Bawdy: Parental Guidance Advised


OK, according to Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Henry the Fifth, is seen as a dirtier play than The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, which in turn is seen as dirtier than the first part. In fact, Partidge calls this “the obscenest of the Histories” (Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 57).

Let’s see…

It starts off “innocently” enough, with the Dauphin’s gift of tennis balls to Henry. “Balls” … get it? Only there’s a little more to it than that. When the ambassador refers to the Dauphin “send(ing Henry), meeter for (his) spirit, // This tun of treasure” (I.ii.255-256), Shakespeare’s audience was used to using “spirit” euphemistically as semen or cum, so that the statement is an insult amounting to “since your balls are filled with lousy cum, we have a barrel (tun) of potent semen (treasure) for you.”

When we get to the tavern, that scene is–not surprisingly–filled with bawdy allusions. “Host Pistol” (II.i.27) is a way of calling him a bawd or pimp, and this sets Mistress Quickly (Quick-LAY) off on another of her wild accidental double-entendre-fests: “prick” (II.i.32) and “adultery” (II.i.35). When Pistol wants it known that he is primed and ready to fight, he says that “Pistol’s cock is up” (II.i.50), but the entendre there is more single than double, no?

When we go back to the tavern after Falstaff’s death, even Quickly’s recount of his passing is (unintentionally?) bawdy:

A' made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a' parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o' the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a' babbled of green fields. 'How now, sir John!' quoth I 'what, man! be o' good cheer.' So a' cried out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a' should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a' bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

— II.iii.10-25


[CONTENT REDACTED: In this blog entry, I made reference to Dr. Pauline Kiernan’s work and book on bawdy in the Bard, Filthy Shakespeare; in doing so, I have offended her by my tone and use of her material. I apologize for the offense, and have thus redacted the reference.]

Earlier in the week, we talked about the rape imagery in Henry’s threat to the governor of Harfleur, as well as the bawdy “fuck” and “cunt” English lesson between Princess Katherine and her lady servant, Anne. But Katherine is not the only French filth-mouth (or -mind). When the sad-sacks are bemoaning their fate to the king, the Dauphin’s words are filled with sex. He refers to them all as “the emptying of our fathers’ luxury” (III.v.6) or lust; in other words, they’re all just “sprays” (III.v.5) of their forefathers’ cum. Later, he mopes,

Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.

— III.v.28-31


The French ladies (like Katherine?) are sure that the vigor (mettle) or spirit (see above) is worn out of the Frenchmen, and they want real men, Englishmen, to bed them (in “lust”).

And it’s no wonder why the French women would think such thoughts, not when we see into the French men’s heads the night before the battle. In a long, extended (one might even say rigid) metaphor, the Dauphin proclaims that “(his) horse is (his) mistress” (III.vii.43), going so far as to “writ(e) a sonnet in HIS praise” (III.vii.38, emphasis MINE). [Nothing like mixing your French-bashing bestiality with a little homosexuality, right?]

In fact, the Dauphin warns his comrades that if they do not heed his words, they will “fall into foul bogs” (III.vii.56), an Elizabethan euphemism for the female genitalia.

This is not to leave King Henry out of the bawdy mix. Beyond his threat of rape at Harfleur, he even drops a few bawdy bon mots in his wooing of Katherine, speaking of being able to “leap into a wife” (V.ii.141), and saying that he “shall die” (V.ii.152). Remember that for the Elizabethans, dying meant not only the expiring of life, but the expelling of the life spirit or fluid–ejaculating. Of course, this makes Henry, our king of contradictions, sound like too much fun; and to put a stop to that he tells her that he loves her “cruelly” (V.ii.201) so that she can be a “soldier-breeder” (V.ii.204).

The obscenest of the histories?


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