Shakespeare/A derogatory pun


Hi Dr T.

I asked my teachers this question in a class tonight, and they both immediately shot me down, but I am not convinced. I haven't found any textual evidence to support my interpretation, but to me it seems obvious. It concerns the dialogue below from Twelfth Night:

If you be not mad, be gone; if
you have reason, be brief: 'tis not that time of
moon with me to make one in so skipping a dialogue.

Will you hoist sail, sir? here lies your way.

No, good swabber; I am to hull here a little

Most editions acknowledge the reference to Olivia's menstrual cycle in "not that time of moon" However, I think the nautical references that follow serve to play off of this previous theme of menstruation, namely "swabber." Of course a "swabber" is a shipmate who sweeps the deck, and therefore an insult to Maria, and plays off her request to "hoist your sail." However "swabber" seems to have a double meaning to me, i.e. cleaning up after Olivia's time of the month. I just don't think Shakespeare chose that metaphor by accident. And knowing him, if it sounds dirty it probably is. My teachers said I took it too far. I think there are much more subtle puns to be found in Shakespeare, and this one just seems obvious to me. I wish I could find some footnote somewhere to back me up on this. Am I crazy? What do you think?

Hi, Kate!

Well, this is certainly a refreshingly new question.  No, I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you are extremely clever, intelligent, perceptive, and really in tune with Shakespeare’s style to be able to see new puns and put it all together. I commend your creativity!

I apologize for the length of time it took me to answer you, but I did do my best to consult as many relevant reference books as I could find, and good research takes time.

I agree with you that the puns are there.  No question. And, certainly, if this were a 20th or 21st century play, there would be no problem in taking the slang connotations along with what might appear on the surface.

At this point, I probably should say that it’s not currently very popular among literary critics and scholars to analyze literature according to hypotheses of authorial intent, and to that extent, the puns are in the passage, and therefore I believe a director and the actors should feel free to try to go for some laughs in a production of the play for today’s audiences.  I have no problem with that. But to establish whether Shakespeare’s actors and audiences “got it,” as well, I believe we have to ask whether Shakespeare was aware of what he wrote -- and whether the jokes were deliberate and conscious on his part.  

The simplest answer is that it is quite possible that Shakespeare deliberately and consciously included the double-entendres as you’ve shown us in your analysis.  It’s too well-done to deny that it’s possible, and it’s even funnier when we take into account that the character who is creating the punning response about the “swabber” of Olivia’s womanly cycle is not the male they see but a woman, herself, who is just as familiar with menstrual cycles as Olivia and Maria are. In the realm of the “possible,” there are many scenarios regarding the playwright’s reasons for tossing in this metaphor; someone dared him to work such a joke into his next play, perhaps, or maybe he lost a bet?  

However, if it were intended for the audiences to catch, we must ask: would they have caught on to this level of the jokes?  I don’t know. They were surely intelligent enough, but the question is whether they would have expected such jokes on the public stage from Shakespeare, or anyone, for that matter.  This must lead us into the cultural level of words, puns, comedy -- what people found funny and what they did not at this time period.

There are actually not very many editors who point to the reference to her monthly courses in Olivia's line, but all of them are modern, and none of the historic editors closer to Shakespeare's day offer this as a gloss on the line. A problem here is that, instead of a reference to menstruation, the line makes perfect sense as a reference to a different usage of "moon" in what we might call the "pop-psychology" of the day (though they certainly didn't have those terms or even any concept of what we call "psychology," really). I will touch on that cultural belief system (the moon's influences) below.

On "swabber": I conducted some research (not terribly extensive, but I was able to cover the major linguistic sources for this period).  I found no evidence that anyone has ever interpreted “swabber” in any way but the nautical. Now, I know what you mean by your interpretation, but in the context of the play’s scene, that particular metaphor (beginning with Olivia’s line about the moon) comes out of the blue and stops with “swabber.”  

However, as a nautical joke, it fits especially well into the sequence of jokes in the context of this entire passage. They have been trading off put-downs since Viola walked in, and, as you’ve pointed out, the Swabber was an especially low rank on shipboard, so this works as a jab at Maria. Moreover, the Swabber, more than any other unless perhaps the Boatswain, was expected to be extremely low in social class and therefore presumed to be foul-mouthed.  This aspect also fits with the motif of trading-off insults, since it was said that Viola was “saucy at the gates” (sharp-tongued, bawdy with the servants who answered the door). So, near the beginning of the insult-fest, Viola begs that they be nice to her, claiming that she is “comptible, even to the least sinister usage” (overly sensitive to the tiniest insult).  Yet now that she has the opportunity, she tosses the shoe to the other foot and essentially calls Maria foul-mouthed.

My feeling is that it’s not only the details I’ve just offered but also -- and especially -- another motif throughout this passage that argue it may be “possible” but it’s just not “probable” that Shakespeare deliberately worked in the puns on Olivia’s feminine cycles.  Here’s why.

The comedy in this passage works on a well-worn but wonderful pattern that, while the three of them trade barbed comments, they also try to look like the model of good manners and elegance.  Olivia keeps suggesting that Viola skip all the lovey-dovey stuff in the message and just get to the point, while Viola defends the flowery stuff as being “poetical” (and, besides, she “took great pains to study it [i.e., to memorize it]”), while sneaking in more barbed comments at Olivia (“what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve”) (imagine: the nerve of this boy! They’ve never met before, yet here he is, presuming to lecture her about accepting and rejecting love!)  So, you see, when they get to the passage you’ve quoted, there is a context already established of eloquently insulting one another. The nautical metaphor fits so cleverly with what has gone before, since Maria has said that Viola was ill-mannered toward her even before she brought her into Olivia’s presence.

Further, in Shakespeare’s London, any person you pulled off the street --whether rich or poor, educated or not --  would know quite easily what Olivia means when she says,  “'tis not that time of moon with me to make one in so skipping a dialogue.”  The moon’s phases were thought to be the major influence over human moods and emotions (hence our word “lunacy” from luna for moon), so she is saying, basically, “I’m not in the mood to put up with this 'jolly' conversation” between herself and Viola for very long.  Or, actually, to be more accurate, we should say, “I would need a different phase of the moon and a different mood altogether before I’d take part in this for much longer!” Notice that the wording really is toward the positive, that there exists a phase of the moon that could put her in a better mood, so it doesn’t really lend itself toward the euphemism of “time of the month” = menstruation = a bad mood, since in that context, there is no other moon-phase that is commonly used to refer to the time of not menstruating.

Maria’s next remark (“Will you hoist sail, sir?”) includes a bit of stage-direction in it, I should think, indicating that Viola is standing, mute, for some time after Olivia’s statement, probably desperately trying to think of some way to keep from being dismissed before she has delivered her boss’s message.  This pause tells us that she of course has been just “winging it,” so to speak, all along, but at the moment she’s stumped.

Thus Viola’s response to Maria’s nudge (“Here lies your way” -- she might even be tugging at her arm, since Olivia has clearly said that she’s done with this conversation) is to continue the nautical metaphor and cleverly to continue the insults delivered in the guise of perfect manners: “No, good swabber; I am to hull here a little longer.”  The wording here suggests some more stage business, since “I am to” indicates something like “it’s my destiny” rather than “I choose to,” and since “to hull” in a ship meant to drift without sail, pushed to and fro by the wind on the hull of the ship, the line may call for Maria’s pulling Viola one direction while Olivia pulls her back.  But, in any case, the whole passage seems perfectly unified in nautical metaphors.

The other aspect I’d like to offer you as to why the two phrases probably do not refer to Olivia’s menstrual cycle is that the hilarity of this whole passage comes from their fine, mannerly, genteel behavior and speech, even while they are insulting one another.  “Oh, I am of such a delicate nature that any kind of insult destroys me,” says Viola to the charge that she had been foul-mouthed to Maria and the others who answered the call at the gate. Maria:  “Hey, didn’t you hear her? Shove off! Oh, wait—[shifting into silky manner] excuse me, let me just sail you right on out, GOOD sir.”  Viola: “No, GOOD swabber . .  .”  

It’s my feeling that it would be terribly crude, in the total context of the passage, for the Lady Olivia to mention her own menstrual cycle in front of a young man she’s just met, and for that young man then to turn a pun on it that creates most indelicate mental imagery about the duties of her maidservant.  The reference does not fit in this passage, given the veneer of polite, refined conversation that they have established.

Actually, I have to add that I can’t recall that Shakespeare ever makes a joke out of a noblewoman’s monthly cycle, breastfeeding, physical elements of birthing, or any other specifically feminine bodily function.  Not that he was above cheap jokes whenever he could get them in, but the crude and cheap double-entendres tend to be about the male anatomy and its functions, with the occasional crudities aimed at prostitutes (or, in the case of Hero, the “nothing” of Much Ado About Nothing , upper-class women whose sexual behavior had relegated them to the level of prostitutes). Aristocratic women’s bodies, and in particular their reproductive organs, were not to be spoken of, let alone joked about. It would be most indelicate to do so regarding Lady Olivia, certainly. This might seem a contradiction, given the bawdiness of so much of the dialogue in Shakespeare’s plays, but first and foremost, his plays focus on the English class system to an extent that Americans usually cannot emphasize enough to come near the mark.  Olivia is a Countess, which means that she might say naughty things, for sure, but her own body’s flow would not likely be among the topics for bawdy jokes.

Think about this as an emblem of the culture we’re dealing with: the doctor’s exam to determine Queen Elizabeth’s ability to bear children consisted of her answering the doctor’s questions with a curtain completely separating her from him. Not only was he prevented from examining her body, but he was not allowed even to see her face when she answered his questions!  Elizabeth, herself, could speak most bawdily on famous occasions and to the delight of her court, but I believe that the subject of her feminine processes was not ever joked about.

I hope this makes sense.  On the other hand, let me say that there may be linguistic evidence out there somewhere that would induce me to change my mind. Even now, Shakespearean studies remain a changing, shifting discipline that depends on the constant renewal of information about the history of our language and culture, so I am always ready to be shown a new direction, even if only for a few otherwise unnoticed lines.

Thanks for bringing this passage to my attention!  Let me know if you find out more to apply to this question.

Best wishes,
Dr. T.  


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Dr. T.


I can answer questions about Shakespeare's life and times, his plays and poems, the history of criticism and critics' responses to Shakespeare's works, other authors of the time period, the audiences of the time period, Queen Elizabeth I, women of the Renaissance or Early Modern age, history of rhetoric, British drama, etc.


I have taught Shakespeare, Early Modern literature, Early Modern women's literature, the history of rhetoric, Arthurian literature, and related general literary subjects and many others in university classrooms for more than 25 years.

Renaissance Society of America, South-Central Renaissance Society, John Donne Society

3 books with University Presses, 1 book with HarperCollins Press; articles with: Continuum Press, DLB, Gale Research Shakespearean Criticism and Shakespearean Criticism Yearbook, College English journal, Studies in English Literature journal, CEA Critic journal, Renascence journal, Texas Papers on Language and Literature journal, several others.

Ph.D. in British Renaissance Literature and Rhetoric; M.A. in English; B.A. English and Theatre

Awards and Honors
I was editor of a scholarly journal for 10 years; Recipient of my university's Recognition Awards for Research, Teaching, and Service; two Sabbatical awards; graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude

Past/Present Clients
Panelist/Reviewer for National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, DC, 2001, 1997, and 1993; Referee for College Literature, Yale University Press (numerous editions of Shakespeare’s plays), College English, Harper/Collins (1992 to 1995: full-length book manuscripts, including the complete manuscript of The HarperCollins World Reader, Volume I.); Dramaturg for local Little Theatre, 2001–03 (including productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Dangerous Liaisons); Dramaturg for various productions in Theatre/Dance Dept at my University (including As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, Measure for Measure, The Tempest)

©2017 All rights reserved.