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.
Men: How far we haven’t come.
During the Utah caucuses last month, a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz attacked his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, with an advertisement featuring a nude photograph of Trump’s wife, Melania. In keeping with a long-evidenced pattern of misogyny, Trump responded by retweeting photographs that suggested Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is less attractive than Melania.
Little has changed, it seems, in 400 years: Not even the great William Shakespeare was above shaming women on the basis of their looks, if his The Comedy of Errors is any measure. But at least he left us with some memorable wordplay, I suppose.
You want to hear a dirty joke? You don’t have to go to a schoolyard, locker room, comedy club, or even a Republican presidential debate. No, simply go to your bookshelf, theater, laptop, or wherever you consume masterpieces of English drama and check out one of Shakespeare’s most tragic – and erotic – love stories, Antony and Cleopatra.
I read the play for the first time a few weeks back as part of my ongoing effort, as you may now be well familiar, to take on Shakespeare’s corpus this year 400 years after his death – and boy, is this some hot stuff. The play, no doubt, continues to reward viewers and readers with its complicated and sexualized construction of power and politics in the “infinite variety” (2.2.241) of its leading lady, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Further developing this theme, the play also rewards audiences with some of its strong language – here, centered on taboo topics of sex and genitalia.
In terms of plot, Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) is fairly straightforward: invading France after making a claim on French territories, a vastly outnumbered King Henry (Harry) dispatches them at Agincourt, uniting the two kingdoms through his subsequent marriage to the French princess. In terms of language, however, the play has a lot of texture – not to mention the Bard’s ambivalent depictions of power and war that complicate this historical drama.
With its extensive cast of characters, Henry V features a range of linguistic registers. The lofty commentary of the Chorus frames the historical action of the play. The clergy’s academic discourse convinces Harry to mount his siege. Simple peasants malaprop in prose while the King rallies his troops with impassioned battle cries: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60). And the French princess, Catherine, says cunt.