He That Smelt It

Crab’s second appearance comes at Act 4, scene 4, lines 1–38. Just before, Silvia has determined to escape Milan and enlisted the gentil knight Sir Eglamour. Just before that, Silvia has scorned Proteus. Launce’s monologue will be interrupted by Proteus and Julia’s entrance, when Proteus bids Julia take his ring to Silvia. Thus, there is important action on both sides of the speech.

Crab doesn’t give a dog’s fart, even though he has a part in the action. Proteus, you see, has promised to give Silvia a lapdog, said to be the size of a squirrel; Paris Hilton was not the first to have a teacup Chihuahua (and if this reflects badly on Silvia, so much the better). He entrusts the dog to Launce, who promptly misplaces it and decides to give Silvia Crab instead; he’s ten times the size, so it will be ten times the gift. And that is when they wander onstage. I’m afraid I couldn’t even find a complete video rendition online, let alone one I liked at all; so imagine Will Kemp, Bill Irwin, or whoever you like going full throttle.

LAUNCE. When a man’s servant shall play the cur with him, look you, it goes hard: one that I brought up of a puppy; one that I saved 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 hanged for’t; sure as I live, he had suffered 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 stolen, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t. [to Crab] Thou think’st not of this now. Nay, I remember the trick you served 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?

And so, we see, Launce is returning from a failed mission. Silvia has rejected Crab, for reasons with which we can only sympathize. But sandwiched between his two recountings of his audience with Silvia, he slips in the most extraordinary story. As you know, I’ve written at length—great length—about Shakespeare’s fart jokes. The ones I discussed proceed by innuendo—the clown in Othello talking about “wind instruments,” Lear howling “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks.” They’re about wind, instrumental or natural. This one is about—farts. Dog farts, to be precise. Launce is reproving Crab by reminding him of how Launce took the rap for him when he, Crab, farted under “the Duke’s table,” and got himself whipped for it. Greater love than this hath no man, indeed!

But Crab is sublimely indifferent as always. Though I would give major props to a production that had him fart when Launce says “Thou think’st not of this now,” I suppose that isn’t strictly necessary, since Crab also pissed on Silvia’s farthingale. The object is a woman’s hoop skirt (and I’d wager that Will Kemp raised his leg to illustrate the line) but the word cries out for commentary from Beavis and Butt-Head. This, I think, is proof that this speech is by Shakespeare—certainly not a transcript of Kemp’s routine. For this kind of wordplay is utterly characteristic of him.

One other brief point. I’ve mentioned that some scholars draw an analogy between Crab and Proteus, which I don’t find especially plausible. But I note the verbal parallel between Launce and Julia: as the former asks “How many masters would do this for his servant?” the latter asks “How many women would do such a message?” But would Julia suffer to be whipped for Proteus’s faults? As we saw three posts ago, maybe.

So, what are we to make of Crab’s two appearances? I suppose Wells is right that they are both “groaners,” but I for one do not hold that against them. I’d only observe that groaners can be much harder to pull off than they appear. These two ought to be hilarious if they are at all well done, but look at just a few of the YouTube videos and you will see exactly how much the actor playing Launce needs to put into his performance to make it work. As Steve Martin said, comedy is not pretty.

Sometimes it’s not even funny. That’s our cue to turn to the finale, one of the most uncomfortable scenes in Shakespeare.

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