Sex could not be portrayed explicitly on the Elizabethan stage. Even kissing was considered risky, not least because a “heterosexual” kiss between a male and a female character was in reality a kiss between two male actors. Although Shakespeare frequently indulges in sexually suggestive wordplay, many of his plays emphasize pre-marriage chastity. For instance, Shakespeare’s romantic comedies often feature amusingly suggestive romps but nevertheless remain strictly chaste, with no actual intercourse happening before the young couples can marry. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two young couples, Hermia and Lysander as well as Helena and Demetrius, fall under a fairy spell and experience a wild night in the forest, lost in a comedic game of magic-induced desire and repulsion. The next morning Duke Theseus discovers the couples sleeping together on the ground just outside the forest. The couples lay together so suggestively that Theseus jokes, “Saint Valentine is past. / Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?” (IV.i.). The audience knows they have not begun to couple, but laughs at his inference nonetheless.
Whereas many of Shakespeare’s plays emphasize chastity before marriage, there are some instances that indicate the possibility of pre-marriage sex. The most famous example appears in the third act of Romeo and Juliet, when the young couple wakes up after having spent the night together in Juliet’s room. Shakespeare does not confirm that the couple had sex, but he does provide suggestive evidence. When Romeo says, “I must be gone and live, or stay and die” (III.v.), he means that he needs to leave before he is found and condemned to death. Yet the word “die” is also slang for orgasm, indicating that Romeo may be playfully referencing sex. Furthermore, the speech Juliet gives to Romeo appears in the form of an aubade, a type of poem about lovers parting at dawn. The use of this poetic form suggests that the couple may have engaged in sexual intimacy, but in itself the aubade is inconclusive and leaves the matter ambiguous. Another example of ambiguity appears in Hamlet. Although Shakespeare makes no direct reference to a sexual relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, when Ophelia goes mad she sings several popular folk songs about unmarried sex that imply they may have had sex: “Young men will do it / When they come to it” (IV.v.).
Despite the ban on portraying sex onstage, sexual language largely escaped censorship so long as it was comic, and sexual puns and erotic innuendos abound in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, many of Shakespeare’s jokes are so explicit that they were removed from editions of his plays published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shakespeare mastered the art of making dirty jokes through the liberal use of puns and double entendres. Early in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio refers to Romeo’s affection for Rosaline as a “driveling love [that] is like a great natural that runs / lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole” (II.iv.). The phrase “lolling up and down” strongly implies sexual intercourse, as does the phrase “hide his bauble in a hole,” where “bauble” and “hole” are slang for penis and vagina, respectively. The use of slang and puns to refer to sex and genitalia appear virtually everywhere in Shakespeare’s comedies as well as tragedies and histories. Amusingly, Shakespeare may even have made the first “your mom” joke in history when he wrote the following exchange in Titus Andronicus:
CHIRON: Thou has undone our mother.
AARON: Villain, I have done thy mother.
Bawdy humor like this allowed Shakespeare to delight popular audiences without ever depicting sex directly.