How does one introduce Shakespeare to teenagers? As soon as you mention the name of the famous playwright in a classroom, most students react in a Pavlovian fashion and tune out the lesson. I know, because I was one of them. Ever since reading Hamlet in the seventh grade, I never thought I’d really understand, let alone like, Shakespeare’s plays.
But then I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and, suddenly, all I thought I knew about the 400-year-old dead white dude flew out the proverbial window.
My girlfriend, a major fan of the Bard, helped this miracle in no small part, and I’m sure she would attest to my recalcitrant attitude toward anything related to Shakespeare if asked.
So when her history lessons failed, when all the cajoling and flattering and the encouragement that I would like his plays if I would just give them a chance fell on deaf ears, she turned to me one day and said, “Did you know Shakespeare wrote one of the oldest ‘your mom’ jokes?”
To give you a frame of reference for how quickly and intently I started paying attention, do you remember the first time you heard your teacher swear in class? It was exactly like that.
And she wasn’t giving me click-bait either. Shakespeare really did write a “your mom” joke into “Titus Andronicus,” act 4, scene 2.
Chiron: “Thou hast undone our mother.”/Aaron: “Villain, I have done thy mother.”
I won’t get into the specifics of the story, but yes, what you just read was Shakespeare making a punny joke about Chiron’s mother – not bad for a 400-year-old dead white dude.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence, either. All of Shakespeare’s plays, and even some of his sonnets, contain jokes, puns and veiled references to sex. We just don’t notice because we assume Shakespeare is all posh and plot instead of inappropriate and occasionally obscene (thanks for nothing, Laurence Olivier).
So I’m passing on the same wise words my girlfriend said to me that finally got me interested in Shakespeare. If you think Shakespeare is tedious, monotonous and one corner short of a pentagon, or you just need to be pointed in the right direction to find something you can get interested in, these words are for you; “Shakespeare is full of sex.”
So why did Shakespeare weave all of these after-hour references into his classical works? Because he wasn’t just writing for the nobles and upper class who enjoyed plot and drama – he also wrote for the peasants and the uneducated working class, who enjoyed putting up their feet (metaphorically, because they all had to stand to see his plays) and have a good time laughing at inappropriate jokes. Shakespeare’s humor, decent or crass, is one of the many reasons people in 16th century England were able to emotionally connect to his plays.
But Shakespeare didn’t just put sex jokes into his plays to make them entertaining for the unwashed masses – occasionally, he’d write them just for himself (or some other lucky person), like in Sonnet 151.
“Love is too young to know what conscience is;/Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?/Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,/Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove./For thou betraying me, I do betray/My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;/My soul doth tell my body that he may/Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,/But rising at thy name, doth point out thee/As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,/He is contented thy poor drudge to be,/To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side./No want of conscience hold it that I call/Her ‘love,’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.”
I might have actually paid more than the minimum amount of attention necessary during my English Shakespeare lessons if I knew half the stuff he wrote could be considered literary pornography.
So to all the high schoolers reading this, you are now well armed to tackle what you thought was going to be another semester of doldrums reading Shakespeare (think about all the fun you could have writing final papers now).
The same goes for you teachers and professors out there – there’s absolutely no reason to be boring while covering Shakespeare. His works have survived for 400 years for many reasons; his stories can have us rolling on the floor laughing or bawling in our seats, and his sonnets have practically become the definition of romance and love (yes, even the one you just read). But the main reason his work is still widely studied and taught, in my humble opinion, is because they’re relatable, no matter who you are or what time period you’ve been born in.
That, and sex jokes will never, ever get old.