Every month, I delve a little deeper into my sophomore boy-mind, and pull out the bawdy stuff from the play of the month, usually focusing on a particular scene or character.
This month, with The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, I’m going to approach it a little differently. I want to start off with a quick catalog of the “naughty bits” then pull them together for a more generalized statement about the use of bawdiness in the play.
|Act One, Scene Three||In the dialogue between Queen Margaret and Suffolk, there are some pretty tame (read: only there if you want to really push it) references:
|Act Two, Scene Three||In preparation for trial by combat, Horner disparages his opponent, “Let it come, i’ faith I’ll pledge to you all, and a fig for Peter” (II.iii.67-68). To give a fig was to make “a contemptuous gesture which consisted in thrusting the thumb between two of the closed fingers” (OED), and this gesture was meant to signify the vagina (and the thumb the clitoris). Here, he may be saying that Peter may need a woman (so he won’t die a virgin), or that Peter is a pussy (“an effeminate man” [OED]).|
|Act Three, Scene Two||After Salisbury delivers the Commons’ ultimatum regarding the arrest of Suffolk for the murder of Gloucester, Suffolk responds, noting “how quaint” (III.ii.279) Salisbury is. The chaste in the audience will read “clever” into “quaint.” However, “quaint” (as a noun) had another meaning in Shakespeare’s time. It’s much obscene wording of vagina. More obscene than pussy. Kinda sounds like “quaint.” (Think the one profanity that most women will not utter, no matter what the occasion… )
Later in the scene, during Margaret and Suffolk’s long goodbye, he makes a number of bawdy references:
|Act Four, Scene Two||In our first exposure to Jack Cade, he speaks of his wife, about whom his henchmen make crude asides: “not able to travel with her furred pack, she washes bucks here at home” (IV.ii.51-52). According to the editors of The Pelican Shakespeare edition,
|Act Four, Scene Four||We’ve already discussed Queen Margaret’s discussion of “dying” had it been Henry rather than Suffolk who was killed.|
|Act Four, Scene Seven||And this is the mother lode: all pertaining to Jack Cade and his cohorts…
OK, so what do we notice about these? Well, first of all, the references go from subtle to blatant, from tame and innocuous to brutal and criminal. These are not like the sexual innuendo of The Taming of the Shrew; this is neither fun nor funny. This is serious business. (is it because this is a history and not a comedy?)
Secondly, they all come from either Queen Margaret, Suffolk (to each other), or Cade and his men. These are NOT positive characters. These are characters we do NOT like or respect. (is Shakespeare making a moral judgment on leaders–a la Mirror for Magistrates–with leaders who think about sex being inherently bad… insert please no Monica Lewinsky jokes here)
or is there no reason? and are we reading too much into intention, as we may be reading too much into Suffolk’s “soul”?