Swearing in Romeo and Juliet

You know how sometimes people act like Shakespeare was a wild, crazy, sleazy guy in order to make kids think he's hip? We here at the Smart Aleck's Guide remember a time when a guy came into our high school to promote Shakespeare and told us that the works were originally full of swear words that editors just left out.

The guy struck as a little desperate. Attempts to "bring Shakespeare down to your level" are generally about as lame as attempts to "make history come alive." If you really want to understand Romeo and Juliet, shouldn't you have your teacher organize a big sword fight in the middle of your local downtown? (If you don't have one of those, use Wal Mart).

Some of the details of Shakespeare's life can be pieced together, but what kind of guy he was is sort of in dispute. You can argue that he was "Wild Bill" Shakespeare, who partied hard, carried on affairs with people of both genders, and got in a lot of fights. He was a theatre person, after all, and just about ever reliable "personal anecdote" we have about him is about him being a smart aleck. But you can also, from the same evidence, argue that he was a good, upstanding man who took care of his family, and was about as sober as anyone was in those days (when weak ale was safer to drink than water). He never went to jail, after all, and never killed anyone, so far as we know (unlike a couple of his fellow playwrights).

Still, WERE there swear words in his plays?

We can think of at least a couple of examples. There're some awfully naughty sex puns hidden between the lines (ask your teacher to explain the "thus she makes her great Ps" joke in Twelfth Night at your own risk), but Shakespeare didn't really use the dreaded S word or the word turd, so far as we know (unlike Ben Jonson).

There were SOME words changed, though - in some cases, when we have more than one early versions of the text, the various versions are greatly different. Some say that this represents Shakespeare's own revisions, and some say it was the printers either screwing things up or cleaning them up. In most cases, you could make an argument either way (though suggesting that Shakespeare ever revised anything himself is the kind of thing that will still get some academics to bean you with a folding chair).

And Romeo and Juliet features one clear example of a swear word that got cleaned up. In Act 2, Scene 1, Mercutio gives a talk about Romeo and Rosaline, Romeo's previous crush, whom he thinks Romeo is out looking for.
This is how it appears in the first quarto, as well as in most modern text:

                   If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
    Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
    And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
    As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
    Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
    An open et cetera, thou a poperin pear!

The word here is in the last line, where the text says "O, that she were an open et cetera, thou a poperin pear."  It's the "et cetera" that seems to be wrong - based on the meter, there are a couple of extra syllables in that last line. 

Anyway, there are three texts of Romeo and Juliet - two "quarto" versions (copies about the size of a modern paperback that were sold in Shakespeare's lifetime) and the one in First Folio, the "boxed set" of Shakespeare's plays that came out a few years after he died. The first quarto says "open et cetera." The second quarto and the folio say "Open or," which fits the meter, but doesn't make any sense.

No scholar dared to say it until well into the 20th century, but the "real" word here is clearly "arse," the British version of the dreaded a-word. It's fairly obvious, given that Mercutio was just talking about medlars, a kind of fruit that was commonly known in Shakespeare's day as an "open arse" because, well, it sort of looked like an open butt. See?

It's always interesting to see how various productions will do this line. An early 80s BBC version actually has Mercutio say "et cetera," but he pauses before saying it and indicates his nether regions, so you know he's using it as a euphemism (the best part of that version is a young Alan Rickman as Tybalt...it's amusing to imagine him adding "Potter!" to the end of lines, as in "Peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee...POTTER!"). The 1996 version with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio had Mercutio go ahead and say the a-word. Most versions we've seen just leave this whole part altogether.

This is the kind of stuff we talk about in our Shakespeare guides. The first one, a guide to Romeo and Juliet, is out now:

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