Please Ask, Please Tell: On Shakespeare’s Bawdy

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


It’s easy to spot the homophobia of lexicographer Eric Partridge’s hybrid essay-glossary, Shakespeare’s Bawdy (1947).[1] Others before him would have had more to say about “Shakespeare’s attitude towards sex,” Partridge claims, “if Shakespearean criticism had not so largely been in the hands of academics and cranks” (xi). “As I am neither pederast nor pedant,” Partridge continues, “I may be able to throw some light upon a neglected, yet very important, aspect of Shakespeare’s character and art” (xii). Should we not have understood him clearly enough, Partridge goes on to state flatly how straight he is. “Like most other heterosexual persons,” he writes,

I believe the charge against Shakespeare; that he was a homosexual; to be, in the legal sense, ‘trivial’: at worst, ‘the case is not proven’; at best—and in strict accordance with the so-called evidence, as I see it—it is ludicrous (13).

Here, Partridge ties himself up in knots—quite literally, in the manic punctuation of the sentence—in order to assert that, like the other “notable writers whose heterosexuality is not in doubt,” he can be interested in Shakespeare’s homosexual bawdy wordplay without himself being homosexual (13). For instance, he reassures us that he “should not care to say that, during his life, Shakespeare was ‘all things to all men’” since “that stock-phrase has, in certain circles, come to have une signification assez louche” (3). What straighter thing to do than turn to French to throw shade?

I am not sure whether—given that I am a gay early modernist, historian of sexuality, and queer theorist—Partridge would have classified me as an academic or a crank, a pedant or a pederast, but I am certainly grateful that he saved Shakespeare from my ludicrous interpretations and significations louches. After all, Partridge was, it seems, much more intimate with Shakespeare than I could (or would) ever hope to be. The electricity of their intimacy practically jumps off the page in Partridge’s ecstatic, euphuistic prose, which I can’t help but want to share with you at length. “In his general outlook and in his attitude towards sex and towards bawdiness,” Partridge writes, Shakespeare

shows that he was both an idealist and a realist; a romantic and a cynic; an ascetic and a hedonist; an etherealist and a brutalist; a philosopher and ‘the average man’; a saint and a sinner; a kindly tolerator and a Juvenal-satirist; an Illuminate and a Worldly-Wise; a strict moralist and a je-m’en-fichiste; a glowing optimist (‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world’) and a Werther-cum-Hardy victim of Weltschmerz; a believer in a God-lovelied heaven and a pedestrian with feet scarce-lifting from earth all too earthy; the most lambently lyrical and dew-sweet of poets (Romeo and Juliet) and the most materialistically terre à terre of soured prose-writers (Pompey, Apemantus, the Porter in Macbeth); the most exacerbated libido-driven, yet expert, sensualist and—via l’homme moyen sensuel—the purest, most innocent novice; the subtlest thinker and the simplest emotionalist; an Ariel of the further empyrean and a Caliban of the nearest mud; a dialectical Portia and a love-living Juliet; a Cordelia and a Goneril; an Imogen and a Gertrude; a Cleopatra and a Miranda; an Antony and a Brutus; a Coriolanus and a tribune, married man—a bachelor—a monk (3).

Shakespeare, we are meant to understand, was a bitch, a lover; a child, a mother; a sinner, a saint. No need, then, Partridge assures us, to be ashamed of Shakespeare’s sex, since, behind the bawdiness, he is an angel undercover, innocent and sweet.[2] But though he may have been all of these things, Partridge claims, Shakespeare was certainly not gay. “Had Shakespeare, so frank and courageous, been a homosexual,” Partridge informs us, “he would have subtly yet irrefutably conveyed the fact” (18). Quod erat demonstrandum, apparently.        

But while it may be easy to spot the homophobia—to wit: we (read: we straights) must save Shakespeare’s interest in and knowledge of sex and sexuality from the “homosexualists” (17)[3]—it’s somewhat harder to recognize the surprisingly queer staying-power of Partridge’s philology. Shakespeare’s Bawdy is driven by the anxiety that the queers might have stolen from the level-headed straights not the thrill of Shakespearean sex—how déclassé, how assez louche, to want a thrill!—but its knowledge. And it’s this turn to sexual knowledge that, over half a century later, has in fact proved, and continues to prove, so enabling for queer critics. Valerie Traub has recently argued, for instance, that “however problematic was Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy, for a long time it offered, at least for some of us, both a point of access to erotic meanings and professional legitimation of the effort to read sex in early modern literature. Partridge’s text was and remains a tool for queer resistance as well as a tool for normative discipline.”[4]

Beyond simply pointing out that words might have “erotic meanings,” Shakespeare’s Bawdy is able to serve as a “tool for queer resistance,” I argue, because it consistently turns to Shakespeare’s language as a vehicle for parsing and interweaving both sexual logistics (that is, the physical actions that constitute “sex,” whatever sex might be) and sexual fantasy (the abstractions and cathexes of a sexual mind at work). Even as it works within a heteronormative frame that construes sex as a natural outgrowth of an innate and reproductively-oriented libido, Shakespeare’s Bawdy nevertheless approaches sex as an ongoing process—first this, then that; put your hand there; no, a bit lower; etc. While any given entry in Partridge’s glossary might appear to want to pin down “the” sexual meaning of a particular word or phrase, the lexicographic project as a whole exceeds such a desire. The entry for nasty,[5] for instance, sends us ping-ponging between the entries for enseamed bed, filthy, foul, greasy, muddy, and beastly, never letting us land in any one place (197). Even the letter n has an entry, which, despite being one of the longer entries in the glossary, seems almost purposefully unfinished (“see your note on Pillock for vowel change,” he writes. My note on Pillock?!). It’s almost as if Partridge had simply left a note to remind himself that even a single letter might suggest that something has been “innuendoed” (n-you-n-doed, he would want us to say) (196).

But it isn’t merely that Partridge leaves us in some unfinished, ever expanding network of words. Such a lexicographic practice, for all its resistance to “an” answer, might be labelled “queer.” But resistance for resistance’s sake is a paltry form of queer world-building: it’s a shaky foundation on which to build a vocabulary, much less a sex life. My point, then, in drawing out the loose ends of Partridge’s glosses is not to valorize loose-endedness, but to emphasize the often divergent lines of sexual thought that Partridge sketches, rather than the points A (a word) and B (a gloss) that those lines supposedly connect. In those lines we can see Partridge imagining the logistics of Shakespeare’s sex life and the sexual fantasies Shakespeare creates in his plays. I’ll take up each of these components of Partridge’s sexual imagination—logistics and fantasy—separately before turning to some larger conclusions about how thinking alongside Partridge might help us re-envision the history of sexuality more broadly.


Partridge notes Shakespeare’s supposed sexual-logistical expertise in more than just the rhetorical flourish of the declamation, in the long paragraph quoted above, that Shakespeare was “the most exacerbated libido-driven, yet expert, sensualist” (3, emphasis very much mine).[6]  After collecting several terms Shakespeare uses to refer to masturbation—“conjure it down, finger, go to bed, lay it, mar, rubbing, spin off, take down, and take off”—Partridge goes on to claim that from these terms

we—inevitably, I think—form the opinion that Shakespeare was an exceedingly knowledgeable amorist, a versatile connoisseur, and a highly artistic, an ingeniously skilful, practitioner of love-making, who could have taught Ovid rather more than that facile doctrinaire could have taught him; he evidently knew of, and probably he practised, an artifice accessible to few—one that I cannot becomingly mention here, though I felt it obligatory to touch on it, very briefly, in the Glossary (31).

Here the physical acts that we call sex (whatever those acts may be) are explicitly underwritten by a type of logistical, skillful knowledge: Shakespeare is “an exceedingly knowledgeable amorist” because he is “an ingeniously skilful, practitioner of love-making.” Indeed, he apparently even “knew of, and probably he practised” some sexual act or object (what does it mean to practice an artifice?) that was beyond the ken of sexual plebs like, of all people, Ovid.           

But who knows what “artifice” Partridge refers to here? Perhaps, given the context of the passage, he might simply mean masturbation (thus activating a pun he couldn’t possibly have resisted in the phrase “to touch on it”)—though one wonders why fingering, the soccer of sexual practices, should be described as “accessible to few.” Or perhaps “artifice” refers to cunnilingus, since Partridge informs us, under the headword lay it, that when Mercutio says “letting it there stand / Till she had laid it and conjured it down” (Rom. 2.1.25-26), the “subtle-sexual Shakespeare probably innuendo’d [n-you-n-doed, remember] the ‘conjure’ of magic and implied an auditory allusion to L. cunnus” (170).[7] I may give Partridge too much credit, though, in suggesting that he might ever have connected “L. cunnus”  to L. lingus, since the sense of the line, according to his reading, is that a penis is “conjured . . . down” by a vagina. Maybe his mysterious “artifice” is a dildo—“ostensibly, a meaningless word; but almost certainly with reference to the erotic sense, ‘an artificial phallus’” (119)—but does one “practice” a dildo?      

While Partridge’s imagination of Shakespeare’s sex life may not quite make logistical sense, it does, importantly, try to make a sort of philological sense out of sexual logistics. Indeed, for Partridge, sexual logistics are so intimately tied to philology that from Shakespeare’s words we not only “form the opinion that Shakespeare was an exceedingly knowledgeable amorist” but we do so “inevitably.” Inevitably! This is, it seems to me, one of the deep structures of Shakespeare’s Bawdy: the meaning of words is far from self-evident; this is why we need a glossary, after all. But the relationship between words and sex is—inevitably—a relationship between words and sexual knowledge.

To give just one other example: after quoting a couple of stanzas from Venus and Adonis— “I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer; / Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale,” etc. etc.—Partridge writes that “the general sense is clear: clear, too, is most of the imagery. I do not care to insult anybody’s knowledge or intelligence by offering a physiological paraphrase” (6). “Nevertheless,” he continues, “ the inexpert reader would perhaps do well to consult the following terms in the glossary: park, deer, feed, mountain, dale, fountain, bottom-grass, plain, hillock, brakes” (6-7). But what is so insulting about a physiological paraphrase of a passage that requires one to imagine, among other things, oneself having sex as a deer? Inexpert reader that I am, I did consult the terms Partridge lists, only to find that, for instance, mountain “is probably generic for all the pleasant eminences: breasts and buttocks, certainly; and thighs, probably; and the mons Veneris, perhaps” (194). I, for one, would not feel my knowledge or intelligence insulted were Partridge to have told me why mountain “certainly” indicates the breasts and buttocks but only “perhaps” indicates the mons Veneris—a term which literally includes the Latin word for “mountain.” This certainty shifts when we consult the corollary dale, which we are told could indicate that Adonis should feed “on the eminences [a word Partridge quite likes, apparently] or in the valleys: the valley between her breasts; the vulva-valley; and perhaps the rearward ravine” (114). It’s the buttocks, here—the “rearward ravine”—that shifts into the conditional, whereas the “vulva-valley” gains a bit more certainty.        

Partridge thus gets to have it both ways: he gets to imagine and delineate sexual logistics in the glossary without offering a “physiological paraphrase” in the essay that precedes it. What’s important here is the way the glossary and the essay criss-cross each other, suggesting that sexual practice is something to be knowledgeable about without pinning down exactly what the actions are that constitute “sex” or the knowledges that one needs to perform those actions. Shakespeare’s Bawdy might be less useful for telling us what a word means, then—Traub has already persuasively shown that glossaries, including Partridge’s, often form “a closed circuit” in their delineation of a word’s “meaning”[8]—and more useful for revealing the imaginative acts words stage, including and especially the imagination of how sex is physically practiced.

Indeed, this is also how the other type of sexual knowledge in Shakespeare’s Bawdy—sexual fantasy—works. Partridge’s book is not so much an attempt to define words as it is an attempt to limn the edges of sexual fantasy with the materiality of language. To do this, Partridge promotes a sort of semantic contagion of sexuality. Take, for instance, the entry on sly, which helpfully informs us that in the context of Shakespeare’s plays that word might mean: “Sexually sly; cunning, secretive, furtive, stealthily artful in sexual matters” (240). Like Partridge’s homophobia, the tautology here is easy to spot—knowing that the word “sly” can mean “sexually sly” doesn’t help you much if you don’t know what it means to be “sexually sly.” The entry also directs the reader to “see the quotation at lay down,” which comes from Henry 8: “The sly whoresons / Have got a speeding trick to lay down ladies: A French song and a fiddle has no fellow” (H8 1.3.39-41) It seems that “sly” can mean “sexually sly” because it appears near “lay down,” though it doesn’t really add anything semantically to the sexual scenario here. But that’s the beauty of Partridge’s project: being near sex makes something sexual. Find one word sexy and it’s off to the races: anything nearby might feed whatever fantasy the first word incites. (It’s a wonder, in fact, that “French song,” “fiddle,” and “fellow” don’t get entries that point back to this line— “whoreson” does, as does the related “Abhorson”). In the end, then, Partridge’s implicit argument is that there is nothing sexual but thinking makes it so.          

Shakespeare’s Bawdy encourages us to “think sex” as an expansive philological field—one filled with words that spread their sexual meanings like weeds or kudzu, until nothing near them can escape the significations assez louches of the sexual. Where Partridge often turns to an imagination of the physical logistics of sex, he always turns to the borderless country of sexual fantasy, that titillating space where everything—every word, in this case—sparks and sizzles with the energy of unconsummated, and importantly under-defined, desire. Read Partridge and even n, homophonous as it is with in (or, as Partridge records it: “in, be. See out.”), can send you down the path toward sin.


The longer I spend with it, the less I’m convinced that Shakespeare’s Bawdy teaches us anything in particular about Shakespeare’s language. But in its expansive representation of the intricate relationship between words, sexual fantasies, and the logistical negotiations of bodies trying to body forth those fantasies, I do think that Partridge’s text can model for us a method of expanding what counts as “sexology.” In fact, given Partridge’s frequent citations of Kenneth Walker’s The Physiology of Sex, we might consider Shakespeare’s Bawdy to be a work of what Stephanie Foote and, more recently, Benjamin Kahan have called “vernacular sexology.”[9] While Shakespeare’s Bawdy predates the first Kinsey report by a year, Partridge was very quickly associated with Kinsey in a review in Shakespeare Quarterly in 1950. There, Ernest Brennecke quips that “sophomores who are baffled by such obscure terms [as “thigh, quivering”] may receive elementary education here. Probably because there are not many such readers in these post-Kinsey days, this unimportant volume has been issued in a limited and expensive edition” (276).[10]

In our own significantly post-Kinsey days, I think Partridge’s volume—and the sexual education and imagination Brennecke assumes to be unnecessary for all “sophomores”— is far from unimportant. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Bawdy implicitly encourages us to construe “sexuality” less as a discursive formation at the intersection of medicine, religion, law, science, and philosophy—less, that is, as a category produced by institutions—and more as a quotidian process of thinking about sex, trying to have sex, and trying to articulate those thoughts and practices. While the sexologists of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries certainly played a major role in the discursive construction of sexuality, they did so in practice by observing and talking to individuals about their quotidian sex lives (or at least claiming that they did)—the fantasies that drove them, the actions they performed with their bodies, and the words they used to describe all of this. We might do well to try to “talk to” the early moderns about these same concerns.            

Sexological literature has been one of the most important archives for historians of sexuality focused on sex in modernity. But for historians of premodern sexuality—and for queer and trans theorists of all stripes—it may be useful to broaden our sense of what counts as “sexological” literature, as Kahan so persuasively argues. While we have long turned to medical texts to understand historical sexuality, if we are to fully understand the quotidian experience of sex, rather than the institutional abstractions produced by these theoretical texts, we might do well to turn to other genres. Where sexologists had patients to speak with, those of us who want to “sleep with the dead” might turn to lexicons.[11] We might consider, for instance, Claude Hollyband’s A Dictionarie French and English (1593) to be a sort of sexological text when it defines the word “Bougre” as “he that committed such a fact and sodomite villanie: a buggerer: burne them all” (sig. E6r). Hollyband’s translation of “bougre” is also a definition of “buggerer” is also a phobic condemnation of the actions that are assumed to be common knowledge— “such a fact” is not a particularly helpful translation of the French noun “bougre” unless you already speak French; and even then you would have to know comment sodomiser to have a sense of what un bougre did. Sex acts are thus obscured even as they are marked as central to the meaning (lexical, logistical, and political) of the word. Stephen Spiess’s analysis of the “terms of whoredom” (8) that proliferated across a variety of English wordbooks—what he refers to as a sort of “sexicography” (19)—is another prime example of the vibrant payoff of (re)turning to lexicons as sites of sexual knowledge-making.[12] While connections to modern sexology remain only implicit in his analyses, his work suggests that we might find forms of sexological impulse and imagination at various different points in history and in various different genres of text.          

Jeffrey Masten has recently claimed that “the study of sex and gender in historically distant cultures is necessarily a philological investigation.”[13] This is so not only because language is the primary medium through which we have access to the past,[14] but also because language is itself a nexus of sexual theorization, imagination, contestation, and desire. This sexual nexus lends a sort of “Please Ask, Please Tell” quality to philologies of sexuality. To follow the trails of sexual language, and of language’s sexuality, is to ask for more speech, for more words, for more words for those words. For Hollyband, this is the work of the colon: “he that committed such a fact and sodomite villanie” colon “a buggerer” colon “burne them all.” At the end of every colon is more meaning, more words, more sex. The colons collocate and equate, but they also extend. Lexicographers answer questions that nobody asked them—they call them “headwords.” But unlike the Foucauldian will to knowledge, the philological demand for more sexual meaning is not a demand for the construction and confession of an inner sexual truth; it’s a demand for more sexual imagination. “Please ask me not what is, but what might be possible in the realm of sexual language,” the philologist asks. “Please let me tell you not what a word means, but what it might mean.” Whether academic or crank, pedant or pederast, one could do worse than to turn to lexicons as guides for raising sex as an always unanswerable question—and then answering it anyway.


[1] After its initial publication in 1947—a limited run of only 1000 copies priced extravagantly at £2.20 (somewhere between $83 and about $110 today)—Partridge’s book was revised and reissued in 1955 with a much larger run and at a much more reasonable price (21s., or about $35 today). A third edition appeared in 1968, and in 2001 it was reissued once again by Routledge Classics with a foreword by—somewhat ironically, given his later invective against “lewd interpreters” in Looking for Sex in Shakespeare—Stanley Wells.

[2] With apologies to Meredith Brooks, from whose song “Bitch,” you may notice, I have taken these lines.

[3] To be fair to Partridge, “homosexualists” is a term he borrows from Hesketh Pearson. But borrow it he does.

[4] Traub, Valerie. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, p. 196.

[5] I have followed Partridge in placing his headwords in bold.

[6] For those interested in a more sustained theorization of “sexual logistics,” and an historical analysis of its dissemination in early modernity, see my article, “Practicing Sex,” currently forthcoming from the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies (vol. 19, no. 1, 2019).

[7] All citations of Shakespeare’s plays refer to The Norton Shakespeare, 3rd ed.

[8] See Traub, Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns, p. 198-199.

[9] Partridge claims that “this is not an in camera monograph for professional sexologists” (2), but this is the one time in his entire career, I think, in which he is too modest. While “sexology” usually refers to a body of work by professional scientists like Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Havelock Ellis, “vernacular sexology”  names, in Kahan’s terms, “the way that laypeople contest, define, and revise sexual subjectivity in relation to more official modes of sexology” (2). See: Kahan, Benjamin. The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexology, Etiology, & the Emergences of Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019, especially pp. 2-3, and Foote, Stephanie. “Afterword: Ann Aldrich and Lesbian Writing in the Fifties.” In We Walk Alone, edited by Marijane Meaker. New York: First Feminist Press, 2006, pp. 157-83.

[10] Brennecke, Ernest. “All Kinds of Shakespeares—Factual, Fantastical, Fictional.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 4, 1950, pp. 272-280.

[11] Masten, Jeffrey. Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama. CUP, 1997, p. 1.

[12] Spiess, Stephen. Shakespeare’s Whore: Language, Prostitution, and Knowledge in Early Modern England. 2013. University of Michigan, PhD dissertation. A book based on this dissertation is forthcoming.

[13] Masten, Jeffrey. Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, p. 15.

[14] With apologies to art historians.