[The Angry Grammarian] King leer

Parsing the Bard’s bawdiness

Jeffrey Barg

If only high-schoolers knew how much sex Pauline Kiernan found in Shakespeare.

You might think you know a lot of vulgar slang, but the Bard used more than 700 punning words and phrases on sex. Seven hundred. Handy for us, they—along with the more than 180 female-genital puns and 200-plus male-genital puns—are compiled in the appendix of Kiernan’s brilliant new Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns.

“The C-word was a lot more prevalent in Shakespeare’s day,” Kiernan says on the phone from England. “Anything with ‘c-o-n-’ or ‘c-o-u-n-t-,’ like ‘country,’ is nearly always a pun on the C-word. Hamlet actually says to Ophelia, ‘Do you think I meant country matters?’ The whole dialogue is about her genitals.”

True to her subject matter, Kiernan, a Ph.D. from Oxford, swears like a sailor, and has arranged her chapters with titles like “Pertaining to F--king,” “Pertaining to Cunnilingus,” “Pertaining to the Clap” and so on. She walks through Shakespeare line by line, translating his sexual puns as his audiences would’ve heard them.

So when, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck intones, “When she drinks, against her lips I bob, and on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale,” he’s actually saying, “When she drinks, I wank against her c--t, and ejaculate my spunk on her shriveled-up c--t lips.”

“Shakespeare just didn’t have enough words to express what he wanted to express,” says Kiernan. “He got a bit bored with the vocabulary available to him and thought, ‘Well, I’ll make up some new ones.’” Scholars estimate he invented about 3,000 new words.

Kiernan says American and British academics are compiling a language database of the French and Italian dictionaries of the time, many of which predate English dictionaries, and are expecting to uncover literally thousands more sexual puns by the time they’re finished. It’s not such a surprise when you consider just about everyone in Shakespeare’s day was walking around with either VD or the plague.

“He used sexual puns not just for funny laughs, but to explore quite difficult, big issues,” she says. “People use language to disguise the cruel facts of life.”

Hear the full Pauline Kiernan interview in this week’s Angry Grammarian podcast. Subscribe free at

  • Get More Stories from Thu, Oct 25, 2007
Top of Story