Twelfth Night: Not So Bawdy? Not so much…


OK, let’s start off by saying that despite Eric Partridge calling Twelfth Night “the cleanest comedy except A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 57), the play is not completely clean… as we shall see…]

As is my modus operandi, with every play, I like to take a little dive into that dirty little pool called bawdy… so get on your waders, and let’s go on into Twelfth Night

The play starts off innocently enough, with a lovesick Duke and a shipwrecked young lady; you might see a little tinge of bawdiness in Viola’s situation, where she suggests that she can be presented to Orsino as a eunuch (but if eunuchs are your idea of bawdy, you’re reading the wrong playwright, my friend). In the next scene, however, we meet Sir Toby and Maria, and they bring the bawdy. We also meet Sir Andrew, and he can be seen as the innocent audience surrogate who needs to be taught the meaning of “accost” (I.iii.46): “front her, board her, woo her, assail her” (I.iii.53-4). In past plays (like Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor), we’ve discussed the sexual innuendo of “boarding”–“to coit with” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 84)–so if you need a refresher course, you can chase that rabbit down the hole… go ahead, I’ll be right here until you get back.

So, Sir Toby teaches Andrew “accost” as well as “undertake” (I.iii.55)–as in take her below–and warns the silly knight about “never draw(ing) sword again” (I.iii.59); and yes, the sword is a metaphor for the phallus. Maria is no chaste waiting gentlewoman, however; she brings Sir Andrew’s “hand to th’ butt’ry bar” (I.iii.66), her breast. And with her exit, Sir Toby goes back on his dirty joke offensive (or offensive dirty jokes, if you’re prudish): he tells Sir Andrew that the knight’s hair “hangs like flax on a distaff, and I hope to see a huswife take thee between her legs and spin it off” (I.iii.96-8). When Toby speaks of flax, he means the thin straight strings extracted from the flaxseed (which he compares to the hair on Sir Andrew’s head); this fiber was extracted by a worker, usually a woman, who spun the strands from a stick between her legs. Yes, another phallus. But more importantly, when the “huswife” spun the distaff, the fibers would be pulled off; this is a reference to a man losing his hair due to venereal disease… caught from “between her legs.” And what kind of woman would help Sir Andrew lose his hair in such a fashion? We get a clue a little later in the scene when Sir Toby discusses cutting a “mutton” (I.iii.114), which was slang for “Woman’s flesh sought for the satisfaction of male lust; loose women, prostitutes collectively” (“mutton, n.; 4” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 3 February 2015.).

After that burst of bawdy, we get a long spell of fairly clean talk (save for a well-hung “well hanged” [I.v.4] joke by Feste)… until we get to the gulling of Malvolio in Act Two, Scene Five. When Malvolio speaks aloud his fantasy of marrying Olivia, he describes his situation: “in my branched velvet gown, having come from a daybed, where I have left Olivia sleeping—” (II.v.44-6). There’s two ways to interpret this:

  • clean: the daybed is a kind of lounge, and he’s left her sleeping (even his fantasy is chaste)
  • or not-so-clean: only the rich would have the luxury to have sex in the daytime, and she’s asleep because he has–as the kids would say–been “giving it to her hard.”

When Malvolio finds the forged letter, he describes the handwriting:

By my life, this is my lady’s hand! These be her very C’s, her U’s, and her T’s, and thus she makes her great P’s. It is in contempt of question her hand.
  • II.v.83-5

And this is the most wonderfully subtle and wickedly dirty joke in the play, where Malvolio, reading the faked Maria missive, spells out… well, just work it out for yourself: C. U. an’ T.

You may blush at your leisure. If you don’t think the cunt joke is real: look at what follows. Her lower orifice is how she makes her great P’s or piss.

As Takei might say, “Oh, Myyyyyy…”

I’ll pause while you get a drink of water and some cooler air.

We get another break in the action filled with a little “wanton” punning between Feste and Viola/Cesario: literally little, as they discuss how “they that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton” (III.i.14-5). After this, Feste tells the effeminate youth, “Now, Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard” (III.i.44-5), to which Viola responds,

By my troth I’ll tell thee, I am almost sick for one, though I would not have it grow on my chin.
  • III.i.46-7

And as in Malvolio’s fantasy, there are a couple of interpretations, but in this case neither completely clean:

  • Cesario is such a young boy that he’s waiting for pubic hair
  • Viola wants a beard not on her face, but on another’s face, and between her legs (the ol’ Elizabeth oral sex joke).

There is another subtle and almost ironic pubic hair joke later in the play when Orsino feels that he’s been betrayed by Cesario, whom he tells, “O thou dissembling cub, what wilt thou be // When time has sowed a grizzle on thy case?” (V.i.161-2). Orsino, of course, means a beard on Cesario’s face; however, “case” was, in Shakespeare’s day, also slang for vagina.

The last bit of bawdy (or at least possible bawdy) comes when Sebastian and Viola appear together for the for the first time in the play. Sebastian is now Olivia’s husband, and she sees two husbands, and her response is “Most wonderful” (V.i.220). There are all sorts of horny line readings possible here.

Let’s call it night for now… but tomorrow? Let’s do a little Filthy Shakespeare and I’ll go full Keirnan on a scene even she shies away from.

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