Happy (pre-)Valentine’s Day–Pericles: bawdy or just ‘unsavory’?

Happy (pre-) Valentine’s Day! and in that spirit…


So. Pericles and the bawdy. Given that Act Four takes place mostly in a brothel, you know it’s going to bring the bawdy. But what does our Bard of the Bawdy, Eric Partridge say in his Shakespeare’s Bawdy?

Except for Marina, it is unsavory. The brothel scene (IV.ii) is perhaps the ‘lowest’ scene in Shakespeare; and, as a whole, this play outdoes Timon in bawdiness
  • Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 58

Unsavory. I like that. (Well, actually, I like savory, but you know what I mean…)

When the bawdy kicks off in Pericles, it’s of no humorous or fun value at all. In the opening chorus to the play, Gower says of Antiochus, the king of Antioch:

This king unto him took a peer,
Who died and left a female heir
So buxom, blithe, and full of face
As heaven had lent her all his grace;
With whom the father liking took
And her to incest did provoke.
  • I.Ch.21-26

If you all want to sigh a collective ‘ewwww,’ go right ahead.

The next dirty bit isn’t even sexual, though still a bodily (b-o-d not b-a-w-d) function. When Pericles washes ashore at Pentapolis, he listens to fishermen talk about the classes of man and how the upper class eats the lower (as well as their churches); the third fisherman says that he would “have kept such a jangling of the bells that he should never have left till he cast bells, steeple, church, and parish up again” (II.i.42-4). Nothing like some good ol’ vomit imagery.

In the court of the king of Pentapolis, following his victory at the tournament, Pericles declines to dance. This prompts an interesting response from the king; he talks of a “soldier’s dance” (II.iii.95), and says, “I will not have excuse for saying this, / Loud music is too harsh for ladies’ heads, / Since they love men in arms as well as beds” (II.iii.96-8). This seemingly throws a bit of sexuality into the mix (women love men in beds), which feels strange coming from the father of a girl Pericles should be dancing with. And if that sounds perfectly innocent to you (you clean-minded son-of-a-gun), he then–in the same speech–follows this up with a remark even less clean: “I have heard, you knights of Tyre / Are excellent at making ladies trip, / And that their measures are as excellent” (II.iii.101-3). OK. Sounds innocent enough, but what if “trip” could not only mean “dance” but to “succumb sexually” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 267)? Kinda changes it doesn’t it? And not only are measures movements of music and thus dances, but also a pun on measuring one’s–shall we say–endowments. So dad is saying to the man who should be dancing with his daughter, “Hey, crazy music is too much for the ladies, as they prefer a man in uniform and in their beds…and by the way, I hear you guys from Tyre, having big cocks, are pretty good at wooing the ladies.” Unsavory indeed.

King Simonides is not done, however. When he has final compelled Pericles and his daughter Thaisa to proclaim their love for each other, the king says, “It pleaseth me so well that I will see you wed; / And then, with what haste you can, get to to bed” (II.v.92-3). Get married, and get screwin’, you wacky kids. And they do, as we hear from Gower just moments later, when he tells us of the god of marriage (Hymen) brought “the bride to bed / Where…the loss of maidenhead” (III.Ch. 9-10) is achieved. Buh-bye, virginity.

And that’s it. No more dirty.

Just kidding. There’s Act Four. As Partridge notes, the second scene is pretty bawdy, not surprisingly since it takes place outside a brothel, and two of the three major characters in the scene are a Bawd–think madam here–and a Pander–think pimp…and those are their NAMES (of course, the character who does have a real name is named “Boult” which had the meaning of “an arrow; especially one of the stouter and shorter kind with blunt or thickened head” (“bolt, n.1; I.1a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 25 January 2017.). A short arrow with the blunt thick head. Really? Can you get more phallic? Only if you named him Dick Johnson and gave him the nickname “Woody.”


In this scene, we get:

  • “gallants” (IV.ii.4) or customers for the brothel;
  • whores who are so sexually worn out with “continual action” (IV.ii.8) that they’re “rotten” (IV.ii.9) with disease;
  • the need for “fresh ones” (IV.ii.10) or young prostitutes;
  • Bastards;
  • Bastard girls who are turned into whores at age “eleven” (IV.ii.14);
  • References to the ‘stews’ (“sodden” [IV.ii.18]) or brothels;
  • More whores (“baggage” [IV.ii.21]) who are diseased or “unwholesome” (IV.ii.19);
  • Discussion of being sexually exhausted (“pooped” [IV.ii.22])

And that’s just the first two dozen lines of the scene. The pirates enter with Marina, and from there, we get virginity, and the higher price that can bring at the brothel, her inexperience at sex (“raw in her entertainment” [IV.ii.51-2]), and the ideas that the gods have screwed her (“done their part in” Marina [IV.ii.66]). We hear of “pleasure” (IV.ii.72), different tastes or sexual proclivities (“all fashions…all complexions” [IV.ii.75, 76]), being chaste, sexual stimulation (“stir you up” [IV.ii.86]), possible masturbation (“went to bed to her very description” [IV.ii.95]), a French name that puns on syphilis), more disease references–both blatant and subtle (“crowns in the sun” [IV.ii.107]), references to Marina as a piece of meat (“joint” [IV.ii.125], “morsel off the spit” [IV.ii.126], and “piece” [IV.ii.133]), her beauty rising cocks as thunder raises eels, and–of course–her “virgin knot” (IV.ii.141). Yeah, Partridge is right. It is a pretty relentlessly dirty scene.

But as I noted, much of the act is like that, and we’re not done with the act.

Even in the non-brothel Act Four, Scene Three, we hear Dionyza use the term “mawkin” (IV.iii.34) or slut. Soon, though we are back to the brothel, and non-stop bawdy again…

Act Four, Scene Six opens with Bawd, Pander and Boult continuing to complain about Marina and how she is not doing (it) as she has been directed. It’s gotten so bad that she’s converting customers to more saintly pursuits; the Bawd says that Marina is “able to freeze the god Priapus and undo a whole generation” (IV.vi.3-4). Priapus is the god of fertility and often shown with an erection (you know how the Viagra/Cialis commercials always warn you to contact a doctor if you have an erection lasting more than four hours? Well, that’s called Priapism. Yeah, [not-so-] fun fact). So she could freeze the hard-on god. It’s so bad that the bawd says that they “must either get her ravished or be rid of her” (IV.vi.4-5). They want to get her raped, so that she can’t claim virginity anymore. The Pander says, “Now the pox upon her greensickness for me!” to which the Bawd responds, “Faith there’s no way to be rid on’t but by the way to the pox” (IV.vi.12-4). There’s some interesting things going on here. The Pander curses her (“the pox”) and her “greensickness,” which was a thing–believe it or not. It was a kind of anemia that plagued some young women, caused–so they thought–by a lack of sexual activity. Really. To paraphrase Saturday Night Live, “She’s got a fevah, and the only cure is more boning!” The Bawd agrees, saying that the only way to get rid of her greensickness is the same way to get to the pox…which was syphilis. Charming.

When Lysimachus arrives, there is much talk of buying “a dozen of virginities” (IV.vi.17); seems they were right in the earlier scene when they said there was a market of such things. He calls for healthy whores (“wholesome iniquity” [IV.vi.21]), with whom he can do “the deeds of darkness” (IV.vi.26). This is a great phrase, don’t cha know.

They tell the governor that Marina is “a rose indeed, if she had but–” (IV.vi.31). The unsaid ending is, of course, the phallic “prick” . . . but she has “never [been] plucked yet” (IV.vi.36). When the call her forth, they plead with her to end her “virginal fencing” (IV.vi.52), but to no avail. There is much talk of trades and professions, of gamesters and creatures of sale, of prostitution. The Lysimachus is converted (else the “nobleman would have dealt with her like a nobleman” [IV.vi.132-3]); in other words he would have fucked her, like all noblemen do lessers. There is a renewal of discussion of raping her to take her “maidenhead” (IV.vi.121), and by “crack[ing] the glass of her virginity…make the rest malleable” (IV.vi.136-7). She must be “plowed” (IV.vi.139), she must “go the way of womenkind” (IV.vi. 143-4), she must have taken from her “the jewel [she] hold[s] so dear” (IV.vi.148): she must be screwed.

Marina finally convinces them, employing their own vocabulary–but not their activity: “Coistrel … Tib” (IV.vi.159), a scoundrel and his cat (slang for whore), and “honest” (IV.vi.187) women).

And with that return to honesty, bawdy is banished from the play. There is no further nudge-nudge-wink-wink, unsavory or otherwise.

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