Much Ado About… Gulling, Goading, Girl-Talk (and then Claudio sucks the fun out of sex-talk)

I can usually do the bawdy thing in one or two segments, but methinks Eric Partridge was right when he said that Much Ado About Nothing is the “sexual-worst” of the comedies… so here’s another bawdy entry, and the same caveats apply: dirty thoughts, nasty language, adolescent humor ahead… skip to a clean entry if you’re quickly offended or blush a tad too easily…

Whereas the first nudge-nudge-wink-wink-inducing pieces of dialogue in the first two acts of Much Ado were spoken by Beatrice, the third act’s first (and albeit relatively clean) bit o’ bawdy are spoken for her benefit. As part of her gulling scene, Ursula asks why Hero has told Claudio and Pedro to counsel Benedick not to tell Beatrice of his love for her since doesn’t “the gentleman // Deserve as full a fortunate a bed // As ever Beatrice shall couch upon?” (III.i.44-6). Here, a “fortunate bed” is one that is “the scene of happy lovemaking” (“fortunate bed”, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge, 2008; pages 140).

While Hero and Ursula speaks so that Beatrice can hear them, Claudio and Pedro have advanced their conspiracy to teasing Benedick to his (supposedly toothache-y) face:

DON PEDRO
Indeed, that tells a heavy tale for him: conclude, conclude he is in love.
CLAUDIO
Nay, but I know who loves him.
DON PEDRO
That would I know too: I warrant, one that knows him not.
CLAUDIO
Yes, and his ill conditions; and, in despite of all, dies for him.
DON PEDRO
She shall be buried with her face upwards.
  • III.ii.56-63

Claudio’s reference that Benedick’s love “dies for him” can be read (cleanly) as literally dying for love, but for the Elizabethans believed that there was another kind of death, the tiny death of orgasm (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 118),which robbed the person of a bit of their own life force. Pedro takes the metaphor one step further by saying the lady-love will be buried face upwards, as in buried by Benedick’s body on top of hers, in an act of sex.

In the ping-pong-ing scenes of bawdy goading, the next scene has Hero and Margaret teasing Beatrice with hyper-sexualized statements as well. But even before that happens, Margaret and Hero engage in a little dirty girl-talk of their own. When Hero (inexplicably) says that she has a heavy heart, Margaret says that “‘Twill be heavier soon by the weight of a man” (III.iv.25-6), as Claudio will be on top of her (in much the same way as Benedick’s lady-love will be buried face up). Hero catches the dirty joke, and asks Margaret if she is ashamed for saying such a thing, and Margaret plays it off, first by saying her statements are “honorable” (III.iv.23; though even this statement is a sexual pun, as “honor” is a homophone for “on her”), and then by saying that it would have been all right if she had said “heavier for a husband” (III.iv.33). Otherwise, she says, “‘tis light, not heavy” (III.iv.35). Of course, this is less than chaste, as “light” also meant “sexually immoral” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 177).

When Beatrice enters, Margaret calls for a song, saying the song “Light a Love” “goes without a burden” (III.iv.41-2), or without a refrain, though since we heard the conversation prior to Beatrice’s entry, we know that the “burden” then is a pun as well, referencing the weight of a man on top of her. And when Margaret says that if Beatrice will sing the song, Margaret will dance to it, Beatrice is more than willing to head down the path to bawdy, replying,

Ye light a love, with your heels! then, if your husband have stables enough, you’ll see he shall lack no barns.
  • III.iv.43-5

The concept of dancing with heels has a sexual connotation: a woman “beat(ing) the bed with one’s heels during the rhythmic motion of the sexual act” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 115). The second half of her response doesn’t retreat from the sexual, since, according to Partridge, a stable is “‘a standing place for horses’; this leads to the sexual sense of standing…cock-stand” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 245), and “barn” is a homophone for “bairn” or children. So if the husband has erections enough, there will be many children.

When Hero asks Beatrice to smell the perfumed gloves Claudio has sent, Beatrice has to refuse: “I am stuffed, cousin, I cannot smell’ (III.iv.59). She, of course, means that her nose is congested, but Margaret uses the same meaning of “stuff” as Beatrice herself used back in the first scene of the play, and says, “A maid, and stuffed!” (III.iv.60). A maid is an unmarried woman, assumed to be a virgin, and yet Beatrice is stuffed, or having been fucked.

Beatrice responds that she is ill, and Margaret gives her a cure: holy thistle, also known as “Carduus benedictus” (III.iv.68-9), which Beatrice should “lay to (her) heart” (III.iv.69). The only cure for Beatrice is not more cow-bell, but to lay Benedick. But the bawdiness of her response doesn’t end there: according to Partridge the phrase “lay it to one’s heart” had the following meaning:

To admit the male organ and induce an emission: … (the) first ‘it’ = the penis; 2nd ‘it’ = emission
  • Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 170-1

According to Margaret, the only cure for what’s ailing Beatrice is a pearl necklace. At this point in the scene, even Hero joins in, telling Margaret that she “prick’st (Beatrice) with a thistle” (III.iv.71). Yes, a thistle (even holy thistle) has thorns or prickles, but as far back as Shakespeare, prick also had the “cock” connotation; thus, Hero says that Margaret has Benedick “pricking” or screwing, Beatrice.

This dirty dialogue doesn’t rival some of the nastiest scenes we’ve seen in the past of the project, but it’s certainly the strongest sustained bit of bawdy in the play.

In Act Four, Scene One–also known as the “Worst. Wedding. Ever.”–there’s quite a bit of dirty language, but less of it double entendre. Much like AC/DC, it’s pretty much single entendre, except unlike boys from down under, the language here less entertaining than succinct and joyless.

Claudio casts his language as purely descriptive: he says Hero “knows the heat of a luxurious bed” (IV.i.40), with “heat” meaning “amorous ardour (of animals)” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 153), and “luxurious” “sensual, amorous” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 183). He also accuses Hero as being

more intemperate in (her) blood
Than Venus, or those pamper’d animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
  • IV.i.58-60

“Intemperate” means “loose living; unbridled” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy,164), and “sensuality” “excessive addiction to sex” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy,234). And Pedro, like his brother in Act Two, calls Hero a whore, or “stale” (IV.i.64).

The fun has been sucked from the sexual language. The tone has changed.

Lucky for us, just as the overall tone turns back to love (if not happiness) in a comedy, we’ll get a return to playful bawdiness in Act Five… but that’s a discussion for another day.

Comment?