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Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Twelfth Night, or What You Will


by William Shakespeare

Analysis: Steaminess Rating

Exactly how steamy is this story?


Don't get too excited about our "R" rating. There's no sex on stage. That said, there are plenty of provocative moments. (We cover many of these in our discussion of important "Quotes" for the theme of "Love.") There are also enough dirty jokes and bawdy allusions to bump Twelfth Night from a "PG-13" to an "R." Here's a few examples:

  1. "C-U-T"

    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. It is, in
    contempt of question, her hand.
    Her c's, her u's and her t's. Why that? (2.5.88-92)

    When Malvolio finds the letter Maria forged to look like it was written by Olivia, he's thrilled because he thinks he recognizes the distinctive scrawl of Olivia's handwriting. The joke here is that the prudish and clueless Malvolio spells out the word "Cut," which is slang for female genitals. (In case the audience didn't catch the joke the first time around, Sir Andrew spells it out again.) Last, but certainly not least, the reference to Olivia's "great P's" is a classic potty joke that alludes to Olivia urinating, something that would probably gross out the very uptight Malvolio.
  2. "Spinning"

    But it becomes me well enough, does 't not?
    Excellent! It hangs like flax on a distaff, and I
    hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs
    and spin it off. (1.3.99-102)

    When Sir Andrew asks for Toby Belch's opinion about his hair, Toby gamely answers that Andrew's hair is super-cute, like "flax." (Flax is a popular plant fiber used to make home-spun linen on a tool called a "distaff," which is typically held between the spinner's legs for more leverage.) The brilliance of the joke (for those who appreciate Shakespeare's sophomoric humor) is that Toby is able to use the simile in order to create a very bawdy image of a housewife grabbing Sir Andrew's hair during sex (while she has him "between her legs"). So, there you have it.
  3. "Hanged"

    My lady will hang thee for thy
    Let her hang me. He that is well hanged in this
    world needs to fear no colors.
    Yet you will be hanged for being so long absent.
    Or, to be turned away, is not that as good as a
    hanging to you?
    Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage.
    and, for turning away, let summer bear it out. (1.5.3-6; 16-20)

    When Maria warns Feste that Olivia will "hang" him with a noose or fire him for playing hooky from work, Feste turns the comment into a joke about the size of his penis. His quip that "many a hanging prevents a bad marriage," has a double meaning. First, he suggests that in romantic relationships, it's often a good thing when a woman "turns away" a man because it prevents couples from entering into lousy marriages. The second implication is that a "well-hung" man can "prevent" a bad marriage by pleasing his wife in bed.

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