Humanity has been inventing new curses since the very first moment it discovered something worthy of cursing at. This frequently involves using the name of a deity in vain; for Christians, this includes what some might consider fairly “mild” profanities like “goddamn” or “Jesus Christ,” among others.
In Shakespeare’s time, though, using the Lord’s name in vain was heavy stuff—so heavy, in fact, that the Act to Restrain Abuses of Players was handed down in 1606 to limit that kind of cursing in plays. Even with this Act and the eye of the Master of Revels on him, Shakespeare got away with quite a lot of impiety in his works. When his plays were reprinted in the Folios and in later editions, however, editors took a red pen to nearly all of the profanities that used “God” and replaced them with oaths that were considered less offensive, e.g., “by God” became “by Heaven.”
Most of these changes have been undone by modern editors using the Quarto texts, so that current editions reflect the Bard’s profane glory.
What follows is a small sampling of curses that Shakespeare used, most of which reflect the mindset of the times.
- God’s body and God’s bodykins (or bodkin)—Bodykins/bodkin means “little body” or “dear body,” but swearing by Christ’s body, big or little—or indeed any part of it, including the heart or even the eyelid—was not acceptable and definitely counts as using the Lord’s name in vain.
- By God’s lid—An eyelid seems an odd thing to use in a curse, but this does mean “by God’s eyelid.” Scholars think this one fairly mild, but ‘slid (a corruption that means the very same thing!) is considered quite offensive.
- Od’s my little life, and its big brother, God’s my life—these mean “God save my little life” and “God save my life,” respectively. Od’s my little life is another mild oath, as oaths go. In As You Like It, Rosalind uses this and other similarly minor epithets while pretending to be a man.
- I’ God’s name (also a’ God’s name)—This means “in the name of God” and is considered by scholars similar to but a bit rougher than “for God’s sake.”
- By the Mass, and the simpler Mass—swearing by the Christian Mass was a no-no, because it profaned the Sacrament.
- ‘Zounds—God’s wounds; this, ‘swounds (a slightly more enunciated but no more acceptable version of ‘zounds) and ‘sblood (meaning God’s blood) were considered very offensive, because referencing God’s blood or wounds touched directly on the Crucifixion and that was simply not on.
- Cock—“Hey,” you might say, “you’re trying to sneak this one in on us! That’s not anything to do with the Lord’s name in vain!” The word cock has apparently always been a naughty one; in Shakespeare, sometimes it was used as a substitute for “God.” Which word was more outrageous at the time? Probably God.
We see God’s body in 1 Henry IV, while Hamlet swears by God’s bodykins:
Hamlet: God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
After his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping? (Hamlet, II, ii, lines 503-504)
By God’s lid is an oath Pandarus says to his niece Cressida while speaking of Hector:
Pandarus: Swords! any thing, he cares not; an the devil come
to him, it’s all one: by God’s lid, it does one’s
heart good. (Troilus and Cressida, I, ii, 200)
‘Slid comes to us from both The Merry Wives of Windsor and Twelfth Night.
Shallow: Break their talk, Mistress Quickly: my kinsman shall
speak for himself.
Slender: I’ll make a shaft or a bolt on’t: ‘slid, ‘tis but
venturing. (The Merry Wives of Windsor, III, iv, lines 24-27)
Constable Dogberry uses God’s my life during his questioning of Borachio and Conrade:
Dogberry: God’s my life, where’s the sexton? Let him write
down the prince’s officer coxcomb. Come, bind them.
Thou naughty varlet! (Much Ado About Nothing, IV, ii, lines 65-67)
I’ God’s name was an oath Shakespeare used in several different plays, both histories and comedies. It is spoken by both Gremio and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, in different acts:
Gremio: O sir, such a life, with such a wife, were strange!
But if you have a stomach, to’t i’ God’s name:
You shall have me assisting you in all. (The Taming of the Shrew, I, ii, lines 191-193)
Petruchio: Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s. (The Taming of the Shrew, IV, v, line 1)
Shakespeare used these two a host of times throughout his work. Juliet’s father Capulet and Iago both use this oath, as does Don John’s minion Borachio:
Borachio: Mass, and my elbow itched; I thought there would a
scab follow. (Much Ado About Nothing, III, iii, lines 94-95)
Iago, that villain, uses ‘sblood in his very first line:
Iago: ‘Sblood, but you will not hear me:
If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me. (Othello, I, i, line 4)
‘Zounds is a curse Shakespeare must have been fond of—he uses it several times in 1 Henry IV and Richard III, as well as in Romeo and Juliet and Othello.
Iago: ‘Zounds, sir, you are one of those who will not
serve God, if the devil bid you. Because we come to
do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;
you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have
coursers for cousins and gennets for germans. (Othello, I, i, 105)
And that’s not even the first time he says ‘zounds in this scene!
After leaping into Ophelia’s grave, Hamlet offers this to Laertes:
Hamlet: ‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do;
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. (Hamlet, V, i, lines 260-264)
Ophelia: By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;
By cock, they are to blame. (Hamlet, IV, v, lines 57-60)
This just goes to show how cursing has changed over the long span of years between the 16th and 17th centuries and today. These old-time curses may not seem particularly bad to our ears (in fact, some of them may sound stilted and strange), but in 1606, they were very naughty indeed.
Macrone, Michael. Naughty Shakespeare. New York, New York: Gramercy Books, 2000.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare