A Shakespearean Guide to Bawdy Jokes & Sexual Innuendo
Nathan Lane in The Birdcage and Gene Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What do these two actors have in common, besides both being very funny? They’re both personalities I borrowed from to bring my version of William Shakespeare to life.
To me, An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason has three main characters: Katherine Arundell, a vengeful Catholic involved in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I; Toby Ellis, a spy who is tasked with finding the queen’s would-be assassin; and Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare play that pulls the two together, apart, and together again. It only made sense, then, to make the man who wrote the play be a character—not just a cutout, background character—but a character.
In his time, Shakespeare was a massive success. His plays packed in the crowds: 3,000 spectators per show, two times a day, six times a week; people from all walks of life, from nobles who sat in the boxes to peasants who stood in the yard. He needed to entertain his audience, to please both the highly educated and the illiterate. What better way to find common ground than by throwing in a dirty joke or two (or ten? We haven’t evolved that much.)? I think the real Shakespeare would be a lot closer to Willy Wonka and Starina: bawdy, dramatic, and a bit hysterical, in both senses of the word—than the staid, pretentious poet he’s often portrayed to be.
I was a literature major at the University of Texas. During my senior year I took a class on how to read Shakespeare—not for the stories, we were assumed to be well-versed in those by then—but for the context of those plays. For the things they don’t teach you in high school; how to truly appreciate what it would have been like for a 17th century audience to experience them. To borrow from Héloïse Sénéchal, the editor of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of the Complete Works: Shakespeare’s plays are absolutely packed with filth.
You might be thinking: surely she jest (she does not). But the English language, particularly euphemisms, has evolved so much since the 1600s that without a little bit of instruction, they’re unrecognizable as humor, much less sexual humor. It doesn’t help, either, that most Shakespeare nowadays is read: it’s meant to be performed (with Elizabethan pronunciations, no less, something else that’s changed over time). But never fear: I’m here for you. Not only have I given you An Assassin’s Guide to Love & Treason, I now present to you A Shakespearean Guide to Bawdy Jokes & Sexual Innuendo. You’ll have the most refined potty mouth on your block (you’re welcome).
In general, anything circular (the letter O, for example) can be interpreted as a euphemism for vagina. Other words to look out for: breach, case, den, eye, flower, lap, mark, plum, sty, wound. Now that you know this, it follows that anything pointy (usually, but not always, a weapon) can be interpreted as a penis. Ditto the words bugle, lance, carrot, pear, stake, pen, pipe, poll-axe, horn, tool.
Now that you know this, check out this line from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream:
But I might see Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon.
Now, these words might strike you as obvious, and they are. But there are few less obvious references. Day isn’t always day; sometimes it too means penis. And night isn’t always night, sometimes it also means vagina. Knowing this, reread the following scene from Romeo and Juliet:
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
Yes, that is Juliet waxing poetic about losing her virginity to Romeo.
It’s also useful to note that the word “die” is an Elizabethan euphemism for “orgasm”. See now this line from Much Ado About Nothing:
I will live in they heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.
(Remember, too, what I said before about “circular” words (like eyes) means? 🙂
And speaking of Much Ado About Nothing, the title of the play itself is a dirty pun: “thing” being slang for a man’s parts, “no thing” being slang for woman’s. Thus: the title doesn’t only mean “a lot to do about nothing”, it also means “a lot of hoo-hah about, well, a hoo-hah”. This little word switcheroo even gives a different color to this line from Hamlet:
Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
I’ll let you figure out for yourself what Hamlet meant by “country matters”.
Lastly, and as a bonus, I’m adding this bit from Titus and Andronicus. It is laugh-out-loud funny and you don’t need any coaching to appreciate it: the earliest “your mom” joke in history:
Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.
I recently saw a review from a reader who thought there were too many make-out sessions in Assassin’s Guide. To this I say: considering Shakespeare’s own penchant for sex-obsessed teenaged characters, I think he would have approved.