10 of Shakespeare's Best Dirty Jokes

Edward Gooch/Getty Images
Edward Gooch/Getty Images

By Kalli Damschen, Baylor University 

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time, and his plays have entertained, inspired, and instructed for centuries. One thing your high school English teacher probably didn’t mention, however: Many of Shakespeare’s iconic plays feature risqué humor, with crude jokes hidden throughout his works. Here are 11 of the bard’s best dirty jokes.

1. Twelfth Night: Act 1, Scene 3

SIR ANDREW
But it becomes me well enough, does ’t not?
SIR TOBY BELCH
Excellent; it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I
hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs
and spin it off.

In this scene, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew are discussing Andrew’s hair, which is apparently flat and lifeless. While Toby uses the image of a woman spinning yarn from flax, the line is a rather unfortunate double entendre. Essentially, Sir Toby is telling Andrew that he hopes a woman takes him “between her legs” and that he contracts syphilis, a disease which causes hair loss.

2. Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 5

MALVOLIO
By my life, this is my lady's hand these be her
very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her
great P's.

Later in Twelfth Night, a character named Malvolio receives a letter that he believes is from his boss, Olivia. As Malvolio observes the penmanship, Shakespeare explains why he thinks the letter was written by Olivia and sneaks in a lewd pun. The line would be read, “her very C’s, her U’s, ‘n’ her T’s,” and an Elizabethan audience would quickly realize what he was spelling. He adds an extra punch line with “and thus she makes her great P’s.” Shakespeare: A literary master of both dramatic characterization and toilet humor.

3. Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2

HAMLET
Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?
GUILDENSTERN
Faith, her privates we.
HAMLET
In the secret parts of Fortune?

When Hamlet asks Guildenstern and Rosencrantz how they’re doing, they say they’re indifferent. They’re neither at the top of Fate, nor the “soles of her shoes.” Hamlet then jokingly asks if they live about Fate’s waist, “in the middle of her favors.” Guildenstern agrees that they’re around “her privates,” in the (ahem) “secret parts” of Fate.
Shakespeare certainly knows how to spice up the small talk.

4. Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2

HAMLET
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
OPHELIA
No, my lord.
HAMLET
I mean, my head upon your lap?
OPHELIA
Ay, my lord.
HAMLET
Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA
I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.
OPHELIA
What is, my lord?
HAMLET
Nothing.

By this scene, Hamlet’s going cuckoo for cocoa puffs after his murdered father’s ghost appears, and he apparently decides to deal with it by harassing his would-be girlfriend. His words become especially obscene when one knows that “nothing” was Elizabethan slang for a woman’s lady bits. Shakespeare also sneaks in a pun with the word “country”—just drop off the last syllable, and you’ll see what he was going for.

5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 5, Scene 1

PYRAMUS
O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall!
THISBE
I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all.

This scene features a play within the play, and characters are acting as lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Perhaps more importantly, another person is filling the role of the wall. Kissing “the wall’s” hole … well, that is something Thisbe most certainly does not want to do.

6. The Taming of the Shrew: Act 2, Scene 1

PETRUCHIO
Who knows not where a wasp does
wear his sting? In his tail.
KATHARINA
In his tongue.
PETRUCHIO
Whose tongue?
KATHARINA
Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
PETRUCHIO
What, with my tongue in your tail?

C’mon. This one isn’t even subtle.

7. Othello: Act 1, Scene 1

IAGO
I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

Iago is informing another character, Brabantio, that his daughter has married Othello, a Moor. Iago is far from pleased with this turn of events, and so uses this unusually colorful and eccentric image to tell Brabantio. As a result of this scene, “the beast with two backs” came to be a fairly common euphemism for sex.

8. Titus Andronicus: Act 4, Scene 2

CHIRON
Thou hast undone our mother.
AARON
Villain, I have done thy mother.

Chiron confronts Aaron, his mother’s lover, whom he believes is responsible for ruining his mother. Aaron’s witty response is perhaps the earliest “your mom” joke in history.

9. Henry V: Act 2, Scene 1

PISTOL
Pistol’s cock is up,
And flashing fire will follow.

The word “cock” may not have developed its current slang meaning until a decade or two after Henry V was written, so this might not have been an intentional pun. Either way, it was too good to exclude. With the possible double meaning and such vivid imagery, Shakespeare himself would have approved of this joke, unintentional or not.

10. Much Ado About Nothing: Act 5, Scene 2

BENEDICK
I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be
buried in thy eyes.

In Elizabethan slang, “to die” was a euphemism for sexual climax, so Benedick telling his lover, Beatrice, that he will “die” in her lap has less-than-chaste implications. It should also be noted that the title of the play itself is a dirty pun; remember, “nothing” was an Elizabethan euphemism for a woman’s lady parts. Oh, Shakespeare, you naughty thing.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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