Hamlet: sucking the fun out of bawdy

[EXPLICIT CONTENT AHEAD… SKIP IF EASILY OFFENDED. This entry is going to have a slow start, but some rough language lay ahead… and it’s a long one (that’s what she said–cue rimshot)]

From the beginning of the Project, I’ve taken a dip into the Pool of Bawdy with every play. And with every play, it’s been with adult language and juvenile humor. Pretty much all naked fun and naughty games. That being said, I hope Hamlet isn’t the beginning of a trend… because save for one little sequence, the bawdy bits of the play are not a whole lot of fun.

It starts simply (and subtly) enough with Laertes counselling his sister Ophelia in Act One, Scene Three, warning her about becoming too attached to Hamlet. After all, Hamlet may not “carve for himself” (I.iii.19); while there is the more straightforward meaning of choosing a wife, there is the undercurrent of sexuality (the laying of a sharp or “keen” object into flesh). Later in the same speech, Laertes also uses almost subliminal imagery of venereal disease: “canker galls… the morn and liquid dew of youth // (where) Contagious blastments are most imminent” (I.iii.38, 40-1). Sex as disease–it’s best for Ophelia to stay away.

It doesn’t get any better when Polonius enters the scene. When he speaks to her, he talks circles around her, using multiple meanings of the word “tender” until he wonders if she will bear a child out of wedlock:

Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,
Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus) you’ll tender me a fool.
  • I.iii.104-8

Polonius will teach her, and oh what lessons, and with what imagery:

In few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds
The better to beguile.
  • I.iii.125-30

Words are brokers and bawds, panders and pimps, ready to take advantage of young innocent women. Words are more than that, however, and Ophelia will be the one taking most of their sexually hurtful brunt.

A few scenes later, when Hamlet meets the Ghost, the spirit begins to discuss his murderer, and his first descriptions are not about the violence or usurpation but of sex:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
  • I.v.42-6

Incest, adultery, seduction and lust are what Claudius is all about, according to the Ghost. But he is not alone in his guilt: Gertrude, too, is only “seeming-virtuous.” Sex, or at least its effects, stay in the Ghost’s mind as he describes his own death:

The leprous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.
  • I.v.64-73

The effect of the drug is like a venereal disease spreading through the body, bringing its sickness to the surface like syphilis. In a sense, a “serpent” (I.v.36) did sting him: sex, sexuality, sin. This is what must be “burnt and purged away” (I.v.13).

When we return to Polonius as he gives his servant Reynaldo instructions for spying on Laertes, we see that he returns to concept of panders and pimps, saying that it is all right for Reynaldo to “so go far” (II.i.26) to imply that Laertes has been “drabbing” (II.i.26), or whoring around. There is also a sexual aspect to the note from Hamlet to Ophelia that Polonius reads to Claudius and Gertrude, “O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not art to reckon my groans” (II.ii.120-1). In the note, Hamlet laments that he cannot write poetry (“these numbers” meaning metered verses), and he cannot use such poetry to describe his “groans” … and as we shall see later, such a sound has a sexual connotation.

In the same scene, when Polonius approaches Hamlet and asks the prince if he knows who he is, Hamlet replies that Polonius is “a fishmonger” (II.ii.174). A fishmonger is one sells fish, but was slang for a pimp as well. If Hamlet is intimating that Polonius is pimping out his own daughter, the old man doesn’t get it; Hamlet has to explicitly warn Polonius not to let Ophelia “walk i’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to’t” (II.ii.184-6). Here, “walking in the sun” may very well be walking (or doing much more) with the “son,” the prince… with such actions leading to her conception of a child.

Up until now, none of the bawdy references have been of any fun. The only nudge-nudge-wink-wink comes within 50 lines with the entrance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two courtiers who find themselves in a perfect situation, not too high, nor too low:

Happy in that we are not overhappy. On Fortune’s cap, we are not the very button.
Nor the soles of her shoe?
Neither, my lord.
Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?
Faith, her privates we.
In the secret parts of Fortune? O, most true! She is a strumpet.
  • II.ii.227-35

Bawdy banter. Fun. Light. Locker room talk (employing possibly the first “you’re gay” insult/joke when Hamlet says to Rosencrantz, “Man delights not me–nor woman, neither though by your smiling you seem to say so” [II.ii.278-80]). Enjoy it now, dear reader, because it’s not going to last.

Still later in the scene, when left alone after the Players have arrived, Hamlet criticizes himself for not taking revenge (action), but rather “like a whore, unpack my heart with words // And fall a-cursing like a very drab, // A stallion!” (II.ii.524-6). For Hamlet, he has become nothing more than a prostitute (whore, drab, stallion), who can go through the motions and spout the (dirty) words, but does nothing. Of course, words will become weapons, soon enough.

When Hamlet is greeted by Ophelia, who wishes to return some tokens of love, Hamlet attacks her with his words, asking if she is “honest” (III.i.103), which means not only trustworthy but chaste and sexually pure as well. He then goes on to say that her beauty can turn her chastity into a “bawd” (III.i.112), or whore. But he’s just warming up, and over the course of the next 40 lines, he will destroy her:

Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest…Go thy ways to a nunnery…Get thee to a nunnery, farewell. Or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell…God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and lisp; you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance….To a nunnery, go.
  • III.i.121-2, 129-30, 137-40, 143-5, 149

Yes, “nunnery” is a convent. And it would be convently convenient (see what I did there?) to keep it clean. But “nunnery” was also slang for whorehouse in Shakespeare’s day. Had we not had so much pimp/whore talk earlier in the play, I might see just the first/cleaner meaning here… but no. And when Hamlet says that she (well, all women) will make “monsters” of men, he’s referring to horned monsters, cuckolds, husbands whose wives have cheated on them.

But Hamlet isn’t through in his shock and awe campaign against Ophelia. In just the next scene, as the play-within-a-play is about to begin, Hamlet asks to be near Ophelia, and the bawdy factor gets cranked to eleven:

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?
You are merry, my lord.
  • III.ii.110-6

[I told you the language was going to get rough…
To “lie in one’s lap” was slang for “to have sex with.” “Head” meant not just the one at the top of a man’s head, but at the tip of his cock, as well. If we weren’t clear on lap/vagina connection, Hamlet’s next pun, “country matters,” should clarify that (cunt-ry). What’s between a maid’s legs? “Nothing”… and as we discussed this a few months back, there’s much ado to be made about nothing, naught, a hole, the pussy. Ophelia’s statement of Hamlet being “merry” here is ironic: in any other play, this kind of bawdy banter would recall what we’ve seen in Twelfth Night, Much Ado, or even the grease-fest that was Love’s Labor’s Lost… but here, after the “nunnery” scene, it’s just more cruelty, more brutality.

And it still isn’t over. Midway through the play, as Hamlet continues to interrupt its progress, Ophelia tells him that he is “naught” (III.ii.142) or naughty, indecent. Near the end, she tells him that he is “keen” (III.ii.244). Here, “keen” can mean sharp (as in his wit), but Hamlet turns it into sharp (or hard) with sexual desire (one of its connotations), then tells her, “It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge” (III.ii.245-6). The only way for Ophelia to take away his “keen”-ness is through a groaning… and we’re back to Hamlet’s “groans” from his note the Ophelia. I think we can safely say now, that the previous use is tainted (or at least shaded) by this later sexualized use.

Before we leave Hamlet and Ophelia, I’d like to note what causes Hamlet’s response in these last two instances: Ophelia, in her “naught” statement as in her “keen” statement, repeats the word twice in her line. This linguistic breakdown could be foreshadowing of her emotional breakdown later in the play.

From Hamlet’s linguistic sadism toward one woman to another…

In the closet scene, Hamlet doesn’t hold back his disgust over Gertrude’s sex-life, saying that “at (her) age, // The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble” (III.iv.68-9). She cannot possibly be wanting this sex, or at least not wanting it much, so that mere thinking should be able to shut down the lust, or as Hamlet says “reason panders will” (III.iv.88). And again, with the pimp-speak! Not graphic enough? Hamlet’s only too happy to oblige:

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!
  • III.iv.91-4

Sweat. Grease. Implication of semen. Stewed (which itself had connotations pertaining to the whorehouse). Honey. Making love. Nasty sty. The implication is of rutting like pigs. No wonder Gertrude feels that “these words (are) like daggers” (III.iv.95) in her ears. Simply brutal.

What does this kind of brutal bawdy assault engender?

Well, for Ophelia. Insanity. When she returns to the stage, some time has passed, and so has her rationality. She sings to the queen:

How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon.
  • IV.v.23-6

A “cockle hat” was a hat that had a cockleshell on it, worn by a pilgrim. Hamlet has been sent on what I guess we could call an enforced pilgrimage to England. Of course, Shakespeare may not have written these lines as they belong to a variation of a song called “Be off to Walshingham” written by an early contemporary of Shakespeare’s named William Byrd. If Shakespeare didn’t write the lines, he sure did pick them, and while there is the Hamlet/travel angle, c’mon… “cock… and staff”? Really?

If Ophelia’s first song is quasi-bawdy, only found by those who play the record backward, the second song leaves no doubt, with its maid made for tumbling:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose and donned his clothes
And dupped the chamber door,
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.

Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack and fie for shame,
Young men will do ‘t, if they come to ‘t;
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she “Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.”
He answers:
“So would I ‘a done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.”
  • IV.v.48-55, 58-66

A tragic song of a woman who believed a young man’s “tenders” (to use Polonius’ word), who is bedded, has her virtue taken, then abandoned. This song seems to have been actually written by Shakespeare (though possibly based on an earlier song, “Valentine’s Day”), and it would seem to put (most of) the blame fully on the woman: “You men will do ‘t, if they come to ‘t”… boys will be boys, so to speak. And yet “they are to blame” (the oath here, “By Cock” is more an corruption of “By God” than a discussion of the male anatomy… though that meaning was about to make its first appearance in the OED), but “to blame” for what? The sex? Or what comes next: the lack of a marriage. In an early example of slut-shaming, the woman in the song is told that he would have married her if she hadn’t gone to his bed. How much of this ballad belongs to Hamlet’s actions?

Finally (finally!), we come full circle with our bawdy references. Just as we started with sex and its possible repercussions in disease, so we end the play’s bawdy run: When asked how long a corpse will last in the ground before it starts to rot, the First Gravedigger says it can be hard to say as there are “many pocky corpses nowadays that will scarce hold the laying in” (V.i.156-7). For the Elizabethans, pocky meant “Full of or marked with pocks or pustules; pitted; spec. infected with the pox, usually syphilis” (“pocky, adj.1,a.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 25 April 2015).

While sex has been sometimes dirty in the past plays, there was always a sense of fun. Not so here. Hamlet has sucked all the fun out of the bawdy.