Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespeare's "Bawdy"

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespeare's "Bawdy"

Article excerpt

Conjure up a bawdy passage from Shakespeare. What comes to mind? Perhaps the verb "conjure" evoked Mercutio's mischievous desire to "raise a spirit" in the "circle" of Romeo's mistress. (1) Maybe you thought of the ribald banter in which Petruccio puts his "tongue" in Katherine's "tail" (Taming, 2.1.214). (2) Or did you recall the amazement of another Katherine, the French princess of Henry V, when she learns the wicked-sounding English words foot and cown (3.4.46)? (3) Then again, the word bawdy might have led you to one of the bawdy houses that populate the urban landscapes of Measure for Measure, Henry IV, or Pericles.

As studies such as Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy or Gordon Williams's Glossary of Shakespeare's Sexual Language will tell us, bawdy refers to language or acts that are "lewd, obscene, [or] unchaste." (4) Literary scholars tend to use the word bawdy especially to signify a kind of naughty sexuality, most often manifested in the mirthful tortion of innuendoes and puns. Mary Bly, our best recent guide to the pleasure of sexual puns in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, explains that she prefers the word bawdy to obscene or sexual because of its "connotations of humour, coming from roots in the Old French word bauderie, or gaiety" and because adjectives such as "licentious, lewd, indecent, [or] obscene tend to be more pejorative." (5) Bly is not alone in associating bawdy with humor and pleasure. In an essay on language and sexuality in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, David Landreth argues that the chaste wives turn the "irreducible bawdiness" of Latin into the "innocent merriness" of English. And Jeremy Lopez argues that bawdy wordplay on the London stage functioned primarily to produce socially unifying laughter and delight. (6)

In its most familiar early modern meanings, bawdy describes things--songs, plays, words, or houses--that function as instruments or sites of erotic pleasure. Given the variety of erotic pleasures depicted in Shakespeare's work, it is perhaps surprising that the word bawdy itself appears only fourteen times in the entire corpus, in eleven plays. (7) And in only three of these fourteen instances does bawdy describe pleasurable pastimes: the "merry bawdy play" mentioned in the Prologue to All Is True (Pro. 14), the "merry" bawdy song requested by Falstaff in 1 Henry IV (3.3.11-12), and the "bawdy talk" offered by Lucio in Measure for Measure (4.3.163-64)--albeit in the latter instance it is worth noting that Lucio's sexual talk annoys rather than entertains his interlocutor, the disguised Duke. Often in Shakespeare, as in Measure for Measure, bawdy is linked to the bawdy house, a locus of corruption and violence as well as pleasure. (8) The pleasure we typically associate with bawdy should not deflect our attention from the sexual and economic exploitation of women that sometimes accompanies that pleasure. (9)

Although feminist and materialist scholars have explored the violence and degradation of the bawdy house, the word bawdy carries as yet unexplored connotations that can illuminate early modern thinking about the contaminating eroticism of things. These connotations of bawdy attribute a pervasive eroticism to things-- from bodily fluids to cosmic phenomena--that resist human control and transgress the boundaries of the human body. My emphasis on an eroticism that violates corporeal boundaries and pushes beyond subjective desires has affinities with the work of Will Stockton, James Bromley, and Ben Saunders, who have demonstrated how anal eroticism can function in early modern texts to disrupt sexual categories and to defy the attribution of coherent sexual subjectivity to those who perform or fantasize about it. Bromley posits that anilingus, "as a nonpenetrative, nongenital practice," is not "organized around subjectivity" and that early modern representations of it "imagine the possibility and the pleasures of depersonalized intimacy. …

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