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Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets: A Restoration of the Runes
by Roy Neil Graves, Professor of English
The University of Tennessee at Martin

Some Topics Encoded in the Subtextual Wit
of the Quarto

             


          Almost every type of wit imaginable can be found in Q, with what one goes looking for being a strong determining element in what one finds. The language code that Will uses conspires with its brilliant handler to generate materials in cornucopic profusion.

           One deduces that one primary purpose that the Runegame served was to allow in-group male wit to thrive on “forbidden” topics with impunity from general detection. (For who can finally “prove” the pun to be the author’s statement, not the auditor’s “mishearing” of it?) Since no one knows to what extent the Game of the Quarto was ever played outside the arena of Will’s own head, it may be that the iconoclastic subterfuges of the texts reflect more his own imaginative engagement with himself than any actual interaction with a coterie of readers. Likely, however, the circle of private friends known to have been privy to at least some of his sonnets in the late 1590s were in on his Game and knew its predictable components.

        Whatever the case, examples throughout the various components of this site illustrate varieties of Will’s humor, and some topics are probably adequately represented elsewhere: For example, the poet’s mental interaction with the men whom I deduce as his principal intended auditors (such as Thomas Thorpe, his printing agent, and Dr. John Hall, his son-in-law), along with epithet-making, jokes about printing and textual minutiae, nautical wit implying buggery that may have been aimed at Southampton, medical humor likely to have had in mind Dr. Hall, jokes about the Bible and biblical translation perhaps slanted toward those involved in the KJB project, and Will’s derogation of Anne, his wife—the last a specific type of misogyny that most any male reader might have responded to sympathetically.

           Looming large is humor based on fliting—verbal interchanges in which the presumed auditor is victimized by the Runemaster/speaker, whose role always embodied oneupmanship. (Ironically, the Sonnets profess to honor and immortalize the unnamed Friend while concurrently—and in fact—beating that Reader/Player over the head with more abuses than Socrates might ever have endured from his shrewish wife, if the Bad Wives stories are true. Denigration of auditor or subject for physical, mental, and spiritual flaws or inadequacies seems a routine part of the poet’s wit.

          Alternately, humor attacking presumed third-person “enemies” abounds.

           These two modes, both of which rely easily on conceits suggesting siege and warfare, involve personal targets of attack, though rooting out topical materials at this late date is at best a hit-and-miss process.

         Rhetorical labels such as irony, sarcasm, and diatribe suggest tone but not topic.

         Needless to say, many of the detectable subtextual puns in Q are “not nice”—though occasionally some mellow or “serious” observation on Will’s part seems to pierce the din. Conflicting suggestions (e.g., that Anne is at once frigid and sexually ravenous) compound much wit, generating paradox that confounds, as do juxtapositions of figures from real and mythic contexts and in other incongruous combinations.

         Categorically, the following topics, at least, might be identified in Q and separately evaluated: heterosexual sex, homosexual sex, misogyny, scatology, incest, bestiality, sacrilege, anti-Semitism, political humor and sedition, humor based on classical and mythic allusions, “black magic,” and allusive topical jokes.One might also subdivide sexual humor along such lines as oral sex, anal sex, necrophilia, penile measurement, exhibitionism, priapism, masturbation, excessive appetite, and so on.

          In pursuing any of these topics, the index of subtextual diction that is one link on this site may help isolate subject matter, though the categories overlap and merge freely. Even an “analyst” of categorical elements has to keep a flexible spirit.


         A huge body of wit seems to focus on homoerotic topics. Readers can draw their own conclusions about what that topical focus tells us about Will himself. Such wit persists in male groups, and the extent to which it indicates “real” proclivities remains debatable.

           While I do not attempt here a thorough canvass of all these sorts of wit, a few examples beyond the many I’ve offered elsehwere in other contexts may help illustrate certain topical patterns. The parenthetical references are to the Runes, not the visible Sonnets. An X indicates an acrostic codeline.

Heterosexual sex:
      “So (Ewer’s ‘O’…) strongly in, my pee your pussy bred” (111A.14).
Incest:
      “Shaft in daughter-end, my heavy ‘I’ I’d stow (…I’d stout hew, ‘eary,’ naked)” (58.4-5).
Bestiality:
      “In ewe unfolding his imprisoned pride, enduring (entering) ewe wry [with Ewery a playful parallel, perhaps, for Jewry]” (54.10-11).
      “Many a pet I’d enter, morally ruined (…morally wry, in deep;…morally wry end)” (108A.12).
       “Plays wanton lion o’er m’ arse, his sword in ‘O’ roars, quick ass (quickest) arousal burned (…be ‘urned’)” (49.12-14).
      “Piteous Enoch took your meated ‘awl’ t’ ewe, earl debased” (112A.13-14).
      “You’re randy, muffed, moist. Loving bare-assed ewe ended your piety” (112A.12-13).
Exhibitionism:
        “The thing, th’ ‘I’ moist, do show, Witchlike, a canker…” (86.10-11).
Penis length or size:
       
“Handy ‘awl,’ my ‘hone’ fit, is 8 in thee, 1 soft” (148.12).
      “W., Harry, to ‘awl’ bonds dough, timid ‘I’ bitty” (116.5).
      “He of tall-built inch, Anne-O’s goodly pride” (82.10).
      “A stubby inch mine, mine is thick, odder, poor” (98.12).
Blacks and phallic endowment:
      “Fit was 10 (…waist tan), nigar’d inch prowing his butt-abyss you see, fainting. Despite of wrinkles…” (12.1-3).
Oral sex:
       “Muse, lick her t’ end your pain—tight cunt or feet” (22.2).
       “Adam licked assy ‘V’d’ husband, foul office saucy” (86.8-9).
       “Seize ye m’ ass, eat (my seat) wet ‘O’ (…widow)” (Sonnet 126, upward acrostic).
       “Canonical (A nun cold…), see-sawed Hooper when his tush is eaten” (112A.1-2).
       “My misters, eye sour no-thing [pudendal], lick this one”; “My mistress’ ‘eye,’ sour no-thing, lick—’tis honey”; “My mister’s ‘I’ [phallic] sour know—thing licked, his honey (…high, sunny)” (127.4).
Buggery:
      “By noon, fouled in jism, peer is found, parading (prating, pirating), ‘doing’ you, ribald-assed Ed” (54.10-11).
      “Neediest, musty ‘I’ under my transgression boned thee, just to please you” (115.8-9).
      “A seated sin, furry-ass Saul saluted a rigid Amos, my ass’ll feel tearing…” (144.7-9; and see just below).
      “Wand in the butt, panting, thee uncertain that a man dull eased in, aye, and came” (144, initial wordstring).
Scatology:
       “In poly-shit forms, Will refined peeing (…pain, pain [i.e., bread])” (92.1).
       “Enema’s tempest hits tanned slave t’ end his entrails” (126.13-14).
Breaking wind:
     
“Farter may owe his life to Howard’s furry demon” (86.8).
Allusive:
       “In moot, sandy Pharaoh you nest and wrinkle” (92.9).
       “Aye ribbed [like Eve], Anne dined here, bidding ass reign (…rain)” (126.9).
       “Dane is Isis’s Tory” (78.14).
       “Which is Sodom, Ed., which is Hall, a bawdy Hat. idle (idol), our Anne?” (115.9-10).
Political wit, sedition:
      “Habits states speckle” and “Large Bess [Elizabeth?] ‘stated’ Ass [=S=Stuart?] to be (…top),” “Large Bess, Stated S. [=James?] divide” (52X).
       “Heavy dog errs, mocked hereon (mocked hero nigh…), peers eye James, ditched, a sorry thief…”; “thy hero, neighbor, is aye James…” (104A.9-10).
       “Be wise, a Stuart see rule, do not [take this ms. to?] press (…dough-knot pierce […appears])” (127.14). See 65.8-10, where “interchange of state” makes “art…tongue-tied by authority.”
       “Rising [i.e., the Essex Rebellion?] at enemy doth point out thee; Fore, I have sworn deep oaths of thy [with Southy as auditor?] deep kindness” (149.11- 12).
Semitic derogation:
      “Nature’s ass back (beck) East, Jew’s no-thing butt doth lend” (3.4).
      “O Jew, thistle, fetid hand kiss, aye (…eye) fought enemy” (33.10).
      “Prow high does our Jew there up regent lady, seamy butt wide” (37.11-13).
      “Sandy in midden [i.e., dunghill], Jews thou will till” (93.5-6).
      “W., Hen, ‘awl’ th’ Hebrew, tear ass o’ fattest whore” (82.11).
Sacrilege:
      “I seek a few eying Dagon evil” (126.6-7).
      “Herein God most true I tease, that I half Luke taunt” (103A. 11-12).
      “You see deeply, see the sacristy is ended, doubtest thou” (41.10-11).
      “The Damned Bard, he benefits rel[igion]” (16.14).

             
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