Shakespeare and sex jokes, Act IV

This time, we take a look at “King Lear”.

Alas, if only my love for Shakespeare would have been enough “to drive infection from the dangerous year.”

But it appears The Bard must once again suffer a quarantine.

If you haven’t read up on why I focus on sex jokes in Shakespeare’s works (and other plays put on by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), I hope you’ll read Act I, Act II, and Act III before continuing.

But if you don’t have that sort of time (and, quite frankly, who does anymore?) the long and short of it is that I never enjoyed Shakespeare until my wife, an avid student (and teacher) of his works, told me he wrote “your momma” jokes into his plays. My life has never been the same since.

And though our annual voyage to the Festival was cancelled due to the coronavirus, “the show must go on,” as the theatre world is wont to say.

Fun fact about pandemics: Shakespeare was born months before a huge outbreak of the Black Plague in 1564, where up to a fourth of his city’s population died. And, when he had reached the zenith of his fame, the Globe was shut down by plague for a total 78 months between 1603 and 1613 — “The cause of plagues is sin, and the cause of sin is plays,” one preacher said at the time.

It’s during this time that Shakespeare supposedly wrote King Lear, easily one of his most tragic… well, tragedies, possibly because the pandemic that continually plagued his life was weighing heavily on his mind.

But even a story as bloody and mad as Lear’s has some bawdy content, even right out of the gate.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, King Lear unsuccessfully attempts to split his kingdom into three parts for his three daughters. Two are grateful and offer him praise (though they’re lying through their teeth); the third offers him the truth of her very real, but underwhelming love (at least compared to her older sisters’), and is banished.

Lear attempts to visit his two “faithful” daughters, but finds that now that they have power of their own, no longer want to care for their father. Forced into the wilderness, Lear goes mad, but eventually finds the daughter that loved him truly as she is leading an army against her sisters’ husbands. Sadly, Lear succumbs to his madness, and his faithful daughter executed.

But the story is as much about the villain Edmund as it is Lear (he’s the best villain of any story, my wife wants you to know).

He’s introduced in Act I, Scene I, thusly by his father:

“… this knave came something saucily into the/world before he was sent for, yet was his mother/fair; there was good sport at his making, and the/whoreson must be acknowledged.”

This is not a one-off conversation — apparently, Edmund is used to being introduced as “whoreson” or his existence explained by his father saying “I have so often blushed to acknowledge him,” to any and every person his father forces him to meet.

It’s no wonder Edmund is a villain. I mean, wouldn’t you like to see the world burn if you received no respect from your father, his friends, or your older brother, who is set to inherit everything while you’re left out in the cold? I would think so.

But what’s interesting here is that while Edmund is defensive about his status in society, he also revels in it, turning the political logic of illegitimacy on its head.

”Why bastard? wherefore base?/When my dimensions are as well compact,/My mind as generous, and my shape as true,/As honest madam’s issue?/Why brand they us/With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?/Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take/More composition and fierce quality/Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,/Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,/Got ‘tween asleep and wake?”

Edmund believes himself to be his older brother’s superior; Edmund was created in “lusty stealth”, which he poses is far more legitimate than his older brother’s conception in “a dull, stale, tired bed.”

Eventually, Edmund meets up with Lear’s unfaithful daughters, Goneril and Regan, and they fall in love with him, though it’s clear Edmund is only using them for his own ends.

Yes, their names are based off an STD. Think about it… Goneril and Regan. Goneril Regan. GonerRegan. Gonorrhea!

(I have no idea if that is actually true — however, I do know that a Greek doctor used the term “gonorrhoeae” long before Shakespeare uttered the word on stage, so I’m going to decide this joke was 100 percent on purpose.)

And boy, let me tell you, these two are suitably named; beyond the abhorrent way they treat their father, Edmund describes Goneril as “a disease that’s in my flesh … a bile,/A plague-sore, or an embossed carbuncle,/In my corrupted blood” and says doctors should “anatomise Regan; see what breeds about her heart.”

Of course, Edmund doesn’t let on that he secretly loathes these two, and instead, leads them on with some rather saucy talk.

“This kiss, if it durst speak, / Would stretch thy spirits up into the air. / Conceive, and fare thee well,” Goneril says to Edmund in Act IV.

Obviously, the word “conceive” has a double meaning, but you wouldn’t understand what it was referring to unless you knew that “spirit” was also a euphemism for semen, turning the phrase from what could be a chaste goodbye into a sultry “I’ll kiss you so good you’ll erupt and knock me up.”

Gross, dude.

Not to be outdone, Edmund replies, “Yours in the ranks of death.”

Many could take this to mean, “I’ll be yours until I die,” but there’s a double meaning originates with the word “rank” — in this case meaning dirty, in a sexual fashion — and “death” — an old substitution for orgasm. This turns a simple, even honorable one-liner into “I’ll be yours… so long as you continue to rock my world.” Guess how long that lasts?

If you’ve never watched King Lear, or you want to check it out again now that you’re more aware of its sexual politics and explicit content, I would urge you to watch Ian McKellen’s rendition on Amazon Prime — it’s a masterpiece.

And even though COVID-19 has shut down OSF, you can still head to to check out what’s playing on O!, including interactive conversations about performances, queer artists, cast reunions, and access to digital storytelling, online classes, educational materials, and behind-the-scenes footage.

So adieu, my Shakespearian deviants, until next year, and remember — stand up for bastards!

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