The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1648  Tuesday, 16 July 2002

From:           Tony Burton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, 15 Jul 2002 14:21:08 -0400
Subject: 13.1631 Re: Duke as Count
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1631 Re: Duke as Count

We will probably never know the strength of the taboos against use of
the word "cunt" in Shakespeare's day nor, perhaps more important, their
extent: the social circles in which it would have been unacceptable and
those in which it was, perhaps, simply the language of everyday speech.
I believe the word would have been unacceptable among academics and
generally civil people twenty years ago, and could never have appeared
in a chat group such as this.  Now, it doesn't even require scare quotes
or apologies (except perhaps on network television).

Certainly the characteristically American modesty in matters of nudity
didn't exist; and quick glimpses up skirts and kilts in the course of
everyday (country) activities in work and play -- not to mention the
stylish display of  breasts (only sometimes, as in the case of
Elizabeth, behind sheer fabric) and the extravagant promise of codpieces
-- were everyday nonevents.  And though in Elizabethan times there were
medical texts that hid sexual discussions in a cocoon of Latin
equivalents, there were others written for nurses, healers, and the
common people that were just as serious and well-intentioned, which did

I know from someone who was teaching at a nursing school in the sixties,
how nurses-to-be had to be educated to use all the various
"inadmissible" words for genitalia and sexual activity in order to
inquire about the conditions of their patients, for whom the respectable
words were often a foreign language.  Many a lower class patient was
dismissed as a bit of a moron for failing to "know" something about his
or her condition because up-tight nurses and doctors too often spoke the
20th century equivalent of hornbook terms instead of street colloquial.

That  being said, I very much disagree with Don Bloom's discomfort with
Shakespeare's c-u-n-t joke at Malvolio's expense, something he seems to
have come around at least to admitting is in the text after an initial
reluctance to do so.  He says he doesn't object to it because it is
lewd, but because i t is cheap, a distinction that I don't really buy.
Now, Toby entombing Malvolio in the dark is cheap, and Portia mockingly
applying national stereotypes to her suitors, or laying on the pain by
increasing the forfeitures against Shylock, are all cheap; and any play
for a quick laugh at an unloved person's discomfiture is cheap.   But
watching an abuser of position dig his own grave, as Angelo and Lucio do
in "Measure for Measure" is something else.  I think Bloom's objections
hold only for those who are troubled by the lewdness of the taboo word.

There are two literary-critical observations to be made.  First, that
one of the points of the joke is that it puts the naughty word in the
mouth of an overreaching and seemingly puritanical social upstart with
sexually charged thoughts, who doesn't even realize he's talking the
kind of dirty talk that would ordinarily be his excuse to put on
horrified and superciliously indignant airs.  [Doesn't every know  the
old schoolboy chestnut, to sign the first day's attendance roster "Dick
Hertz" in order to have some unsuspecting teacher ask the class "Who's
Dick Hertz?" with the much anticipated consequence of giggles, hoots,
guffaws, general disorder, and an end to all decorum for the day, or

The second point is that the dirty talk is directed not at our reading
sensibility but our hearing faculty, and Shakespeare used the same aural
joke elsewhere.  It simply recreates Hamlet's near-contemporary double
pun of offering to lie "in" Ophelia's lap (then a lower class but not
vulgar word for, let me not offend, "vagina," in addition to its present
meaning), which he immediately corrects by saying he means his head
"upon" her lap and thus emphasizes the bawdry in his first choice of
pronouns, which he then takes over the top entirely by asking with mock
innocence, "Do you think I meant COUNTry matters?" which redelivered the
original subtle (and ignorable) offense with enhanced and inescapable
aural clarity.  I don't believe anyone denies the double entendre in
"Hamlet," so maybe it was just a screamingly funny play on words in
1601-2.  If Don Bloom can't visualize Elizabeth hiccupping with
delighted laughter, I can.

Others on this list have mentioned the various academic studies of
Shakespeare's sexual puns, etc., but the real obstacle to correct
understanding lies with ourselves, or at least those among us who cannot
without embarrassment enjoy a dirty joke in mixed company.

Tony Burton

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Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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