Filthy Shakespeare

Posted on October 2, 2010


by Pauline Kiernan (Quercus)
Review: Terry Bell

Like countless students before and since, I struggled, at school, to come to terms with the language of Shakespeare. Not the plotting or the action; just the words. Outside of Julius Caesar. In much the same way I never understood why we should learn Latin if we were never to speak it.

Because Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English is after all, at odds with our modern idiom. It’s like a remote dialect of the language that is necessary to learn if one were ever fully to understand the nuances and obvious word plays used by the bard.

Which was why I have offended Shakespeare purists for decades by insisting that Shakespeare’s plays should be translated into modern idiom. With all due care, of course, to the cadence of his language. But I was regarded as a heretic. Probably still am.

However, after reading Pauline Kiernan’s engaging and impeccably researched Filthy Shakespeare, I feel at least partially vindicated in my heresy. Only partially, because I now realise it is probably best to read the bard in the original. But only if the language and the historical context are fully understood.

Yet the words of Shakespeare, then as now, tend to have iconic status: they are not generally to be tampered with, even when they are incomprehensible. And for that observation, I am grateful to that great thespian, Sir John Gielgud, who once admitted, when interviewed about playing King Lear, that he loved the sounds of the words even although he often didn’t know what they meant.

Closer to Shakespeare’s own day, there were many of a genteel or more prudish bent who knew precisely what his words — and his many clever puns — meant. And they condemned him for them. Shakespeare was described as crude and vulgar.

He was just that, for the playwright was a man of his time, writing for audiences that lived in a grossly overcrowded, corrupt and disease-ridden London. This was a city of crowds, squalor and filth, where beggars, artisans and aristocrats rubbed shoulders alongside the open sewer that was the river Thames. It was also a city where the bells of 114 churches signalled hypocritical morality every hour on the hour and where the Bishop of Winchester accumulated great wealth by licensing the many well patronised brothels of Southwark. These, in turn, played a major role in the spreading of venereal disease, the “pox” that afflicted thousands.

As Kiernan notes: “It’s little wonder that the plays of the time are full of references and puns on faeces, and flatulence and bodies encrusted with festering, putrid plague and boils.”

The language the people spoke — and which Shakespeare brilliantly used — reflected the circumstances in which they lived. It was rich with figures of speech used, as Kiernan says, “to describe or disguise the cruel facts of life”.

Shakespeare’s claimed blasphemy, his sexual punning and references to bodily functions and disease certainly offended the sensibilities of the early 18th Century English poet, Alexander Pope. And it drove British writer Robert Bridges to write in 1907: “Shakespeare should not be put in the hands of the young without the warning that the foolish things in his plays were written to please the foolish, the filthy for the filthy, and the brutal for the brutal…..”

It also gave the language the term “bowdlerise”, meaning to expurgate literary texts. Perhaps a little harshly, Harriet Bowdler and her brother, Thomas, have come to symbolise such prudish censorship. However, they were merely, as they saw it, providing a version of Shakespeare “to make the young reader acquainted with the various beauties of this writer, unmixed with any thing that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty”.

Shakespeare most certainly did not write for children. He wrote full-blooded, raunchy, polemical plays that could be appreciated by the audiences of his day whose lives were often brutish and all too brief. And they came to hear, not to see his plays; the aural superceding the visual.

But the plays, increasingly visual as well as aural, became iconic during the Victorian period which followed the Bowdlerised Shakespeares of 1807 and 1818. The words and the puns — along with a good measure of the fun, the contemporary satire and the insight — were stripped of much of their meaning. And it is this watered down and largely incomprehensible literary gruel which generations of school students have been made to suffer.

Kiernan, an award winning playwright, screenwriter and one of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars has now provided a brief guide to the historical context of the bawdy bard. But the bulk of the book comprises a forthright analysis and explanation of “Shakespeare’s most outrageous sexual puns”. This would bring more than “a blush on the cheek of modesty”, but is a fascinating and worthwhile contribution to understanding the great playwright and his times.

* Originally published 06/2008

Posted in: Archive - 2008