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.

About Marginalia

Reader of books, writer of fiction, drinker of coffee. View all posts by Marginalia

12 responses to “William Shakespeare and the Gentle Art of Cursing

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