The Alexandrian

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.)

Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Digg this

17 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Whorehouse Nunneries and Vagina Nothings”

  1. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    Along the lines of all the PhD candidates inventing mountains of nonsense, which seems pretty reasonable to me, what about other issues, such as Shakespeare was actually likely to be the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe? Oxford seems plausible to me, Marlowe, somewhat less so. And Twain thought that Shakespeare never wrote his plays, as it was actually another man named Shakespeare.

    I don’t know how it works, so I’ll ask you in this post. Do you see every comment in years old posts on this site? If I put comments to a years old posting, would you see it, or would it just be unnoticed?

    I was wondering, because in one of your older posts it listed various WotC Drow (etc.) modules that have excessively linear encounters, because otherwise your PCs wouldn’t survive the later encounters. You broke down the percentages of combats where the party was outgunned by their enemies in the modules and how it changed over time. Something I worked on in my campaigns, too.

    Here’s the question: If you have a D&D type game and your party runs into a group of non-suicidal, highly intelligent enemies (Drow), that’s somewhat more powerful than your PCs, what is expected for the PCs to do? Engage in a fight, and kick ass and win against the odds, or stage a strategic retreat with flaming oil, if they see their going to lose? And then come back when healed up, and keep battering the Drow,etc, until it’s just a matter of the odds favor their dice rolling and they exterminate them? If that’s the case, don’t the Drow (who are exceptionally intelligent) break off losing fights, too? How does this work to make a balanced play, or does it?

    If this is just a matter of game playing is fun, even if it’s not realistic, that’s cool. I just wonder if the various editions of D&D I’m a lot less familiar with have some ruling about intelligent adversaries that I’m not familiar with.

  2. Brooser Bear says:

    Why pick a Ph. D field that was done to death? I like theater, but it’s easier to watch it on DVD that seeing it live. I find Shakespeare hard to read, not sure, if it is because of the Elizabethan speech or the Shakespearean poetry and metaphor. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone translated it into modern English?

    Having said that, I think that the Shakespearean Theater is a theatrical style as anything else. I was at a renaissance fair once, and had the pleasure watching four or five Shakespearean actors do a show – brief skits touching modern day subject and speaking modern English (they may have been British), but they predated their own material, and modern day tongue in cheek it was, but they did so in clearly a Shakespearean fashion.

    When I was in High School, reading the required Hamlet, and Macbeth and Julius Cesar, I wished for a modern production with modern language. Since then I seen Bazz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, and was nonplussed by the modern look of the production and the Shakespearean speech. The soundtrack was so much better. Before that I saw the British film production of Edward II, done as a male gay film, and I liked some of the things it did. Finally, the Shakespeare on film I liked the best, was Titus.

    I also fell for Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, read it, wasn’t impressed by it. Saw it on film starring Gary Oldman, and didn’t see the genius of the play. The much better version of it was a Tom and Jerry cartoon, where, both the cat and mouse go over the edge. Exclamation marks pop up over their heads. As they are falling, Jeryy bends his exclamation mark into a question merk and catches on a flagpole on the side of the building. Ton cat fashions his question mark late, hit the ground hard, and the question mark hammers the cat deeper into the ground.

  3. Brooser Bear says:

    Neal,

    Your comments dated August 3 finally appeared.
    I stand corrected. Rune Quest evolved after D&D, it seems.
    I do have a blog. Click on my name and you will be taken there.

  4. Sean says:

    This passage from Hamlet is often interpreted the same way. “Lie in your lap,” Ophelia takes to mean Hamlet wants to sleep with her. If the word “nothing” isn’t interpreted the way Stephen Booth thinks it should be, the meaning of Hamlet’s word play gets pretty obscure – I’m not sure what sense could be made from it without it.

    HAMLET

    Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

    Lying down at OPHELIA’s feet

    OPHELIA

    No, my lord.

    HAMLET

    I mean, my head upon your lap?

    OPHELIA

    Ay, my lord.

    HAMLET

    Do you think I meant country matters?

    OPHELIA

    I think nothing, my lord.

    HAMLET

    That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

    OPHELIA

    What is, my lord?

    HAMLET

    Nothing.

  5. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    So, any thoughts about the questions I posed above?

  6. Brooser Bear says:

    Neal,

    There are combat rules in D&D, which govern Morale. Each creature in Basic/Expert D&D has a morale rating of 12 and under, which you roll against on 2d6. 12 is the morale of the undead, they never run. If the minsters fail the morale check, they break and run or try to surrender. In basic/expert, you should check morale, when monsters lose their first man, when they lose their leader, when half of the monsters dies. Those are simple and elegant basic D&D Moldway rules. AD&D DMG 1st edition has a chapter on Henchmen and Hirelings, the morale check is made on percentile dice, and you have to consider the history of the dark elves with their leadership to determine what their moral is and if it should fail.

    Personally, you should have the surrender/post surrender outcome written into your adventure – what would the Dark Elves policy be towards outsiders? Take them alive? Not? Take them alive and sell them to Mind Flayers for midnight snacks? In my campaign, if the enemies take no prisoners, I make sure that the player characters are aware of it, and if they practice their proactive research and due diligence, I give them safer avenues of approach and likelier escapes to avoid the total party kill by enemy capture.

  7. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    I’ve never played Basic/Expert or anything Moldvay, yet. I’ve read people raving about it, though. Morale should be relatively simple, and what you’re describing sounds good. I’ve worked on systems for it, and figured that when you start breaking things down into every corner case rule, it’s too much to learn, to remember, look up, etc. I’ve figured pretty much the same few things should cause checks: leader dies, first death on enemies’ side, 1/2 enemy side is dead.

    Gygax, a few years ago, on Dragonsfoot, had some interesting things to say about Lawful Good Paladin’s killing off surrendered Orcs, to prevent them from backsliding. Pretty amazing! More like something Torquemada of the Inquisition would say, than what I’d envision a Paladin would say. That would have been cool to know, when I was a kid. Basically, in D&D, EVERY alignment gets to kill evil prisoners, and they are still ok, with their class and religion.

    *”In my campaign, if the enemies take no prisoners, I make sure that the player characters are aware of it, and if they practice their proactive research and due diligence, I give them safer avenues of approach and likelier escapes to avoid the total party kill by enemy capture.”*

    I’ve been revamping how I see the gaming experience, and my role as a referee.
    I’ve decided I’ll be more hard-core. Be upfront that the game offers death not just for stupidity and bad choices, but for a string of unlucky die rolls. I won’t ‘fudge the dice.’ I’ll give meaningful choices to opt to go to Harder encounters, or avoid them entirely. The rest of the time will be of various levels of difficulty, pretty close to the challenge rating of the part. If the combat starts to go south with a near equal enemy, then the PCs get the option to back out in strategic retreats if the PCs leave before it gets too ugly. If they don’t leave soon enough, they were warned the dice rolls will stand, and they can croak. They’ll take hits, and they may even go to negative hit points, but there will be probably the option to heal them before it becomes permanent. Not guaranteed, but likely. If the whole party takes massive damage, then they should have listened, and left sooner.

    If you have a way of offering safer avenues of approach and likelier avenues of escape, how do you work that in? Is it obvious to the players you are bending things to make more meaningful choices? I’m still wrapping my head about becoming a more hard-core Ref, so these are points I need to figure out.

  8. Brooser Bear says:

    Neal,

    with regards to the AD&D alignment system, like with any astrological personality type system, these personality types exist in the real world, but the typology itself does not exist. A Lawful Good Paladin, when encountering corruption, such as Inquisition torturing innocent women or torture and killing of prisoners, will either become a Chaotic Good rebel or a Neutral Good fanatic openly standing against his order, or a Lawful Good professional. Real world sociology shows that third world policemen encountering brutality and corruption, will most typically try to hide from guilt by their own personal example of goodness and piousness, OR they will hide behind dispassionate Professionalism. So, I think that the alignment is a fluid thing. The best way to regulate the alignment in the game, is that if a player character acts morally weak, or contrary to their alignment, their Charisma drops significantly and they start losing followers/respect.

    It is never okay to kill prisoners. In the real world, soldiers who commit atrocities become demoralized, which means both cowardly and sloppy, and typically start making mistakes in combat that will get them and their teams killed. Officers who fail to control their soldiers and let them get away with abuse and atrocities lose authority and essentially let down their men.

    I admire your stand on sacrificing players on the altar of realism. My feeling is that as long as a single character survives, you can continue the storyline with new player characters – the band of heroes, the adventurers company, whatever can continue on their quest with new players – the group/organization memory/identity carries through.

    I don’t bend the setting to help players. Remember, in an open ended campaign, aka sandbox, players make a choice, where and how they go. If I tell them that there is a big goblin camp that skins alive all their human prisoners, and their non-players characters refuse to go along with the players, on what they consider to be a certain death, the player may choose to stay on the periphery and attack goblin patrols and outposts, OR they may choose deception or wait for a better time. In an open-ended campaign, players choose where and when they adventure. Give them enough clues as to areas beyond their ability and hope that they make the correct decision, if not, I narrate and play through the events beyond their control, until the conclusion, making sure that I focus on the areas, where the players have some decision power. Player character is chained down and will be executed at dawn, give him/her another prisoner and a few encounters with jailers to role play. They might surprise you, and if they don’t, lead them out to the stake, at which they will be burned, describe the preparations, and let the player have the last word on the last moments of their life. Incidentally, when players die, or score critical hits that disable/kill their enemies, I let the players take the word and describe the action.

  9. Neal says:

    @ Bruiser Bear,

    *”A Lawful Good Paladin, when encountering corruption, such as Inquisition torturing innocent women or torture and killing of prisoners, will either become a Chaotic Good rebel or a Neutral Good fanatic openly standing against his order, or a Lawful Good professional. Real world sociology shows that third world policemen encountering brutality and corruption, will most typically try to hide from guilt by their own personal example of goodness and piousness, OR they will hide behind dispassionate Professionalism.*”

    I’ve never heard anything like that about the morality and mentality of 3rd world policemen. I’d wondered how the mindset of the third world, or cops, in general works. I don’t see many benevolent ones here, that don’t embrace corruption, though. Maybe the indifferent professionalism is more at work, here.

    Gygax in the Dragonsfoot quotes didn’t mention torture, but he DID mention that Paladin’s can execute evil prisoners, who have agreed to CONVERT to lawful good! :

    “So…

    That is wasn’t the paladin’s warhorse makes the matter less serious, but only marginally so. the paladin’s honor was besmirched by the dwarf, and as the DM I would call that to the attention of the player of the paladin if there was less than great umbrage taken. To allow the incident to pass without punishing the offending dwarf would be a dark stain on the honor of the paladin.

    Paladins are not stupid, and in general there is no rule of Lawful Good against killing enemies. The old addage about nits making lice applies. Also, as I have often noted, a paladin can freely dispatch prisoners of Evil alignment that have surrrendered and renounced that alignment in favor of Lawful Good. They are then sent on to their reward before thay can backslide

    Cheers,
    Gary”

    From Dragonsfoot – “Q&A with Gary Gygax, Part II” (6/22/05)

    http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=50&t=11762&start=77&sid=95b7c695e9e1158298ba27be9166d33c

    What do you think about giving players who have no experience with the sandbox examples of how you referee various examples of action in the world? I think if they are supposed to make informed decisions in a context, they should know how the sandbox differs from a “GM is here to make sure we win the game, if we at least give it a good try…” kind of scenario?

    Previously, I thought that was an ideal goal. I avoided meaningful choice, because it wasn’t really an idea back in the day. Railroading? oh yeah, but it was still fun. Just not nearly optimal as a refereeing style. At the time, I also figured that if you were going to have a viable game, you’d need realism. If you had ambushes, etc, you couldn’t have them be TOO lethal, or they’d wipe out the party time after time, without too many opponents. If the opponents were halfway intelligent, they’d have concentrated numbers at a perfect ambush site, and the party wouldn’t stand a chance. Plus, I thought in my innocence, that telegraphing an ogre, etc was on the right corridor, was “unrealistic, and obvious.” It’s a bit of a mind-bender to accept such an obvious plot device, but it does greatly increase player choice, even if it seems unrealistic, and kinda ‘hoaky.’

  10. Fenyx4 says:

    Cricket isn’t a euphemism? Dammit I’ve been wasting a lot of time swinging my stick at balls then.

  11. Justin Alexander says:

    @Sean: In that case (as in others), “nothing” literally means “nothing”. What’s a fair (i.e. virtuous) thing to lie between an unmarried woman’s legs? Nothing. Unmarried women shouldn’t be having sex.

    This not only follows the logical course of the conversation itself (which is circling around the imagery of men lying in women’s laps), it’s also relevant to both the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship in general and also to the immediate scene (in which Hamlet is presenting a play containing a strong message about female virtue).

  12. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    Glad you’re feeling well enough to post. Any chance you could address my question in Comments #1?

  13. Brooser Bear says:

    Neal,

    “So…

    That is wasn’t the paladin’s warhorse makes the matter less serious, but only marginally so. the paladin’s honor was besmirched by the dwarf, and as the DM I would call that to the attention of the player of the paladin if there was less than great umbrage taken. To allow the incident to pass without punishing the offending dwarf would be a dark stain on the honor of the paladin.

    Paladins are not stupid, and in general there is no rule of Lawful Good against killing enemies. The old addage about nits making lice applies. Also, as I have often noted, a paladin can freely dispatch prisoners of Evil alignment that have surrrendered and renounced that alignment in favor of Lawful Good. They are then sent on to their reward before thay can backslide

    Cheers,
    Gary”

    That thing above, is one vile and repugnant quote, and it besmirches the memory if such true life Paladins as the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaliers. Gygax seems to equate his alignment of “Lawful Good” with the mores and values of the medieval Catholic Church in all its glory, including the Inquisition. Of course, in the minds of some, Himmler and the SS are considered noble crusaders, and I don’t know where Gygax’s mind was on that subject. I will only add that the types of saying quoted above and the statements that he makes savoring medieval sadism, reminds me of people who talk nonsense about violence and brutality in an attempt to appear worldly and hard-core, when in fact they never have gotten out of their arm-chair.

    No religious knight, who took the vow of poverty, service, and obedience, will contemplate revenge, or pay back some dwarf for a slight, real or imagined, or be concerned about his reputation, other than before the Lord and Savior. Gygax’s Paladin is acting sinfully in Pride, breaking the first commandments and the Christ’s own counsel against seeking revenge. I showed this quote of Gygax to a devout Christian, and he tapped his head to show me that he thinks Gygax is nuts. If he made these remarks in 2009, I doubt that he is an observant Christian.

    With regards to cops seeking personal piousness in the face of corruption, this comes from a major researcher into police corruption in general. By piousness, we are talking about religious piousness, whether Catholicism or Islam, being a good husband and a good father (a lot of Nazi war criminals were), and dong their best on the job, helping old ladies cross the street etc. The part about sinking into professional objectivity, I meant the work ethic of the Lawful Neutral alignment. And again, that’s just me making the alignment system more in line with the real world.

    I don’t believe in giving players warnings or telling them that they can get killed by an unlucky roll. That doesn’t encourage anything and lays down the law. I do believe in giving players TRAINING WHEELS. Start them off embedded in a larger party of more experienced NPC’s where DM can role play and steer them clear of suicide missions, before they undertake them, sort of like the safety wire. Start them off on a first adventure with plenty of support and plenty of healing, or say have them start on a low level adventure, with hints of things to come. During the play, show how stern you can be as a DM, whether combat is unforgiving, or people dying randomly through luck (say avalanches in the mountains or other adventurers dying in the sea storms), or thieves caught stealing in town being condemned, and then executed brutally without any hope of reprieve or escape, and in that way, players will know the risks of adventuring in your own setting without you having to lecture them or lay down the law or bend the game for them to survive!

  14. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    *”That thing above, is one vile and repugnant quote, and it besmirches the memory if such true life Paladins as the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaliers.”*

    I think this goes some way towards showing that Gygax had a very twisted view of what constitutes acceptable, moral conduct, and by persons that not only believe they are in the service of lawful good, but are actually given healing abilities by real gods only when they conduct themselves in a virtuous manner.

  15. Neal says:

    *”I don’t believe in giving players warnings or telling them that they can get killed by an unlucky roll.”*

    I wasn’t implying that as referee, you should give players warnings during actual play. But, that you’d tell them how your world operates regarding meaningful decisions and consequences, in a general manner, with a few generic examples, prior to initiating them into actually playing the campaign.

    The idea of having examples of NPCs dying in sea storms, avalanches, or thieves caught and executed in town, is a great one! Choose dangerous paths, or flout the laws, and consequences may happen, and they may be quick and brutal. Meaningful choices, made in an informed context, lead to significant consequences, as arbitrated by the all-powerful dice.

  16. Brooser Bear says:

    You know, show not tell; lead by example, the Zen thing of speaking with your actions instead of moving your mouth.

    As a sandbox exercise, put together a small world – I started with a Barony. Situate it in a larger world, in a larger scheme of things, then start fleshing out different places, people, locales, compare and contrast them, and the stories will start jumping out at you…

  17. 50s Horror Film Title or Elizabethan Sexual Euphemism? | The very official blog of Iliana Hagenah says:

    […] is Elizabethan slang referring to a man’s genitals), Both: 4, 6, (hell is Elizabethan slang  referring to a woman’s genitals), […]

Leave a Reply

Archives

Twitter

Recent Posts


Recent Comments