'The plays are absolutely packed with filth,' said academic Héloïse Sénéchal. 'I've found more than a hundred terms for vagina alone.' That the author of As You Like It would, were he alive today, be writing for Viz magazine is implied by Sénéchal's research for the footnotes of a new Royal Shakespeare Company edition of his complete works which promises to be the most candid ever.She claims that previous editions of Shakespeare have been too prudish, and that by using computer techniques she has uncovered unrecognised double entendres. These were aimed at the working classes who crowded into the Globe in London for their fill of bawdy entertainment. Sénéchal has identified seemingly innocuous words such as carrot, pencil and horn as terms for penis, while she pinpoints pie, fruit dish and 'buggle boe' as references to the vagina.
'We are trying to resist the cultural embarrassment that has permeated footnotes in the past,' she said. 'Shakespeare is now an institution, and there is an assumption, especially in schools, that he was using high rhetoric. But the majority of his audience were labourers, craftsmen, ordinary people being catered for in a popular way. They were as smutty-minded then as we are now.'
An example, according to Sénéchal, is A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 5, scene 1. Flute, playing Thisbe in the mechanicals' play, laments that a wall separates 'her' from her lover, Pyramus:
Flute: O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans
For parting my fair Pyramus and me.
My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones, [meaning either mortar or testicles]
Thy stones with lime [puns on 'limb', ie penis] and hair [plays on sense of 'pubic hair'] knit up in thee
A few lines later, Thisbe tries to kiss Pyramus, but cries: I kiss the wall's hole [gap/anus], not your lips at all!
Shakespeare has been accused of risqué humour before. Dr Johnson deemed A Midsummer Night's Dream not the sort of play Elizabeth I should have seen. In the 19th century Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler produced an edition that censored expressions 'which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family'. But the topic has been increasingly fashionable since the publication in 1947 of Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge. One essay was entitled 'Bestial Buggery in A Midsummer Night's Dream'. On stage, audiences have enjoyed - or endured - numerous productions with a lewd emphasis. A current production of Measure for Measure at the National Theatre has an aroused Angelo exclaiming, 'What's this?' as he clutches his crotch.
The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works, to be published by Macmillan next year, wears its frankness on its sleeve. Its general editor, Jonathan Bate, Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at Warwick University, said: 'The greatness of Shakespeare comes from his capacity to confront every aspect of human experience and in particular to hold together the great paradoxes of our being - love is one of our highest aspirations, while sex is one of our basic biological instincts, yet the two go intimately together.'
But Professor Stanley Wells, author of Looking for Sex in Shakespeare, said: 'If the best thing you can say about a new edition is that it's filthy, it doesn't say a lot. It's a gimmick, an attempt to grab attention.'
Smut by any other name
Sénéchal found many previously unidentified double entendres in Shakespeare's works. Here are examples from Romeo and Juliet (II, iv)
Mercutio O here's a wit [penis] of cheveril, that stretches from an inch narrow to an ell broad [45in, or a large penis]!
Romeo I stretch it out for that word 'broad'; which added to the goose [whore] proves thee far and wide a broad goose.
Mercutio Why, is not this better now than groaning [sexually] for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature: for this drivelling [dripping] love is like a great natural, that runs lolling [with tongue or penis out] up and down to hide his bauble [fool's baton or penis] in a hole [vagina].
Benvolio Stop [cease or stuff it in] there, stop there.