Gordon Williams. A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. 3 vols. London and New Jersey: Athlone P, 1994. xvii+1616 pp. ISBN 0485113937 Cloth.
Douglas Bruster
University of Texas, San Antonio

Bruster, Douglas. "Review of A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 13.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_bru1.html>.

  1. One of the most distinctive aspects of early modern literature is its interest in sex. Subtle but unmistakable references to sex and the erotic treatment of the body permeate works of this era. Yet because "indecent" allusion was often euphemized or presented in slang, modern readers are sometimes asked to translate, even decode, sexual language. For various reasons, the otherwise indispensable Oxford English Dictionary devotes less attention to bawdy terms and phrases than we might wish, leaving many readers to turn to more recent (and generally less available) dictionaries. Among these reference works are Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and Shakespeare's Bawdy; James T. Henke's Courtesans and Cuckolds: A Glossary of Renaissance Dramatic Bawdy, and Gutter Life and Language in the Early Street Literature of England; and Frankie Rubinstein's controversial A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and their Significance. To this list we need to add Williams' Dictionary, a monumental three-volume lexicon of sexual references from texts of the early modern era.

  2. By my estimation this Dictionary contains entries for nearly two thousand discrete words and phrases. Williams' declared intent is "primarily to establish certain image forms and verbal uses as a basis for evaluating such other examples as the user may encounter" (xiii). Hence his practice in glossing sexual terminology is to bring multiple quotations to bear upon a word or phrase, and the resulting entries are often essays in miniature. The title of the three volumes is somewhat more specific than its contents; the entries, sometimes traversing the 1520s through the 1740s, often take us to works earlier than Shakespeare and much later than the Stuarts. The word "literature" is also too narrow: Williams' bibliography features news pamphlets and verse dramas, and herbals as well as romances. Indeed, in addition to its historical sweep a great strength of this work is its embrace of material from a number of domains and sources. Such inclusiveness also extends to its definitions. Williams glosses words and phrases representing practices and actions (e.g. "stand," "possess," "fiddle"), body parts ("cod," "nose," "oyster"), objects ("alum," "lime," "merkin"), places ("Cheapside," "France," "Whitefriars"), individuals ("Aretino," "Phillips"), characters ("Cressida," "Maid Marian") and even books ( Aristotle's Problems).

  3. Few people other than reviewers are likely to read this work from cover to cover. It will rest on library and scholars' shelves, occasionally retrieved to explain potential sexual meanings in passages. But a thorough reading reveals things that would not be apparent to the casual user, and, insofar as they speak to the work's accomplishments and utility, they bear disclosing here.

  4. One remarkable feature of the Dictionary involves the historical distribution of its references. Perhaps owing in part to the shape of our literary canon, there are noticeable clusters of quotations here. By far the greatest proportion of its examples comes from 1600-1610 (with a marked build-up and equally marked decline during the 1590s and 1610s, respectively). Many of these references involve popular playwrights such as Middleton, Dekker, and Heywood -- something that may qualify Alfred Harbage's claim, in Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions, of a moral distinction between popular and coterie theatrical traditions. Likewise a lesser (but noticeable) concentration in the 1620s comes primarily from such dramatists as Massinger, Ford, and Fletcher. Works later than 1630 figure less prominently suggesting a decline in sexual references which is then reversed by texts of the late 1650s, the 1660s, and 1670s. After this period a much smaller cluster centering on the 1730s is noticeable. And while this distribution may say more about our reading habits than about the era itself, the depth of reference in this work suggests that its concentrations of examples describe real trends in early modern texts -- periods, respectively, of more free, and more constrained, expression.

  5. But reading this work in its entirety also reveals shortcomings in the presentation of its findings. The layout of the entries on the page, for example, causes some confusion. Although headwords and cross-references appear in boldface, secondary meanings do not appear with the initial definition, are indented only slightly, and have no other eye-catching characteristic (such as boldface). A reader turning to the two-page entry on "milk" would learn at once that this word could refer to "semen (or the process of extracting it)," but might well miss the secondary definition "woman's spendings," on the following page, seventy-five lines after the primary gloss. Another problem is the sparse and sometimes arbitrary nature of cross-references. For example, "brothel" is defined as a "person involved in prostitution," but no references for synonyms of "brothel" as a location are provided, despite appearing with amazing regularity in the Dictionary itself. Likewise headwords are sometimes a guessing game: a reader interested in "bird" slang would have to turn to "avian imagery," and for "horse," to "equine images." Similarly, references to the "great bed of Ware" -- where unusual sexual encounters were said to occur -- are to be found not under "great" or "bed" or even "Ware," but under "assignation resorts." The preceding would perhaps be minor problems if the work featured an index of terms, but no such index is provided. Equally regrettable is the lack of a topical index where one might look up a body part, practice, orientation, object, place, or other category of interest.

  6. Even a cursory glance at this work, however, will show its tremendous value to students of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and early eighteenth-century literature and culture. By deepening our understanding of sexual references in texts of this period, this dictionary promises to make Williams' name as familiar to textual editors as those of Tilley, Schmidt, Abbott, and Wing. But this admittedly serviceable Dictionary could easily have been made more useful to the scholarly community through closer attention to the needs of its readers. As things stand, it supplements rather than replaces its predecessors.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(December 31, 1996)