Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Elizabethan Death

One of those things that will make teenagers giggle when they learn about Shakespeare is the common use of the term "die" in Elizabethan English to refer to having an orgasm. Someone I generally respect recently questioned whether this meaning was actually legitimate. Could it be the whole thing was just an urban legend? Or was my friend simply displaying his own ignorance?

I decided to consult Eric Partridge's classic work Shakespeare's Bawdy. He notes that "die" can indeed mean "to experience a sexual orgasm." As evidence he cites two quotes. The first is Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing saying, "I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes" (Act V, scene ii). The second comes from King Lear: "I will die bravely, like a smug bridegroom" (Act IV, scene vi).

It seems to me possible (though not likely) that the first one could be innocent of the double entendre, but it's hard to see how "I will die bravely, like a smug bridegroom" could be interpreted in any other way.

What about other Elizabethan authors? Shakespeare's contemporaries frequently use "die" in what seems to be a punning sense. In the second part of Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe, Zenocrate proclaims: "let me die with kissing of my lord" (Act II, scene iv). Far from conclusive, but the evidence is mounting. (No pun intended.)

There's also this exchange between the lovers Bel-Imperia and Horatio in Act II, scene iv of Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy:

     O let me go, for in my troubled eyes
     Now may'st thou read that life in passion dies.

     O stay a while and I will die with thee,
     So shalt thou yield and yet have conquered me.

The dramatic tension here is heightened by the fact that the lovers are about to be attacked and Horatio really will die, but they don't know this. Bel-Imperia might have a premonition of her lover's death, but they're meeting in an arbor where they have already decided they will consummate their passion. How much sense, then, does Horatio's line have without the double entendre?

Then there's the poetry of John Donne. Consider this passage from "The Canonization":

     The phoenix riddle hath more wit 
     By us; we two being one, are it;
     So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit. 
     We die and rise the same, and prove 
     Mysterious by this love.

Donne can be obscure at times, but this sexual wordplay does not strike me as obscure.

The same can be said about this passage from "The Prohibition":

     Yet love and hate me too;
     So these extremes shall ne'er their office do;
     Love me, that I may die the gentler way;
     Hate me, because thy love's too great for me;

The "gentler way" to "die" might mean something other than orgasm, but I kind of doubt it. Sorry, but the conventional wisdom holds up in this case.