun). Get past the extremely crude language here, which does become repetitious after a while, and what you find is yet further evidence, if more is needed, of the profound genius of the greatest writer the English language has produced.

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