Radical Shakespeare: Why do we get him so wrong?

By Pauline Kiernan

A timely study which restores the revolutionary message of Shakespeare's art.

Wednesday, 7 June 2023


At least Shakespeare, when looking back to those hours of boredom learning Latin at school could turn the experience into a scene so comic, so ridiculous, so risqué, he surely must have brought the house down with this scene. I like to imagine him having a laugh with every word he wrote.
A fellow playwright, Ben Jonson, mocked Shakespeare’s ‘small Latin, less Greek’, but it is as well to bear in mind that when Shakespeare left school his standard of Latin would have been the equivalent of a university honours graduate’s today.
Shakespeare would have spent twelve hours a day at school, six days a week, twelve months of the year. Lessons started at 6 a.m. (7 a.m. in winter) and went on until 11 a.m., with a short pause for breakfast. Work began again at 1 p.m. and lasted until 6 p.m. Apart from instruction in the articles of the Christian faith, all lessons would have consisted of Latin study – a gruelling schedule of vocabulary and grammar, and analysis and imitation of Classical texts.
Through the schoolboy, Shakespeare is clearly exacting retribution for the interminable days spent inside the schoolroom of his childhood, where he must have shared such dirty jokes in surreptitious whispers with his schoolmates behind the master’s back.
The Vagina Dialogues
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Act 4. Scene 1
The only time we actually hear the word ‘fuck’ in Shakespeare is here, in a wonderfully obscene mock-lesson in Latin grammar in which the Welsh accent of a schoolmaster pronounces the letter ‘v’ in the word ‘vocative’ as an ‘f’, and the word is sounded loud and clear.
Shakespeare creates a whole scene revolving around the sexual connotations of Latin word endings. These change in form depending on their ‘case’ – that is, their grammatical function within the sentence. The nominative case, for instance, expresses the subject of a statement (‘Shakespeare is a playwright’), while the accusative case expresses the direct object of a verb (‘Shakespeare wrote plays’). The vocative case, with which Shakespeare makes great play here, is used to address someone or something in direct speech (‘O Shakespeare! Write a filthy play!’)
The lewdness of the scene is increased by the repetition of the letter ‘O’ which, like any word to do with circles or holes, was one of the commonest punning terms for female genitals in Shakespeare’s day. The lewd meaning of ‘O’ is reinforced by the frequent appearances of the word ‘case’, which also meant ‘cunt’.
Throughout the scene the schoolmaster is comically unaware of the sexual subtext of what he’s saying. The schoolboy, meanwhile, is loving every minute of pronouncing the obscenities and Shakespeare’s implied stage direction to the actor means he’s stifling naughty-schoolboy sniggers.
Here he is then, the schoolboy tellingly-named William, turning a boring Latin grammar lesson into a gloriously indecent feast of sexual puns.
EVANS … What is he, William, that does lend articles?
WILLIAM Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus declined …
‘hic, haec, hoc’.
EVANS. … What is the focative case, William?
WILLIAM O – vocativo, O –
EVANS Remember, William, focative is caret...
What is your genitive case plural, William?
WILLIAM Genitive case?
WILLIAM Genitivo: ‘horum, harum, horum’.
EVANS What is he, William, that bends his genitals for fucking?
WILLIAM Genitals are borrowed of the pronoun and are thus declined:
‘he fucks, she fucks, it fucks’.
EVANS What is the fucking vagina, William?
WILLIAM Cunt – vocativ-Cunt, Cunt –
EVANS Remember, William, focative is penis. What is your genitive case plural, William?
WILLIAM The genitals’ genital?
Genitiv-Cunt: ‘of masculine whores, of feminine whores, of ‘neuter’ whores’.
Lend. To bend over for sex.
Articles. Genitals.
Hic, haec, hoc. The masculine, feminine and neuter forms of ‘this’ in Latin, punning on the English words ‘hick’ and ‘hack’, which in Shakespeare’s time meant ‘bonk’ or ‘shag’.
Caret. Carrot. i.e. a penis.
Case. Vagina, cunt.
Genitive. Genitals.
Horum. Whore.
The repetition of puns on genitals, together with William’s increasing daring in his mockery of the schoolmaster, suggests that the audience would have imagined the subtext to become progressively more indecent – from genitals, to vagina, to cunt.
- The grammar school in Stratford, which is almost certainly where Shakespeare learnt the great Latin writers, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, etc
- A 1575 book of Horace’s work in Latin (which one academic believes belonged to WS)

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