King Lear: next stop–Bawdy-ville [EXPLICIT]

[EXPLICIT CONTENT, ADULT LANGUAGE AND SEXUAL IMAGERY AHEAD… SKIP IF EASILY OFFENDED.]
[secondary note: I usually like to say that these bawdy blogs contain “sophomoric humor”… but this one’s pretty much humorless… sorry]

You know me. I love the bawdy. But as we go through King Lear, I’m feeling very much like I felt during Hamlet–that this play sucks the fun out of the bawdy.

I’m not alone in that opinion. Eric Partridge, in his great dictionary of dirt in the Bard, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, says about the same:

King Lear: compare the remarks at Hamlet, than which it is, however, both less witty in its witty-sexual passages and less eloquent and impressive in its sexual invectives.
  • Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 57

And unlike the old Miller Lite beer commercials, I really can’t say, “Less witty. Reads great!”

Our first bit of bawdy comes quick (no pun intended), within a mere sonnet’s worth of lines. When Gloucester makes some ambiguous statements regarding Edmund’s “breeding” (I.i.8), Kent says that he doesn’t understand: “I cannot conceive you” (I.i.11). And this is where Gloucester tries an attempted bit of wit: “Sir, this young fellow’s mother could, whereupon she grew round-wombed and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed” (I.i.12-14). Get it? Conceive. Understand? Get pregnant? Partridge is right: “Less witty,” indeed.

And Gloucester only gets worse in his discussion of sex with Edmund’s mother:

Though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.
  • I.i.20-23

OK, he says that the baby-mama was attractive (“fair”), but it’s downhill from there. He remarks at the fun he had screwing her (it’s “his” making, after all, and not “lovemaking”), then calls Edmund a “whoreson” (which is isn’t far from calling Edmund’s mother a whore). Not a fun start to the bawdy in this play, especially when you remember that all of this is stated in Edmund’s presence.

When we first meet the Fool later in Act One, he compares his treatment at the hands of both Lear and his daughters, tossing in a barely profane pun:

I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace.
  • I.iv.164-167

The Fool bemoans his situation: the daughters beat him for speaking the truth, Lear beats him for lying, and the Fool claims that he’s been beaten for silence. Or has he been beaten for masturbation–holding his “piece”? Not a great joke, but at least funnier than Gloucester’s.

When the Fool later tries to distract Lear from his downturning state (after leaving Goneril), he tells the old king: “I can tell why a snail has a house…to put’s head in, not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case” (I.v.27-28, 20-31). Here, the use of the term “horns” has a double meaning. Snails have tentacles that look like horns, but horns were also symbolic of cuckolds, or men whose wives had been unfaithful. It’s possible that the Fool here is implying that Lear’s daughter’s are illegitimate; it works, given the Gloucester subplot, and Lear’s own statement that if Regan had welcomed him poorly he might say that her “mother’s tomb [was] // Sepulch’ring an adult’ress” (II.iv.122-3). Of course, don’t forget that “case” was also slang for vagina–a snail needs a shell, like a man’s horn (cock) needs a case (pussy). Again, not exactly the epitome of wit.

The Fool’s later bawdy snippets are no more complex:

  • “The codpiece that will house” (III.ii.27) — a place to put one’s cock
  • “No heretics burned but wenches’ suitors” (III.ii.85) — a whore’s customer will burn with venereal disease
  • “Her boat hath a leak” (III.vi.22 [Quarto/The History of King Lear text; as opposed to the Folio/The Tragedy of King Lear text we’ve been using]) — again, a disease reference that follows and plays off of Poor Tom’s song line “Come o’er the burn, Bessy, to me” (III.vi.21 [Quarto/History text]), turning Poor Tom’s “burn” from a stream to the effects of venereal disease

That same Poor Tom, Edgar in disguise, also speaks of sex, but it’s less fun than we would hope:

A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart and did the act of darkness with her, swore as many oaths as I spake words and broke them in the sweet face of heaven; one that slept in the contriving of lust and waked to do it. Wine loved I dearly, dice dearly, and in woman out-paramoured the Turk. False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend.
  • III.iv.85-97

In this description of his (fictional[?]) earlier life, he talks of lust and sex (“the act of darkness”), and lots of it (“out-paramoured the Turk”). All of this history has given him a moral conclusion: stay out of whorehouses, keep your hands out of vaginas (“plackets”), and keep your cock (“pen”) out of whores’ pussies (the “book” [something that can be opened] of a “lender”).

Now, Poor Tom’s brother, that bastard Edmund–he, too, has a little bawdiness, but his is surprisingly subtle. When Goneril gives him a kiss, she says, “This kiss, if it durst speak, // Would stretch thy spirits up into the air. // Conceive, and fare thee well” (IV.ii.22-24). There’s a kiss, and a request for him to “conceive.” But that’s not the dirtiest thing the eldest daughter says. In Shakespeare’s day, “spirit” was “a euphemism for ‘semen'” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 243). She’s giving him a kiss that she promises will have him cumming like a geyser. His response (“Yours in the ranks of death” [IV.ii.25]) is a knowing, winking one: while his use of “rank” is as a noun, the adjectival form of the word meant “sexually dirty; obscene” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 223), and though he uses the noun “death,” we can’t forget that to “die” was “to experience a sexual orgasm” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 118).

Later, when Edmund is speaking with the newly widowed Regan, she speaks not only of her own sexual needs (“the goodness [she] intend[s] upon” [V.i.8] Edmund), but her fears of his susceptibility to her sister’s sexual aggressiveness (“But have you never found my brother’s way // To the forfended place?” [V.i.11-12]). If his earlier response to Goneril had been winking, this one about that older sister’s pussy (“the forfended place”), is no less so: twice he uses the word “honor,” a word that Partridge reminds us is “a bawdy pun” () of “on her.” I’m not sure Regan catches the innuendo.

Edmund is a bastard; our first bawdy references of the play point to the act that created him. And our penultimate bawdy section returns us to that sin. Lear (un?)consciously tells Gloucester of the punishment for adultery:

When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause?
Adultery?
Thou shalt not die; die for adultery? No,
The wren goes to ’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive, for Gloucester’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ’tween the lawful sheets. To’t, luxury, pell-mell,
For I lack soldiers. Behold yond simp’ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow,
That minces virtue and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name:
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to ’t
With a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist
They are centaurs, though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend’s — there’s hell, there’s darkness,
there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench,
consumption.
  • IV.v.108-127

There will be–under Lear’s justice–no punishment for adultery, as all of nature does it–birds (“wren”), insects (“fly”), polecats (“fitchew”) and horses. In fact, he calls for luxury or lechery as quickly as possible (“pell-mell, adv.2.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 3 May 2016.]); he needs soldiers, and those soldiers need to be conceived. The men will not be punished for this sin because it’s all the women’s fault. He conjures a “simp’ring dame” as his Everywoman. In Shakespeare’s day, “simper” could mean either to be hot, to “simmer” (“simper, v.1.1.” OED Online. ), or to “smirk” (“simper, v.2.1.a.” OED Online.); either way, there is a lust heating her from within, despite her graying pubic hair (the “face between her forks [legs] presages snow”), and her coy faux-virtue. No, even this crone has a “riotous appetite” for sex. These are women from the waist up, but below the waist they belong to the devil (“the fiend”): the vagina is a “sulphurous pit; burning, scalding”).

Women are agents of evil. Men, on the other hand, are “smug bridegroom[s],” ready to “die bravely” (both IV.v.195). To die. Or to die? (nudge-nudge).

And on that sad bit of misogyny, we bid King Lear‘s hamlet of Bawdy-ville adieu.

And good riddance.

2 thoughts on “King Lear: next stop–Bawdy-ville [EXPLICIT]”

  1. Great discussion! I wonder if the bawdy in Lear seems so unfunny because sex and death have become so intimately (ahem…) connected by the end of the play. When the dying Edmund learns that Regan and Goneril are both dead, the line he uses to dismiss their menage a trois illustrates that sex/death relationship very nicely: “All three/ Now marry in an instant.”

    To me, it’s always seemed that Lear’s lechery rant is less about an abhorrence of women than a disgust with sex itself, since it’s sex that brings everyone into this sorry world. If sex is the ultimate evil, I guess that even Shakespeare might struggle to find a whole lot of humor in it.

    1. Forgot all about that “all three” quote… nice catch!

      That concept of “sex that brings everyone into this sorry world”… if it was Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida, it would be that and sex that takes us out of this world, too…

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