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Bawdy Bard: How To Find the Sex in Shakespeare

For A More Civilized Age

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.

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