I admit, these juvenile gags gave me a giggle, and I kept track of them in my notes. In chronological order:
#9. Guys get teased about someone sleeping with their mother.
Shakespeare is full of practical life advice. Like this: let’s say you’ve been secretly sleeping with some powerful female executive, which would really cause a scandal if revealed, because you’re black.
But then she gets pregnant and the baby comes out black, so the cat’s pretty much out of the bag on that one. Then, her two spoiled brat sons start whining to you that your little scandal has ruined mom’s career. What’s a guy to do?
Don’t worry, Shakespeare’s got you covered:
Demetrius. Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron. That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron. Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron. Villain, I have done thy mother.
–Titus Andronicus, Act IV, Scene 2, emphasis added
That’s right: tease the jerks about it. When Chiron says, “Thou hast undone out mother,” he means that Aaron has spoiled their mother’s reputation. Perhaps Titus Andronicus is set in Mississippi. But Aaron replies with one of those clever plays on words that Shakespeare is so famous for. Aaron’s response also uses the word “done,” but here it means…something more literal.
#8. How is a hooker like a road?
Doll Tearsheet is a prostitute, and the hero of the play says this about her:
Prince Hal. This Doll Tearsheet should be some road.
–Henry IV, Part 2, Act II, Scene 2
Get it? Because a road is something that any guy can ride on whenever he wants. Zing!
#7. Hamlet’s got jokes.
So Hamlet’s yelling at his mom when he accidentally stabs to death the guy hiding behind the curtain, right? But Hamlet’s pretending to be crazy, and he hates the evil king, so when he gets asked about it, he needs to throw some shade:
King Claudius. Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
Hamlet. At supper.
King Claudius. At supper! where?
Hamlet. Not where he eats, but where he is eaten….
King Claudius. Where is Polonius?
Hamlet. In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ the other place yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.
–Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 3
Nice. Not only does Hamlet crack wise about the poor guy’s corpse being eaten by worms, but he says the body will stink so bad in another month that finding him will be easy. Oh, and he also finds a pretty slick way to tell the king to go to hell.
#6. And this is a crime because…the Ayatollah said so.
Pompey. Yonder man is carried to prison.
Mistress Overdone. Well; what has he done?
Pompey. A woman.
–Measure for Measure, Act I, Scene 2
Here we see “done” again used in the current sense: “had sex with.” She asks what crime a guy was punished for, and is told that he did a person, and not in the mafia sense. Perhaps Measure for Measure is set in Iran.
Notice the name of the character, Mistress Overdone–it’s the same joke. She runs a brothel, so she’s responsible for a huge surplus of getting done.
#5. And yet another pun about getting done.
But this one adds a bit about the word “once.” Escalus wants to know, again, what crime was committed against Elbow’s wife. Pompey not only takes the word “done” from that question and uses it in the now-usual sense, but twists the word “once” from the question to imply that she got herself done, ahem, more than that one time. Maybe she was at a frat party.
Escalus. Now, sir, come on: what was done to Elbow’s wife, once more?
Pompey. Once, sir? There was nothing done to her once.
–Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene 1
#4. Alas, men’s catch-22.
Speaking of humor in tragedies, nothing’s darker than Macbeth, and few jokes in Shakespeare more bawdy than this one.
Here, a servant points out that getting drunk does three things: makes your nose red, makes you sleepy, and makes you have to pee.
But then he adds this wise observation about men: The more we drink alcohol, the randier we get, but the less we’re able to follow up on that lust with any kind of ability.
Yes, ladies, in case you didn’t know, too much drinking leads to male performance problems.
Macduff. What three things does drink especially provoke?
Porter. Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.
–Macbeth, Act II, Scene 3
#3. The art of the fart joke.
Othello is a pretty serious tragedy, but like all the tragedies, Shakespeare finds room for some humor. Here, a clown tells some musicians about a certain other wind instrument we all have.
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 tale, sir?
Clown. Marry, sir, by many a wind-instrument that I know.
–Othello, Act III, Scene 1
Shakespeare coined the phrase “thereby hangs a tale” in another play to mean “there’s a story to go along with that.” That’s what the musician thinks the clown means but, of course, our clever harlequin means it literally: there is a kind of wind instrument that has a tail hanging by it.
He means a butt, people, because that’s where flatulence comes from. Do I have to explain everything?
#2. Speaking of dirty musical puns…
Here, the villain in Cymbeline talks to some musicians about entertaining a beautiful young woman he lusts after.
Cloten. Come on; tune: if you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue, too.
–Cymbeline, Act II, Scene 3
The puns are clever, but admittedly crude.
#1. How is a leaky ship like a woman?
In what may be Shakespeare’s most tasteless joke, one character on a sinking ship thinks to compare it to an “unstanched wench.”
Gonzalo. The ship were no stronger than a nutshell and as leaky as an unstanched wench.
–The Tempest, Act I, Scene 1
“To stanch” means to plug something up, or to stop the flow of something.
Stay classy, Shakespeare.