Clack dish, dribbling dart of love, Venus' glove, three inch fool and sweet bottom-grass: William Shakespeare really was a wonderfully filthy bugger. There was almost no configuration of human anatomy, no despicable act of lust or unfortunate accomplishment of the bowel that he wasn't prepared to brutally exploit for a dirty laugh or a sharp gasp.
Of course, we're taught at school to take Shakespeare incredibly seriously. To treat him as the cultural touchstone against which all other English language writers must be compared and contrasted. He must be respected, he should be studied and he shall be worshipped by those highly educated folk in the expensive seats. Subject Shakespeare: engage serious face.
You've no doubt sat through at least one interminable English lesson at school being forced to read passage after passage of 'classical' text. You probably had all the juicy bits glossed-over or cut out of a primary school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, or were forced to analyse all the 'good' speeches until that breach looked like a really good option to go forth unto.
The great Victorian playwright George Bernard Shaw even coined the term 'Bardolatry' for all this po-faced lionising. However, he may just have been jealous of the attention.
Perhaps it's because he was also responsible for so much of our literary history that we consider him mandatory for our offsprings' education, but surely no writer in the English language has ever written such beautifully obscene poems, plays and passages. Who else could have written "Oh that she were and open arse and thou a poperin pear"? Pop-her-in, get it? He even invented the word obscene, which is not the kind of thing you'll be thanked for doing in a modern Academy.
Romeo and Juliet, probably Shakespeare's greatest love story, begins not with some swooping romantic passage but with two dirty-minded youngsters (Samson and Gregory), talking about sex, knobs, more sex, venereal diseases and forcing women to bend to their carnal desires. Not that you'd necessarily know all that without a copy of the Cliffs notes firmly grasped in one hand. So much of the language, the metaphors and the allusions that Shakespeare deploys are lost to time and history. A gut busting laugh about one guy's dick smelling of rotten fish due to syphilis is a bit pointless when you've got to go away and research exactly what a 'poor john' was in the Elizabethan era.
I'm not saying that his plays are just Carry On style titillation and innuendo all the way through: they deftly deal with the full width of the human experience and do so with rare style, but they are also meant to be entertainment. Shakespeare's plays were never intended for just the expensively educated or the culturally high-minded. They were intended to entertain and enthral the normal folk who made up the majority of the audience. The 'groundlings' forced to stand, who paid a single penny to enter the theatre and were derided as the 'penny stinkers' by the elite were just as much a part of Shakespeare's audience as the nobles and royals in attendance. He wrote for them and would probably be horrified at the elitism and air of stale conservatism that occasionally surrounds his work today. He was writing plays to be enjoyed by everyone and not merely appreciated by the few.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and there are a flood of new productions happening across the globe (as well as in The Globe). There are enough classical productions that will sate the enthusiasts, but there are also a myriad of re-workings and adaptations that might intrigue even the most hesitant of theatre goers.
So why not stick a big toe into the Shakespeare pond this year and go see Shakespeare performed with items found in your kitchen, or all of the 74 onstage deaths in Shakespeare's works mashed together in one evening, or join us (Magnificent Bastard Productions) for a pint or three at Leicester Square Theatre where we'll be performing A Midsummer Night's Dream with one completely rat-arsed cast member.
Shakespeare would have probably appreciated you going along. After all, what's the point in telling a dirty joke if no-one is around to hear it?
Photography: Rah Petherbridge PhotographySuggest a correction