Friday, October 24, 2014

Shakespeare Apocrypha: The Merry Devil of Edmonton ...(and some musings on swear words)

I've recently polished off The Merry Devil of Edmonton. The play owes its attribution to Shakespeare from the fact it was found in the library of Charles II in a book titled Shakespeare Vol. 1 along with the plays Fair Em and Mucedorus. However, it's generally accepted today that it belongs to the hand of another author.

I really enjoyed this one and again my untrained eye could find no reason why it shouldn't be a Shakespeare.

Touching on the theme of swearing and profane language in these Apocrypha works I noticed yet again the word firke. I've came across this word in other plays from the period (sometimes spelt firk) and it always suggests the word fuck to me. Whether it's a substitution for that word or just a variant on its spelling I don't know, but its context always seems to make this interpretation look correct.

In this play it pops up in a sentence spoke by the character Sir Ralph.

Sir Ralph. ...if I doe find knavery under cowle, Ile tickle him, Ile firke him..

I had a search on-line to try and throw some light on things and came across this book on Google Books; A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature by Gordon Williams.

According to this the word firk is pretty much a variant or substitute for fuck.
"Firk copulate with (aided by the word's similarity to fuck)."
So yeah, I guess it's more evidence for why these plays would be deemed unsuitable (and therefore un-Shakespearean) by prudish Victorian commentators and the like.

I feel a bit childish searching around on-line for naughty words, but it's a bit of a bugbear of mine. We live in countries with free speech, we can speak any word in any other language with no restrictions, we can even make up our own words if we please, yet this handful of English words we call swear words we aren't allowed to say. Even to the extent that the force of law can be used at times to stop us. It's kinda crazy.

When they're bleeping out the word fucked in a Mumford & Sons song you know it's gone way too far.

Also I find swear words quite interesting. Just looking at the terms used to describe them - curse words, swear words, profanity. They all suggest a religious sense. To put a curse on someone, to swear an oath. A profanity - profane - something that shouldn't be spoken. Similar to the way the true name of God (the vowel-less JHWH) is said to be sacred and not allowed to be spoken. Spell means word, hence Gospel - God's Word. To put a spell on someone you simply need to speak.

I had a wild theory that maybe our swear words were once words that had a religious significance, and that's why we can't say them now. Maybe the word fuck once meant God - or the Devil ...that would be pretty cool. Or maybe, considering the sexual nature of our swear words, they hark back to a time when sex was more intertwined with religion, and sex and sexual words were deemed sacred.

Some people also believe that certain words and sounds have an actual power or meaning due to their acoustic properties. I always assumed that the words fuck and cunt sounded so powerful because they were forbidden and that their forbidden, rebellious status give them that ability to cut through everyday speech, but maybe the words themselves have an acoustic power that exists regardless of their cultural context. Saying something is fucking amazing, sounds so much more powerful than saying it's very amazing. Why?

When someone hits their finger with a hammer or stubs their toe they invariably shout out a swear word or a religious phrase. Bloody Hell!, Jesus Christ!, Fuck!, Fucking Hell!, For God's Sake! Proclamations all of them. Swear words seem so close to religion in this context. I'm surprised more people haven't noticed this.

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