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Brush Up Your Shakespeare: The Dirty Side of the Bard

A couple of weeks back we reported that reading Shakespeare makes you smarter. But to counterbalance that thesis, we thought we’d also better point out that while brushing up on the Bard might make you brighter, it won’t make you any less dirty – and, in fact, could well do quite the opposite. Shakespeare had a way with a double-entendre, y’see, often sneaking risqué jokes into his plays that would have had the peanut gallery howling in laughter back when the Globe was rocking in the early 1600s. Here are a few of our favorite bits of Bardic bawdiness.

Hamlet

Perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous dirty pun comes in Act III, Scene II of Hamlet, where the titular Prince and the doomed Ophelia are having a good old flirt. Hamlet asks if he can lay his head in Ophelia’s lap; she demurs, and he asks “Do you think I meant country matters?” In this case, you can work out what he really means by dropping the last syllable off “country”. Ooh-er.

Twelfth Night

On a similar note, Twelfth Night features a scene where Malvolio is doing a spot of amateur handwriting analysis, examining a letter to see who wrote it. He comes to the following conclusion: “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.” If you read it out loud, “and her T’s” sounds like “N her T’s”, which spells out… well, yes. And that makes the rest of it make sense, too.

Romeo and Juliet

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” laments Juliet in Act II, Scene II, when she discovers that Romeo is a scion of her family’s bitter rivals, the Montagues. This line is a poetic declaration that names are arbitrary and shouldn’t present impediments to the course of true love, but there’s a long-held theory that it was also a sly dig at the Rose Theatre up the road, which apparently stank to high heaven.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The eponymous characters might have been gentlemen, but Lance and Speed – the two servants who spend their time in Act III, Scene I gossiping about their girlfriends – certainly aren’t. They compare their ladies’ attributes in a distinctly unchivalrous fashion, and the exchange ends with Lance claiming that the best part of his relationship is that his girl “has no teeth to bite”. Classy.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What, the one everyone studies at school? Really? But wait, look again at the slapstick play-within-a-play, and specifically, the scene where Pyramus and Thisbe are trying to communicate through a hole in a wall (which is played by another character). It turns out, communication isn’t exactly what they had in mind. “My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones,” proclaims Thisbe, “Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.” We’re not sure what the lime is all about, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on here. The whole scene gets funnier and dirtier when Pyramus implores Thisbe to kiss him through a hole in the wall – which, remember, isn’t a wall at all, but another character – and Thisbe gets it all wrong: “I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all!” Ewww.

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