Book Chapter
Peer Review
Contrary Matters: The Power of the Gloss and the History of an Obscenity
This chapter explores Hamlet's infamous dirty joke in light of the Q1 manuscript. 
Book cover, image of dark landscape
Book Title
"Hamlet" After Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text
Book Author(s)
Zachary Lesser
Press and Year
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
9780812223569 (pbk); 9780812290394 (ebk)
Place of Publication

Philadelphia, PA

Number of Pages

292 p.: ill.; 24 cm.

It may be the most famous dirty joke in Shakespeare. As he banters with Ophelia before the performance of The Mousetrap, in a passage that varies slightly but importantly between Q2 and F, Hamlet asks:

Ham. Lady shall I lie in your lap?

Ophe. No my Lord.

Ham. Doe you thinke I meant country matters? (Q2, sig. H1r)

Ham. Ladie, shall I lye in your Lap?

Ophe. No my Lord.

Ham. I meane, my Head vpon your Lap?

Ophe. I my Lord.

Ham. Do you thinke I meant Country matters? (F, sig. 2o6r)

For the first century of Shakespearean editing, from Rowe in 1709 through Boswell in 1821, editors had only these two versions of the joke. When Bunbury discovered his copy of Q1, however, a more radical variant suddenly appeared.

Ham. . . . Lady will you giue me leaue, and so forth:

To lay my head in your lappe?

Ofel. No my Lord.

Ham. Vpon your lap, what do you thinke I meant contrary matters?

(Q1, sig. F3r)

As we have seen, newspapers and literary reviews in England and abroad reacted energetically to the discovery of a new text of Hamlet, and even in short notices they focused particular attention on the variation between country matters and contrary matters. In this chapter, I move from considering the impact of the belated discovery of Q1 on broader theories of Shakespearean authorship to its effect on readings of the text of the play itself. Here I examine the earliest responses to Q1, all of which dealt in one way or another with this particular variant. These reactions preceded the debate between Knight and Collier that set the terms for much of the Victorian engagement with that text, and they therefore deal with questions of authorship and revision from a more multifarious perspective. Indeed, their responses hinge at least as much on issues of propriety as of bibliography or textual criticism—even in the first edition of Shakespeare to address the newly discovered text, the bookseller-turned-editor Samuel Weller Singer’s Dramatic Works of William Shakspeare (1826). Singer was the earliest editor to emend the traditional text of Hamlet with a reading from Q1, and the rationale behind his decision to print contrary matters both exemplifies the initial reaction to this variant and reveals how the discovery of Q1 helped to entrench a particular reading of the familiar country matters, one that remains universally accepted among modern editors and critics.

In January, 1825, the Literary Gazette commended its readers’ attention to “one striking word in the Play Scene, which removes a phrase that has been much objected to,” quoting the Q1 passage and italicizing the key word contrary.[1] This article was probably the most important account of Q1 in the popular press, since it was rapidly reprinted in numerous papers—including the Morning Chronicle, the Kaleidoscope, the Circulator of Useful Knowledge, and, reaching across the Atlantic, the United States Literary Gazette.[2] The textual variant in this line thereby became one of the best-known attributes of Q1 shortly after the edition’s discovery, even before Payne and Foss’s reprint.

An article in the Kaleidoscope suggests some of the reasoning behind the interest in this variant: “When [Q1] omits passages which reflect no credit on the understanding of their author, we are anxious to believe that it is more faithful to the text of such a man as Shakespeare, than those copies are which impute to him obscenity, without even the apology of wit.”[3] The Gentleman’s Magazine explained more precisely how this new variant might be “more faithful” to Shakespeare’s intentions. It built a remarkable theory of dramatic authorship on the alteration of this passage and on the omission in Q1 of the subsequent exchange, in which Hamlet tells Ophelia that “Nothing” is “a fayre thought to lye between maydes legs” (Q2, sig. H1r):

Many striking peculiarities in this edition of Hamlet tend strongly to confirm the opinion that no small portion of the ribaldry to be found in the plays of our great dramatic poet, is to be assigned to the actors of his time, who flattered the vulgar taste, and administered to the vicious propensities of their age, by the introduction and constant repetition of many indecent, and not a few stupid jokes, till they came to be considered and then printed as part of the genuine text. Of these the two or three brief but offensive speeches of Hamlet to Ophelia, in the Play Scene, Act iii. are not to be found in the copy of 1603, and so far we are borne out in our opinion; for it is not to be supposed that Shakespeare would insert them upon cool reflection, and three years after the success of his piece had been determined; still less likely is it that a piratical printer would reject any thing actually belonging to the play, which was pleasing to the great bulk of those who were to become the purchasers of his publication.[4] 

Here the New Bibliographic theory of memorial reconstruction is turned on its head. All of the familiar pieces are present: actors’ elaborations, piratical publishers, an appeal to less sophisticated playgoers (and readers). But these elements appear in a strangely inverted form, demonstrating that it is Q1, not Q2 or F, that brings us closest to Shakespeare’s manuscript. In reactions like this one, we can see how deeply the uncanny historicity of Q1 has affected readings of its text. The common thread in virtually all of the early responses to this passage—taken to the extreme by the author in the Gentleman’s Magazine—is relief at the absence of the vulgar phrase in what was largely imagined to be Shakespeare’s original draft.[5] For Boaden, “the original play” seems to mean the received text of Q2/F—original not because it is Shakespeare’s first draft but rather because it is the original text with which the world was familiar. In other words, Boaden as well is expressing relief at the lack of indecency in the newly discovered version, but whether this refers to contrary matters or to the absence of the lines about “nothing” lying “between maids’ legs” is impossible to determine. Contrary to modern views, these early critics understand Q1 to be a much better text of this passage: closer to Shakespeare’s hand, further from the corrupting influence of the theater, and free of the vulgarities that appeal to the common people but have no place in Shakespeare’s canon. What interests me about this response is not so much the relief that these readers feel at seeing contrary matters in Q1, which after all may not be surprising if we think of the stereotypical prudery of the nineteenth century. Rather, I am interested in the idea that underlies that relief as its necessary precondition, one more in keeping with Foucault’s revision of our “repressive hypothesis” about the Victorian period.[6] In order to feel relieved that the contrary matters of Q1 is not obscene, one must believe that the country matters of Q2 and F is. Most of the early writers on Q1 simply take this obscenity for granted. As I will show, however, the earlier reception history of Hamlet, both in print and on stage, makes clear that this supposed obscene pun was never simply self-evident, as editors generally imagine. The obscenity was just beginning to be heard when Q1 appeared, and the growing consensus about country matters entirely determined the reading of this passage in Q1. In turn this understanding of the newly discovered edition only confirmed and entrenched the idea that the received text contained an obscene joke. The belatedness of the reemergence of Q1 thus prevents any sort of analysis of its text that does not depend on and feed back into an already hardening interpretation of the familiar version.

This dialectic continues to haunt our analyses of country/contrary matters. Like these early readers of Q1, modern editors and critics have in general simply assumed they know that country matters is obscene and always has been. As Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson have demonstrated, Hamlet’s line has long caused problems for editors, readers, and performers, who have subjected country matters to a variety of cuts, bowdlerizations, and coy glosses over the years.[7] But while critics and editors often cannot bring themselves to make it explicit, they all seem to agree that we get the joke. In his influential Arden edition, Harold Jenkins glosses country matters as “physical love-making (with a popular pun on the first syllable).” The note is indirect not only in refusing to name the pun but also in its unclear usage of popular: Was this a widespread pun? A pun that was greatly enjoyed? One used by the lower classes? In fact, Jenkins seems to be using the word mainly to distance himself and his readers from the vulgarity. G. R. Hibbard follows a similar formula in his Oxford edition: “Sexual intercourse (quibbling indecently on the first syllable of country).” David Bevington’s gloss is virtually identical: “Sexual intercourse. (With a bawdy pun on the first syllable of country).”[8] The coy gloss has become a cliché; see Timothy McBride’s poem “Country Matters,” which begins: “Our teacher pointed out the ‘ugly pun’/in Hamlet’s ‘country,’ but he never mouthed/the consummating ‘cunt’” (McBride, “Country,” 22). Most twentieth-century editors employ some version of this circumlocution, referring to the “first syllable of country” or providing a supposedly analogous passage from a contemporary text without spelling out the word itself.[9] They refer also to David Bevington’s Bantam edition: “the course and bawdy things that country folk do (with a pun on the first syllable of country)” (Bevington, ed.,Hamlet, 73); and Edwards’s New Cambridge: “The sexual pun in ‘country’ is found also in the fifteenth century Castle of Perseverance” (Edwards, 157).[10] In their own two-volume, multiple-text edition for the third series Arden, Thompson and Taylor reject the periphrasis, glossing the phrase in one instance as “sexual behaviour, with a pun on ‘cunt’,” and in another as “a vulgar reference, i.e. one suitable for rustics (with a pun on ‘cunt’ . . . ).” The Norton Shakespeare also speaks frankly: “Rustic doings (with an obscene pun on ‘cunt’).”[11] While conventions governing explicitness in glossing may be changing, the striking unanimity among contemporary editors about the meaning of the phrase itself remains.

Such a double entendre is certainly possible here. The word cunt was well established in the lexicon by Shakespeare’s day: the earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is to a London street in existence around 1230 called “Gropecunt Lane,” probably a red-light district. A street of the same name also once existed in York; both were later renamed.[12] Another early use occurs in the Proverbs of Hendyng (before 1325), which offers this bit of advice for prospective brides: “Зeue i cunte to cunni[n]g, And craue affetir wedding” (“Employ your cunt cunningly and press the case for marriage afterward”).[13] The frequent claim that Chaucer could still use the word without a strong sense of its vulgarity may be correct, although the form most associated with The Canterbury Tales is queynte (quaint), which may already be a euphemistic or punning evasion of the Middle English conte, deemed obscene.[14] It is difficult to determine to what extent queynte represents an alternate spelling of conte, and to what extent the distinct word equivalent to modern quaint was being used euphemistically or punningly.[15] By the early modern period the word quaint could simply denote vagina, as in Florio’s definition of potta, given later in this paragraph. In his Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, Gordon Williams reports that by the sixteenth century the word was becoming taboo in English, and therefore its “printed use, as with fuck, is largely Scottish,” as in the anonymous Scottish play Philotus (1603): “Put doun thy hand and graip hir cunt.” While English usages do appear throughout the early modern period even in print—see the definition of the Italian potta as “a womans priuie parts, a cunt, a quaint” in Florio’s dictionary (1598)—such instances are “exceptional,” not the rule.[16]

The increasingly taboo nature of the word is often said to have driven writers to punning glances at it, and the country of Hamlet’s phrase features prominently in such claims.[17] Numerous contemporary parallels have been suggested, including other possible Shakespearean instances. Williams connects the phrase with Touchstone’s reference to the rural couples in As You Like It as “country copulatives,” and with Donne’s “The Good-Morrow,” lines that editors often pair with Hamlet’s: “I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we lov’d; were we not wean’d till then? / But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?”[18] In personal communication, Lars Engle suggests that if country does not include a pun on cunt here, it may carry meanings connected with “bundling” or other “unschooled” sexual pleasures. A version that circulated in manuscript has the variant line, “sucked on childish pleasures sillily,” but such variants are common in manuscript circulation and therefore cannot be easily taken as bowdlerization. Hamlet’s entire phrase appears in Sidney’s New Arcadia, the only other possibly bawdy instance of the collocation country matters in pre-Restoration texts in Early English Books Online (admittedly imperfect for full-text searching), where in general the phrase simply means affairs concerning the country or agriculture. At the end of Book 7 of Actes and Monuments (1583), for instance, after writing of events on the Continent, John Foxe noted that “it remayneth after this degresse, to returne and reduce our story againe, to our owne countrey matters, heere done and passed at home” (2.972); and in a 1628 translation of Virgil’s Eclogues, the gloss notes that “Thalia, (that is the Muse which hath preheminence over the fields) did first daign to sport in Theocritus his verse, applying it selfe first to sing of Country matters” (Lathum, Virgils, sig. G3r). After Musidorus/Dorus has recounted his adventures to Zelmane/Pyrocles, including his wooing of Mopsa, Zelmane says to the shepherd Dametas: “I shall grow . . . skilfull in country matters if I haue often conference with your seruaunt.” Peggy Knapp argues that a pun on cunt here “is intended to further the deception of Musidorus’s disguise, while it allows Zelmane/Pyrocles to talk with his cousin about love and pastoral terrains (country-ness).”[19] The trouble with these parallels is that it is hard to know whether “country” simply indicates, with no pun at all, the kind of rustic earthiness, sexual license, or general naivete that London writers commonly attributed to provincial folk.Williams himself writes that the country “is a refuge for lovers,” the “polar opposite to court or city as a place of innocent sexuality,” and “an unending source of fresh young women to replace the jaded London whores” (Dictionary, 1.316), adducing examples from the drama. But it is hard to differentiate these examples, where he apparently sees no pun, from Hamlet’s and Touchstone’s lines, where he does. After all, Touchstone’s “copulatives” (those who are joining together, those who are copulating) are literally in the country; the pleasures to which Donne refers are childishly innocent, as the country was often imagined to be in comparison with the city and court; and Zelmane’s joke may simply concern the gap between the Musidorus’s true identity and his rural disguise. The difficulty of identifying historical puns can be seen in the frequent caveats that editors and critics deploy in footnotes: “Some instances of country refer, of course, simply to the terrain or call attention to the rural scene.”[20] But discerning the difference between these uses and punning uses is precisely the problem.

Take George Chapman’s continuation of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, for instance, in which Leander is satirically compared to “an emptie Gallant full of forme.” Chapman writes that he “Hath seene the hot Low Countries, not their heat.” A. R. Braunmuller may have been thinking of Hamlet when he glossed the line as meaning that the gallant “has lived riotously in the Low Countries without suffering from venereal disease,” and suggested that “Chapman may have had in mind the common pun on ‘low countries.’”[21] Certainly Shakespeare could pun on the “lowness” of the Low Countries. In Comedy of Errors, the Syracusan Dromio famously describes the body of Nell the kitchen maid in an extended geographical metaphor. At the end of the exchange, Antipholus asks “Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?” and Dromio replies: “Oh sir, I did not looke so low” (F, sig. H4v). And yet, the same problem obtains, since we do not know whether Chapman’s “Low Countries” includes a specific pun on cunt or merely a reference to the lower parts of the female body. In Errors Shakespeare does not use the word countries at all: a reference to female genitalia could be conveyed simply by referring to the Netherlands. Perhaps Chapman’s “Low Countries” is simply another example of this sort of reference, without the syllabic pun.

In all these cases, with a bit of critical ingenuity one could certainly read a pun in country, and some readers in the early modern period may well have done so, but there is little inherent in their contexts that demands such a reading. There is, however, at least one instance in the early modern period in which country clearly and overtly carries a pun on cunt. In an anonymous Restoration burlesque, entitled Homer Alamode, the Second Part, we read a description of Calypso,

who put off Boddis

And Petticoat, nay, and fine Smock,

And there she shew’d her dainty Nock,

Plump Buttocks, Breasts, and trembling Thighs,

With many other Rarities.

And so did Circe; but I swore,

Still sight of Count--ry pleas’d me more:

And rather chose to leave them both

Than Ithaca, I’ll take my Oath. . . .Homer, sigs. G3r-v.

In this pornographic passage, the pun in “Count--ry” seems clear, since that word punningly looks back to the description of Calypso and Circe’s naked bodies, and forward to Ithaca, emphasizing Odysseus’s choice to return home rather than indulge in sexual pleasure. In this case, however, the reader’s attention is drawn to the pun by the typography, which sets off the initial syllable with dashes.The spelling of the word as cuntry is sometimes understood as a similar attempt to draw attention to the pun, but this seems unlikely given the variability of spelling in general in the period. A reference in a Marprelate pamphlet to “cuntry Parsons & Fickers” may indeed carry the pun, since “ficken” was German slang for “fuck,” but the spelling cuntry was also used by the Earl of Essex in a letter to Queen Elizabeth, where it was hardly likely to involve an obscene pun.[22] In cases such as the one in Hamlet, where we do not have typographic cues, would such a pun have been so clear?

The use of the typographic cue in Homer Alamode, in other words, indicates not simply that a pun on cunt could be gotten across in country but, more important for my argument, that the pun had to be gotten across to the reader or audience. It was not simply always present in the word but had to be made present.The same is true of the story about the Restoration actress who flubbed her line: “Crying, O my Dear Count! She Inadvertently left out, O, in the pronuntiation of the Word Count! giving it a Vehement Accent, put the House into such a Laughter, that London Bridge at low Water was silence to it” (Downes, Roscius, 22). But this does not indicate that a pun on cunt was present in the word count (or country), as it has sometimes been read. Just the opposite: it shows that the word had to be accidentally pronounced differently in order for the obscenity to appear. Quite apart from the fact that Homer Alamode is considerably later than Hamlet and may not be the best guide to the original reception of country matters, then, the burlesque poem also makes clear that puns are a transactional language use that depends on a particular context and moment. They may be activated in the same word at one time and not another. Perhaps Richard Burbage made this pun present to audiences by the way he pronounced country matters, but we do not know; perhaps some spectators heard the pun and others did not. We do know that readers of Hamlet in its early editions were given no typographical cues like the dashes in Homer Alamode to prompt them to read the word in this way.

Nonetheless, a sexual reference in Hamlet’s words would certainly be in keeping with the continuation of the exchange in Q2 and F: the part of the passage that does not appear at all in Q1, to the relief of the Gentleman’s Magazine. Here Hamlet makes a far more explicit reference to genitalia, although whether male or female is debatable:

Ham. Do you thinke I meant Country matters?

Ophe. I thinke nothing, my Lord.

Ham. That’s a faire thought to lye between Maids legs

Ophe. What is my Lord?

Ham. Nothing. (F, sig. 2o6r)

As Thompson and Taylor note, “‘Thing’ could be a euphemism for a man’s penis; alternatively nothing (the figure nought) could refer to a woman’s vagina.”[23] In either case, the double entendre seems certain, given the clear reference to what lies “between maids’ legs.” We might read the lines as encompassing Hamlet’s typically double perspective: it is a “fair thought” both that “no thing”—no penis—will lie “between maids’ legs,” thereby ensuring their chastity; and, with his usual misogynistic sarcasm falling heavily on the word fair, that “nothing”—a vagina—lies “between maids’ legs,” thereby ensuring their wantonness. Indeed, the entire passage as it stands in Q2 and F lends itself to numerous possible sexual puns, not only these but also head and lap and even possibly Ophelia’s I / ay / eye, which (in other contexts, though not usually this one) is often glossed as carrying a pun on vagina, and occasionally on penis as well.[24] 

The sexual banter of the passage as a whole has thus cemented editors’ belief in a specific pun on cunt in country matters. Clearly country matters refers generally to sex, imagined to be more freely available and vigorously practiced in rural areas, but does that reference necessarily involve the pun that editors have found in its first syllable? In fact, editors and other readers have not always “known” that the line contained any pun at all, and our own contemporary assurance that we do has blinded us to other possibilities and other histories in this passage—just as it did for the earliest readers of the alternate version in Q1. The genealogy of this particular variant, shaped by the uncanny history of Q1, can therefore illuminate larger issues in how we understand Shakespeare’s texts and make that understanding widely available, or inevitable, in editions of those texts.

Underlying the editorial certainty about country matters is a largely unexamined idea of glossing. Editorial annotation has been little theorized, especially when compared to the large amount of scholarship devoted to how to edit the text itself. Most contemporary editions of Shakespeare make do with a brief prefatory mention of their principles of glossing, such as Bevington’s statement that he has “aimed at explaining difficult passages, not just single words, keeping in mind the questions that readers might ask as to possible meanings.”[25] The question left unaddressed here, as Ian Small has written generally of the practice of annotation, is precisely “the one which motivates [the] whole rationale for annotation—namely, what constitutes the understanding of a literary work.”[26] For the plays that Bevington is annotating, exactly where do those “possible meanings” reside: In the text itself? In the author’s intention? In the minds of the plays’ first spectators? In current performance practice?

Overwhelmingly, however unexpressed it may be, editors of Shakespeare rely on a historicist conception of meaning that attempts to bridge the gap between what words and allusions meant then and what the reader might not understand now. As Martin Battestin, one of the few theorists of glossing, has written: “The editor in annotating a work intends to make the meaning of the text more intelligible to the reader, on the one hand by recovering for him certain information . . . once known to the author’s contemporaries but now obscure, and on the other hand by placing the author’s ideas and expressions in the context of his own writings and those of his contemporaries.”[27] Walker’s essay is concerned only with annotation of vocabulary, but like Battestin’s it is based in a theory of meaning that is historical and strongly authorial. It is true that Shakespearean critics today are usually less interested than Battestin in such an author-centered understanding of meaning: many include notes about cultural context that may not necessarily have been immediately present in the author’s mind or literary intentions, alongside occasional references to the interpretations of modern theatrical productions.


Frequently cited Shakespeare editions

These editions, cited in notes by the following abbreviations, are listed chronologically. For multi-volume works, I use the format “” or, if a volume contains multiple parts, “” If the volumes have multiple imprint dates, the abbreviation takes the date of the volume containing Hamlet. If the edition appears in Murphy, Shakespeare in Print, I provide the reference number.

Theobald 1733 | Theobald, Lewis, ed. The Works of Shakespeare. 7 vols. London: A. Bettesworth and C. Hitch, J. Tonson, F. Clay, W. Feales, and R. Wellington, 1733. Murphy §206.

Steevens 1773 | Steevens, George, with Samuel Johnson, eds. The Plays of William Shakespeare. 10 vols. London: C. Bathurst et al., 1773. Murphy §332.

Steevens 1778 | Steevens, George, with Samuel Johnson and Isaac Reed, eds. The Plays of William Shakespeare. 10 vols. and 2 supplementary vols. London: C. Bathurst et al., 1778-80. Murphy §343-44.

Johnson 1765 | Johnson, Samuel, ed. The Plays of William Shakespeare. 8 vols. London: J. and P. Knapton et al., 1747. Murphy §283.

Malone 1790 | Malone, Edmond, ed. The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare. 10 vols. London: J. Rivington and Sons et al., 1790. Murphy §357.

Boswell 1821 | Boswell, James, ed. The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare. 21 vols. London: F.C. and J. Rivington et al., 1821. Murphy §470.

Caldecott 1819 | Caldecott, Thomas, ed. Hamlet and As You Like It. A Specimen of an Edition of Shakespeare. London: John Murray, 1819. Murphy §456. Irregularly paginated: I cite the “text of Hamlet” or “notes to Hamlet.”

Singer 1826 | Singer, Samuel Weller, ed. The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare. 10 vols. Chiswick: Charles Whittingham, 1826. Murphy §478.

Jenkins | Jenkins, Harold, ed. Hamlet. Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1982. Murphy §1339.

Hibbard | Hibbard, G.R., ed. Hamlet. Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987. Murphy §1533.

Bevington | Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.

Edwards | Edwards, Philip, ed. Hamlet. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Murphy §1568.

Norton | Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. New York: Norton, 1997. Murphy §1706.

Thompson-Taylor Q2 | Thompson, Ann, and Neil Taylor, eds. Hamlet. Arden Shakespeare. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006.

Thompson-Taylor Q1/F | Thompson, Ann, and Neil Taylor, eds. Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623. Arden Shakespeare. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006.


[1] “Hamlet,” Literary, 59.

[2] “Hamlet,” Morning, 3; “Shakespeare,” Kaleidoscope (1 February 1825), 260-62; “Shakespeare,” Circulator, 79-80, in truncated form; “Recovered,” United (1 May 1825).

[3] “Shakespeare,” Kaleidoscope (25 January 1825), 254.

[4] “Literary,” Gentleman’s, 69. A similar, but not verbatim, article appeared as “Shakspeare,” Circulator, 60. These early responses probably underlie a later instance from 1875 recounted in Taylor and Thompson, “Obscenity,” 491.

[5] See also Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, 2.208: Hamlet “ought to have placed some guard upon his fancy when he forces a conversation with Ophelia; Hamlet is gross, at least in the original play” (2.208).

[6] Foucault, History.

[7] Taylor and Thompson, “Obscenity.”

[8] Jenkins, 295; Hibbard, 254; Bevington, 1122.

[9] Taylor and Thompson, “Obscenity,” 493-97.

[10] See also Orgel and Braunmuller, eds., Complete, 1368: “rustic (with a bawdy pun on the first syllable: ‘cunt-ry’).”

[11] Thompson-Taylor Q1/F, 117; Thompson-Taylor Q2, 305; Norton, 1710.

[12] See “cunt, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, 1.

[13] “cunt, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, 1. I have followed the Middle English Dictionary in altering “cunnig” to “cunni[n]g.”

[14] So the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition) surmises in its etymological note on “quaint, n.1”: “either punningly after CUNT n. or as a euphemistic substitution for that word.”

[15] On this question, see the debate among Benson, “Queynte”; Fleming, “Quaint”; and Delany, “Anatomy.” Dane argues against a pun in “Queynte”; as does Knapp, Time-Bound, 136.

[16] “Cunt,” in Williams, Dictionary, 1.352, italics substituted for boldface; Florio, Worlde, sig. 2A6v.

[17] See Knapp, Time-Bound, 139; and Williams, Shakespeare’s, 87-88: such puns result from a “taboo evaded by disguise,” and “dramatists smuggle [the word’ in by such devices.” See also Sheidlower, F Word, xii-xiii: “The demand for bawdy humor meant that in the past, as now, writers found ways to use certain words even if such words were prohibited by social conventions”; the example of country matters follows.

[18] “Country,” in Williams, Dictionary, 1.316-17. On As You Like It, see also Knapp, Time-Bound, 140. On Donne’s usage, see Redpath, ed., Songs, lines quoted from 227, reference to Hamlet at 229; Braden, ed., Sixteenth-Century, 526.

[19] Sidney, Arcadia, sigs. Q1r; Knapp, Time-Bound, 140.

[20] Knapp, Time-Bound, 203n4.

[21] Marlowe and Chapman, Hero, sig. N1v; Braunmuller, “Hot,” 99.

[22] I am grateful to Kristen Poole for alerting me to the Marprelate reference (Marprelate, Oh, sig. G1r); for the Essex letter, see Doughtie, “Earl,” 356.

[23] Thompson-Taylor Q2, 305.

[24] On eye, see Williams, Dictionary, 1.453-56; Partridge,Shakespeare’s, 130-31; Maguire, “Feminist,” 70.

[25] Bevington, vii. See Cordner’s comment that “editors themselves generally remain silent about the principles or preferences that shape their style of annotation” (“Actors,” 181). For a salient exception, see Hunter, “Social.”

[26] Small, “Editor,” 189.

[27] Battestin, “Rationale,” 8. See also Walker, “Principles.”

Join the colloquy

Shakespeare and Cervantes Then and Now

An early modern transatlantic world in which information moved slowly could hardly have noticed the date, but 407 years later it registers for us: on April 23, 1616 in the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, about eleven natural days apart, something ended. And perhaps something else began.


Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, ages 68 and 52 respectively, died on this date. One of them covered the peninsular and Mediterranean world of his time as a chamberlain and soldier, while the other moved between his native town and the capital, only a hundred miles apart. One tried most of the avenues open to a young man of precarious social status (and perhaps converso lineage), while the other settled into a routine and increasingly prosperous existence in a new industry.  

While Cervantes was older, they belonged to a single generation of thinkers and writers born in the years around 1550: this was a group (including Félix Lope de Vega in Spain and Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney in England) for whom the religious divisions of the early Renaissance were a settled fact, who accepted the power of their vernacular languages, and who saw literary genres without classical precedents arise to represent their world. By the mid-century moment in which Cervantes and Shakespeare were born, the Renaissance is a conscious period with several phases in its past, generational differences, and at least one major episode yet to be written in the seventeenth century, to which both writers will contribute in the late phase of their careers.

What ended on April 23, 1616, and what began? This Colloquy gathers current work, formal and informal, on both figures, together and apart. Recent books by Jeffrey Masten and Zachary Lesser, excerpted here, represent the turn in Shakespeare studies toward a discursive philology grounded in textual particulars. A post by our longstanding blogger William Egginton, drawn from his book of 2016 titled The Man Who Invented Fiction, addresses the durable topic of how Cervantes built characters. Alexander Samson's article on James Mabbe's translation of the Exemplary Novels, which first appeared in Republics of Letters in 2015, revisits the question of what seventeenth-century English adaptations took from Cervantes and redirects our attention to Mabbe's work as an "intercultural agent." Several of Arcade's contributing bloggers of past years—Timothy Hampton, Ruth Kaplan, and Ricardo Padrón—are represented by their observations out of reading and teaching. And my lecture to the audience of Humanities West, a San Francisco institution that promotes the public humanities, is intended to introduce the relation between Shakespeare and Cervantes in a somewhat provocative spirit. Consider this Colloquy an invitation to think at once about these two figures, and perhaps to contribute your own work or comment.  

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