William Shakespeare and the Gentle Art of Cursing

Warning: This post is rated R for strong language

As a long-time lover of four-letter words, I find school days difficult, in that my normal speech is so thoroughly peppered with expletives that I am forever censoring myself in front of my students. In my own defense, my ratio of swears to “SAT words” is probably 1::4, making my personal parlance a unique mélange of the foul and the fair. Or, as my father has frequently observed: “For someone with such an impressive vocabulary, you sure say ‘fuck’ a lot.”

Allow me, gentle readers, to digressively come to the defense of “fuck,” from a grammatical point of view. Few words in the English language are so versatile, so useful, so plastic as this word. To quote Sterling Johnson in his narrow tome English as a Second F*cking Language, “fuck” is a particularly impressive word, as it functions as almost all parts of speech. It can be a noun (as in “I don’t give a fuck.”), a verb (“We were fucking.”), an adjective (“Let me drive the fucking car!”), an adverb (“What are you fucking doing?”), and an interjection (“Fuck!”). It can be used to modify a sentence in both positive and negative contexts. It is, in short, a grammatical wonder. In any given 24-hour period, I probably used “fuck” in every possible part of speech. It’s just that useful.

Johnson employs a variety of doctored “quotations” from famous authors in an effort of encourage his readers to curse. His most curious usage, however, is in quoting William Shakespeare. By page seven, Johnson has already invoked a particularly relevant line from The Tempest :

You taught me language. And my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse.

Why, then is Johnson’s invocation of Shakespeare curious? I find it so because Johnson’s book is designed to extol the virtues of English’s most taboo four-letter words, most of which Shakespeare merely alluded to, but did not himself employ. The estimable Bill Bryson points out in his William Shakespeare: the World as Stage that the Bard of Avon was one of the few playwrights of his era who did not use profanities to curse. Bryson refers to Shakespeare’s language as “prudish” when compared to Ben Jonson, who:

manured his plays, as it were, with frequent interjections of “turd i’ your teeth,” “shit o’your head,” and “I fart at thee.”

Yet, it is misleading to call Shakespeare a prude. While refraining from vulgarities, Shakespeare still manages to be quite crude through the cunning use of euphemism. If Shakespeare eschews the everyday swear, it is only, in my opinion, to venture into a more creative vein of obscenity. I gave my students a list of his oaths and insults, garnered from the body of his plays, shows a predilection for double entendres, sexual flaws, and short jokes.

(Aside: One of my students asked me, a woman who stands at 5′ 3″ in heels, how I felt about Shakespeare’s copious insults aimed at the vertically challenged. I told him I was well aware of the fact that I was short, and that I didn’t need Shakespeare to inform me of the fact. And then I called him a painted maypole.)

Upon examining this list, my students were immediately struck by the lack of anything explicit. I had told them that Shakespeare could be quite foul, when he chose, and there was a collective disappointment when the list failed to provide them with anything particularly R-rated. It wasn’t until I began to help them weed through the euphemisms and sift through the language that they began to get a picture of the breadth and scope of Shakespeare’s curses. The average tenth-grader will probably not be aware that to call someone “raw-boned”is to imply that the person in question has been having so much sex that they feel literally raw. They will not know that in Shakespeare’s day, the word “nothing” also meant “no thing,” “thing” meaning penis, making nothing sort of a euphemism for the female genitalia. Thus, when Hamlet tells Ophelia that nothing is a fair thought between a maid’s legs, he’s obliquely referencing her vulva. And what, then, do you suppose is the real meaning of the title Much Ado About Nothing?

Shakespeare spends much of his creative cursing referring to seemingly innocuous things, such as canker-blossoms and clotpoles. It takes a working knowledge of Elizabethan slang to know that he is referring to genital warts and men too stupid to know how to wield their own phalli, respectively. The term “fishmonger” for “pimp” requires a bit of intuition to interpret. In fact, so many of Shakespeare’s innocent-seeming curses pack such a sexually charged punch that I was surprised to find that “rabbit-sucker” was merely a term for a sneaky or weaselly person, and not something far more perverse.

Once my students began to realize the potential in their lists, the insults began to fly. It was truly marvelous to hear them come up with more and more eloquent ways to call one another promiscuous jerks. Below are some of my favorites:

Thou bawdy, motley-minded rudesby!

Thou brazen, raw-boned canker-blossom!

Thou art a sottish, clay-brained nut-hook!

Thou prating, paper-faced pantaloon!

Thou art a waggish, horn-mad dogfish!
Thou art a hideous, eye-offending, hedge-pig!

Thou vacant, lean-witted manikin!


I would love to hear anyone’s interpretations of these in the comments.

Introducing Holden

It was probably a good move, starting my tenth-graders off with The Catcher in the Rye. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t been looking forward to it, I really hadn’t. All this madman stuff had happened to me since I last read the book, which had left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. The last time I’d been fond of Holden had been when I myself was sixteen, despite having dated various incarnations of him in the mean time. Probably because I’d let all of those incarnations treat me kind of crummy. So I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be going back to that goddamn mindset all over again, if you know what I mean. I’d been thinking of Holden as the biggest phony I knew for more than a decade, and I had gotten pretty comfortable thinking of him that way, I guess.

And I’m not going to lie to you or anything like that and tell you all of them, my students, I mean, loved Holden. To tell you the truth, his goddamn cursing and smoking all the time really gave them a pain in the ass. They did their fair share of bellyaching about how Holden’s always going on about this person or that person being a phony, when really he’s the phoniest one of all. But somehow that got me to thinking about how much I liked the guy. Not the incarnations of him I dated. But the guy Salinger was writing about. The one that he sort of based on himself. That sorry, lost, confused, guilt-ridden, gullible, foul-mouthed, depressed boy, getting drunk and moping around New York City. I suddenly found myself better able to relate to Holden as an adult than I did (or at least think I did) as a teenager his own age.

But here’s what happened. My students started seeing themselves in Holden. Obviously (hopefully) not the drinking and smoking and chatting up prostitutes part. In fact, they were still mostly complaining about how bad Holden was, and how he was still giving them a pain in the ass. But they didn’t think he was a phony anymore after we started talking about how goddamn sad the guy really was. When I told them about his red hunting hat – how it was the same color as his dead brother’s hair, and how he kept putting in on for emotion protection, they suddenly got how lonely and miserable he was. You know, walking around New York like that, without anyone to talk to. That really got them. And when I explained how in the beginning when someone has stolen his best camel-hair coat and now all he has is this hat, and how it’s all a metaphor for losing his sense of security when his brother died, that really knocked them out, it really did. Because you find me one goddamn teenager who doesn’t know what it’s like to be so damn miserable and alone, so empty feeling and confused, and I’ll show you a teenager who’s lying to himself.

But what really killed me was – after showing all that empathy and everything – they came around to Holden at the expense of any other character who could maybe be seen as giving Holden a hard time. Phoebe they really went for. I’m telling you, they were so hard on that kid for not living up to being the bastion of childlike purity Holden was making her out to be. And Mr. Antolini. Boy, that got awkward. Here I am, their English teacher and everything, and there they are, my students. And you’ve got Mr. Antolini, who’s drunk and all but really I don’t think actually trying to molest Holden or anything like that, but really being so goddamn stupid and irresponsible with a fragile kid. I felt for the guy, I really did. But the students hated the guy’s guts. It was pretty hard to defend him, it really was. But in the months since we read it, since I’ve gotten to know them all a lot better, I’m trying to defend Mr. Antolini through my own actions. It’s hard to be a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to lean on, that one good adult in a kid’s life. Probably harder these days than Salinger ever figured on, I can tell you that. But I hope I can still be that person for some of my students, if they need it. And I can hope that I do a better goddamn job than the example Salinger set out in his book.

Oh, and I’ve ruined “Auld Lang Syne” for them too.  I sang “Comin’ Through the Rye” at them three goddamn times, and I’ve pretty much ruined them for ever hearing that tune again without thinking of me, standing in front of the class, warbling at them, offkey as hell. So I’ve got that going for me.

There is no frigate like a book . . .

Welcome to My Marginalia, a blog about reading, writing, and attempting to transmit a love of both to the high school set. In these pages, there will be discussions of what I’m currently up to as a reader of books, and writer of fiction, and a teacher of English. I haven’t actively kept a blog since livejournal was cutting-edge technology, so bear with me as I slowly get this off the ground.