Cymbeline and bawdiness: in with a villain, out with a clown


Eric Partridge, in his study of and dictionary for the bawdy in the Bard, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, has this to say about our play: “Cymbeline in many ways resembles The Winter’s Tale, which is slightly less bawdy but rather more sexual. They are of much the same quantitative order as All’s Well.” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 58). OK, so, we haven’t read The Winter’s Tale yet (that’s next), but we have read All’s Well, and that play’s got some dirt, but isn’t that dirty. I know, not very helpful.

Back when I was a kid, there used to be a phrase: “Banker’s hours.” The phrase meant (or at least how my dad used it) to start later and end earlier than everyone else. With ATMs and the improbability of speaking to an honest-to-goodness bank-er or -teller, the phrase, I would think, is fading fast, delegated to long-term memory, and waiting roadside to be picked up on its way to the dustbin of history. And, just what–Bill–does this have to do with Cymbeline and bawdiness? you ask. Well, bawdy in Cymbeline works “banker’s hours”…starting later and finishing earlier than the play as a whole.

If you had to guess with which character’s debut on stage would bawdy arrive, who would it be? Yup: Iachimo. In Act One, Scene Four, when Posthumus arrives in Rome, the men in attendance talk about women, and during the conversation, the Frenchman speaks of his “country mistresses” (I.iv.54). While he could mean the girls who live out of the cities, in this Roman locker room, it’s probable that the key syllable in the phrase is the first one: cunt. This is not the first time Shakespeare has used the shorthand: remember, Hamlet and his discussion of “country matters” with Ophelia.

The Frenchman then talks of the woman whom Posthumus claims to be the “less attemptable” (I.iv.57)…of course, these attempts are not for just, you know, conversation and such…but for sex. Later, when Posthumus responds about his love and her virtue, he claims to be her “adorer, not her friend” (I.iv.65), and given both this and later uses of the word, I’m thinking this is a euphemism for “lover.”

Iachimo talks of “strange fowl light[ing] upon neighboring ponds” and says that Posthumus’ “ring may be stol’n too” (I.iv.86-7). Of course, Iachimo isn’t talking about mini-lakes but something else a man might want to dip into…other women’s pussies. And the “ring” of course is another object that one might stick a phallic object into/through. Sure, it could be the actual diamond ring from Innogen that Posthumus is wearing, but more likely it’s Innogen’s chastity, and most likely her pussy…or rather Posthumus’, as she belongs to him. When Posthumus responds by talking of a “courtier to convince the honor of [his] mistress” (I.iv.92), he’s talking about someone overcoming (convince) her chastity (honor). Again, euphemisms for sex.

Iachimo brags of his “opportunity to friend” (I.iv.102-3) Innogen…and he doesn’t mean to become her friend, but to “friend” her…to fuck her, to take her “honor” (I.iv.128). Posthumus doesn’t buy this: “My ring I hold dear as my finger; ‘tis part of it” (I.iv.130). Of course, at this point, he’s probably really talking of rings and fingers; but he’s already started using the tainted sexual double-speak of Iachimo. It’s really not double-speak, though, when Iachimo forsees the “enjoy[ment of] the dearest bodily part” (I.iv.146) of Innogen. Of course, Posthumus has been infected: he’s ready to make bets on Iachimo’s “voyage upon” (I.iv.155) his wife.

The next bits of bawdy come during that very voyage.

When talking to Innogen, Iachimo references the “cloyed will — / That satiate yet unsatisfied desire” (, sexual appetite, an appetite he claims Posthumus–the “Briton Reveler” (–has felt: Posthumus “furnaces / The thick sighs from him–laughs from free lungs” (…”free” here hinting at sexual freedom. Iachimo also claims that Posthumus has complained of sexual “will’s free hours languish[ing] for / Assured bondage” (, a languishing caused by marriage.

When Iachimo tries to convince Innogen of Posthumus’ “vaulting variable ramps” (, you know, mounting various whores, like the ones he may have met in a “Romish stew” (, or whorehouse.

In the next scene, we meet the another of our bawdy bad boys of the play: the queen’s son Cloten. In this scene, we see the aftermath of his losing a game of bowls, calling the victor a “whoreson dog” (II.i.14), which is exactly as it sounds–the son of a whore. In the next few speeches, we get venereal disease references (“pox” [II.i.18]) as well as a penis pun (“cock” [II.i.21], and “capon”–a castrated cock [II.i.23]). And later, he talks of “commit[ting] offense to [his] inferiors” (II.i.28-9), a subtle way of saying to shit on his enemies.

Two scenes later, we get the Iachimo-chest sequence in Innogen’s bedchamber. I actually find this relatively clean–compared what I figured we’d find there. We get two literary rape references: “Our Tarquin” (II.ii.12) who raped Lucrece, and “Tereus” (II.ii.45), the rapist of Philomela, the story–from Ovid–that Innogen had been reading before she fell asleep that night. Between the two references, Iachimo puns on his own faked violation of Innogen: “I’ve picked the lock and ta’en / The treasure of her honor” (II.ii.41-2)–the placement of a phallic item into a hole.

This pun is subtle, innocent, compared to what we get from Cloten in the next scene, which opens with a light pun on “ass”–”ace” (II.iii.2). What comes next is much, much dirtier, the discussion “penetrat[ing]” (II.iii.12) Innogen, and her ears? Maybe? He tells the musicians he’s assembled before her window: “If you can penetrate her with your fingers, so; we’ll try with tongue, too” (II.iii.13-4). The fingering of your musical instruments can penetrate her ears, and I’ll sing, too. Sure. There’s absolutely no finger-banging or eating-out references there. Of course not.

There’s a nice little witty bit of bawdy in the scene though: Cloten refers to an “unpaved eunuch” (II.iii.31)–unpaved, as in “no stones”…get it, no stones, no balls…for a eunuch. That’s a good one. Almost as good as one that comes later in the scene. In a speech before he gets to talk to Innogen, he talks of Diana and hunting deer using a “stand” (II.iii.70) or a hunter’s space, but punning on “erection;” then talking of having one of Innogen’s women advocate for him since he doesn’t understand the “case” (II.iii.75) himself, punning on “vagina.” Yeah, good stuff.

In the next scene, back in Rome, with Iachimo telling Posthumus that the seduction succeeded, we get more “honor…ring” (II.iv.53,54) references to Innogen’s chastity and pussy, but only after he’s told Posthumus that his wife was “so easy” (II.iv.47). Yup, even back then: easy. And the “knowledge” (II.iv.51) speaks of is, of course, carnal knowledge.

Once Posthumus begins to doubt Innogen, he uses Iachimo-type language: “her pure honor gains or loses / Your sword or mine” (II.iv.59-60); sword has no phallic symbolism, I’m sure. But the linguistic virus has spread, and Posthumus now uses terms of bestiality (“colted” [II.iv.133]) and mechanical non-emotionality (“turns” [II.iv.142]) for sex.

And it only gets worse.

When we get the single soliloquy Act Two, Scene Five, a rant against the distaff half of humanity by Posthumus, it’s quite the torrent of sexual-based anger. Because of the unfaithfulness of women, he “know[s] not where / [his father was] When [he] was stamped” (II.v.4-5). Though the following sentence’s use of “coiner” (II.v.5) gives “stamped” the denotation of to be minted, the act of being pressed (possibly forcibly) on a bed is clearly one connotation. That coiner’s “tools” (II.v.5) is also a pun for “cock.” And though his use of “pundency” (II.v.11) has a denotation of modesty, its etymology is the same as pudendum, or vulva.

Posthumus then imagines Iachimo’s sex with Innogen:

This yellow Iachimo in an hour, was ’t not?
Or less? At first? Perchance he spoke not, but,
Like a full-acorned boar, a German one,
Cried “O!” and mounted; found no opposition
But what he looked for should oppose and she
Should from encounter guard.
  • II.v.14-9

“Full-acorned” could mean already satiated, filled with food/acorns, but it’s also possible that he means “fully hard,” erect. The reference is to a virile animal. We’ve discussed before how rings, and even the letter O can represent the pudend; and of course saying it can definitely be sexual in nature. “Mounted” goes without saying. The “opposition” Innogen was supposed to use/protect is more than philosophical or spiritual: it also refers to her hymen. And the “encounter” is the imagined mounting of Innogen by Iachimo. At the speech’s end, we have the use of “will” (II.v.34), which was, as we’ve discussed, shorthand for sexual desire.

In Act Three, Scene Four, when Pisanio takes Innogen to the woods, and reveals to her Posthumus’ letter, the same viral verbal bawdy that spread from Iachimo to Posthumus seems to spread to Innogen as well. While not exactly dirty or profane, she does use some sexual shorthand. “Inconstancy” (III.iv.47) is sexually based. When she speaks of “some jay of Italy” (III.iv.49), the implication is of an Italian whore, a connotation supported by her later use of the phrase “stale … garment” (III.iv.51); though here the implication is of something past its prime of freshness, the audience would have made the connection to “stale”‘s other connotation, that of prostitute. Her reference to herself as garments might also have a sexual aspect. Later, when she speaks as if to an absent Posthumus, she talks of his being “disedged by” (III.iv.94) another woman, meaning a dulling of the edge of his blade of sexual desire (the whole sword/phallus thing is a…well, thing). And near the end of the scene, she talks of her “modesty” (III.iv.153), which of course is her sexual chastity.

In the next scene, we’re back to the castle and Cloten–and his clumsy attempts at bawdiness. Nothing truly dirty, but ugly nevertheless. He decides to “ravish” (III.v.136) or rape Innogen, during which his “lust [will] hath dined” (III.v.140). Charming.

We get our last bits of bawdy a few scenes later when the Queen’s son reaches the woods for his big speech (and later decapitation). That whole “garments” sexuality may be part of his “How fit [Posthumus’] garments serve me!” (IV.i.2-3). Yeah, I’m sure Innogen (Posthumus’ garments) will “fit” (IV.i.4) him, causing her “fitness [that] comes by fits” (IV.i.6); her sexual fitness or activity will come in shaking orgasms or fits. He then reiterates his intention to rape Innogen (“enforced” [IV.i.16]).

Of course, that never happens. Within a few scenes, Cloten will be dead and so will bawdy in Cymbeline. It comes in with Iachimo and dies with Cloten.