Merry Old England

This weekend I bought and then voraciously read a book by Pauline Kiernan entitled Filthy Shakespeare. I was a wonderful read for a potty-mouthed Tudor enthusiast like myself, but is not for those whom the Anglo-Saxon derived earthy words for body bits and sex offend.

Let’s just say that while the book dealt with Tudor euphemisms, the author didn’t bother with them.

I learned many new things from Filthy Shakespeare, all of them suitably risqué. For example, the word “merry” didn’t just mean “happy” back in Tudor times any more than the word “gay” just means “happy” today. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and her predecessors the word merry was a double entendre for “in the mood”. Puts a new slant on the Merry Wives of Windsor, no? For myself, I will never say Merry Christmas with the same innocence ever again.

There is also the flagrant (to Shakespeare’s audience at least) raunchiness of the word “indeed”. Even today we will colloquially say that someone “did it” to indicate that the person had sex, and the do/did/does link to sex was much stronger in the Tudor Era. Thus, the world “indeed” – when said in the right place and perhaps aided by tone and facial expression – it is an unsubtle way of talking about intercourse. Knocking and turning were also references to delightfully carnal activities.

I also learned that the word “slippery” was used to indicate that someone was bisexual.  Some of the MANY words that referred to a vagina were, hell, ear, face, waist, mouth, nick, neck, favours, park, nony, and Spain. Among the words that could also mean “penis” were awl, chin, compass, eel, foot, hand, little finger, purse, token, and yard. Some terms. like wit, will, and jet could mean either set of genitalia or the sex act, depending on context.

After reading this book rereading Hamlet was an eye-opener. Not only was he outright obscene to Ophelia, his banter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was raunchy comic relief. Take this bit of dialog from scene ii Act 2:


My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern?

Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do you both?


As the indifferent children of the earth.


Happy, in that we are not overhappy.

On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.


Nor the soles of her shoes?


Neither, my lord.


Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?


Faith, her privates we.


In the secret parts of Fortune? Oh, most true. She is a strumpet. What news?


None, my lord, but that the world’s grown honest.

See all the talk about waists and favors and buttons and secret parts? All that is naughty as can be. The whole thing is rife with “wink, wink, nudge, nudge”.

Then there is the amazingly tawdry Porter in Macbeth. Apparently Shakespeare wanted to lighten up his dark tragedy with a comic interlude or two. The Porter, drunk as a skunk, hears a knock on the door and delivers a soliloquy that must have had the Tudors splitting their sides:


Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.

Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty. Come in time, have napkins enough about you, here you’ll sweat for ’t.

Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.

Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here you may roast your goose.

Almost every word in that monologue is a play on words meaning genitals and/or sex. Either of the lines “knocking indeed” and “O, come in, equivocator” acting alone would have caused a Puritan to faint.

The Bard was bawdy, indeed.

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