Have you ever noticed how many dick jokes Shakespeare manages to…slip in? For an author found on nearly every high school curriculum, Shakespeare’s works have an awful lot of jokes that would sit comfortably in films like The Hangover or Ted. In fact, I can imagine Seth McFarlane sniggering about how he and a girl he met at the bar made ‘the beast with two backs’ (Othello, Act 1, Scene 1).
For every joke that relies on an impeccable knowledge of human nature, there’s one that relies on our willingness to laugh about sex and toilets. I’m going to go ahead and say that in 500 years, our sense of humour hasn’t changed.
What students, forced to stand up and read out loud, might forget is that in the early 1600s, Shakespeare’s plays were wildly popular. And not just with nobility who could afford a box and a cushion. The original Globe Theatre could hold anywhere from 2,400 to 3,000 people, including a pit strewn with cut rushes where the ‘groundlings’ could stand for a penny.
Let’s say an unskilled labourer was paid around four pennies a day and a skilled labourer two or three times that amount. A ticket to Romeo and Juliet would thus have been between a quarter to an eighth of their daily income (roughly equivalent to a poorly paid bartender dropping $25 to see the latest Avengers movie).
Now, consider our labourer who has just paid a quarter of the day’s work to stand up in a sweaty, crowded pit, as well as our nobility sitting up in the gallery. In order to have the Globe Theatre at capacity every night, Shakespeare needed to appeal to both groups. Casts of nobles as well as servants and soldiers would have given both groups someone to relate to, but what’s something that is universally sniggered at? That’s right: sex jokes.
An Elizabethan 'your mum' joke from Titus Andronicus:
Or how about this one?
Translation: Hamlet’s horny and he’s going to make his girlfriend moan.
Suffice to say, the Bard had a filthy mind and his audiences loved it. And we haven’t changed at all. I can just see Ryan Reynolds in his next rom-com, flirting with a lady at the bar: can I ‘die in your lap?’ (Much Ado About Nothing, Act 5, Scene 2). I’ll leave you to work that one out.
Image by Edwin Landseer, used with permission.