A Trip to Bawdy on the Soul Train

Every month, I delve a little deeper into my sophomore boy-mind, and pull out the bawdy stuff from the play of the month, usually focusing on a particular scene or character.

This month, with The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, I’m going to approach it a little differently.  I want to start off with a quick catalog of the “naughty bits” then pull them together for a more generalized statement about the use of bawdiness in the play.

Scene Incident
Act One, Scene Three In the dialogue between Queen Margaret and Suffolk, there are some pretty tame (read: only there if you want to really push it) references:

  • Queen Margaret describes Suffolk’s time in France when he was wooing in the name of King Henry as Suffolk “(running) atilt in honor of (her) love” (I.iii.54). The Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0) defines “to run a-tilt” as “to encounter on horseback with the thrust of a lance” … rather phallic, no? It also recalls a statement last month made by Joan la Pucelle (not a touchstone for chastity in Shakespeare’s world): Joan taunts Bedford, “What will you do, good greybeard? Break a lance // And run a tilt at death within a chair?” (1HenryVI: III.v.10-11). First, she insults Bedford’s age (and implied infirmity–physical and mental) by calling him a “graybeard,” and then sarcastically demeans his sexual impotence with a reference to his “break(ing) a lance… (and having) a tilt at death.” Breaking a lance is a reference to sexual copulation (Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 169); and to “die” is to “experience a sexual orgasm” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 118). She mocks his ability to have sex, since he is in his death-bed, er, death-chair.
  • Suffolk responds that he will “work (her) grace’s full content” (I.iii.70); he will work toward her “satisfaction, pleasure” (OED).
Act Two, Scene Three In preparation for trial by combat, Horner disparages his opponent, “Let it come, i’ faith I’ll pledge to you all, and a fig for Peter” (II.iii.67-68). To give a fig was to make “a contemptuous gesture which consisted in thrusting the thumb between two of the closed fingers” (OED), and this gesture was meant to signify the vagina (and the thumb the clitoris). Here, he may be saying that Peter may need a woman (so he won’t die a virgin), or that Peter is a pussy (“an effeminate man” [OED]).
Act Three, Scene Two After Salisbury delivers the Commons’ ultimatum regarding the arrest of Suffolk for the murder of Gloucester, Suffolk responds, noting “how quaint” (III.ii.279) Salisbury is. The chaste in the audience will read “clever” into “quaint.” However, “quaint” (as a noun) had another meaning in Shakespeare’s time. It’s much obscene wording of vagina. More obscene than pussy. Kinda sounds like “quaint.” (Think the one profanity that most women will not utter, no matter what the occasion… )

Later in the scene, during Margaret and Suffolk’s long goodbye, he makes a number of bawdy references:

  • he wishes to be “in (her) lap” where he could “breathe (his) soul into” (III.ii.396,397); the lap part is pretty obvious here, to breathe also meant “to emit by expiration” (OED)… could “soul” be what’s usually inside him (his ejaculate)? (I’ve found no criticism on this, so I may be WAY off-base… but still…)
  • he says,

    I should be raging mad,
    And cry out for thee to close up mine eyes,
    To have thee with thy lips to stop my mouth
    So shouldst thou either turn my flying soul
    Or I should breathe it, so, into thy body

    — III.ii.401-402

    Suffolk easily sees himself enraged with lust (“raging mad”), crying out in orgasm (“for thee to close up mine eyes”) only to have her silence him with a kiss (“with thy lips stop my mouth”)… and again we have his “soul” (“flying” this time, no less) being “breathe(d)” into her body. (I may be onto something with this “soul” thing)

  • After “he kisseth her” (III.ii.402 s.d.), he continues: “And then it lived in sweet Elysium. // By thee to die were to but to die in jest” (III.ii.403-404). He sees his “soul” then in Paradise (“it lived in sweet Elysium”). Now, we’re back to “die” (“experience a sexual orgasm” [Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 118]), but not just any orgasm, but one heroic money shot, as jest meant in Shakespeare’s time, “A notable deed or action; an exploit” (OED). (now I WOULD go for a homophone oral sex pun here [“in jest” = “ingest”], but the word “ingest” won’t be used for another twenty years… missed it by THAT much…)
Act Four, Scene Two In our first exposure to Jack Cade, he speaks of his wife, about whom his henchmen make crude asides: “not able to travel with her furred pack, she washes bucks here at home” (IV.ii.51-52). According to the editors of The Pelican Shakespeare edition,

"travel... furred pack: (1) travel... peddler's pack, made of skin with the hair outward, (2) make a living ("travail")... sexual organs; washes buck: (1) does laundry ("buck" is lye, bucks are the clothes treated with it), (2) absolves cuckolds (husbands with horns, or bucks) of their shame by helping them get even with their unfaithful wives"

William Montgomery

Act Four, Scene Four We’ve already discussed Queen Margaret’s discussion of “dying” had it been Henry rather than Suffolk who was killed.
Act Four, Scene Seven And this is the mother lode: all pertaining to Jack Cade and his cohorts…

  • Jack Cade derides French nobility by calling the Dauphin “Monsieur Basimecu” (IV.vii.26). Baise is French for “kiss”… mon for “my”… and cul for “ass”… run them together and you have Monsieur Kiss-My-Ass.
  • When Cade begins to become tyrannical, he says of his power and privileges:

    There shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it: men shall hold of me in capite; and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell.

    — IV.vii.118-122

    All maids will have to give up their virginity (“maidenhead”) to Cade before they are allowed to marry. And once the women are married, they are to remain available for sex (“free”) at the beck and call of Cade (“as heart can wish or tongue can tell”).

  • This privilege extends to his cohorts as well: a sergeant arrives with a complaint against Dick the Butcher (apt name, no?), claiming Dick had raped (“ravished” [IV.vii.129]) the Sergeant’s wife. Dick makes no defense, saying that the Sergeant was going to arrest him, so he “went and entered (his) action in (the Sergeant’s) wife’s proper house” (IV.vii.131-132); Dick’s “action” into the “wife’s proper house” are pretty clear. Cade sides with his cohort, even ordering him to “follow (his) suit in her common place” (IV.vii.133); this explicit approval for rape is pretty clear as well.
  • Once Cade has sent Dick back to raping and the Sergeant off to his death, one of Cade’s rebels asks “My lord, when shall we go to Cheapside and take up commodities upon our bills” (IV.vii.141-142). While the question can have a simple looting connotation (commodities as goods, bills as credit [i.e., without paying]), there’s a sexual connotation as well (shocking, I know): commodity meaning “pudend, particular and generic” (Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 104), and bill meaning “a weapon of war” (OED), and thus penis… in other words, the rebel asks “When do we go to Cheapside and rape?” Cade’s response? “Marry, presently” (IV.vii.143).

OK, so what do we notice about these?  Well, first of all, the references go from subtle to blatant, from tame and innocuous to brutal and criminal.  These are not like the sexual innuendo of The Taming of the Shrew; this is neither fun nor funny.  This is serious business. (is it because this is a history and not a comedy?)

Secondly, they all come from either Queen Margaret, Suffolk (to each other), or Cade and his men.  These are NOT positive characters.  These are characters we do NOT like or respect.  (is Shakespeare making a moral judgment on leaders–a la Mirror for Magistrates–with leaders who think about sex being inherently bad… insert please no Monica Lewinsky jokes here)

or is there no reason?  and are we reading too much into intention, as we may be reading too much into Suffolk’s “soul”?

Comment?