The Merry Wives… and the Bawdy Boys

NOTE: This post is rated NA-17. Or at least a hard R. If you’re easily offended or blush too quickly, turn back now. You HAVE been warned.

If you’ve been around for any of the other plays’ discussions, you knew this day was coming (no pun intended). It’s our monthly (well, now bi-monthly) dip into the deep pool of bawdy.

And it doesn’t take long for the characters in this play to dip their collective toe into this pool. Less than 250 lines into the play, Abraham Slender, a potential suitor of Anne Page, says to this kinsman that he “will do a greater thing than” marry the girl (I.i.221), perhaps thinking that he can father a family as easily as his Biblical namesake Abraham fathered religions.

Later in the scene, Anne enters to entreat him to follow here to where others are having dinner. Slender tries to make conversation, even intimating of his prowess with “sword and dagger” (I.i.262)–and yes, you can read all sorts of phallic symbolism into that. The only problem is that he lets slip that his bout was “for a dish of stewed prunes” (I.i.263-4). Stewed prunes, in Shakespeare’s day, were associated with brothels, and the implication is that he was fighting in a whorehouse, or possibly even over the whores themselves.

We meet Falstaff in Act One, Scene Three, and within four dozen lines, he is outlining his desire to “make love to Ford’s wive” (I.iii.41-42), in whom he “sp(ies) entertainment: she discourses, she carves, she gives the leer of invitation” (I.iii.42-43). Here, it’s the seemingly innocuous words that hold the double meaning:

  • entertainment: receptiveness to his sexual advances
  • carves: behaves suggestively
  • leer of invitation: —

    actually, that one does need a double meaning

Less than 20 lines later, he proclaims his same desire for Page’s wife, whom he feels “did so course o’er (his) exteriors with such a greedy intention that the appetite of her eye did seem to scorch me up like a burning glass” (I.iii.63-65). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that each wife “has all the rule of her husband’s purse” (I.iii.50-1, and 66).

or is that “de”-clined?

When, in the next scene, we meet Mistress Quickly (or Quick-Lay to those so gutter-ally inclined… and Pistol is so declined, as he refers to her as a “punk” [II.ii.127], or prostitute), she speaks of “horn-mad” men (I.iv.46), or cuckolded husbands, and her own working hard: “And to be up early and down late; but notwithstanding” (I.iv.94-5). And here, it’s not just a double-entendre (“up early and down late”… an erection and its post-climactic flaccidity), but a doubled double-entendre in the “notwithstanding.” Cut that word into three parts, and you get both “not with standing” but rather with laying down (remember, after all, this is Quick-Lay talking), but also “not with (a) standing” cock, in this case, all work and no (sexual) play. The doubled double-entendre makes the dirty–disappointingly–clean again.

When we meet the two wives in Act Two, Scene One, and they discover Falstaff’s letters for both of them, Mistress Page uses printing terminology, but that which carries a double meaning:

He will print them, out of doubt; for he cares not what he puts into the press, when he would put us two. I had rather be a giantess and lie under Mount Pelion. Well, I will find you twenty lascivious turtles ere one chaste man
  • II.i.70-4

From printing press to bed presser to being under a mountain (imaging Falstaff on top of you!) to the eternal horniness of all of Falstaff’s gender, this speech goes from clean to risque to mythological to zoological, all leading to a damning statement on the morality of the male.

Of course, the scene (and dialogue and its imagery) doesn’t end there. From printing and pressing to boats and boarding the wives go:

MRS. PAGE
For sure, unless he know some strain in me that I know not myself, he would never have boarded me in this fury.
MRS. FORD
Boarding call you it? I’ll be sure to keep him above deck.
MRS. PAGE
So will I. If he come under my hatches, I’ll never to sea again.
  • II.i.79-85

The first reference–boarding–refers to a naval attack where sailors from one ship board the other ship in an attempt to take it over, and here, Mistress Page is fairly clean. Mistress Ford, however, takes it further with her desire to keep him “above deck,” and now below her waist. Page responds by continuing the seagoing metaphor when she says that sex with “this greasy knight” (II.i.98-99) Falstaff would put her off sex (“never to sea”) forever.

The “greasy knight” (and remember where we’ve seen “greasy” before) seems to make a contemporary reference to an Elizabethan brothel when he mentions “Pickt-hatch” (II.ii.17), when we see him next. In this scene, Quickly attempts to bring Falstaff into the wives’ revenge plot, flattering him on his charms, but the knight denies charms, allowing only that he has “good parts” (II.ii.99). Now, while this could refer to his talents or positive characteristics, is there any doubt what parts Falstaff is talking about?

The next two bawdy references are silly wordplay: the “erect(ing)” of an edifice (II.ii.207), and the piss (“stale” [II.iii.26]) jokes of “Castalion King Urinal” (II.iii.30) and “Monsieur Mock-Water [make water]” (II.iii.51).

[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.]

And that leads us to “the Latin lesson.”

But fatigue has set in, so that will have to wait until tomorrow…

Comment?