Shakespeare: Not so prudish as you'd think
Romeo and Juliet has long been deigned the first Shakespearean play that students should experience. Though I often find myself at odds with pedagogical wisdom that ran current a century ago, I cannot but agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. The play is a sort of encapsulation of Shakespeare’s entire body of work, for it is part-comedy and part-tragedy, it is rife with puns and iambic pentameter, and it even contains a few sonnets. Students, however, rarely care about any of this at first-glance; after all, what do dramatic genres or poetic conventions have to do with them? Moreover, pop culture tends to give our kids the impression that Shakespeare is dusty and pretentious–and thus boring–which is of course not necessarily true (though admittedly, I myself have oft fallen asleep in the midst of reading Timon of Athens; but every Spielberg must have his AI). But the aspect of Romeo and Juliet that perennially surprises my students is its straightforward raunchiness, particularly in the first two acts. As a teacher and world-class opportunist, I regularly exploit this dirty-mindedness in class, for it draws the students into the liveliness of Shakespeare–the humanity that pervades his plays and engages those readers who are willing to see it. Once the kids see the dirty jokes, they start paying closer attention in the hope of finding more naughtiness; and while they do assuredly find more off-color humor, they also ultimately find themselves engaged with the play–something, I am sure, they were not expecting when they first brought the text to class.
The first dirty joke arrives subtly in lines 12-19:
Sampson. A dog of that house shall move me to stand. I
will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.
Gregory. That shows thee a weak slave, for the weak-
est goes to the wall.
Sampson. ‘Tis true, and therefore women, being the
weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall. There-
fore I will push Montague’s men from the wall and
thrust his maids to the wall.
Let’s face it: adolescents are already incredibly dirty-minded. (And don’t be fooled that dirty-mindedness only runs in young men’s minds; some of the young ladies I’ve taught in the past have had among the filthiest minds I could ever imagine an adolescent having.) Thus, when they read something about a boisterous young servant talking of women being “thrust to the wall,” they giggle, if only inwardly, at the sexual connotation. But they don’t expect me to say anything about it–they just think it’s a classic example of some boring writer writing something he didn’t mean to write. But not to correct this thinking robs the students of a terrific opportunity for a lesson in the history of theater: for Shakespeare was a writer for the masses, and knew to include the raunchy jokes that would elicit hearty laughs from the audience, ranging from those in the Pit to those in the more expensive seats (and possibly even to Elizabeth or James, who both appreciated Shakespeare’s plays and ostensibly his dirty humor). Thus, the raunchiness is there, and pointing this fact out helps engage those students who otherwise believe Shakespeare is chaste and soporific.
But one should not think that the dirty jokes in Romeo and Juliet are the end of students’ engagement with the play; rather, the raunchiness serves as a portal into the text’s finer points, specifically, the language of the soliloquies and monologues. Once the kids are hooked and are scrutinizing the text for the next sexual reference, they will come upon lines like,
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear–
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear. (I.v.51-3)
Invariably, when the students I teach come upon language like this, we’ll hear some sort of audible noise, be that a whistle, a gasp, or a Keanu Reevesish “Woah”. It is arresting imagery when you truly think about it–and since the kids are reading so closely in search of the off-color references, they are thinking about it. At this point (by the end of Act I), my nubile Shakespeareans tend to be engaged enough with the play itself–not simply with the dirty jokes, but with Shakespeare’s unignorable language. They may at first be in the Pit, so to speak, for the dirty jokes, but through this portal of sorts, they finds themselves inextricably trapped in the play’s luminous language (not to mention, of course, its prepossessing plot).
Besides the amorous titular characters (with whom the students always sympathize with since Romeo is 15 and Juliet has “not seen the change of fourteen years” [I.ii. 9]), the two characters that best further bewitch the students into liking Shakespeare are the Nurse and Mercutio–both of whom, not surprisingly, are quite filthy-minded. The Nurse, the servingwoman who breastfed Juliet as a baby and has otherwise taken care of her since birth, reflects her social class’ (and the students’) love of off-color wit. She makes liberal reference to her feminine anatomy (“Now, by my maidenhead…” [I.iii.2]), and cherishes dirty jokes, even when they are in reference to her own Juliet as a toddler:
She [Juliet] could have run and waddled all about,
For even the day before, she broke her brow,
And then my husband (God be with his soul,
He was a merry man) took up the child.
“Yea,” quoth he, “Dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit,
Wilt thou not, Jule?” And, by my holidam,
The pretty wretch left crying and said “Ay.” (I.iii.41-8)
Even in the midst of an otherwise sweet reminiscence, the Nurse cannot help crack up over a lascivious remark her husband made to Juliet regarding how quickly the girl would be on her back with the implied sexual partner on top. In fact, even when Lady Capulet asks her to stop talking of such things, the Nurse finds she cannot, and instead repeats the punch line:
“To think it should leave crying and say “Ay”
“Yea,” quoth my husband. “Fall’st upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age,
Wilt thou not, Jule?” It stinted and said “Ay.” (I.iii.56-62)
When I point out to the students what the Nurse is talking about, they giggle and turn beat-red–but they get it, and in the process become increasingly more interested in the play. Whenever we select parts to be read aloud in class, the kids tend to get excited when receiving the part of the Nurse–and, funnily enough, both the guys and the girls are generally glad to get the part. But in the end, what’s not to like about the Nurse in the first few acts of the play? She’s funny, she’s down-to-earth, and she’s extremely affectionate towards Juliet–infinitely more affectionate than Lady Capulet could ever be. Like the off-color humor that the Nurse so often employs, the Nurse herself is another portal of sorts that helps the kids further engage with the text. She’s a prurient clown, and a character the kids truly love reading about.
If the Nurse is playfully lascivious, then Mercutio is downright licentious. Take, for instance, his conjuration of Romeo when he and Benvolio are looking for their lovesick friend at the beginning of Act II:
I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes,
By here high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg and quivering thigh
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,
That in thy likeness thou appear to us! (II.i.19-23)
Building on his prior knowledge that Romeo has lately been head-over-heels in love (or, more exactly, in lust) with a resolutely chaste Veronese socialite named Rosaline, Mercutio pretends to be a sort of magician and mockingly calls Romeo to him in the name of Rosaline’s various body parts, from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet–and leaving no part vital part out, not the least her vagina, the “demesnes” near her “quivering thigh”. This explicit reference is actually not something I need to point out to my students, for the Folger edition of Romeo and Juliet that my students use clearly states in the notes that “demesnes” means “region”; thus, they need no help connecting the dots in figuring out what exactly Mercutio is talking about when he refers to the demesnes adjacent to Rosaline’s thigh. In fact, I’m quite certain they could connect the dots without the definition of demesnes, because hormonal teenagers will tend to giggle whenever they see the word “quivering” attached to almost any word. Either way, Mercutio’s blatant obscenity, like the Nurse’s comparatively mild lewdness, does much to draw new readers of Shakespeare further into the text. No adolescent can read a line like,
…’twould anger him [Romeo]
To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjured it down (II.i.25-8)
and not pay closer attention to what is being said or what is going on, all the while most certainly giggling giddily. Sure, students could easily get off-task when these comments are discussed or read aloud in class, but that has less to do with the students’ engagement with the text than with the teacher’s command of the classroom. If a teacher cannot honestly and straightforwardly talk with adolescent students about the obviously sexual nature of Shakespeare’s words–and furthermore cannot nip the students’ own off-color discussions in the bud–then that teacher probably should not be teaching adolescents. Indeed, as the saying that has always floated about the profession goes, it takes a special kind of person to teach anyone in middle school or early high school. Part of that “specialness,” I suppose, is a fearlessness about broaching sensitive, risque topics with young people. But we must remember: these off-color riffs are explained and discussed with a higher purpose in mind: they help the students engage with the otherwise difficult literature. As I mentioned earlier, an appreciation of Shakespeare’s dirty jokes will inevitably lead to an appreciation of Shakespeare’s mellifluous soliloquies and monologues and his enthralling plot construction. This is what makes Romeo and Juliet a particularly effective first full-length Shakespearean experience for students: they become engaged with the text via the bawdy humor in the first two acts, but find themselves still inextricably drawn into the play as the tragedy unfolds following Mercutio’s untimely death at the beginning of Act III. Even with the absence of the dirty jokes in the latter half of the play, the students–having been initiated by the lewdness in the opening acts–continue to be loyal followers of the play until its closing lines following three full acts of humorless tragedy. Think of Shakespeare’s lasciviousness as a sort of gateway drug for students; certainly, the dying words of Romeo and Juliet are far heavier and more difficult for young people to handle than any dirty joke could ever be.
If you are a student of Shakespeare and have appreciated the occasional but memorable bawdiness of the Bard’s plays, then you know what I’ve been talking about; but if you made it through a study of Shakespeare (or even if you didn’t make it through) and didn’t notice the dirty jokes, pick up Romeo and Juliet and read the first page. I think you’ll find the dust will fly off Old Will as he quickly springs to potently virile, quivering life.