One might expect the sort of things gleaned from working in a place like the Folger Shakespeare Library reading room to be rather erudite, if not downright stodgy. But more than once I’ve come across information that reaffirms what rascals some of the early modern writers can be.
Not all of them, of course. For example, I’ve been studying books on witchcraft printed in the sixteenth century. One of my first concerns has been whether it is more appropriate, when I’m quoting from a text, to reproduce the wacky words, characters, and punctuation? Or should I modernize the archaic spelling and other obsolete typographical elements, and save some time? Take the following passage from the English translation of Lambert Daneau’s A Dialogue of Witches (1575):
Getting used to reading through the long “s,” the extra “e” on words (“meanes,” “arte”), the other extra letters (“magicall”), the different vowel representations (“lyke”) hasn’t been too hard. And the old thorn with a superscript “e” (for “the”) is kind of fun. New to me, though, was the practice of omitting the “m” or “n” (known as “minims”) and indicating the absence with a wavy or straight line over the preceding letter. This happens twice above: with whõ (whom) and cõquest (conquest).
Now, not too long ago, I posted a short comment about the bawdy word-play in Twelfth Night’s Box Tree scene. (You know where this is going.) In it, Malvolio thinks he recognizes Olivia’s handwriting, commenting:
"By my life, this is my lady's hand! These be here very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus makes she her great P's."
Would that be c-ũ-t?
It’s a stretch, because the audience is hearing the letters, not seeing them, and the effectiveness of the joke would rely on the audience’s familiarity with typography. Alfred Harbage argues in Shakespeare’s Audience, that “it seems probable that the rank and file were more literate in the sixteenth century than in the eighteenth. In view of the profusion of schools, of the tendency of the trade guilds to make literacy a qualification even for entrance into apprenticeship, and of the manifest interest in self-instruction, we must revise any impressions we may ever have had that London workmen were ‘nine-tenths illiterate’” (146-147).
Further, Harbage footnotes L. C. Knights’ comment about the most of the Globe’s spectators being “likely to have received an education of the Grammar school type.” At this point I’d like to check the type in one of those 10,000 copies of The A B C and Little Catechism primer Harbage says were distributed in 1585. But that’s not my topic, and my library time is too limited for the quixotic substantiation of dirty jokes.
But the more I think about it, the more I’m sure Shakespeare is indulging his inner rascal, perhaps appropriately in a play that pokes so much fun at puritanical natures. As a teaching artist from the Acting Company told my class a couple years ago, in Shakespeare, “if it sounds dirty, it probably is.”
This surprises students. Really, I think time tends to misapply a patina of decorum to popular texts. We are sure if something is old or complex or revered, it must be above populist humor or prurience. Even when a text is serious, these moments aren’t hard to find. I just finished John Marston’s The Wonder of Women, or the Tragedy of Sophonisba (ca. 1605). In it Syphax, an evil king, conjures up a witch named Erictho from whom he wants a spell that will enchant the chaste heroine, Sophonisba, into his bed. Erictho describes her home, once a temple to Jove, but now in ruins, its hymns replaced by the ominous noises of jackdaws, crows, ravens, and magpies, and “Where statues and Jove’s acts were vively limned,/ Boys with black coals draw the veiled parts of nature/ And lecherous actions of imagined lust” (4.1.153-155).
Yeah, I don’t have to travel to ancient Libya to see that. The same images decorate the boys’ toilet stalls at my school. I just didn’t expect to find phallic graffiti in the middle of a speech in my Marston, any more than I expected to find yonic imagery in Shakespeare.
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