In terms of plot, Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) is fairly straightforward: invading France after making a claim on French territories, a vastly outnumbered King Henry (Harry) dispatches them at Agincourt, uniting the two kingdoms through his subsequent marriage to the French princess. In terms of language, however, the play has a lot of texture—not to mention the Bard’s ambivalent depictions of power and war that complicate this historical drama.
With its extensive cast of characters, Henry V features a range of linguistic registers. The lofty commentary of the chorus frames the historical action of the play. The clergy’s academic discourse convinces Harry to mount his siege. Simple peasants malaprop in prose while the king rallies his troops with impassioned battle cries: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60). And the French princess, Catherine, says cunt.
While reading the complete works of Shakespeare this year 400 years after his death, I’ve been tracking great moments in the Bard’s strong language. I started with some venereal and vituperative examples in The Taming of the Shrew.
Harry himself delivers some incredibly strong language, as I reckon it, in his threats of violence, so vivid his words can feel they verge on the taboo. When the Governour of Harfleur doesn’t at first surrender, Harry warns (3.3.110-18):
…–why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
In other words, “I will fuck you—and everyone you care about—up.” Jesus Christ, Harry.
As violent as it may be, Harry’s language is not “strong” in the sweary sense we are concerned with on this blog. But Strong Language readers will enjoy the comic cursing of Harry’s captains: the Welsh Fluellen, Irish MacMorris, and Scottish Jamy. To be sure, the play’s presentation of their accents may strike some as insensitive by modern standards. But, with color to rival Petruccio’s choler, Captain Fluellen insults a common soldier as a “Jack-sauce” (4.7.128)—or, in other words, an “arrant rascally beggarly lousy knave” (4.8.32). You can’t put “Jack-sauce” on your burger, though; it means “saucy knave.”
But Shakespeare’s strongest language isn’t even voiced in English, as if the Bard’s linguistic powers weren’t already im-fucking-pressive enough. It’s in French. (The French royalty and military in the play serve largely to underscore Harry’s own majesty and might. This may hold true, linguistically, as David Steinsaltz argues in “The Politics of French Language in Shakespeare’s Plays.”)
Serving as foreshadowing, comic relief, and a kind of cultural middle finger, 3.4 features Princess Catherine, whose betrothal to Harry later unites the kingdoms, in an English language lesson.
Not unlike beginning language classes, Catherine asks her maid, Alice, the English words for various body parts. With an accent, Catherine attempts de hand, de fingres, de nails. De arma, d’elbow, de nick (“neck”), de sin (“chin”), she continues with some corrections from Alice.
Then Catherine gets to some choicer words (3.4.44-54):
Catherine: …Comment appelez-vous “les pieds” et “la robe”?
Alice: “De foot,” madame, et “de cown.”
Catherine: “De foot” et “de cown”? O Seigneur Dieu! Ils sont les mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d’honneur d’user. Je ne voudrais prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de rance pour tout le monde. Foh! “De foot” et “de cown”! Néanmoins, je réciterai une autre fois ma leçon ensemble. “D’hand,” “de fingre,” “de nails,” “d’arma,” “d’elbow,” “de nick,” “de sin,” “de foot,” “de cown.”
Alice: Excellent, madame!
Shakespeare, as we know, was meant to be seen, not read. Here’s the scene from Laurence Olivier’s famed 1944 film production of the play. Renée Asherson plays a delicate and ingenuous Catherine, Ivy St. Helier, with the bawdy badinage at 02:45.
So, did you get the joke? For those of you polyglots who did, a fico (or fig) to you, as the character Pistol obscenely gestures at Fluellen at one point in the play. (For more on obscene gestures, see Rob Chirico’s piece on giving the finger.)
For those of you who didn’t? I hear ya. Catherine asks Alice how to say les pieds and la robe in English —or foot and gown, cown in this accent. Catherine replies, as my Norton Shakespeare kindly translates:
“De foot” and “de cown”? O Lord God, those are evil-sounding words, easily misconstrued, vulgar, and immodest, and not respectable for ladies to use. I wouldn’t speak those words in front of French gentlemen for all the world. Ugh! “De foot” and “de cown”! Still, I shall recite my entire lesson once more. “D’hand,” “de fingre,” “de nails,” “d’arma,” “d’elbow,” “de nick,” “de sin,” “de foot,” “de cown.”
Now, pardon my French, but foot sounds like foutre, “to fuck,” while cown sounds like con, or “cunt,” among their many other vulgar valences. (I hope our French-speaking readers will weigh in on these words, as I can’t call myself a Francophone.) In spite of her (voiced) consternation, Catherine goes on to repeat the “evil-sounding” de foot and de cown two more times each.
I’m also curious about nick, which my text of the play does not gloss. In the scene, Alice offers it as the English for le col, or “neck.” While generally a kind of “notch,” nick was also once slang for “butt crack” and “vagina” in English. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the former in the 1560s and dates the latter before the 1620s. Shakespeare may well have added yet more texture to our sweary lesson.
How much of the French would Shakespeare’s audience have actually gotten, let alone the cross-linguistic profanity puns? Olivier’s interpretation aside, I imagine Shakespeare’s groundlings guffawed at Catherine’s clumsy efforts at English while nobles snickered at a princess using profanity. And given the historic tensions between the two nations, this laughter may have swelled with a prideful superiority. In this light, the most vulgar words may not have been the French puns on fuck and cunt, but, for those Elizabethan ears, French itself.
But as far as the actual French is concerned in the play, perhaps the French get the last laugh after all, as I understand Shakespeare’s French is hardly refined. And here at Strong Language, though, our fucks are inclusive. English, French, well-formed, poorly formed, princess, peasant, Elizabethan, modern? They’re all profane poetry to our ears.
Text quoted from The Norton Shakespeare (1997, W.W. Norton, ed. Stephen Greenblatt).