Here's a basic rule: if you're reading or watching a Shakespeare play, and you're not imagining the actors standing in front of a mosh pit of jeering Londoners waiting to throw vegetables at the stage, you're doing it wrong. Shakespeare might have written the best works in the English language, or given us profound insight into the nature of humanity, or whatever — but his works wouldn't have survived to our day if he hadn't been popular when he was alive, and he wouldn't have been popular when he was alive if he hadn't been able to please the crowd. And that includes a lot of dirty jokes. A lot. Sometimes in incredibly inappropriate places.
We're here to rescue a few of those for you, and retroactively embarrass the heck out of your 14-year-old self who had to stand up in English class and read things that, in retrospect, are absolutely filthy.
This isn't about the stuff that always does crack up 14-year-olds in English class but is totally innocent: the "bring me my long sword, ho!" sort of thing. But the kids who lose it every time the word "ho" is uttered are closer to the spirit of Shakespeare than the teacher who demands they treat the words like museum pieces. Sure, it would be awkward for teachers to explain the Elizabethan double entendres to their students — but pretending they don't exist makes Shakespeare seem unnecessarily stuffy and difficult. So we're going to start with the most obvious innuendoes, and then move on to some seriously advanced sex punnery that is probably going to blow your mind.
"Her very C's, her U's, and her T's"
In Twelfth Night, the pompous butler Malvolio (think of Zazu from The Lion King and you've got the idea) is given a letter that he thinks is from the lady of the house, declaring her love for him. This is how he convinces himself the letter's in her writing:
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.
Looking at it on the page, it spells out "CUT." But if you read it aloud — "her C's, her U's, and her T's" (hint: read the "and" as "N")— it gets a lot dirtier. "And thus makes she her great P's." Uh huh.
Maybe if you were reading Twelfth Night in high school, you might have noticed the acrostic here. But if you did, you probably thought it was unintentional — that stuck-up, stuffy Shakespeare was just obliviously wandering into a sex joke. The irony is that that's exactly what the audience is supposed to think about Malvolio. The other characters spend the rest of the play laughing at him, and he doesn't get why he's a joke.
"Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit"
Romeo and Juliet is probably the most common play to force high schoolers to read. If your English teacher made you read it in class, she probably emphasized the immortal love story, the heartbreaking tragedy. But if you've seen a good stage production, you probably noticed that the first half of Romeo and Juliet is much funnier than the conventional wisdom gives it credit for — it's basically a sex comedy.
There are way too many examples to note — if you'd like a more thorough account of all the innuendoes in the play, go here — but take this one, from the Nurse's first big monologue, talking about something her husband said to a 3-year-old Juliet:
'Yea,' quoth he, 'dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?' and, by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said 'Ay.'
You know the embarrassing stories parents will tell about things their kids said before they understood they were inappropriate, like asking strangers "Do you have a penis?" This is basically that. The nurse is cracking up at her husband getting Juliet to agree that when she's older, instead of being on her face she'll be on her back.
This comes at the end of a long monologue, and by the point high school students get to it they're probably so overwhelmed by the unfamiliar vocabulary that they're just reading the words on the page without comprehending them. Then the teacher calls the Nurse comic relief and nobody understands why. This is why.
"Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie"
Most teachers don't require that their high schoolers read Shakespeare's poetry — maybe the sonnets, but not the long "narrative poems" like "Venus and Adonis." That's a shame, because "Venus and Adonis" is probably more obviously sexual, and therefore more interesting to teenagers, than a lot of the Bard's other work. Here's just one, self-evident example:
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
"I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thine eyes"
Now we're beginning to get into Advanced Shakespearean Innuendo. This is from Much Ado About Nothing — a play that teachers often sell as very funny that then flops when kids only get a few of the jokes. This line, in particular sounds extremely lovey-dovey:
Will you go hear this news, signior?
I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be
buried in thy eyes; and moreover I will go with
thee to thy uncle's.
Beatrice and Benedick are famous for their zingy dialogue, but this just sounds mushy. You might giggle at the part about the lap, but the rest of it sounds sweet.
Except that "die" is actually an Elizabethan euphemism for orgasm. No, seriously. (You might want to reread Romeo and Juliet after finding this out — the main characters spend a lot of the second half of the play talking about death, which sounds pubescently melodramatic at first, but is actually both pubescently melodramatic and pubescently sex-obsessed.)
The most romantic-sounding line in Much Ado About Nothing is actually Benedick slipping a sex joke into an endearment. Doesn't that make Benedick and Beatrice seem much more interesting as a couple?
"It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge"
Hamlet, like Romeo and Juliet, is a play that loses a lot of its depth when it's taught as tragedy with a capital T. That's especially true during the scenes when Hamlet is pretending to be crazy — it's tempting just to write off everything he says as nonsense, and assume you're not supposed to understand it. That's a mistake. There are lots of double entendres — more cruel than sexy, but probably appealing to an adolescent guy looking for ways to call his ex-girlfriend a whore. (Note: Calling your ex-girlfriend a whore is stupid and patriarchal, and Vox does not recommend it, in Elizabethan English or otherwise.)
Take the scene where Hamlet asks Ophelia, "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?" You can figure that one out on your own. But it gets bawdier a few hundred lines later:
You are keen, my lord, you are keen.
It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.
Poor Ophelia is just trying to compliment Hamlet's wit, but he turns "keen" into a synonym for "horny," makes a reference to an erection (his "edge"), and promises to make her moan. It makes the scene a lot more awkward — but it also makes Hamlet much clearer and more human than how he's often taught (and sometimes acted), as a melancholy philosopher. That goes a long way toward understanding Hamlet as a play rather than just a series of soliloquies with a lot of death at the end.
"From hour to hour we ripe and ripe"
Here's a passage from As You Like It, which doesn't need much introduction:
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, 'It is ten o'clock:
Thus we may see,' quoth he, 'how the world wags:
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.'
You can already get glimmers of innuendo here, what with the "ripe" and the "rot" and the "hangs." But while a lot of Elizabethan innuendoes make more sense once you understand the vocabulary, this one makes more sense once you understand the pronunciation. Check out this video at minute 8:05 or so:
Thereby hangs a tale (or a "tail," which is a euphemism for, duh, a penis), indeed.
"Too much of a good thing"
This phrase, from As You Like It, is often used as an example of "Look how Shakespeare's inventions have stayed in our language through the centuries!" But check it out in context, and you'll see what "thing" is supposed to mean (if you can't already guess):
And wilt thou have me?
Ay, and twenty such.
What sayest thou?
Are you not good?
I hope so.
Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?
To get the deeper layer of humor here (beyond the bawdy joke), it helps to go through a little bit of trademark complicated-Shakespearean-comedy plotting. In this scene, a) Rosalind is disguised as a man; b) she's trying to "tutor" Orlando in how to woo a woman; c) the particular woman Orlando wants to woo is Rosalind, whom he fell in love with pre-disguise; and d) Rosalind is "pretending" to be "Rosalind" in a role-play to help train Orlando. But she's making fake Rosalind sound like a terrible person — like any stereotype a young man would have about "females." So in this joke, she's definitely flirting with Orlando about how much she wants his "thing" — but she's also making a faux-misogynistic joke about how sex-obsessed women are.
Much Ado About Nothing
This is pretty straightforward in connection to the last one. Just as male genitals are a "thing," female genitals are "nothing" or "no thing." (In that Hamlet scene from earlier, Hamlet says that "nothing" is "a good thought to lie between maids' legs.") So "much ado about nothing" doesn't just mean a big deal about nothing — it means, well, a lot of hoo-hah over a hoo-hah.
Shakespeare's later (or "mature") comedies often have titles that seem vague and interchangeable: Measure for Measure, As You Like It, All's Well That Ends Well. But Much Ado About Nothing, as an innuendo, makes a lot of sense as the title of the play. The plot really is driven by a bunch of dudes making a big deal out of the supposed virtue or lack of virtue of one woman, Hero. In the end, it becomes clear that everyone was really worked up for no particularly good reason, and everyone can live happily ever after.
"O happy dagger! This is thy sheath"
This is where Shakespearean sex-joke-ology starts getting really dangerous, because we're messing with the very last scene of Romeo and Juliet — something that's supposed to be indisputably tragic. These are Juliet's last words before she dies:
O happy dagger!
(Snatching ROMEO's dagger)
This is thy sheath;
there rust, and let me die.
(Falls on ROMEO's body, and dies)
Seems pretty straightforward to the naked eye. But scholars of Shakespeare are pretty much agreed that Shakespeare was making a Latin sex pun here: the Latin word for "sheath" is vagina. That, in turn, gives a whole new meaning to "let me die" (remember that "die" is a euphemism for orgasm).
Does this ruin a beautiful, romantic tragic tableau? Maybe, if you're the sort of person who thinks that sex and tragedy can't coexist, or who thinks that Romeo and Juliet is supposed to be some kind of model for romance. That's the kind of interpretation that leads people, once they're adults, to look back at the play and shake their heads that it's silly and overrated. But if you think of the title characters as a couple of kids who are in love with love, with sex, and with death — in the way a lot of teenagers are — what happens to them seems both more interesting and more tragic, in an unnecessary and easily preventable sort of way. The really great thing about Shakespearean innuendoes, see, is that they don't just make Shakespeare better for teenagers — they make it better for adults.