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The Scrivener: Personal reflections on "Romeo and Juliet": 4 - Naughty Bits

…Please, dear reader, do not berate me for being obscene. This is language used in Shakespeare's time when people were more frank and, in their own bawdy way, fun-loving…

Brian Barratt explains some of the racy language in Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet’.

This the fourth of five entertaining and informative articles on one of the most performed of all plays. To read the first three, and other articles by Brian, please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his invigorating Web site The Brain Rummager

William Shakespeare based Romeo and Juliet on a story which was widely known in Europe, including Britain, in the 1500s. It has become both the ultimate love story and the ultimate tragedy. Nevertheless, it has comical sequences and reflects the behaviour and language of people at the time. Let's have a look at just a couple of examples of racy language and naughty puns.


In the First Folio edition (1623) of Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5, lines 82–87 are:

Go too, go too,
you are a sawcy Boy, ist so indeed?
This tricke may chance to scath you, I know what,
You must contrary me, marry 'tis time.
Well said my hearts, you are a Princox, goe,
Be quiet...

In a 1987 version, we read:

Go to, go to;
You are a saucy boy. Is it so, indeed?
This trick may chance to scathe you; I know what.
You must contrary me! Marry, 'tis time —
Well said, my hearts! — You are a princox; go;
Be quiet...

Marry in this context has nothing to do with marriage. It is an exclamation, an expression of amusement, in the form of a version of "Mary!" referring to the mother of Jesus.

There are several spellings: princock, princocks, princox. This word from the 1500s means a pert, forward, conceited boy or youth. The last three letters show that it could obviously have an rude meaning, too. Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825) removed all such words and references when he produced his sanitised version of Shakespeare's plays in 1818. No doubt some school authorities still do the same thing, to protect young people from the sort of language they already use.

Medlar tree & poperin pear

Romeo and Juliet Act 2, Scene 1, lines 33–41 include puns which are almost meaningless to present-day readers:

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.
O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse, thou a poperin pear!
Romeo, good night. I'll to my truckle-bed;
This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep.

Some versions omit the 5th and 6th lines, while others have:

An open et cetera, thou a pop'rin pear!

Zeffirelli's film version shortens the text, which is common practice in films of Shakespeare's plays, but includes the bawdy references.

Now, why on Earth would a maid refer to a certain fruit as a medlar and why should Mercutio, who speaks these lines, jest that Benvolio should be a poperin pear if he wants to hit the mark? (The First Folio, by the way, has Poprin Peare.) A search for explanations on the Internet will reveal a variety of answers, some of them off the mark.

There are two puns involved in the reference to the medlar tree and its fruit. First of all, it is a berry which is best eaten when over-ripe and starting to split open. This is a bawdy figurative reference to the female genitalia. Secondly, the word "meddle" was in Shakespeare's time used in less-than-polite speech as a verb meaning to have sexual intercourse.

The poperin or pop'rin pear is more difficult to track down. The word itself derives from the name of a town in Belgium, variously known as Popering, Poperinghe, Poperinghle or Poperingale, in an area known for its orchards. The local pear has an unusual elongated shape. As one writer has said, it reminded the Elizabethans of an erect male member with the scrotum.

I think that suffices to explain the complex puns. Please, dear reader, do not berate me for being obscene. This is language used in Shakespeare's time when people were more frank and, in their own bawdy way, fun-loving.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


— Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite, DVD.
— Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 2003, component of above.
— Oxford English Dictionary, CD-ROM version 2, Oxford University Press, 1999.
— Library of the Future CD-ROM, 4th edition, World Library, Irvine, CA, 1998.
Boyce, C., Encyclopedia of Shakespeare, Roundtable Press/Facts of File, New York, 1990.
Hinman, C., ed., The Norton Facsimile, The First Folio of Shakespeare, Second edition, W.W.Norton & Company, New York, 1996.
Roy, K., ed., Romeo and Juliet, HBJ Shakespeare, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Ontario, 1987.
Zeffirelli, F., director, Romeo and Juliet, DVD, Paramount Pictures, 1968.


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