[EXPLICIT CONTENT, ADULT LANGUAGE AND SEXUAL IMAGERY AHEAD… SKIP IF EASILY OFFENDED.]
[secondary note: I usually like to say that these bawdy blogs contain “sophomoric humor”… but this one’s pretty much humorless… sorry]
You know me. I love the bawdy. But as we go through King Lear, I’m feeling very much like I felt during Hamlet–that this play sucks the fun out of the bawdy.
I’m not alone in that opinion. Eric Partridge, in his great dictionary of dirt in the Bard, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, says about the same:
- Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 57
And unlike the old Miller Lite beer commercials, I really can’t say, “Less witty. Reads great!”
Our first bit of bawdy comes quick (no pun intended), within a mere sonnet’s worth of lines. When Gloucester makes some ambiguous statements regarding Edmund’s “breeding” (I.i.8), Kent says that he doesn’t understand: “I cannot conceive you” (I.i.11). And this is where Gloucester tries an attempted bit of wit: “Sir, this young fellow’s mother could, whereupon she grew round-wombed and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed” (I.i.12-14). Get it? Conceive. Understand? Get pregnant? Partridge is right: “Less witty,” indeed.
And Gloucester only gets worse in his discussion of sex with Edmund’s mother:
OK, he says that the baby-mama was attractive (“fair”), but it’s downhill from there. He remarks at the fun he had screwing her (it’s “his” making, after all, and not “lovemaking”), then calls Edmund a “whoreson” (which is isn’t far from calling Edmund’s mother a whore). Not a fun start to the bawdy in this play, especially when you remember that all of this is stated in Edmund’s presence.
When we first meet the Fool later in Act One, he compares his treatment at the hands of both Lear and his daughters, tossing in a barely profane pun:
The Fool bemoans his situation: the daughters beat him for speaking the truth, Lear beats him for lying, and the Fool claims that he’s been beaten for silence. Or has he been beaten for masturbation–holding his “piece”? Not a great joke, but at least funnier than Gloucester’s.
When the Fool later tries to distract Lear from his downturning state (after leaving Goneril), he tells the old king: “I can tell why a snail has a house…to put’s head in, not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case” (I.v.27-28, 20-31). Here, the use of the term “horns” has a double meaning. Snails have tentacles that look like horns, but horns were also symbolic of cuckolds, or men whose wives had been unfaithful. It’s possible that the Fool here is implying that Lear’s daughter’s are illegitimate; it works, given the Gloucester subplot, and Lear’s own statement that if Regan had welcomed him poorly he might say that her “mother’s tomb [was] // Sepulch’ring an adult’ress” (II.iv.122-3). Of course, don’t forget that “case” was also slang for vagina–a snail needs a shell, like a man’s horn (cock) needs a case (pussy). Again, not exactly the epitome of wit.
The Fool’s later bawdy snippets are no more complex:
- “The codpiece that will house” (III.ii.27) — a place to put one’s cock
- “No heretics burned but wenches’ suitors” (III.ii.85) — a whore’s customer will burn with venereal disease
- “Her boat hath a leak” (III.vi.22 [Quarto/The History of King Lear text; as opposed to the Folio/The Tragedy of King Lear text we’ve been using]) — again, a disease reference that follows and plays off of Poor Tom’s song line “Come o’er the burn, Bessy, to me” (III.vi.21 [Quarto/History text]), turning Poor Tom’s “burn” from a stream to the effects of venereal disease
That same Poor Tom, Edgar in disguise, also speaks of sex, but it’s less fun than we would hope:
In this description of his (fictional[?]) earlier life, he talks of lust and sex (“the act of darkness”), and lots of it (“out-paramoured the Turk”). All of this history has given him a moral conclusion: stay out of whorehouses, keep your hands out of vaginas (“plackets”), and keep your cock (“pen”) out of whores’ pussies (the “book” [something that can be opened] of a “lender”).
Now, Poor Tom’s brother, that bastard Edmund–he, too, has a little bawdiness, but his is surprisingly subtle. When Goneril gives him a kiss, she says, “This kiss, if it durst speak, // Would stretch thy spirits up into the air. // Conceive, and fare thee well” (IV.ii.22-24). There’s a kiss, and a request for him to “conceive.” But that’s not the dirtiest thing the eldest daughter says. In Shakespeare’s day, “spirit” was “a euphemism for ‘semen'” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 243). She’s giving him a kiss that she promises will have him cumming like a geyser. His response (“Yours in the ranks of death” [IV.ii.25]) is a knowing, winking one: while his use of “rank” is as a noun, the adjectival form of the word meant “sexually dirty; obscene” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 223), and though he uses the noun “death,” we can’t forget that to “die” was “to experience a sexual orgasm” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 118).
Later, when Edmund is speaking with the newly widowed Regan, she speaks not only of her own sexual needs (“the goodness [she] intend[s] upon” [V.i.8] Edmund), but her fears of his susceptibility to her sister’s sexual aggressiveness (“But have you never found my brother’s way // To the forfended place?” [V.i.11-12]). If his earlier response to Goneril had been winking, this one about that older sister’s pussy (“the forfended place”), is no less so: twice he uses the word “honor,” a word that Partridge reminds us is “a bawdy pun” () of “on her.” I’m not sure Regan catches the innuendo.
Edmund is a bastard; our first bawdy references of the play point to the act that created him. And our penultimate bawdy section returns us to that sin. Lear (un?)consciously tells Gloucester of the punishment for adultery:
I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause?
Thou shalt not die; die for adultery? No,
The wren goes to ’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive, for Gloucester’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ’tween the lawful sheets. To’t, luxury, pell-mell,
For I lack soldiers. Behold yond simp’ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow,
That minces virtue and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name:
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to ’t
With a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist
They are centaurs, though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend’s — there’s hell, there’s darkness,
there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench,
There will be–under Lear’s justice–no punishment for adultery, as all of nature does it–birds (“wren”), insects (“fly”), polecats (“fitchew”) and horses. In fact, he calls for luxury or lechery as quickly as possible (“pell-mell, adv.2.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 3 May 2016.]); he needs soldiers, and those soldiers need to be conceived. The men will not be punished for this sin because it’s all the women’s fault. He conjures a “simp’ring dame” as his Everywoman. In Shakespeare’s day, “simper” could mean either to be hot, to “simmer” (“simper, v.1.1.” OED Online. ), or to “smirk” (“simper, v.2.1.a.” OED Online.); either way, there is a lust heating her from within, despite her graying pubic hair (the “face between her forks [legs] presages snow”), and her coy faux-virtue. No, even this crone has a “riotous appetite” for sex. These are women from the waist up, but below the waist they belong to the devil (“the fiend”): the vagina is a “sulphurous pit; burning, scalding”).
Women are agents of evil. Men, on the other hand, are “smug bridegroom[s],” ready to “die bravely” (both IV.v.195). To die. Or to die? (nudge-nudge).
And on that sad bit of misogyny, we bid King Lear‘s hamlet of Bawdy-ville adieu.
And good riddance.