Sexuality so pervasive that even the bawdy is subconscious


A few weeks back, I bemoaned how Measure for Measure is timeless, but almost too timely. The play’s Vienna is rampant with sexuality, most of it rancid. So is our current world.

We live in the world of Measure for Measure.

A world where we spend much of the first half of Act One, Scene Two, tossing around words and phrases referring to the diseases “of the thing you wot of” (II.i.107):

  • “velvet” (I.ii.31) fabric that can pill and become bald, like “goodman bald-pate” (V.i.325) and “French crown” (I.ii.50) — the results of the so-called French disease, syphilis
  • “painful” (I.ii.35) and “tainted” (I.ii.42) “diseases” (I.ii.44) bought under Mistress Overdone’s roof
  • discussions of being “sound” and free of disease (I.ii.51), or “sound” like a musical instrument (I.ii.54) — “hollow” (I.ii.54) and eaten away from the inside by venereal disease

We live in the world of Measure for Measure.

A world filled with “stewed prunes” (II.i.87) served in whorehouses, and the “stews” (V.i.318) where you try to sweat out what you catch in:

  • “houses of resort” (I.ii.100)
  • “common houses” (II.i.43)
  • “hothouse … ill house…bawd’s house…naughty house” (II.i.64, 73-4)
  • “house of profession” (IV.iii.2)

all of these phrases appear in the play, and it is in these houses where we find

  • a “fleshmonger” (V.i.332) who “procures… eats beef… and is in tub” (III.ii.51, 53-4) sweating out her disease

as well as

  • “drabs” (II.i.223)
  • “punk(s)” (V.i.180)
  • “strumpet(s)” (II.ii.182)
  • “giglets” (V.i.345)

all words for prostitutes.

We live in the world of Measure for Measure.

A world where we go out of our way to find new ways to talk about sex:

  • “done…a woman” (I.ii.86-7)
  • “groping for trouts in a peculiar river” (I.ii.88)
  • “game of ticktack” (I.ii.189)
  • “abhorred pollution” (II.iv.182)
  • “the momentary trick” (III.i.113)
  • “abominable and beastly touches” (III.ii.22)
  • “put a ducat in her clackdish” (III.ii.120)
  • “filling a bottle with a tundish” (III.ii.163)
  • “rebellion of a codpiece… the sport…” (III.ii.109, 113)
  • to “eat mutton on Fridays” (III.ii.172) and to “mouth with a beggar” (III.ii.173)

We live in the world of Measure for Measure.

A world where sexual “liberty” (I.ii.124) leads to “restraint” (I.ii.123) and prison. Where men are “woodman” (IV.iii.161) and “riotous youth with dangerous sense” (IV.iv.27) and “ends of burning youth” (I.iii.5-6) with “concupiscible intemperate lust” (V.i.99) and “salt imagination” (V.i.399). Where the “destined livery” (II.iv.137) of a woman is sexual service to her man, and yet “her reputation [can be] disvalued // In levity” (V.i.220-1). Where women “tempt [with] lightness” (II.ii.163, 169) or lasciviousness, and are “handled … privately” (V.i.275) because “women are light at midnight” (V.i.279).

A world where even the names are filled with innuendo: “Bum” (II.i.206) … Madam Mitigation … Kate Keepdown … Mistress Overdone … Abhorson (a whore’s son).

A world where the rotting “medlar” (IV.iiI.171) fruit is euphemism for pussy and a “meddling friar” (V.i.128) not only meddles in others’ business but middles in others’ affairs.

And these are just the sexual and bawdy references done on purpose.

This world of Measure for Measure, however, is SO filled with sexuality that some of the more remarkable sequences are passages of seeming inadvertent naughtiness.

Just look at some what Claudio says when he’s instructing Lucio how to convince Isabella to beg for his life from Angelo:

 bid herself assay him.
I have great hope in that, for in her youth
There is a prone and speechless dialect
Such as move men. Besides, she hath prosperous art
When she will play with reason and discourse,
And well she can persuade.
  • I.ii.180-85

He wants his sister to “assay” Angelo. While the principal meaning is “To make trial” (“assay, v.; I.2” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 10 November 2015.), there is an additional meaning: “to tempt” (“assay, v.; II.13” OED Online); while he may be using the former definition, the latter definitely appears in the play (as used by the duke referring to Angelo’s “assay of Isabella’s virtue” [III.i.161]). And this sets up the tone where “prone and speechless,” “move men,” “prosperous art,” “will play,” “discourse,” and “persuade” now take on more questionable and carnal connotations.

When the duke asks Friar Thomas for a disguise, he must first answer questions concerning his motivation. What he says is almost comical in its inadvertent bawdiness: “Believe not that the dribbling dart of love // Can pierce a complete bosom” (I.iii.2-3). Dribbling dart of love? really? The real question is whether that particular dick joke takes place post-sex or is the dribble, pre-cum?

The penile connotation comes up again in Lucio’s aside while watching Isabella “assay” Angelo: after an effective argument, Lucio says, “Aye, touch him; there’s the vein” (II.ii.70). Truly bawdy? maybe not. Enough to make us think dirty thoughts? Yeah, I think so.

Later in the same scene, Isabella pleads with Angelo:

 Shall we serve heaven
With less respect than we do minister
To our gross selves? Good, good my lord, bethink you.
Who is it that hath died for this offense?
There’s many have committed it.
  • II.ii.85-89

According to Eric Partridge’s wonderful dirty dictionary, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, “serve” has a sexual connotation (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 235), as does “gross,” meaning “lewd, obscene” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 150), “died,” meaning “to experience a sexual orgasm” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 118), and “committed,” meaning “to commit adultery” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 103). Does she mean these words sexually? No. But even inadvertently, they have an effect, as Angelo admits, “My sense breeds with (her words)” (II.ii.142). All this subliminal sex-talk has brought Angelo to the point where his very thoughts are fucking her words.

By the time they meet again, Angelo, too, is dropping subliminal sexual messages into his speech:

Ha! Fie, these filthy vices! It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image
In stamps that are forbid. ’Tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made
As to put mettle in restrainèd means
To make a false one.
  • II.iv.41-8

Yes, the references in the first half of the speech–“filthy vices” and “saucy sweetness”–are blatant. What’s interesting is the use of puns near the end of the speech: “made”/”maid” and “mettle”/”metal” with the latter hard object (that would be a cock) put into a restrained placement (that would be the pussy), and that action makes the former object, a “false” maid. I don’t even think Angelo is aware of how far his sexual thoughts have infiltrated his speech, especially when he begins his profession of love to Isabella with “Conceive” (II.iv.140). His thoughts have fucked his words so, that even they have become pregnant.

When Isabella returns from setting up the Bed Trick with Angelo, her speech, too, is filled with inadvertent sexuality:

And to that vineyard is a planchèd gate
That makes his opening with this bigger key.
This other doth command a little door
Which from the vineyard to the garden leads.
  • IV.i.29-32

Let’s see: to get into this “garden” you have to go through “a little door” with “this bigger key” … can you say sex? I can (but you knew I could… after all: “garden” could be seen as a womb, “the little door” the pussy, and “this bigger key” a bigger cock). Sure, I can see it. But I don’t she realizes she’s doing it herself.

Sexuality so pervasive that even the bawdy stuff is subconscious… we really do live in the world of Measure for Measure.

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