The Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare’s "King Lear" and "As You Like It"

Seminar Paper, 2005

16 Pages, Grade: 2,2


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Short Survey of the Language of Shakespeare’s Time - Early Modern English

3 Shakespeare’s Language – Wordplays and Puns

4 The Use of Bawdy in King Lear and As You Like It
4.1 Bawdy in King Lear
4.2 Bawdy in As You Like It
4.3 A Comparison: The Different Treatment of Bawdy

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used many different meanings and connotations of a single word and a whole range of words appropriate for describing certain subjects to create bawdy puns and allusions on sexual issues in his dramas. It is the concern of this essay to examine the subject of ‘bawdiness’ more closely and to work out, why, how and through whom Shakespeare made use of bawdy puns. These results may give some insights into Shakespeare’s thoughts about gender roles, his relationship to sexuality in general and how he thought about the Elizabethan audience’s reaction towards his strong sexual treatment. The first two parts of this essay will provide a short survey of the Early Modern English of the common people in 1600 and will later on particularly examine Shakespeare’s use of witty and insulting language. Part four will present a table with ‘bawdy’ examples out of the two plays of Shakespeare, ‘King Lear’ and ‘As you like it ’ with particular attention to the position when and by whom the pun is uttered. Grounding on the examples, the third part of section four will make a comparison between the uses of bawdy in tragedies and comedies and will work out differences, similarities and the profound line of reasoning behind it. The closing part of this essay, part five, offers some main conclusions and thoughts about the topic of ‘bawdiness’ in ‘King Lear’ and ‘As you like it’.

2 A Short Survey of the Language of Shakespeare’s Time

“It is frequently claimed that Shakespeare was fortunate to live at the time he did because English was then both fluid and rich.”[1] The language of 1600 was until then relatively stable but started to undergo certain changes and reforms. In those days Early Modern English was mainly influenced by the rising interest in humanism and the study of the old classical languages, which brought about many changes into the language of 1600. The Elizabethan language made use of intensive borrowing of vocabulary within the areas of science and medicine. The increasing interest in classical Latin also made it possible that many words from Latin and many foreign words found their way into the English language. But Shakespeare and his contemporaries were still quarreling about some inadequacies of the language. English, for example, lacked in word order and in uniformity of spelling and pronunciation. There was an urgent need to adjust the vocabulary to the new needs of discoveries in science and to standardize the English language. A great demand for an orthographic reform emerged. Although there was a great interest in language, that interest was mostly directed towards other languages (Latin, Greek) than English. In addition, the most approved language was the one which was most artificial. It rarely met with the language of the ordinary people, except for certain rhetorical precepts to which people could respond. Nevertheless, writers were conscious of the need to elevate language. Two major improvements had to be made. The first was that of expanding the word stock by foreign loanwords and to advance vocabulary. “Poets and dramatists vied with one another to see who could introduce the most obscure and high-sounding words.”[2] Shakespeare was seen as a master in that competition, as we will see later on. The second method was to enrich the language through the use of wordplays, including puns. Through that second method certain colloquial and informal levels of speech were established. Punning was used to show the expressiveness of the English language and it was used by Shakespeare to impress his readership. But due to a more accurate investigation to English in the middle of the 17th century, the use of wordplays and puns gradually diminished. However, the Elizabethan’s were rather concerned with sound and writing than with syntax and the propriety in vocabulary. Shakespeare took up this current theme in his dramas and while making use of a variety of rhetorical figures he also criticized its excesses. Not only has that made Shakespeare’s language difficult to understand, as one will see in the following chapters, it made it very unique as well.

3 Shakespeare’s Language – Wordplays and Puns

Shakespeare was a master of using wordplays and puns for public amusement and by doing so he was very innovative. As one will see in the comparison between the two plays, puns are more often used in comical plays than in tragedies or histories, where they help to pass the time pleasurably, bridge the more informative scenes and emphasize the comical elements. It was not unusual in the Renaissance period to talk about sexuality in public because sexuality was no taboo topic as it had been in the Victorian Age. But it can be doubted that the Elizabethan audience realized every allusive pun, although they should have been more familiar with these expressions than the modern reader. For the reader of the 21st century these puns are even harder to identify, because they are of course not very much accustomed to the Elizabethan language. Shakespeare used a variety of expressions for sexual parts of the body and actions related to sexual organs. But he also offers a great collection of swear words and curses besides the rich vocabulary concerning crime, violence and sex, as the example of Kent and Oswald shows.

Oswald. What dost thou know me for? Kent . A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; ... a whoreson, one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a ... beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.[3]

“It often comes as a shock to many people when they realize how obscene Shakespeare can be, for they had regarded him as ‘safe’.”[4] Many of the obscene words (thing, line, forehead, nest) are unimaginable for nowadays usage, because they seem to be ordinary words and not really appropriate for sexual allusions. However, Shakespeare and his contemporaries had extreme pleasure in making up very unusual words, or using ordinary words as insults. Often “words may not make surface grammatical sense in Shakespeare’s works because he often preferred to develop a witty sound effect since at that time such effects were more admired than grammatical logic.”[5] Dialectal or vulgar pronunciations sometimes form the basis of puns. Shakespeare often uses semantic puns in which a word has two or more different senses. As already mentioned, the word may be a very common one and therefore hard to identify as a pun (for example pipe, rose, mountain and fountain). In Shakespeare’s dramas a pun does not necessarily stand for a joke, it can also be a way of adding further information to a statement. “Part of the fascination of Shakespeare’s use of language is his capacity for ‘unmetaphoring’ common usages.”[6] Shakespeare is well known as an active user of bawdy puns in his plays which may be one out of several characteristics that make his plays so special and hard to understand for the modern reader. Versatility and variation are the basis of Shakespeare’s witty allusions. Eric Partridge was the first scholar who investigated the subject of bawdiness in Shakespeare’s plays. In “Shakespeare’s Bawdy”[7] one can find not a complete, but very manifold list of bawdy expression from Shakespeare’s dramas. I would like to close part three with the following definition from the Collins Cobuild Dictionary: “A bawdy joke contains humorous references to sex.”[8] Throughout his life Shakespeare never lost his interest and humour in sexual issues, this topic constantly reappears in all his dramas.

4 The Use of Bawdy in King Lear and As You Like It

Elizabethans had a strong interest in bawdy, but the language of bawdy changed so quickly that many allusions of that kind are lost nowadays. Nevertheless, it is possible for the modern reader to find various expressions of bawdy in Shakespeare’s plays. The following examples do not have the claim of completeness, but demonstrate the wide range of the use bawdy in Shakespearean dramas. With the help of Partridge and Williams one can erect the following table, which is divided into three parts, namely i) the Bawdy expression, ii) location in the drama and its meaning, iii) speaker of the utterance. The expressions are listed according to their sequence in the drama. As primary literature functioned the Arden Version of As You Like It[9] and King Lear[10]. Hence, all the references to the examples are from these editions.


[1] Cf. Blake Norman Francis, The Language of Shakespeare (London 1993),p. 15

[2] Ibid., 19

[3] Shakespeare, King Lear, II.ii.11-19

[4] Cf. Blake, 27

[5] Cf. Blake, 27

[6] Cf. Wells, p.334

[7] Cf. Partridge Eric, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, London 2001

[8] Cf. Cobuild, p. 73

[9] Cf. Shakespeare, William, As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham, The Arden Shakespeare, London 1975

[10] Cf. Shakespeare, William, King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir, The Arden Shakespeare, London 1994

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare’s "King Lear" and "As You Like It"
Martin Luther University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Shakespeare at the Crossroads between Philology and Linguistics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
431 KB
Bawdy, Shakespeare’s, King, Lear, Like, Shakespeare, Crossroads, Philology, Linguistics
Quote paper
Annett Oswald (Author), 2005, The Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare’s "King Lear" and "As You Like It", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare’s "King Lear" and "As You Like It"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free