[EXPLICIT CONTENT, ADULT LANGUAGE AND SOPHOMORIC SEX HUMOR AHEAD… SKIP IF EASILY OFFENDED.]
Eric Partridge, in his study of and dictionary for the bawdy in the Bard, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, has this to say about our play: “Cymbeline in many ways resembles The Winter’s Tale, which is slightly less bawdy but rather more sexual. They are of much the same quantitative order as All’s Well.” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 58).
Well, All’s Well’s got some dirt, but isn’t that dirty. Cymbeline, pretty much the same…let’s see if Partridge is right.
Unlike Cymbeline, where the bawdiness took a while to rear its head, here in The Winter’s Tale, we don’t get 200 lines into the play before we get a sexual reference. And given Leontes is wracked with sexual jealousy, it should be no surprise that when he sees what he interprets as caressing between his wife and best friend (“paddling” [I.ii.116]), his mind immediately goes to images of cuckoldry and its legendary symbol of horns (“forked one[s]” [I.ii.186]) growing from his forehead, or “brows” (I.ii.120 and 147). He fears that he’s been made a “cuckold” (I.ii.191), fears that his wife’s “been sluiced in’s absence / And his pond fished by his next neighbor” (I.ii.194-5); here, he envisions his wife being drenched as if by the rush of water from a dam releasing its contents (“sluice, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017)–only the liquid he imagines is not water, but come–and his fishing comment recalls Measure for Measure’s Pompey describing Claudio’s crime as “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river” (Measure I.ii.87). Because of woman’s “predominant” (Winter’s I.ii.202) lack of chastity, the entire world to Leontes is “a bawdy planet” (I.ii.201), in which there is no “barricado for a belly…it will let in and out the enemy / With bag and baggage” (I.ii.204, 205-6). In other words, as there’s no wall to protect the womb, she will let in the enemy (the other man) empty his testicles (bag) of his semen (baggage) into her. And, worse, Leontes fears that everyone else knows it: “They’re here with me already, whisp’ring, rounding / ‘Sicilia is a so-forth’” (I.ii.217-8). When he attempts to convince Camillo, he again refers to “a cuckold’s horn” (I.ii.269), and calls Hermione “slippery” and “a hobbyhorse” (I.ii.273 and 6), there to be ridden by any man. He accuses her of “kissing with inside lip” (I.ii.286), the lips insider her dress, perhaps? And in an explosion of repetition, he proclaims,
Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.
Sure, he could mean nothing. But then again, nothing had another meaning…remember Much Ado About Nothing? Leontes is obsessed, demented (extra crazed bonus points for the use of “covering” as “cover” also meant the act “of a stallion: To copulate with (the mare); rarely of other animals” [“cover, v.1.” OED Online]), and Camillo sees that “this diseased opinion … [is] most dangerous” (I.ii.297,8). Undeterred, Leontes envisions “the purity and whiteness of his sheets” (I.ii.327) being dirtied.
That’s something. Something disturbingly bawdy. And that, my friends, is just the second scene of the play.
Act Two, Scene One brings more of Leontes’ delusional rantings, calling the now-departed Camillo the “pander” (II.i.46) or pimp for Polixenes, and declaring that it is Polixenes who “has made [Hermione] swell thus” (II.i.62) with pregnancy. Later in the scene, in a bizarrely misogynistic attempt at placating the crazed king, Antigonus says that if the accusations against the queen are true, then of his own three daughters,
To bring false generations. They are co-heirs,
And I had rather glib myself than they
Should not produce fair issue.
He claims he will sterilize (“geld”) his daughters, and that he’d rather castrate (“glib”) himself before he lets them give birth to bastard children. What the fuck? Seriously? Well, not really seriously, as I’m pretty damn sure that this is just talk to keep Leontes preoccupied. But still… Of course, he cannot distract Leontes from his obsession, and after Paulina presents the new-born baby to the king, he calls her a “bawd” (II.iii.68) or madam for Hermione.
And then we get pretty much no bawdiness for the remainder of the time in Sicilia. But come Act Four in Bohemia…
In Act Four, Scene Three, we learn two new phrases for prostitutes from Autolycus: “aunts” (with whom he “lie[s] tumbling in the hay” [IV.iii.11, 12]) and “troll-my-dames” (IV.iii.84…referencing a game where you roll balls through arches… ahem).
At the sheepshearing festival, when Perdita is handing out flowers to and discussing items of botanical interest with the disguised Polixenes, we get a number of bawdy-not-bawdy references by the young maid:
- “I’ll not put / The dibble in the earth” (IV.iv.100), the dibble being a tool for making holes in the soil (a phallic object)
- If wearing make up a young man might “desire to breed by [her]” (IV.iv.103)
- “virgin branches … maidenheads” (IV.iv.115, 116)
- “a malady / Most incident to maids” (IV.iv.124-5), greensickness, a supposed sickness prone to virgins that could be cured by having sex
Now, all of these are within a short span, all with Polixenes (and Camillo). Is this supposed to give us a teasing, almost flirtatious Perdita? Or (more likely, in my opinion) a completely innocent, guileless young shepherdess who is comfortable talking about what comes naturally, unaware that this can even be taken dirtily?
as you may have guessed, the title of today’s blog entry refers to the woefully underutilized dildo (‘underutilized,’ as this is its only mention in the entire Canon, NOT what you were thinking. now whose mind is in the gutter, eh?)
Now the rest of the play’s bawdy references all come in the second half of the scene after the announcement of the arrival of Autolycus with his “delicate burdens of dildos and fadings, ‘Jump her and thump her.’ And where some stretch-mouthed rascal would, as it were mean mischief and break a foul gap in the matter” (IV.iv.194-7). While dildos and fadings could mean silly words in a refrain and other songs portions, I mean, come on…who are we kidding here. Jump her and thump her? Really? Stretch-mouthed is foul-mouthed, though other interpretations wouldn’t be too much of a stretch (see what I did there?). Of course, what makes this all the funnier is that the servant saying all this has introduced Autolycus as having items “without bawdry” (IV.iv.193). Shakespeare does like his irony.
The Clown then talks of “plackets” and “kiln hole[s]” (IV.iv.242, 244), the latter being an oven (as in “a bun in”) and the former we’ve known for a while as a euphemism for pussy. When Autolycus begins to interact with the shepherds, his language is filled with slightly dirty references:
- “a usurer’s wife was brought to bed of twenty moneybags at a burden” (IV.iv.262-3): I’m thinking she brought twenty men to her bed to “burden” her…though it may be one really rich man, I suppose
- “Mistress Tale-porter” (IV.iv.269): sure, that could mean gossip (tale-reporter), but since he follows that up with talk of “five or six honest wives” (IV.iv.263), I’m thinking he saying the Mistress is a door-keeper for tails, in other words, a bawd
- “exchange flesh” (IV.iv.279): have sex
After the king and Camillo have revealed themselves, it’s Polixenes’ turn to use some questionable language in regards to the sex act: “cop’st with” (IV.iv.423)–to screw; and accusing Perdita of “these rural latches to his entrance open[ing]” (IV.iv.437)–she has left her doors, um, unlocked for Florizel’s easy access. And once the king’s gone, we have only Autolycus to give us one last bawdy blast before the end of the scene: we get another “placket” and a “codpiece” (IV.iv.608, 609).
And with that, the dirty disappears from The Winter’s Tale. There are no bawdy references in Sicilia in the final act. Leontes, the main speaker of the salacious, seems to be cured of his dangerous “diseased opinion.”
As for Partridge, this does feel a tiny bit more sexual than Cymbeline but not much dirtier.