by Chris Burn
Poetry, they say, changes lives. I met a man at Dingwall Literary Festival* this week who told me strange things about Shakespeare and thus in a small way, my life was changed for ever, because my perception of Shakespeare was changed. I came away surprised, enlightened and I have to say, a bit shocked.
I knew, like most people, that the Elizabethans liked a lewd joke or two (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?).
But Shakespeare, the Bard, the Swan of Avon, the man who towers over the vast canon of English literature like a true colossus – was he into that sort of thing too? My literary friend said yes, and bigtime.
He showed me one of the Bard’s lesser known sonnets. But first he made sure I knew some Elizabethan slang words – ‘Will’ (male or female genital organ), ‘Nothing’ (female genital organ) and ‘to die’ (to ejaculate sexually).
With that in mind, consider this, Sonnet CXXXV , from the viewpoint of a sixteenth century reader:
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in over-plus;
More than enough am I that vexed thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.
That may be quite lewd but it does retain an aura of subtlety.
What about this exchange – from Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5:
MALVOLIO (reading a letter he believes to be from the lady Olivia):
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.
An Elizabethan audience would quickly realize what he was spelling. He adds an extra punch line with “and thus she makes her great P’s”.
Or try this exchange from Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?
(Remember the meaning of ‘nothing’ to Elizabethans ?)
From Much Ado About Nothing, Act 5, Scene 2:
(and suddenly that’s a pretty lewd title for a play!)
I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be
buried in thy eyes.
And lastly, this one, perhaps the least subtle of all:
The Taming of the Shrew: Act 2, Scene 1
Who knows not where a wasp does
wear his sting? In his tail.
In his tongue.
Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
What, with my tongue in your tail?
Well I suppose I have led a sheltered life but I don’t recall coming across these in the course of attending many, many Shakespearian productions.
Shakespeare, you naughty man !