Shakespearean scholarship tends to accrue a lot of weird bullshit: When you’ve got thousands of PhD candidates desperately looking around for original and unique thesis material there’s a mass tendency to just throw stuff at the wall and hope that something sticks. Unfortunately, some of the stuff that sticks is basically a scholastic urban legend: Dramatic, catchy ideas that are nevertheless without any basis in reality whatsoever.
For example, the recent theatrical release of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing has prompted quite a few mainstream articles talking about the double meaning of the title. “Nothing” and “noting” were homophones in Elizabethan England, which means that the title is effectively a pun — the play is both about “nothing” (i.e., about things which are not true) and “noting” (i.e., spying and eavesdropping). But the claim is also frequently made that “nothing” is a double entendre which meant “vagina” in Shakespeare’s day (i.e., “no thing” or that there is literally nothing between a woman’s legs). Thus the title of the play can be understood to also mean Much Ado About Pussy.
The problem is that, as far as I can tell, it’s not true.
The modern tradition of asserting that “nothing” means “vagina” in Shakespeare appears to date back to Stephen Booth’s 1977 edition of the Sonnets. But Booth doesn’t appear to give any evidence that “nothing” was actually used that way in Elizabethan slang. His claim is based almost entirely around “wouldn’t it be nifty if this sonnet said ‘pussy’ instead of ‘nothing’?” (He also maintains that “all” means “penis” because it sounds like “awl” which looks like a penis. And that “hell” also means vagina because… well, just because.)
This little “factoid” has become popular because it’s so delightfully dirty and you can use it over and over and over again. (Shakespeare uses the word “nothing” more than 500 times in his works.) But it doesn’t seem to have any basis in fact. (If someone can actually cite a primary Elizabethan reference to “nothing” being commonly used as slang for “vagina”, I’ll happily stand corrected.)
It reminds me of the claim that “nunnery” means “whorehouse” in Shakespeare, so that when Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to the nunnery he’s really telling her to become a whore. No. He isn’t. The only Elizabethan references to “nunnery” meaning “whorehouse” are in a comedy where a whorehouse being referred to as a nunnery is a joke specifically because a nunnery isn’t a whorehouse.
Claiming that this means “nunnery” was common slang for “whorehouse” is like watching Monty Python and claiming that “go”, “selling”, “sport”, “cricket”, “games”, and “photography” are all common slang words for sex.
(Although, to be fair, I think we all know that Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs is totally pornography.)