'Filthy Shakespeare' book romp of a read of Bard's rough-and-tumble London: review

  1. 2 hours, 0 minute ago

    By Joseph B. Frazier, The Associated Press

    "Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns" (Gotham Books)

    By Pauline Kiernan

    In high school, when Miss Grundy rubbed your adolescent nose in Shakespeare, she was perhaps unaware that the Bard of Avon had ye pottye mouthe.

    With more than four centuries of language shifts and Shakespeare's unmatched genius for puns and double-entendre, most readers today, unlike those of his time, skim past it.

    But help has arrived in a book, "Filthy Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns" by Oxford PhD Pauline Kiernan.

    It's a romp of a read in which the author presents an original passage and then puts it into modern-day English.

    Various nuisances have censored some of his raunchier efforts over time and they don't appear in some modern textbooks or play scripts. Fame saved others.

    Hamlet's uncle killed Hamlet's father, the king ("murder most foul"), and to Hamlet's unalloyed disgust assumed the throne after marrying his mother. When Hamlet famously proclaims something is rotten in the state of Denmark, he doesn't mean the herring.

    Rotten, Kiernan tells us, was a known reference to venereal disease in which London then was awash. "State" means the throne. So the prince is telling us, here and later, that the royal crown graces the dome of an incestuous, syphilitic, homicidal, licentious usurping weasel.

    Then consider "Love's Labour's Lost," where Byron asks Rosalyn, "Did I not dance with you in Barbing once?"

    She replies with the same question.

    Byron: I know you did.

    Rosalyn: How needless I was then to ask the question.

    The modern version is impolite and you wouldn't read it to a bench of bishops.

    The book's Oct. 4 release date somehow coincides with the American Library Association's Banned Books Week.

    But it's through the lens of language that Kiernan gives us a glimpse of daily life in the rough-and-tumble streets of the Bard's London - not a pleasant place.

    She writes that in Shakespeare's time, "People spoke a language that was full of figures of speech - bawdy, colourful or just plain gross" to disguise the cruel facts of hard, short and often-disease-ridden lives.
    Today, words such as fie, white, fairness, merry, nothing, dale, tune, justice and Will have meanings of their own. They did back then, too, but not the same ones. Kiernan leads us by the hand.
    The "F-word," she writes, is absent as such but shows up in myriad other forms. Various words for genitalia surpass 400.
    The theatres were in the red-light district and many of the endless bordellos were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester, and to good profit. For variety, theatregoers could walk a short distance and watch heads being lopped off or prisoners burned alive or drawn and quartered.
    Tough town.
    Theatres were not high culture. Kiernan says they were ranked socially with brothels and bear pits "with all manner of lewd and grotesque entertainment."
    She says the modern Shakespeare reader is at a disadvantage because many of his words are gone and that even ardent followers "experience bum-numbing moments" of seemingly meaningless banter "because we don't fully realize that the harmless-sounding words are actually exuberant displays of sparkling coded sexy dialogue."
    Kiernan's research took her to writings from as far back as the 1500s, when "dancing school" and "nunnery" meant brothels, "expense" wasn't something to avoid, and "housewifery" had naught to do with dusting furniture.
    Sexual punning, the author writes, was more common then and playgoers, even the rabble that paid a penny to stand at the Globe Theatre, probably grasped most of it. Without the puns and double-entendres, much of the humour would have been lost on the Elizabethan audience.
    The Bard wasn't about to run off a paying crowd with jokes and puns they couldn't understand, she notes.
    Not all of his language has vanished. On some campus in a time-warped coffee house, some guy with a lute and a beard probably is still singing something with a chorus of, "Hey, non nony, nony hey nony."
    Ask Miss Grundy to look THAT one up.

  2. The significance of

    Sigh no more, ladies, sigh nor more;
    Men were deceivers ever;
    One foot in sea and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never;
    Then sigh not so,
    But let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny;
    Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into. Hey nonny, nonny.

    Sing no more ditties, sing no mo,
    Or dumps so dull and heavy;
    The fraud of men was ever so,
    Since summer first was leavy.
    Then sigh not so,
    But let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny,
    Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into. Hey, nonny, nonny.

    can be explained here: