Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Oh Great, The "Filthy Shakespeare" Movement Is Back

There's been a book around for something like 50 years called "Shakespeare's Bawdy" that serves as a dictionary for all the dirty words and puns that Shakespeare used.  I have it, it's a very dry read.  But people seem fascinated with this idea of finding the dirty words, and it seems like every now and then somebody does a new project that somehow finds even more bad words.  Or perhaps they're just phrasing it differently, to keep up with the times.

In the new book "Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns" we're going to learn that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" really meant "Claudius has syphilis."  And that the real meaning of "Hey nonny, nonny hey nonny" would make our old English teacher Mrs Grundy roll over in her grave.

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The very great irony of books and articles like this is how they titter and say "Yes, but what about the F word?  Do you discuss the F word?"  It's an article about a book about what amounts to 400yr old literary obscenity. The joke is "The world's greatest dramatist is being downright filthy right in front of you and you proclaim it a masterpiece", and in trying to make that reference, we're afraid to use our own dirty words.  We're fascinated by the ones he used because we're so busy taking words out of our own language.  It's still impossible for somebody to look you in the eye today and explain what Hamlet meant by "country matters." 

By the way, can somebody please explain the Love's Labor's Lost reference in the article?  It says "the modern version [of the provided quote] is impolite and you wouldn't read it to a bench of bishops."  But it doesn't explain why, and I don't see any obvious puns, unless of course it's as easy as "dance" being a euphemism for, you know, that dreaded f-word.  Although now that I look at it I am assuming that "needless" has to be some sort of phallic joke?   Does that make Barbing (barb, thorn, something to stab with) a sex reference as well?  It's funny how paranoid you get, you can find a sex reference in everything.

More Filthy Shakespeare ...


fl said...

I have no idea what they're talking about regarding Love's Labour's Lost either, which leads me to believe that the book reduces everything in Shakespeare to sexual puns on a word level. And it looks like it assumes that words all meant something radically different in Elizabethan England.

"Something's rotten in the state of Denmark" could indeed imply that something's rotten not just with the country, but with the king. And ... that 'means' syphilis how?

Anonymous said...

What they are talking about in Love's Labour's Lost is a battle of wit, with sex (aka dancing) as the subtext. It's yet another Shakespearean instance of the woman being wittier and more vulgar than the man and refusing to be cast in the passive role. He didn't "dance" with her, but rather she "danced" with him! Even when Biron gives up and asks pitifully what time it is, Rosaline is able to best him yet again. Shakespeare=feminist?

I say pick up the book when it comes out next week. I was able to get my hands on an advance copy and thoroughly enjoyed it!

Sherrie W. said...

I never cease to be amused at how people spend large chunks of their lives finding new meanings for words used by Shakespeare.

Since lanugage was only beginning to become bound by meanings and rules, chances are that even Shakespearean audiences were unsure what jokes/puns they were hearing.

Duane said...

It sort of makes one think of when Freud first showed up on the scene. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," the saying goes. I imagine these researchers basically posing the question like, "Ok, can we show any evidence, anywhere, ever, that somebody used this word as a double entendre? because if we can, then we can jump to the conclusion that that's exactly what Shakespeare must have meant."

Sometimes a happy dagger is just a happy dagger? Is that a happy dagger or are you just happy to see me?

Terry Heath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terry Heath said...

So Shakespeare had a potty mouth. Who knew? But also, who cares? We don't seem too worried when characters in a modern movie talk like truck drivers. Do we really think our ancestors didn't swear? I love Shakespeare's work, but I'm not going to waste my time looking for his "bad" words when he threw so many good ones around.

Ian Thal said...

Shakespeare's commedies were influenced by the Italian commedia dell'arte which was rife with bawdy humor-- ought we really be surprised?

If anything, we should be learning Shakespeare's profanities, obscenities and vulgarities, because by comparison, our 21st century naughtiness lacks the creativity, wit, and sheer variety.

The "f-word" isn't shocking as it is boring. Vulgarity is great so long as it is witty.

raqqash said...

this sounds like there's so many in the world that have so much time to spend idly thinking about useless things.
There's something someone's mind.

Lis Riba said...

I didn't bother reading the article, but I picked up the book while I was in London over the summer, because the bookstore was having a buy 3, discount on the 4th sale and it looked interesting.

The book has 2 LLL references.

1) Did I not dance with you in Brabant once... -- dance = the f- word ('dancing school' was a name for brothels?) and Brabant refers to the Netherlands (get it?)

2) the archery scene

I quoted a few more excerpts in my comments to Angevin2, but my general impression from the beginning was that the author was really stretching matters.

Anonymous said...

I have the book, and first off they certainly don't bother using euphemisms such as "the f-word". Also it's only talking about subtexts that don't necessarily cancel out the surface meaning but rather add to it. You can still read "something is rotten in the state of Denamrk" as meaning just that and still understand it, but it gets deeper when you realize what subtexts that one line COULD have conveyed.

Anonymous said...

"Although of course it is easy to vulgarise things. I mean, one of the worst books published recently is called Filthy Shakespeare, which is a pornographic book, wherein the Author paraphrases certain passages of Shakespeare in away that imposes on them sexual meaning that are not there, quite simply. It’s just a piece of exploitation." (

So says the world's leading Shakespeare expert Prof.Stanley Wells. And one can't dismiss him as a prude, he also says in the same interview:

'Gordon Williams’ three volume works on sexual language in the drama and his single volume glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language has helped us to understand much more.'

And he is the author of Shakespeare: Sex and Love.

There are a lot of sexual puns in Shakespeare without making stuff up as this woman seems to.

Willshill said...

Oxford, pretty much the center of the world for years in studies on the English language proper and Shakespeare in particular, also has on its staff a Prof. Wells; editor of none other than The Oxford Shakespeare Edition.
Considering the fact that the author, DR. Kiernan, received her doctorate from Oxford--and that she also taught there for many years--it would seem that she might consider those facts in advance of writing a book full of nothing but "...piece[es] of exploitation."
Not withstanding all of the above, the author makes the following prefatory statement:

"So, although many of the following examples of his sexual punning cloak the ribald meanings and significances of a word, it doesn't necessarily mean that the subtext cancels out the surface meaning."

Also notwithstanding, Dr. Wells has laid claim in "opinion", and that beyond a reasonable doubt, that the Cobbe painting is a true and original portrait of Shakespeare; an opinion which, it might be reasonably concluded, exacted from some of his equally esteemed colleagues no less a damning injunction.
But given the propensity of a society to choose blindness over enlightenment--still overly influenced by the ignorance bred of an undue puritan influence--if she stretches a meaning that CAN be stretched, based as it is on its very likely antecedent, why are we to immediately suppose that same conclusion an impossibility for the likes of such a sexual punster as Shakespeare?
Anyway, better her versions than Folger's--leading Shakespeare "educators"--whose annotations are still so Bowdler-squeaky clean they sometimes literally change the meaning of entire passages and scenes--let alone the meaning of a single word or phrase.