Swearing loves spelling. We abbreviate it online: WTF and GTFO. We encode it in military acronyms: SNAFU and FUBAR. We play with letters to avoid taboos: H-E-double-hockey-sticks. We spin apocryphal tales of sweary etymology: Ship High In Transit and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Sweary spelling even graces some of our finest literature – like in Shakespeare, who humiliates a prude by making him spell out the word cunt.
“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.
Shakespeare’s The Life of Timon of Athens is an overlooked gem in his corpus. Though less accomplished than many of his other tragedies, this moral drama is distinctive – and timely – in its focus on the relationship between money and affection. It satirizes some amusing characters, including a churlish cynic philosopher and two artists who only ply their craft to win rewards. The play also features some choice language.
Many extol King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest play. Some even vaunt it as the very height of the Western canon. For their claims, they point, inter alia, to the strength of the tragedy’s language.
Take the mad monarch as he roves the wild heath: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6). Or the broken father when he cradles his deceased daughter: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.306-07). The Bard’s language plunges us into the depths of Lear’s despair.
But King Lear doesn’t just feature some of Shakespeare’s strongest language. It also showcases some of his, well, strongest language. And when we give it a closer look, much of it is truly below the belt.
While we flip the bird at explicit language advisories on this blog, I do want to issue a trigger warning for this post due to fictional content about rape.
That’s a hell of way to kick off a little language study, huh? But even by today’s standards, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, with its human sacrifice, gang rape, and cannibalism, is just brutally fucking violent. Amid all its carnage, though, is some sexual wordplay that sounds, well, shockingly modern for a play written over 400 years ago.