Four hundred years ago today, Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil. Across the globe, bardolators are observing the date – if not the whole month, nay, year – with various celebrations of his momentous legacy. Meanwhile, you might find some tortured high-schoolers and scholars of, you know, other Elizabethan playwrights celebrating his actual death.
I thought I’d honor Stratford’s greatest son (deal with it, millennials-upon-Avon) by celebrating not his loftiest lines but some of his crudest, as I have been periodically doing on Strong Language. I can think of no better work for the special occasion than his two-part history, Henry IV.
From prostitutes in London taverns to magicking rebels in Wales, Shakespeare dizzies us with a rich array of characters, settings, and voices in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2. Nothing, though, quite stands out like the sleazing, boozing, and wheezing Sir John Falstaff – and not just for his size. The fat knight’s girth yields some larger-than-life mirth, if we look to some the insults his companions throw at the “fat-kidneyed rascal” (1H4 2.2.6).
The madcap youth who matures into a heroic king, Prince Harry alone issues some of the most unprincely – and sorry, Falstaff, memorable – abuses of his friend. Catching Falstaff falsifying fortitude after Harry pranks him during a highway robbery, Harry jibes: “These lies are like their father that begets them–gross as a mountain, open, palpable. Why, thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch–” (1H4 2.5.208-11). As my Norton Shakespeare helpfully glosses it, a “tallow-catch” is a lump of animal fat that butchers collected for candle-making.
But Falstaff can give just as good as he gets, proving himself not quite so “fat-witted with drinking of old sack,” a Spanish white wine (1.2.2). Falstaff answers Harry’s attacks on his weight by ridiculing Harry’s lack thereof: “‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish–O, for breath to utter what is like thee!–you tailor’s yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck–” (2.5.226-29). Falstaff, in so many colorful words, literally calls Harry a dick. ‘Sblood was a minced oath for “God’s blood,” which Elizabethan playwrights, among others, employed in part to evade censorship, here, against profaning Christian holy names.
Earlier, you’ll be entertained to note, Falstaff calls Harry and an associate, Poins, disguised as thieves during the highway robbery: “Ah, whoreson caterpillars, bacon-fed knaves!…Hang ye, gorbellied knaves…, ye fat chuffs” (2.3.76-80).
But for all of Falstaff’s zingers, Harry’s just getting warmed up. Later in the riotous tavern scene, the profane pair take turns playacting as king. Addressing Falstaff as if he’s prince, Harry sets his tallow-catch on fire:
Thou art violently carried away from grace. There is a devil that haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man; a tun of a man in thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity, that father Ruffian, that Vanity in Years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? Wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve capon and eat it? Wherein cunning, but in craft? Where in villainy? Wherein villainous, but in all things? Wherein worthy, but in nothing? (2.5.407-18)
Just who’s getting “carried away,” Harry? Zounds (another minced oath, for “by God’s wounds,” the Bard enjoyed). I’d provide glosses for this passage, but I think Harry gets his point across.
Enjoy Harry’s epic smackdown in the Globe’s 2010 production (jump to ~9:45, though I recommend the whole scene):
In Henry IV Part 2, we behold a newly crowned Harry, Henry V, issue the ultimate insult to his Falstaff: outright rejection. (It’s the fat knight, it seems to me, who should be rejecting the reformed king, if Harry’s outsized put-downs are any measure.)
Swearing isn’t just a boy’s club in this equally boisterous second part. And Harry, you might say, isn’t the only one who’s coronated: I think the aptly named whore, Doll Tearsheet, takes the crown for “foul-mouthedest rogue” (2H4 2.4.61).
In one scene, a drunken Doll Tearsheet inveighs against the “swaggering” Pistol (2.4.60), who, in a double entendre that really sticks, wants to “discharge upon her” (2.4.97). She variously castigates him as a “scurvy companion”; a “poor, base, rascally, cheating lack-linen mate”; a “mouldy rogue”; a “cutpurse rascal”: a “filthy bung”; a “saucy cuttle”; a “bottle-ale rascal”; and a “basket-hilt stale juggler” (2.4.103-110).
The Norton editors again come to our aid for Doll Tearsheet’s last insult, “basket-hilt stale juggler”: basically, she is calling Pistol a fraud who wields a piece-of-shit sword. And, yes, her “bung” should evoke bunghole, a slang term for the “asshole.” Originally, a bunghole, sometimes just called the bung, referred to the, well, asshole-like hole in a cask. Note also Shakespeare’s usage of some wonderful cutthroat compounds: a “lack-linen mate” has no clothes and a “cutpurse rascal” is a thief.
Other characters, including Falstaff and Harry, certainly help gild Doll Tearsheet’s curse-y crown throughout the play, but Falstaff’s page embeds a Falstaff-sized gemstone in it when he badmouths the loose-lipped Mistress Quickly, the tavern hostess: “Away, you scullion, you rampallian, you fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!” (2.1.52-53). In other words, the page is threatening to whip this fat, slovenly, roguish kitchen wench’s ass. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests this fustilarian, the only quotation the dictionary has for it, is a nonce word formed on fustilugs, a “fat, frowzy woman.” But don’t worry about Mistress Quickly: she knows how to hold her own.
Four hundred years later, Shakespeare’s “rascal” and “rogue” may have lost much of their offensive power. “‘Sblood” may not cause any gasps. We need a dictionary to gloss “neat” and “cuttle.” We need a historian to understand “basket-hilt stale juggler” and “Manningtree ox.” And “saucy” and “scurvy” today might sound like an American trying to sound British.
But the vivid imagery of a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts,” the lexical oddity of “fustilarian,” and the descriptive accretion of “poor, base, rascally, cheating lack-linen mate” display not only the Bard’s linguistic ingenuity but also the sheer joy he takes in lowest of language. Four hundred years later, that exuberance, as fat as Falstaff’s kidneys and stiff as a bull’s pizzle, can still tickle our catastrophes. I’d say that’s definitely something to celebrate.
Text quoted from The Norton Shakespeare (1997, W.W. Norton, ed. Stephen Greenblatt).