Me Not So Bawdy


Given Shakespeare’s penchant for building dichotomies, it’s not surprising that one of the sexually driest plays in the Canon (plot-wise) should garner us a boatload of bawdy references… of course, none of them sink to the “greasiness” of Love’s Labor’s Lost. Regardless, let’s dip our big… uh, toe, in that pool of bawd(il)y fluids in The Merchant of Venice.

The bawdy references basically fall under two headings here: comic and not-so-comic.

The comic include:

In the opening scene, Gratiano says that keeping quiet “is only commendable // In a neat’s tongue dried” (I.i.111-112). A neat was an ox, and its long, thin tongue, when dried could be compared to an old man’s penis. Could this be an off-handed insult to Antonio? Is he supposed to be old? [most of the productions on DVD certainly play him past the age of 35…]

[CONTENT REDACTED: In this blog entry, I made reference to Dr. Pauline Kiernan’s work and book on bawdy in the Bard, Filthy Shakespeare; in doing so, I have offended her by my tone and use of her material. I apologize for the offense, and have thus redacted the reference.]

Later, when we meet the clown Lancelot, he says, “My father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste” (II.ii.15-16). Partridge says of the use of “smack”, “The innuendos are obscure–but almost certainly sexual” (Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 240). The “grow to” reference is obviously an erection, and “taste” also had a sexual connotation.  Later, when the clown looks at his hand and reads his own palm, he sees

a small trifle of wives. Alas, fifteen wives is nothing; eleven widows and nine maids is a simple coming-in for one man. And then to 'scape drowning thrice, and to be in peril of my life with the edge of a feather-bed!

— II.ii.150-154

He tells us that “coming-in” up to 20 women (11 widows plus 9 maids) is easy (“simple”) for a man. The real risk, he tells us, is in cuckolding another man, to be on the edge of someone else’s marriage (“feather”) bed.

When Bassanio wins Portia, and Gratiano announces his and Nerissa’s marriage, we hear this exchange:

We'll play with them the first boy for a thousand ducats.

What, and stake down?

No; we shall ne’er win at that sport, and stake down.

— III.ii.213-217

Gratiano tells Nerissa that they will compete with Bassanio and Portia as to who will produce the first male child. Nerissa, always the thrifty wife, asks if they have to put cash down for their bets (“stake down”). Gratiano interprets her differently, however: they will never will the bet if his “stake” is down, his cock is limp.

When Portia tells Nerissa of her plan to follow the husbands to Venice, there is a little bawdy interplay.

They shall, Nerissa; but in such a habit,
That they shall think we are accomplished
With that we lack. I'll hold thee any wager,
When we are both accoutred like young men,
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace,
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride, and speak of frays
Like a fine bragging youth, and tell quaint lies,
How honorable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died;
I could not do withal; then I'll repent,
And wish for all that, that I had not killed them;
And twenty of these puny lies I'll tell,
That men shall swear I have discontinued school
Above a twelvemonth. I have within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,
Which I will practice.

Why, shall we turn to men?

Fie, what a question’s that,
If thou wert near a lewd interpreter!
But come, I’ll tell thee all my whole device
When I am in my coach, which stays for us
At the park gate; and therefore haste away,
For we must measure twenty miles today.

— III.iv.60-84

Their husbands will be see their wives disguised as having what normal women “lack,” penises. Portia says that she will wear hers “with the braver grace,” so that her codpiece will be bigger and more extravagant. She says that she will play the part of the “bragging youth,” which to her means to tell “quaint lies.” While “quaint” today (as in Shakespeare’s day) means “clever, ingenious” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]), it also had a much more sexual meaning, or as Chaucer used in his Canterbury Tales: “Pryvely he caught hir by the queynte.”  In other words, it’s the C word, and Portia says that to act the part of the young man, she must tell lies about the pussies of women that he has had (sounds like Gratiano, no?). But when Nerissa asks if they will turn into men (and take on female lovers… or possibly turn their backs to men and take them as their lovers), Portia is appalled by the “lewd” interpretation.

[CONTENT REDACTED: In this blog entry, I made reference to Dr. Pauline Kiernan’s work and book on bawdy in the Bard, Filthy Shakespeare; in doing so, I have offended her by my tone and use of her material. I apologize for the offense, and have thus redacted the reference.]

When the husbands return to the Belmont without their rings, Portia and Nerissa toy with them, claiming that they will take the doctor of law and his clerk as their “bedfellow(s)” (V.i.233). Gratiano says that he’ll “mar the young clerk’s pen” (V.i.237), or penis. But the main focus of the final subplot are the rings, which are of course analogs for the female genitalia. Thus, it makes total sense than Gratiano’s husbandly fear of cuckoldry: “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing // So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring” (V.i.223-307).

All of this thus far has been somewhat comic. Straddling (pun most definitely intended) the line between comic and cruel is the reportage by Salanio of Shylock’s response to learning of his daughter’s flight:

'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! find the girl;
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.'

— II.viii.15-22

A sealed bag, two rich and precious stones… She has stolen his scrotum and testicles. It’s funny to the cruel and mocking Venetians. And here, we transition to the cruel use of bawdy in the play.

Shylock, our presupposed villain, spends much of his opening scene telling Antonio about the mating of sheep:

No, not take interest, not, as you would say,
Directly interest: mark what Jacob did.
When Laban and himself were compromised
That all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes, being rank,
In the end of autumn turned to the rams,
And, when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skilful shepherd peel'd me certain wands,
And, in the doing of the deed of kind,
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving did in eaning time
Fall parti-colour'd lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest:
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.

— I.iii.73-87

Shylock’s language is filled with animal sexual imagery: “rank”, “turned to”, “work of generation”, “breeders”, “fulsome”, “conceiving”, “eaning.” When Antonio asks if this story was meant to justify the Jew’s charging of interest or are Shylock’s “gold and silver ewes and rams” (I.iii. 92). Shylock’s sarcastic response? “I cannot tell; I make it breed as fast” (I.iii.93)… money is, for Shylock, like just so many animals rutting.

Shylock is a villain, and thus his use of bawdy is not comic, but just dirty… could this be a kind of precursor for another great Shakespearean villain, Iago?