In July 2013 I did an interview on NPR’s The Takeaway with John Hockenberry. We spoke on the subject of foul language in Shakespeare.
The interview topic was a follow-up to an interview the day before on the evolution of swearing in our culture. This original interview received an outpouring of objections from the show’s listenership which called swearing low class. The producers responded by bringing me in to discuss the high-level swearing in Shakespeare’s plays. You can hear the interview, as well as the other NPR interviews I’ve done on Shakespeare topics, here.
Below is the preliminary interview I did via email before the actual radio talk with Todd Zwillich subbing in for John Hockenberry:
Anya, Shakespeare is often held up as the gold standard of great writing. And yet he wasn’t afraid of four-letter words. Explain.
Shakespeare is held out as the gold standard of great writing not because his work is polite or gentile or free from vulgarity. His work is the gold standard because it depicts life as it truly IS, in all of its whirling realities. As Hamlet says, the job of great writing is “to hold, as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
Shakespeare knew that the act of profaning- of insulting- of desecrating – is a part of life, and needs to be depicted along with every other aspect of human life. And the profane language in Shakespeare is as smart and meaningful and witty as everything else he wrote.
Shakespeare created thousands of new words- many of them obscene, profane, sacrilegious, insulting, irreverent. He was constantly fresh-minting new ways to show how human beings love to blaspheme and undermine and show irreverence through swearing. This vast, kaleidoscopic collage of profanity shows the whole range of how people love to hate each other, to debunk other people’s sacred cows, and to express strong feelings of vehemence.
If anything, our current range of curse words is disappointing in comparison. We often use the same 6 profane words over and over, more or less interchangeably and often in empty ways. It can show a lack of imagination and a smallness of thinking. It becomes its own kind of illiteracy- a shrinking of language and therefore of meaning and thought.
If anything we need MORE curse words that achieve higher levels of wit, inventiveness, anti-establishment irreverence and power. Words that debunk and show disregard of the sacred in a way that has more specificity of meaning.
Anya, give us some examples of how he placed those four-letter words in his work.
There are dozens of words that are the Elizabethan slang version of our f-word, such as Occupy, thump, cope and clap, the beast with two backs- this is just a small sampling, mind you. The female genitalia has many many slang words- including the word ‘nothing” (making you wonder about the title Much Ado About Nothing) as well as “box unseen” and “Netherlands”- there are countless words for the male organ, many of them very funny (such as the name “Roger”) as well as various versions of taking the lord’s name in vain, one being “Zwounds” which comes from the phrase “God’s Wounds” which is essentially swearing on the bleeding wounds of Christ and therefore very profane. The list goes on and on. Insults, of course, abound- such as “cankerblossom” which is accusing someone of having genital warts. “Mistress Kate Keepdown” is what you’d call a prostitute, a womanizer could be called a “fleshmonger” or an “underminer.”
One of my favorite masters of the profane in Shakespeare is Mercutio. He uses profanity not just for sport, but to try to help Romeo understand that his sickeningly sweet, naïve view of love is delusional and idiotic. He tells him:
Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?
now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art
thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature:
for this drivelling love is like a great natural,
that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.
Mercutio loves to debunk false gods. For him, there’s principle in using profanity. He’s anti-establishment, he’s a renegade, and he’s nobody’s fool. Especially not love’s fool. In the above passage he momentarily replaces our ideal of Love with an image of a totally mindless erection. For Mercutio, the image of the male erection is often useful in debunking falseness of all kinds: Romeo’s ideal of love, the Nurse’s airs of pretension.
Anya, in what other ways did Shakespeare slip profanity into his work?
As with all things Shakespeare, he used profanity to communicate multiple meanings. For example, when Hamlet says to Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery” it has two meanings (in my view). The first meaning is that he is telling her that he and all men are “arrant knaves all. Believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery” meaning: protect yourself, Ophelia! He sees she is being corrupted, and he’s saying: flee! The other meaning is that the word “nunnery” in Elizabethan England meant “brothel.” And as the scene grows more vitriolic and his target of rage switches from men to women (this upon discovering the presence of her father standing by, watching), this secondary meaning seems more likely. But the use of both the sacred (nunnery) with the profane (brothel) is classic Shakespeare. One doesn’t exist without the other. Truth is discovered through antithesis, paradox, contrasts.
Anya, what do you say to those who think that swearing shows a lack of ingenuity and education?
I guess I’ll be honest and say I personally find that a little bit classist. First of all, Shakespeare was an uneducated guy- mocked by a lot of the other Cambridge educated playwrights that were his contemporaries by not knowing enough Latin and Greek and so forth. So I think that equating education with ingenuity is a little bit morally dubious. My opinion aside, Shakespeare certainly does not equate high education and class with ingenuity in his writing. His natural sympathy with society’s underprivileged and his admiration for beerhall-style wit among the underclass is plain as day.
I think that you can use profanity- like anything- with ingenuity or without it. You can use it in a way that illuminates new truths, or that reduces existence to a cliché. It’s all about usage. About having something to say to begin with. I have read a lot on the subject of the shrinkage of our language. The length of our sentences is shrinking rapidly. We are slowly converting to what is now known as “Globish:” an international business language- a kind of pigeon English. The language of texting. Shorthand. Long emails are considered inappropriate. Our vocabulary is shrinking. And as our language shrinks, our thinking shrinks, since in human beings one cannot be separated from the other. I am frightened by the shrinking of language in any subject- sacred and profane and otherwise- and I’m grateful that we have Shakespeare and his grand scope of language and thought to help us keep hold of our human potential.
Anya, what do you think Shakespeare would make of all the swearing on TV, in the movies, and in music today?
You can get into a lot of trouble claiming to know what Shakespeare would say. I guess I imagine that he’d be an advocate of expanding the vocabulary- of using profane language as a way to articulate as yet unarticulated truths. I think he’d maybe want us to be detailed and inventive and let language grow and change and shock and undermine, and do its anti-establishment work when it can.