Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is best known for what’s probably the most famous stage direction in the history of English drama: “Exit, pursued by a bear” (3.3.57). But the Bard slips in another memorable line that’s sure to get a rise out of lovers of language – and pleasure. At one point, a servant describes Autolycus, a rascally, villainous pedlar who shows up at a local feast:
He hath songs for man or woman, of all sizes; no milliner can so fit his customers with gloves. He has the prettiest love songs for maids, so without bawdry, which is strange with such delicate burdens of dildos and fadings, ‘Jump her and thump her’; and where some stretch-mouthed rascal would, as it were, mean mischief and break a foul gap into the matter, he makes the maid to answer, ‘Whoop, do me no harm, good man’; puts him off, slights him, with ‘Whoop, do me no harm, good man!’ (4.4.190-98)
Burden of…dildos?! That’s right: Shakespeare used the word dildo.
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.