[EXPLICIT CONTENT, ADULT LANGUAGE AND SEXUAL IMAGERY AHEAD… SKIP IF EASILY OFFENDED.]
It’s time to check out the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of The Tempest. Now just how much is there? Well, Eric Partridge, author of Shakespeare’s Bawdy, his wonderful discussion and dictionary of the risqué in the Bard, says this play is “by far the purest of the Tragi-Comedies; [and] slightly ‘milder’ than Twelfth Night” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 58). Of course, remember that Twelfth Night contains that wonderfully profane hidden-spelling joke. So there’s that.
Interestingly enough, our first bit of the nasty comes from arguably the nicest guy in the play, Gonzalo, when he’s discussing the boatswain, whom he says is unlikely to drown even if the boat he’s on is “as leaky as an unstanched wench” (I.i.47-8). My money’s on the more disturbing of two bawdy interpretations here: as leaky as a woman on her period who isn’t wearing an absorbent pad. Yeah, that’s a disturbing mental image for you. The alternative is a sexually excited woman, which would get us to wet, but not leaky? (I’m pretty sure female ejaculation was not a “thing” in Shakespeare’s day)
When Ariel and Prospero discuss the history of the isle and the “foul witch Sycorax” (I.ii.258), Prospero explains about the “one thing she did” (I.ii.266) that removed the death sentence from her. She was pregnant, so that “one thing” was sex. Later in the same scene, we get more Caliban/Sycorax stuff: “got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicket dam” (I.ii.319-20). More sex by Sycorax, though, this time specifically with the devil. Later, Prospero accuses Caliban of attempted rape of Miranda, or as he puts it, “seek to violate / The honor of my child” (Iii.347-8).
When Miranda and Ferdinand have their meet-cute and instantly fall in love, Prospero notes that he must make this relationship more difficult to achieve, “lest too light winning / Make the prize light” (I.ii.452-3). Here, he’s concerned that sexual promiscuity (the second “light”) is in store if she is won too easily (the first “light”).
In the next scene, when Antonio and Sebastian are punning on what the others are saying, Sebastian uses the term “subtle” to denote an expertise in sex (II.i.45).
In Act Two, Scene Two, Stephano’s song references a tailor “scratch[ing] her where’er she did itch” (II.ii.52), and if you think that means sex, you’d be right. Later in the scene, Stephano refers to Trinculo as the “siege of this mooncalf” (II.ii.105), asking his friend if he is the dump (“siege”) Caliban left behind, and did Caliban shit (or “vent”) out Trinculo.
When Miranda and Ferdinand speak to each other in Act Three, her speech is filled with (unintentional?) innuendo. She talks of her desire and “all the more it seeks to hide itself, / The bigger bulk it shows” (III.i.80-1); so she knows that desire leads to sex and sex to pregnancy (“bigger bulk”), and she speaks of her virginity (“maid” [III.i.84]). I’m thinking that these two bits o’ bawdy may be (probably) conscious. But her repeated use of her “die”-ing, is probably a little more subtle and subconscious …remember that dying was a metaphor for orgasm.
Caliban speaks of Miranda becoming Stephano’s “bed” (III.ii.103), something for him to lie upon.
Prospero warns Ferdinand against premarital sex with Miranda (the “break[ing of] her virgin knot” [IV.i.15]). During the wedding mask, Iris talks of “Mars’s hot minion” (IV.i.98), or Mars’ lustful mistress.
And, really, that’s about it. It feels like the play starts with some bawdy, but fades quickly. Maybe Shakespeare shot his wad early in this one.