You’ll have noticed that in “Hamlet’s Raspberry” I didn’t actually discuss any of Shakespeare’s fart jokes. If he doesn’t lift a leg like Terrance and Philip on South Park, what does he do? The Two Gentlemen of Verona lays it all out for us. This is my least favorite Shakespeare play and probably Shakespeare’s least popular comedy, with good reason. It’s almost certainly one of his earliest plays; it strikes almost everyone, including me, as creaky in ways characteristic of a beginning writer. And something quite horrible happens in it that seems totally uncharacteristic of Shakespeare and cries out for explanation. In My Year with Shakespeare I’ll go into all of this in much more detail than you might think necessary. But here let’s look at the one thing everybody loves in this play, the two monologues of Launce and his dog Crab.
Launce is the “clownish servant” to Proteus, the more obviously boorish of the Two Gentlemen. He has a fair amount to do in the play but he’s remembered because he twice comes on to the stage and addresses the audience directly about the misbehavior of his dog Crab, a kind of canine precursor to Falstaff. As I mentioned in “Hamlet’s Raspberry,” every acting company at the time had a resident clown. These two monologues are plainly showstoppers for the clown (in this case most likely the famous Will Kempe), and they work; they stop the show in its tracks. The first monologue achieves a level of comic surrealism it would take Monty Python to approach, and it has one superlative sex joke (using a pair of shoes to represent his parents, Launce says “this shoe with the hole in it is my mother”), but no fart jokes, so I won’t discuss it further here. But the second monologue in its entirety is below the fold:
LAUNCE. When a man’s servant shall play the cur with him, look you, it goes hard—one that brought up of a puppy; one that I sav’d from drowning, when three or four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it. I have taught him, even as one would say precisely ‘Thus I would teach a dog.’ I was sent to deliver him as a present to Mistress Silvia from my master; and I came no sooner into the dining-chamber, but he steps me to her trencher and steals her capon’s leg. O, ’tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself in all companies! I would have, as one should say, one that takes upon him to be a dog indeed, to be, as it were, a dog at all things. If I had not had more wit than he, to take a fault upon me that he did, I think verily he had been hang’d for’t; sure as I live, he had suffer’d for’t. You shall judge. He thrusts me himself into the company of three or four gentleman-like dogs under the Duke’s table; he had not been there, bless the mark, a pissing while but all the chamber smelt him. ‘Out with the dog’ says one; ‘What cur is that?’ says another; ‘Whip him out’ says the third; ‘Hang him up’ says the Duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs. ‘Friend,’ quoth I ‘you mean to whip the dog.’ ‘Ay, marry do I’ quoth he. ‘You do him the more wrong,’ quoth I; “twas I did the thing you wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber. How many masters would do this for his servant? Nay, I’ll be sworn, I have sat in the stock for puddings he hath stol’n, otherwise he had been executed; I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath kill’d, otherwise he had suffer’d for’t. Thou think’st not of this now. Nay, I remember the trick you serv’d me when I took my leave of Madam Silvia. Did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I do? When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale? Didst thou ever see me do such a trick?
Silvia is the unfortunate heroine for whom Proteus has conceived a liking. Just in case we thought Proteus had anything going for him, the idea of Crab as a present sets us straight. What kind of suitor gives his mistress a farting dog? Paging Tom Hanks and Hooch! Or did you miss that the passage following “You shall judge” is the story of how Launce got himself whipped by covering for Crab’s fart? (And did you realize that “blaming it on the dog” goes far enough back that Shakespeare could have inverted it for comic effect?) It’s easy to imagine how a professional jester like Will Kempe might have handled this speech. There’s plenty of room for slapstick written in. He probably lifted his leg to mime Crab pissing on Silvia’s skirt (her farthingale–ouch–would be the wooden hoops on a hoop skirt, but I doubt Crab’s aim is quite that good), for example. But the one thing he didn’t do was blow a raspberry. It would have ruined the joke if he had. Just as nobody in the banquet hall refers to the fart directly (“’twas I did the thing you wot of,” says Launce, and isn’t this still the way we do it in whatever’s left of polite society, asking “Who cut the cheese?”), the humor here depends on the fart pervading the whole speech without actually being referred to. It’s pure innuendo. Shakespeare makes you, the audience, do some of the work. You can’t let him just wash over you like the latest episode of South Park. But he gives you a payoff for your efforts. Isn’t it more satisfying to figure out what Launce is telling you than to have Terrance and Phillip fart in your face?
So even in a play as early as Two Gentlemen Shakespeare’s fun with flatulence is much more sophisticated and more purely verbal than the run of the mill. That’s true throughout his career. In Othello, for example, a clown rudely cuts off some musicians with a “he said ‘wind,’ heheheheh” joke:
CLOWN: Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?
FIRST MUSICIAN: Ay marry are they, sir.
CLOWN: O, thereby hangs a tail.
FIRST MUSICIAN: Whereby hangs a tail, sir?
CLOWN: Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument that I know.
The anal allusion in “wind instruments” is hardly original (the butt-trumpet image goes back at least to Dante’s Inferno and forward at least to Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but Shakespeare is more interested in wedding it to the wordplay on “thereby hangs a tail [tale],” a phrase he had already used at least twice, in The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It. Here “tail” could mean several things (including “penis,” according to Partridge), they’re all dirty, and they all mesh with the joke in “wind instruments.” It’s true that Shakespeare leaves a place for the Clown to blow a raspberry at the end of each of his lines. But I’m inclined to think that playing the scene too broadly would detract from the comedy.
Jokes about “wind” are broad enough that everybody can get them, so a pedestrian passage like the one in The Comedy of Errors always gets mentioned in this context (“A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind/Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.”). But my favorite example of Shakespeare’s characters cutting a fart joke comes in a startling passage in Henry IV Part 1. Act III Scene i shows a meeting among the rebel leaders who aim to overthrow King Henry. Chief among them is Harry Hotspur. If you’re familiar with the play you’ll know that Hotspur is such a paragon of parfit gentil knighthood that Henry actually wishes at one point he had been his son instead of the dissolute Prince Hal. And appearing for the first time in the play is the Welsh guerilla Owen Glendower, whose insistence on his powers as a wizard impresses Hotspur about as much as John Cleese’s Tim the Magician impressed King Arthur:
GLENDOWER: I say the earth did shake when I was born.
HOTSPUR: And I say the earth was not of my mind,
If you suppose as fearing you it shook.
GLENDOWER: The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble.
HOTSPUR: O, then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire
And not in fear of your nativity.
Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions. Oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinched and vexed
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb, which for enlargement striving
Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth
Our grandma earth, having this distemperature,
In passion shook.
In other words, “Our grandma earth farted when you were born.” The prolixity here is completely characteristic of Hotspur as we’ve seen him, but we would not have thought he had it in him to smuggle such a joke past Glendower—who doesn’t seem to realize he’s being mocked.
Shakespeare continued to use flatulence humor—occasionally and to significant effect—right up to the end of his career. There is a fart joke in the last play he had a hand in, The Two Noble Kinsmen, but I’ll save it for the discussion of that play in My Year with Shakespeare; it will need the livening up. But his last solo-authored play, The Tempest, has a resonant example. Trinculo, the clown, is discovered by the drunk Stephano under a tarpaulin with the monster Caliban. Stephano, observing tipsily that words are coming out of both ends of this beast, says “His forward voice now is to speak well of his friend; his backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract,” as if Caliban could talk out of his anus, a less than happy enchantment on this enchanted island (II.ii.89–91), but one that ties in to his famous complaint to Prospero: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is I know how to curse” (I.ii. 366–367): in this early sighting, it looks as if Caliban can curse out of both ends. So again the joke isn’t a vulgarity for its own sake; it serves the ends of characterization and theme.
My last example—and not a moment too soon, you may think—is an exercise for you, the reader. What about the line that forms the subtitle to this section? “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks” is the opening line of Act III, Scene 2 of King Lear. The story thus far? Lear, a foolish old man who first rashly decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters but then banishes Cordelia, the only one who actually loves him (remember the “Nothing, my lord” quote above, contrasting with the flattery of the other two), has been turned out of doors by the other two into a storm that, though vicious, is nowhere near vicious enough to objectify Lear’s rage and rejection:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world,
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
And he’s just getting started. This is the point at which, by common consent, we see Lear go mad. You’ll never see an actor underplay this scene, nor does it call for subtlety; apart from the ending that is to come, and possibly Oedipus’s blinding himself, it’s probably the most intense scene in the entire history of theater. And yet, if you somehow had read Lear in high school, I think you’d have had a hard time stifling a laugh at that first line. Your inner Beavis and Butt-Head would not have resisted Shakespeare’s of “cheeks.” The word of course fits perfectly naturally and vividly with the traditional image of a personified wind (the editor of the third Arden Shakespeare edition helpfully reminds us, with a straight face, that “winds are often shown on old maps as faces puffing from the corners”), but its sense as “buttocks” dates from just about Shakespeare’s time. The earliest occurrence in the Oxford English Dictionary is in a book called The Gentle Craft, a novel by one Thomas Deloney in praise of shoemakers; Deloney died in 1600, so the sense must have been current when Shakespeare was writing Lear a couple of years later. In the great tradition of Shakespeare biography, I would even go so far as to suggest that as the son of a glover Shakespeare must have known about a book that celebrated leatherworkers, so he couldn’t have failed to know the sense.
Etymologically, then, Beavis and Butt-Head could be right; and is the suggestion really so inappropriate dramatically? Is it so inconceivable that a bumptious, supremely arrogant man accustomed to ultimate power, finding himself turned out into a raging storm by his own daughters, would picture the very heavens as farting on him? We don’t know whether Shakespeare had read Aristophanes’s characterization of rain as Zeus’s piss, but he’d experienced English weather and could easily have made such comparisons on his own.
My first draft of this chapter included “Blow, winds” as an example of a passage, like “Husband, I come” (Cleopatra’s last words), for which Beavis and Butt-Head couldn’t possibly be right to attribute an off-color meaning. Now I’m not so sure. My “journey” through Shakespeare didn’t end when I finished reading his works.