Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Filthy Shakespeare by Pauline Kiernan

Ever wonder what the Bard was on about? I mean, really on about? If you've read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet for English class (and if you haven't, you probably will), you've probably figured out that there are some double meanings in the text. And if you've ever been to a live production of one of his plays, the snickers from at least some of the members of the audience have probably cued you in to the fact that just because it's Shakespeare doesn't mean it's high-brow. In fact, Shakespeare's plays were well-loved by the (unwashed - literally) masses during his lifetime, and with good reason: even the tragedies have really bawdy bits in them.

Hence today's book: Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns by Pauline Kiernan. The book has a somewhat titillating title, and it certainly is chockablock full of blunt - nay, crude - sexual terms. But it does a good - if overenthusiastic - job of identifying representative scenes in many of the plays that involve decidedly bawdy terms.

Shakespeare's bawdy scenes are often comical as well (or would have been played for comedy in Shakespeare's time, such as the scene recounting the death of Sir John Falstaff in Henry V - nowadays played for ill-judged pathos most of the time, but likely played for laughs among the bawdy Elizabethan crowds), but sometimes they are not - as in Henry V, where Henry threatens the Dauphin and the French using tennis terms after the Dauphin sends him a mocking gift of tennis balls, or in the scene outside Harfleur where he tells the Governor of Harfleur to let him in now while he has control of his men, or he'll let them loose to rape and pillage.

Pauline Kiernan is a scholar, and although she makes plain the meanings of many of the terms used in Shakespeare's plays, many of which have been forgotten over the centuries, there is little art in her translations - when she decides that a word of Shakespeare's dialogue stands in for something else - and she usually uses particularly blunt words for body parts and actions involving them - she swaps her body parts and whatnot for Shakespeare's text, ordinarily without any nuance or subtlety.

In the book, you learn things like that the word "O" is often used to reference the female anatomy. And then you get specific scenes spelled out for you, like this bit from Romeo and Juliet, Act II, sc. 1:

Mercutio If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse, and thou a popp'rin' pear.

From Filthy Shakespeare:
If love be blind, he won't be able to f*ck the vagina.
He'll sit under a medlar tree
and wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
that girls call open-arses when they're talking dirty on their own.
O Romeo, if only she were, O if only she were
an open arse, and you an erect penis popping it in her.

And seriously? This was one of the tamest translations in the book.

Filthy Shakespeare is a great resource for figuring out those naughty double meanings, which, in all honesty, makes it easier to appreciate Shakespeare in general, and his ability to work on multiple levels at once in particular. It's also useful for plays where you can't quite figure out why a particular scene is even there - those scenes that now feel like filler, but back then, with knowledge of the double meanings, would have had audiences rolling with laughter.

For instance, in the case of Falstaff's death, which is communicated in Henry V, I didn't see that the scene added anything to the action. If it doesn't add anything, then what's it there for. Sure, we knew Falstaff was involved with Prince Hal (now Henry V) during the Henry IV plays, so it makes sense to sew up that particular loose end. But really, that scene is kind of boring when staged as a serious one. I suspected that, like many of the scenes that now seem misplaced and/or tedious, it was supposed to be a comical scene. I suspected, also, that it had something to do with sex. In Filthy Shakespeare, I learned that I was correct about the sexual puns, and likely the comedy. If you were to read the book, you'd see what I mean - it's a bit too crude for me to reproduce here.

Now Kiernan, the author, definitely has serious credentials - she has a Ph.D. from Oxford, and she taught there for many years, and has written several books on Shakespeare. She's got serious bona fides, in other words. So in some ways, this is a scholarly work tarted up in profanity, a way of educating modern audiences into some of the nuances of Shakespeare's work, and on exactly how many different levels he was sometimes operating at the same time. It's a testament to his skill that the surface words he used continue to make sense and resonate even when secondary meanings are overlooked.


Welcome said...

Hi Kelly
Just came across your piece on my book. If you have read the introduction you'll find that I say the 'translations' are there only to reveal the subtext, and I strongly point out that the reader should go back to the original. Here's what I said" "The overall aim is not just to offer a modern 'translation' of the wordplay. This very often results in clumsy sentence structure and nearly always entails a loss of some elements of the original such as the rhythm of the verse...The intention is for the reader to bring new knowledge of what the word means and then return to Shakespeare's lines, when a full appreciation of how the sexual subtext is cleverly constructed and beautifully modulated will now be possible."
The book makes the point again and again that the sexual puns are not only for the 'lower orders', but for the aristocrats. I even tell the reader that Shakespeare's patron was known for his filthy language and swearing and that King James I, his second patron was known as 'the foul-mouthed king'. If you do nothing else, please correct this wrong impression you have made about Shakespeare's audiences. After all, you could argue that he used sexual puns explicitly for the benefit of the royal and aristocratic patrons who allowed him to make such a lucrative living!
Dr Pauline Kiernan

Anonymous said...

Hi Pauline -
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have enjoyed your book since I picked it up when it first came out, and have read it over more than once - introduction and all. It is a wonderful resource and one that will, I'm sure, appeal to the readers here at Guys Lit Wire.

Welcome said...

Thanks, Kelly.