Shakespeare and sex jokes, Act II

How exactly did you think he became popular with the masses back in the time of the Plague?

Sometimes, there’s nothing more entertaining than Shakespeare.

I’m sure many of you would disagree with my assessment of the Bard, but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is not an event to be missed.

My wife and I make a trip almost every year, turning what I thought would be a one-and-done trip into an annual tradition.

I didn’t use to enjoy Shakespeare, but after my first experience seeing his plays live in an Elizabethan theatre ever built in the United States, I was officially hooked.

OK, that’s not the whole story. For me, the real allure of Shakespeare — after eight-plus years of schooling failed to instill an inkling of interest — is not his fancy verbiage, his story-telling techniques or his relatable characters, even in the modern day.

It’s the sex jokes.

I wrote about the prevalence of sexual humor in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in a column a few years ago, after my first trip to the festival. I was simply a lowly reporter then, with my editor Dennis watching over my shoulder to make sure my shadows did not offend.

But my elderly emender has exited stage left, leaving me to my own devices to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue this time around.

Yes, Shakespeare was all about crude humor. How exactly did you think he became popular with the masses back in the time of the Plague? If I had to stand for four hours with the rest of the unwashed peasantry to watch an all-male rendition of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” there had better be something to keep my interest.

A great place to start is with my favorite of the his plays, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of this comedy of mishaps, here’s the gist — Lord Leonato throws a huge shindig for Don Pedro, a prince and leader of the army, and his men after a victorious war. Benedict, one of Don Pedro’s right hand men, and Claudio, a good friend of Benedict’s, are in attendance, along with Leonato’s niece Beatrice and his daughter Hero.

Claudio and Hero fall in love immediately and want marry, but Benedict and Beatrice can’t stand each other, at least until the rest of the partygoers trick Benedict into believing Beatrice secretly loves him, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, Don John — Leonato’s traitor brother, who was brought to the party as a prisoner of war (because giving alcohol to the convicted war criminal is a great idea) — is an complete drama queen who decides to try and wreck Claudio and Hero’s courtship for no better reason than he’s bored out of his skull.

The live performance I saw at OSF was mind blowing, and will most likely remain my favorite performance. But the play is so versatile, and has so many various themes and styles directors can play up or down, that other interpretations of the same play can be vastly different. For example, David Tennant and Catherine Tate’s production is very light-hearted, sarcastic, and even slapstick, while Joss Whedon’s version portrayed the party less like a rager and more of like a gathering of socialites, emphasizing budding relationships and romance instead of going for the cheap laugh, but still retaining immense wit.

But I digress… back to the sex.

Obviously, there are tons of hidden double entendres in a romantic comedy. The morning before the wedding, a handmaid jokes Hero’s heart will soon be made “heavier by the weight of a man,” and Beatrice, when describing Benedict to her friends and family, refers to him as “Signor Montanto.”

(A Montanto is an upward thrust in fencing. We’re 30 lines into the play, and we already have a penis joke. Roll credits, folks.)

But that’s nothing compared to the pun embedded in the title.

On it’s face, the phrase “Much Ado About Nothing” seems to be pretty simple — all it means is a big fuss for no reason, right?

Nope. As it turns out, “Nothing,” was slang for vagina in Shakespearian times (think about it for a second). In the middle of the play, Don John tricks everyone into believing Hero was not faithful to her betrothed, and the wedding is called off in a dramatic fashion because everyone is in a tizzy about Hero’s lady bits.

But of course a play like “Much Ado” is going to have sex jokes — sex has always been a good source of humor. So what about one of Bill’s less happy-go-lucky plays, like “Hamlet”? (Or as I like to call it, “Fun Times in Murder Central.”)

When Hamlet, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz reconnect in Act II, Scene II, Hamlet asks how they’re doing. Guildenstern replies they’re so-so; they are neither “on fortune’s cap” or on “the soles of her shoes.”

Hamlet: “Then you live about her waist then, or in the middle of her favours?” / Guildenstern: “‘Faith, her privates we.” / Hamlet: “In the secret parts of fortune? O, most true; she is a strumpet.”

Yes, even in the 1500s, college frat bros bragged about having sex with attractive women, literally or figuratively. It’s a tradition that’ll never cease.

Unfortunately, neither will the habit of harassing women with sex jokes, though the one in Act III Scene II may arguably be one of Shakespeare’s most cleverly hidden wisecracks.

Hamlet: “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” / Ophelia: “No, my lord.” / Hamlet: “I mean, my head upon your lap?” / Ophelia: “Ay, my lord.” / Hamlet: “Do you think I meant country matters?” / Ophelia: “I think nothing, my lord.” / Hamlet: “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.” / Ophelia: “What is, my lord?” / Hamlet: “Nothing.”

Already you notice the Prince of Denmark’s play on words when he says, “nothing,” clueing you in that this is a less innocent, and more conjugal, conversation (at least for the hormonal Hamlet).

But the genius of this exchange lies in the iambic pentameter, which in good Shakespeare productions, is not usually said out loud during performances, but inferred by the audience.

Iambic pentameter follows a beat; a weak emphasis on the first syllable, followed by a strong one — da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, like a heartbeat. For example: “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?”

Most of the time, iambic pentameter is just a way to maintain a natural, flowing conversation in a script. But in this case, if you follow the pattern through Hamlet and Ophelia’s conversation, you’ll learn exactly what he means by “country matters.”

Of course, there’s so much more to Shakespeare than sex — racism and rage, romance and jealousy, tragedy and joy — that modern audiences of any age can understand on various emotional levels. There are innumerable good reasons why his plays have stuck around for more than 500 years, and exactly none of them have to do with stuffy white guys in starched-collared shirts over-enunciating a soliloquy to a skull.

(Alas, poor Yorrick, having share the spotlight with one so loathsome as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet).

Shakespeare is for everyone, so if you think that you, too, could learn to enjoy his genius and are only lacking some direction, the gutter is a great place to start.