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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: June ::
Re: R & J Query
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1531  Monday, 18 June 2001

[1]     From:   Jack Heller <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Jun 2001 10:45:34 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1509 Re: R & J Query

[2]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Jun 2001 20:47:21 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1509 Re: R & J Query


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jack Heller <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Jun 2001 10:45:34 -0400
Subject: 12.1509 Re: R & J Query
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1509 Re: R & J Query

While we are on to bawdy puns, a question I have tried to answer without
success for some time. Richard Easy is a character in Thomas Middleton's
MICHAELMAS TERM. He is indeed "easy" to "undo" (in all bawdy senses of
that word). He is never called Dick in the play, a pun I can hardly
believe that Middleton would have left alone. So when did Dick become a
genital?

Jack Heller

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Jun 2001 20:47:21 +0100
Subject: 12.1509 Re: R & J Query
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1509 Re: R & J Query

It's possible for virtually any word in English to take on a sexual
connotation, if the circumstances in which it is used are so contrived.
That a word is locally redefined by such a nonce-usage doesn't mean that
it then becomes a normal or accepted or expected synonym for the sexual
organs or whatever.

(There would be a grey area, relevant to this thread, around the tools
of various trades-blacksmiths, cobblers, tailors, fletchers, etc.-which
do pretty frequently develop sexual connotations.  This is particularly
the case in a whole swatch of folk songs from before and after
Shakespeare's time.)

With this in mind, to get to some specifics ....

> From:           Abigail Quart <
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> My Slang  and Euphemism dictionary doesn't list "Peter" as a synonym for
> "penis" until the 1800s but it's really hard to believe that a word that
> comes from the Latin for "rock" didn't appeal to British schoolboys much
> earlier.

The Cassell Dictionary of Slang (which is usually pretty good on
first-recorded-use) dates "peter" as meaning penis from [late 19C+].
Even if we take the 1800s date, we still have two hundred years in which
the 'obvious' sexual meaning fails to be recorded.

More to the point, there are +documented+ slang usages of "peter", at
least three of which can be traced back to the 1700s (Partridge, _A
Dictionary of Historical Slang_).  Based on these, the most likely
expectation that the audience would bring to "peter" would be, "Hey,
it's a trunk or portmanteau!"  Given Peter's relation to the Nurse
(carrying her possessions, including her fan) this would seem to fit all
too neatly into the context of R&J.

> Rubinstein has an entry for Peter's first appearance in R&J:
>
> Nurse: My fan, Peter.
> Mercutio: Good Peter, to hide her face, for her fan's the fairer face.
>
> The entry refers to "fan" as meaning "buttocks." Gosh, the name "Peter"
> just seems to bob up in moments of intense sexual punning there, doesn't
> it?

I'm not quite sure where fan=buttocks might come from (I've not yet read
Rubenstein, but look forward to doing so.  I'm sure it will provide much
amusement, if not in one way, then in another), but surely if one is
looking for a candidate for sexual innuendo here, there's a much
stronger possibility.  Partridge records 'fanny' as the female pudenda
from ca 1860, but suggests it's probably much earlier (how much earlier
is open), and CDS notes that "fan" exists as a variant from the same
period.

Perhaps Rubenstein is misled (I'm only speculating) by the American
slang usage of fanny=butt(ocks)?  We do (and did) things differently in
England.

In either case, Mercutio is making a pretty obvious joke-that the
Nurse's fan is more attractive than her face.  It would take an alert
auditor, anachronistic meanings aside, to jump from this to an (at the
best) pretty obscure sexual allusion.

> Rainbow brings in '"Redeem thy brother By yielding up thy body to my
> will'.  Will here, must have echoed in the minds of many original
> auditors as 'penis'. '

Well, "will" ...  Kerrigan does note, with relation to Sonnet 135 (a
better example than 136 if we're chasing the sexual implications of
"will"), among the six possible quibbles on "will" in the poem, that one
is penis ('hide my will', 135.6).

Alas, not only is this a nonce-usage local to 135, but there actually
+was+ a fairly common sexual connotation around "will".  It wasn't,
however, the penis but sexual energy, more rarely and specifically
semen.  (The semantic range of "will" is close to the older-established
"spirit" [going back at least as far as Robert Henryson] -- cf. "The
expense of spirit in a waste of shame ...").

If (which I admit I find unlikely) any sexual ambiguities were bouncing
around the heads of any members of an Elizabethan or Jacobean audience
of R&J, what would be called up would be semen rather than a penis.

If we're going to play this particular silly game, at least let's play
it +right+.

> I recall being shot down long ago when I suggested that the nun,
> Francisca (which means "French" which means "syphilis" to the
> Elizabethan)

No.  French crowns, yes, French disease, yes, but plain "French", no.
Unless we want to argue that _Henry V_ is about venereal disease.

And so on.

I have to say that I feel (unsurprisingly, given my first name)
peculiarly sensitive to this issue, as anyone recalling "Gascoigne's
Lullaby" will understand:

    Eke Lullaby my loving boye,
    My little Robyn take thy rest,
    Since age is colde, and nothing coye,
    Keepe close thy coyne, for so is best ...

Robin Hamilton

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