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For A More Civilized Age

Bawdy Bard: How To Find the Sex in Shakespeare

Ah, the words of the eternal Bard: so pure, so true, so saucy.

William Shakespeare, whoever he may have been (Francis BaconChristopher Marlowe’s ghost?  A roomful of monkeys and typewriters?), is without argument the most recognizable, famous playwright in the English language, and for good reason.  His words, rich and dense in their poetry, tickle the academic sensibilities, while his still-relevant portrayals of humanity touch the hearts of readers and audiences alike.  And of course when it came to sex jokes, no one could or can write them better.

Oh, what’s that?  You don’t remember all the sex in Shakespeare? Well, read on, intrepid scholar, and prepare to have your mine and loins engulf’d in firey epiphany (that line wasn’t Shakespearean, but it could have been).

Shakespeare wrote plays for a diverse audience.  His acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, would perform before the same plays before courts of Queen Elizabeth and James I that they produced in Southwark theatres with convenient whorehouse access.  Shakespeare’s plays had to cater to every possible demographic, so he had to write material that everyone could enjoy.  Fortunately, he was clever enough to know what any modern-day Hollywood producer could tell you: sex sells.

“Shakespeare realized sexual jokes, especially double entendres, put the twinkle in the performance,” says John Basil, artistic director of the American Globe Theatre.  “He’s never crude but he always reminds us of our humanity on every level.”  Now, let’s be clear: Shakespeare was not straight-up writing porn (his most explicit play, Henry VI, Part 2, contains a whorish total of six kisses).  He used his gift for wordplay to weave some clever sexual imagery and naughty puns into every play…and I do mean every play.

“The plays are absolutely packed with filth,” says Héloïse Sénéchal, editor of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of the Complete Works. “I’ve found more than a hundred terms for vagina alone.”   I bet your high school English teacher forgot to mention that.

So, how did you, a great admirer of a finely crafted sex joke, miss all this goodness in Shakespeare?  Due to the constant evolution of language and culture, Elizabethan euphemisms are mostly unrecognizable to the casual contemporary reader.  If you’re interested in bringing a little refinement to your potty mouth, here are some tips for tracking down the Bard’s bawdiest prose:

Anything circular, the letter ‘o’ for example, can be interpreted as vaginal.

“O Romeo, that she were, O that she were/an open-arse and thou a popp’rin’pear.” –Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene I

Translation: “It’s too bad Rosaline is not a walking orifice, amiright?”

Other words to look out for: breach, case, den, eye, flower, lap, mark, plum, sty, wound.

It follows that anything pointy- especially anything associated with weaponry- represented the phallus.

“But I might see Cupid’s fiery shaft

Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon” –A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1

Translation: “And then the flaming penis shot into the sky’s vagina.  I totally saw the whole thing.”

Other key words: bugle, lance, carrot, pear, stake, pen, pipe, poll-axe, horn, tool.*

(Fun fact: Shakespeare used nearly twice as many words for “vagina” as he did for “penis”.  While the debate about his sexuality will probably rage on forever, his prose leaves little doubt that Willy Shakes really loved him some vajayjay.)

Pay attention when gloves are mentioned.  Shakespeare, once an aspiring glover, knew that high-end ladies’ gloves were made of lambskin, the same material that was then used for condoms.

This woman’s an easy glove, my lord; she goes off and on at pleasure. –All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V, Scene 3

Translation: “Girlfriend might as well have a reservoir tip.”

Night = vagina; day = penis.  Now read this:

Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;

For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night

Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.

Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,

Give me my Romeo” –Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene II

Translation: “Sweet Jesus, I can’t wait to lose my virginity!

Now you know the sordid truth: William Shakespeare was a sex maniac, but you don’t have to take my word for it.  For further reading on William Shakespeare’s dick jokes, check out Shakespeare’s Bawdy by Eric Partridge and A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and Their Significance by Frankie Rubinstein.  Impress your friends and horrify your family with your newfound glossary of classical smut, and if anybody complains, just smile and say you’re only quoting Shakespeare.



(Top pic from Hark, A Vagrant!, which we love to death.)

Amanda LaPergola tweets @LaPergs.


  • Hillary Lauren

     This was a great article! More reasons to see college versions of Shakespeare plays: they like to pick up on the innuendos.

    I also love Beaton’s comic–there’s a good on all the different versions of Watson.

  • Kaeli Gardner

    Having just directed a production of Antony & Cleopatra this spring, I can tell you that yes, there is most definitely sex in Shakespeare :D

    Midsummer and R&J in particular are full of it, and A&C is of course a play about a civil war caused entirely because of one man’s lust, so yeah… it was a sexy sexy show.

  • Anonymous

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

  • 陈丽雅

    So hot website ! Don’t miss it!

  • Hop_froggy06

    We did a kid-friendly, one-act version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” my senior year of college, so it got stripped of all the really juicy sex jokes. But, being good college students, we managed to turn even the most innocuous line into an innuendo anyway.

  • TrinityBlackDragon

    Great article!  

  • Lady

    Actually, in our high school reading of Romeo & Juliet (in freshman year, no less), my teacher taught nothing BUT the sex jokes/puns/metaphors. I’m not even exaggerating. She was obsessed.

  • Paulinekiernan

    You may also be interested in checking out my ‘FILTHY SHAKESPEARE: SHAKESPEARE’S MOST OUTRAGEOUS SEXUAL PUNS’. One of the totally incorrect misconceptions about his use of obscene puns – that he did this to cater for the apprentices and kitchen maids – is something I wanted to correct vehemently in my book.  In fact, Shakespeare’s own aristocratic patron, the Lord Chamberlain (who suffered chronic syphilis for many long years and was believed to have fathered at least ten illegitimate children) was widely known for his ‘swearing and obscenity of speaking’. Shakespeare’s second patron was King James I himself, who was known as ‘the foul-mouthed King’.

    So, one can very reasonably argue that, far from using obscene sexual puns to cater for the so called ‘lower orders’, Shakespeare was more concerned with pleasing the high-ranking and the HIGHEST ranking patron who certainly needed to be kept happy if Shakespeare’s playing company were to be allowed to enjoy their patronage. And we have to remember that without such patronage, playwrights and actors would be treated as little more than vagabonds.
    Dr Pauline Kiernan

  • Aisha Clarke

    Alright, ‘O’ can be seen as a visual metaphor – what about calling her an open arse? (Or ‘ass’ as it’s spelt in Americaland.) Do love a bit of filth :D

  • Dr Pauline Kiernan

    Aisha – Shakespeare did actually use the phrase ‘open-arse’ and it’s in one of the most ribald of his plays – the tragedy, Romeon and Juliet. Here’s an extract from my book, ‘Filthy Shakespeare’ which explains one of the filthiest passages in all Shakespeare:

    the dirtiest lines in Shakespeare are delivered by Romeo’s friend Mercutio, one
    of the most foul-mouthed of his characters.A
    line in this extract where Mercutio is imagining Romeo dreaming of sex with his
    first love Rosaline, was censored in Shakespeare’s own lifetime. One edition
    replaced the phrase ‘open-arse’ with ‘open Et
    Caetera’, and a later one left a blank: ‘open, or—’

    MERCUTIO  If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.

    Now will he sit under a medlar tree

    And wish his mistress were that kind of

    As maids call medlars when they laugh

    O Romeo, that she were, O that she were

    An open-arse, and thou a popp’rin’ pear.

    translation and glossary of sexual subtext:

     If love be blind, he cannot hit the
    vagina. He’ll sit under a medlar tree and wish his mistress were that kind of
    fruit that girls call open-arses when they’re laughing [and talking dirty] on
    their own. O Romeo, if only she were, O if only she were an open arse, and you
    an erect penis popping it in.


    Vagina. [The archery terms ‘mark’ and ‘target’ were
    frequent puns on female genitals]

    Medlar. Fruit of the medlar tree that’s only edible when over-ripe.
    ‘Open-arse’ was a slang term for a medlar, the shape of the fruit being thought
    to resemble the anus. [In Timon of Athens
    4.3 Timon says he hates the medlar because it looks like the churlish
    philosopher Apemantus, i.e. it looks like his open arse]

    A word that often suggests bawdry. It was a pun on making love, causing an erection,
    and farting. Given Mercutio’s ribald humour, he’s probably imagining the girls
    are laughing at obscene matters.

    pear. Erect penis, punning on ‘pop her in’. [A pear
    from the Flemish town of Poperinghe (now in Belgium) that
    was shaped like an erect penis]”

    From ‘Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns’ by Pauline Kiernan.


    Dr Pauline Kiernan