“Hang him, mechanical salt-butter rogue!” Falstaff colorfully denounces Master Ford as a working-class peon in The Merry Wives of Windsor (2.2.246). Shakespeare packs this gender and class comedy with pranks, pratfalls, and, yes, profanity. But no swearing is quite as memorable, and impressive, as its famed Latin lesson. That’s right: It wasn’t enough for the Bard to concoct his artful swears in his English. He cooked them up in Latin, too.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare plays with an array of linguistic registers. Pistol, Falstaff’s lackey, sprinkles his lines with showy Italian loans (“labras” and “cornuto”). Doctor Caius, a French physician, switches between French and an accented English (“It is no matter-a ver dat”). Caius’ malaprop housekeeper, Mistress Quickly, stumbles over more learned, Latinate vocabulary (“fartuous” for virtuous). And then there’s Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh clergyman and our hapless Latin instructor.
Shakespeare is not kind to Evans’ accent: In a comic stereotype of Welsh phonology, he has Evans drop word-initial w’s (“’oman” for woman) and pronounce d as t, b as p, hard c as g, and v as f. The latter substitutions get him into some sweary trouble when he tests Mistress Page’s son, William, on his progress in Latin. Let’s jump into the lesson right as it slips hilariously, and obscenely, from Evans’ control.
EVANS. …What is he, William, that does lend articles?
WILLIAM. Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus declined. Singulariter nominativo: ‘hic, haec, hoc’.
EVANS. Nominativo: ‘hig, hag, hog’. Pray you mark: genitivo: ‘huius’. Well, what is your accusative case? (4.1.32-37)
Here, William is providing the masculine, feminine, and neuter forms of the singular this in Latin’s nominative and genitive cases. In Evans’ accent, hic sounds like “hig.”
WILLIAM. Accusativo: ‘hinc’–
EVANS. I pray you have your remembrance, child. Accusativo: ‘hing, hang, hog’.
MISTRESS QUICKLY. ‘Hang-hog’ is Latin for bacon, I warrant you. (4.1.38-41)
Evans’ pronunciation causes Mistress Quickly’s comic misunderstanding.
EVANS. Leave your prabbles, ‘oman!–What is the focative case, William?
WILLIAM. O–vocativo, O–
EVANS. Remember, William, focative is caret.
MISTRESS QUICKLY. And that’s a good root. (4.1.42-46)
Evans pronounces vocative, another Latin case, as “focative,” which sounds a lot like, yup, fuck. Case and O? These were Elizabethan slang for “vagina.” Caret – “it is lacking,” as hic has no vocative form in Latin – sounds like carrot, as Mistress Quickly construes it. This root vegetable can slip, shall we say, into a case or O.
The dirty declining continues:
EVANS. What is your genitive case plural, William?
WILLIAM. Genitive case?
WILLIAM. Genitivo: ‘horum, harum, horum’.
MISTRESS QUICKLY. Vengeance of Jenny’s case! Fie on her! Never name her, child, if she be a whore. (4.1.49-54)
Mistress Quickly hears genitive case as “Jenny’s case” and horum as “whore,” and wishes a plague on, or “vengeance of,” this whore Jenny’s cunt. Genitive further suggests “genitals.”
EVANS. For shame, ‘oman!
MISTRESS QUICKLY. You do ill to teach the child such words. He teaches him to hick and to hack, which they’ll do fast enough of themselves, and to call ‘whorum’. Fie upon you! (4.1.55-58)
Hick and hack, calling back hic and hac, appear to be slang for “fucking.”
Putting it all together, Pauline Kiernan, in Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns, provides a ‘translation’ that really delivers the passage’s profane punch. Note, too, how Kiernan uncovers some additional innuendo in Evans’ initial query of William with lend (“bend over for sex”) and articles (“genitals”):
EVANS. What is he, William, that bends his genitals for fucking?
WILLIAM. Genitals are borrowed of the pronoun and are thus declined: ‘he fucks, she fucks, it fucks’.
EVANS. What is the fucking vagina, William?
WILLIAM. Cunt–vocativ–Cunt, Cunt–
EVANS. Remember, William, focative is penis. What is your genitive case plural, William?
WILLIAM. The genitals’ genital? Genitiv–Cunt: ‘of masculine whores, of feminine whores, of neuter whores’.
Shakespeare’s Latin lesson is more than just some naughty wordplay, though. It presents an Early Modern English that is mixed and in flux, and points to the social and gender complexities of its changing literacy culture. But we, like schoolchildren snickering at our oblivious teacher, get to revel in the ensuing confusion: “O–vocativo, O–,” as Shakespeare has William draw out every last smutty syllable.