Elizabethan audiences loved it when the characters they were watching on the stage said something sexually suggestive. The double entendres were often more effective than today as the audiences were more aware of language than we are. Our response to multiple meanings has been dulled by the sheer volume of language we’re bombarded with, the move towards more explicit speech, and the increasing importance of moving images at the expense of the spoken word.
Shakespeare seemed to love titillating his audiences with double meanings, innuendos and, at times, sheer outright unambiguous sexual declarations. Here we’ve pulled together some of Shakespeare’s dirtiest lines… prepare yourself!
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
Hamlet: Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?
Guildenstern: Faith, her privates we.
Hamlet: In the secret parts of Fortune?
Hamlet is a character who frequently expresses himself in a sexually way. Here Hamlet is discussion with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz about how they are turns into an innuendo-ladened riff on how they’re dealing with fate… only in Shakespeare!
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2
Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: Did you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Top of Hamlet’s list of sex talk is this line, when he sits on a cushion beside Ophelia, settling down to watch the play within a play. His words are particularly obscene once you know that ‘nothing’ was slang in the Elizabethan era for a lady’s private parts, and that ‘country’ was likely pronounced with a large emphasis on the first syllable!
Much Ado About Nothing, Act 5, Scene 2
Benedick: I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.
On the face of it a deep and romantic line from Benedick… until you know that to ‘die’ in Elizabethan England was slang for an orgasm. And remember what ‘nothing’ was slang for? Puts the title of this play into a whole new perspective!
Venus and Adonis (poem)
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
Need we explain this overtly sexual reference from one of Shakespeare’s poems?
Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 3
Nurse: Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit.
Juliet’s nurse is prattling on about what Juliet was like as a toddler. She recalls how the child would constantly fall on her face as she was learning to walk. But now, as she matures, she is more likely to fall on her back… whatever could she mean?
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 1
Mercutio: 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! Oh, that she were
An open arse, and thou a poperin pear.
The young men in Romeo and Juliet are highly sexual, and here Mercutio is joking with Romeo who has been smitten by Rosaline, a girl he has seen and can’t stop thinking about her. Mercutio tells Romeo to find a girl who’s like a medlar fruit – known at the time as ‘open arse’ – and for Romeo to be a ‘poperin pear’. Strong case for the dirtiest line in Shakespeare!
Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 3
Juliet: O happy dagger! This is thy sheath! There rust and let me die.
Most Shakespeare readers agree that Juliet’s line as she stabs herself involves two puns. One on ‘sheath’ – the Latin word for a vagina – and again using the Elizabethan slang for orgasm, ‘die’. Read in this light Juliet’s final words are both tragic, and dramatic innuendo.
Othello, Act 1, Scene 1
Iago: I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.
Iago is out to get Othello, and runs to tell Desdemona’s father that she has married him. This graphic description is yet another one of Shakespeare’s unique phrases that’s still in common use today – as a euphemism for sex.
The Taming of the Shrew, Act 2, Scene 1
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
Katharina: In his tongue.
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Katharina: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail?
No explanation needed for this dirty quip, is there?
Titus Andronicus, Act 4, Scene 2
Chiron: Thou has undone our mother.
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.
Chiron doesn’t know that the villainous Aaron has been having an affair with his mother, but Aaron lets slip here in a classic Shakespeare insult.
Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 3
Sir Andrew: But it becomes me well enough, does ’t not?
Sir Toby Belch: Excellent; it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I
hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs
Here the somewhat vain Sir Andrew Aguecheek fishes for compliments from his friend and tormentor, Sir Toby Belch, about his hair, but instead gets a put-down, together with a naughty suggestion.
Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5
Malvolio: By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s, and thus makes she her great P’s.
Malvolio is reading a letter that has been planted for him as a practical joke and which he believes comes from Olivia. It’s probably Shakespeare’s most crude linguistic joke, as the line would have been read, ‘her very C’s, her U’s, ‘n’ her T’s,’ and the Elizabethan audience would have been quick to understand what was being spelled out. And Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he adds an extra chuckle with the additional toilet-humour line of making great P’s!
What do you think of Shakespeare’s dirtiest jokes? Any that you don’t understand, or that we’re missing? Let us know in the comments below!
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I plan to put on All’s Well That Ends Well, and I have already submitted a package to the theater board to see if they’ll bite. I translated the whole play into modern English so even unexperienced actors can get a good grip on the play as they transition into the original. I came across a LOT of sex jokes — so many that I was thinking, “God help us, another sex joke.” One of my favorites is after Bertram abandons his wife to go and fight a war. Lavatch says of him that if he keeps running away, he’ll survive the war: “The danger is in standing to’t: that’s the loss of men, though it be the getting of children.” I translated that as: “There’s danger in standing up straight. In battle, it leads to men being killed, but in life, it means children are born, if only things can be made to stand up straight.”