That’s how we speak: Jerusalem and Shakespeare. Language in drama and other musings.

Caution: Explicit text!

By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her
very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her
great P’s.

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?

I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be
buried in thy eyes.

and I have not even begun to explore the nurse… (ooh matron!)

All of the above are pleasingly filthy yet most students pass them with hardly a second glance. Depending on age we may discuss the double entendres, but the impression is that this is Shakespeare indulging in literary games for his own pleasure and to allow school children 400 years on to write essays about metaphor and Elisabethan puns. This misses the point, surely. For these jokes to work they must be recognisable to the audience and for any play to “work” the dialogue must needs reflect the common speech patterns of the audience to enable easy assimilation.

What we have here is filth, but recognisable filth from everyday parlance. Malvolio gives Shakespeare’s version of the coy “see you next Tuesday” gloss on the biggest taboo word in our language (though Chaucer of course knew no such taboo when he allowed Alisoun to be grabbed by the “queynt” -fashions change.); Hamlet repeats the same joke in his “country matters” and then employs the common reference to Nothing as representing the vagina – no “thing” -ha ha ha – which leads neatly to Much Ado About Vagina or Nothing and the common use of the verb to die to mean orgasm. Benedick’s offer to “die in Beatrice’s lap is not really the romantic gesture that it sounds.

One could go on and on and on. Shakespeare is writing in the language of the day for people of the day and it is this which i want to consider in terms of Jerusalem, which I am teaching in the Lower 6th this term.

At the recent English Association conference I heard David Hahn and Gordon McMullen speaking variously on “Language and Literature -a perfect match” and “Shakespeare today”. Both were engaging and thought provoking and this discussion was prompted by the talks. It is not an attempt to precis their presentations in any way, but rather is a riff on the ideas I heard as applied to my current teaching.

First then, to the aspect of language that many may find off-putting when bringing Jerusalem into the classroom. The first pages contain several “bollocks”, ‘fucks’, ‘fuckings’ and even a “cunt”, alongside the minor oaths – “bloody” and so on. The action depicts a feral outsider taking drugs and trying to humiliate authority figures in the shape of Parsons and Fawcett. But when the other day I suggested to my class that this was Shakespearian, they were surprised. I would argue that we don’t recognise Shakespeare’s oath strewn vernacular for what it is – everyday speech. All those “by’r’lady” or “God’s Wounds” no longer carry any cultural capital designed to shock.. and Falstaff is seen as a loveable old sot who, despite his appalling debauchery, is looked on with pleasure by theatre goers today. My point is this: if you record an evening in any pub across the land, the language is that of Rooster. If you record any group of schoolboys relaxing and engaging in “banter”, the language is that of Rooster. There is nothing intrinsically offensive in any word in the language other than society makes it so – and fashions change. Chaucer can write “queynt” quite happily, it seems, and Shakespeare can scatter sexual slang and blasphemy in the mouths of his characters. Interestingly, the sexual slang is now considered too graphic for many classrooms but the blasphemy has lost its potency. Drama must reflect the language of the day. Perhaps a good example would by to imagine Alan Bleasdale’s Boys’ from the Blackstuff with the language of the Liverpool streets removed: Indeed, I suppose that a post on Yosser and Byron as characters might be interesting to write…

Everyone swears in the play. But the language is needed if we are to believe in the authenticity of the characters. What I love is the inventiveness of the swearing and Rooster’s way with alliteration and use of animal imagery. There is genuine flair in his language once we move beyond the initial hurdle of allowing our students to say “rude words” in the classroom.

One of Dahn’s comments reflecting the work of Lakoff and Johnson explored briefly the idea that metaphor is a vital thought process in life and considered how common metaphor is in our life-journey (see?). Again there are links between the idea and the writers here – metaphors of travel – often sea travel- fill Shakespeare alongside metaphors of health, food and animals – hardly surprising that this should be so, given the society of the time and the main concerns of life in Tudor England. The point is that they are not somehow the magical choices of a unique writer, but rather the common ideas of the street, interpreted and raised by one writer amongst many writing for the stage in London at this time. They are the cultural currency of everyday speech – albeit recoined often as little sparkling gems. So, can we find the same thing in the Butterworth?

Certainly there is much to enjoy in the animal imagery abounding in the play – I want students to find their own, so no lists, but so much is made of cats, dogs, rats and so on in relation to young people that it is not hard to find. What Butterworth can do, when necessary is convey the “something special” about Johnny by his use of metaphor which deepens thought. In act 2, in his glorious challenge to society, he calls on his “beserkers” to rise “snout by jowl”. Given the common use of “cheek by jowl” and Rooster’s avoidance of the idiom in favour of the altogether more interesting and somehow darker use of “snout”, immediately implying hunting dogs or even pigs, we can begin to feel the extra depth and mystery which the character is required to convey. This is set in contrast to his acolyte Ginger, whose entire speech patterns seem to be based on what other people say – usually by referencing film and TV or the patter of those DJs so much more capable than he. This disparity of imagination in their individual narrative voices is an immediate indicator of their respective powers and depths – just as it is in poor Lee, whose narrative seems to consist of rare moments of lucidity amongst an utter inability to communicate at all.

The final idea to present here comes from a discussion that McMullan presented relating to Shakespeare’s “woods”. He covered ecocriticism and the need to see Shakespeare as part of a whole, when considering Elisabethan and Jacobean England. Again I shifted on to Butterworth and began to formulate ideas about woods and about the play being seen as part of a tradition starting with Chaucer and moving through Shakespeare and Bleasdale (and others) onto Butterworth and our world today. This is realism and is not therefore the stylised language world of Brecht or Absurdists, for example, and because of that we must recognise and value it for what is presented. Since Jerusalem seems to hark back to a “time before” throughout, both in content and in Johnny’s speech patterns, we must see the wood in this light. For Shakespeare the Wood was frightening even when being used as a Pastoral retreat, and this echoes the ideas from legend such as Robin Hood, where the hero creates his pastoral idyll in the very place which all fear because of highway murder and robbery- by Robin Hood… England has never had the fear of woodland of our North European neighbours, possibly because of the deciduous nature of our trees – much better at producing fertility figures and green Man than wolves and lonely grannies being devoured by predators… But here, the wood is frightening – not to Johnny and his nymphs and satyrs, but to the villagers 450 yards away across the stream (such liminal boundaries being common in all good stories of this kind). All those visiting Johnny have, therefore chosen to cross a boundary between society and the wood – they have entered an older and much darker place by doing so. For Shakespeare, wood was a prime building material and would later save the nation by being made into ships for Nelson’s navy- thus there was an intrinsic value to the woods which is recognised in plays like As You Like It, where Arden is such a positive place. For 21st Century readers, we wonder “what the fuck an English forest is for” – they provide little in the way of raw materials and are no longer the pleasure parks of Royalty that Chaucer would have known. For urban dwellers they are sanitised places of “nature” without danger and children being allowed to “Go Ape”. No wonder that modern society has few qualms about removing Rooster’s Wood to build houses – it adds nothing in our materialistic view of society. For Johnny, and his heritage through Falstaff or oberon all the way back to Pan and Dionysus, it is vital and integral to the world at large – a place of danger and safety, or life and death. A place in which Nature is presented in all its glory -red in tooth and claw. Closer to Ted Hughes than Wordsworth, perhaps… but that’s another post for another day.



Filed under AQA LitB 4, jerusalem, ks5, OCR A level, OCR NEW English Literature, Paedagogy

11 responses to “That’s how we speak: Jerusalem and Shakespeare. Language in drama and other musings.

  1. Alex

    A very interesting way of describing the English Language. However I would argue that there are many groups of people who even in their relaxation time, would be horrified to swear and spout what they would see as vulgar language. Whilst there are many parts of society which think nothing of the use of such words, there are most certainly others who do.

    • Fair enough, but in a dramatic presentation of a particular group, the playwrite must present an authentic voice. People used the full range of expletives in the late 19th century, but Lady Bracknell will never query the use of a “fuckin’ ‘andbag”.

  2. Tasvin

    Well i think that the use of swearing and other explicit languages are a necessity to English Language, especially for the use of play writes. This is mainly because swearing has become entrenched in modern language. From a fairly young age in Britain we are view explicit language in everyday life. Many of us in our informal time swear without thinking twice because of the fact that we are so use to it. Its a part of language that is labelled “vulgar” despite the fact that those very people have sworn before.

    An odd way of looking at this is say you were to bang you foot on a table, you wouldn’t be so innocent now we would we? We’d say something along the lines of “Fuck” as now it has become second nature.

    Back to the point, play writes such as Butterworth and Shakespeare use this type of explicit language in order to make their characters feel more real and to represent the majority of society. Without the use of explicit language we could not relate as much to the reactions of the characters so its essential to use such languages in modern plays as, like i said before, swearing has become second nature and it would be wrong to portray an ‘ accurate representation of society’ without including the common speech patterns of society.

  3. Daniel

    Perhaps the reason society is significantly more horrified by swearing than it was in Chaucer or Shakespeare’s day is due to the fact we like to think of mankind as being on a positive trajectory; from being ignorant savages who lived in the wood, towards ‘sophistication’, prosperity and civilisation. Perhaps it is humanity’s technological and scientific advancement that is the origin of this strong 21st century taboo of swearing, since we now see it as being beneath us, and that to use it is to simply revert back to the animals we once were.

    I believe this issue is one Butterworth presents well in ‘Jerusalem’, since the wood in which Byron lives could be a symbol for not just swearing, but for everything taboo that modern day society is desperately trying to rid itself of. As you say in your article, it is ‘not Johnny and his nymphs and satyrs, but the villagers 450 yards away across the stream’ that are frightened by the wood. This could suggest that Johnny has chosen to simply embrace what society now sees as vulgar, as opposed to the majority who violently reject it. As a result, Johnny seems like a much more genuine, relatable character than almost anyone else in the entire play, and we get an indication of this in the very first moments of act one, when Fawcett’s drone-like, monotone reading of various numbers and scripted words is juxtaposed with Johnny’s profuse, yet vastly more entertaining reaction.

    Perhaps, through conveying such a message, Butterworth is encouraging us to have a more liberal view on profanity as those in Shakespeare and Chaucer’s eras did.

    I personally agree with Butterworth’s message, since I see it as a useless waste of energy to be so easily repelled by swearing. Perhaps this is because our sense of humanity is become buried beneath our desire for technological and materialistic advancement. As Tasvin said, ‘swearing has become entrenched in modern language’, and this is something we needn’t hide from.

  4. Dahn

    Much of society is censored from the ideas of ‘swearing’, they are really just an expression we use that show our raw emotions. The idea that we swear when away from the ideologies of society is false, we may become more lax in our language, yet the idea of us streaming out curses as soon as we enter the borders of our home or are around friends.

    As Daniel put it, I agree that we spend too much time controlling and blacklisting large areas of vocabulary for the sake of appearing proper. Communication should be free flowing allowing us to relay our points to others, yet this ‘ban’ on swearing puts us in a predicament where we automatically turn towards a swear that we cannot use.

    I have to disagree with Daniels point about: ‘reverting back to the animals we once were’ Daniel seems to think that swearing is an animalistic tendency but is surely is not, we are brought into a society full of this ‘vulgar’ language, yet it is a taboo to use it. Swearing is not an instinctual element of our communication but it is a custom in our society.

    Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote their texts for the public to enjoy, they have no reason to censor their writing because they are performing towards the very people who swear the most; the common and working people, thrown into poverty by the injustices of society.

    PS who is Dahn

  5. alistair

    After considering your explanation it all seems fairly obvious actually. The idea of profanity being in Rooster’s and everyone else’s vernacular was initially shocking and humorous and more to the point made me think foul of Rooster yet given the setting of the play in not using this dialectal style of speech I would argue that the play would fundamentally lose a massive aspect of what makes it and Johnny so lovable.

    In further contemplation I came to the realisation that Johnny and people in my era have strikingly similar idiomatic speaking styles. Now, obviously I am not going so far as to say that Rooster and I speak the same, for his imagination and execution of his politically incorrect slurs put me to shame. Yet the way I, and pretty much all my friends speak to one another with disregard for how the language me may use will be insulting draws uncomfortably close to how Johnny talks.

    The use of seemingly vulgar speech should also not be shocking to readers. Perhaps, as you mentioned, the initial taboo of swearing in a classroom made the notion of Roosters language seem far worse than it actually is but we should not be shocked by language not to dissimilar to what use, even if in private company. Truth be told, take away swearing and some of what he says is very powerful and if engaged with properly is actually extremely thought provoking. The swearing only enhances an aspect of this compelling speaking which is shock. Shock that a man from such a dire walk of life can make such bold yet valid statements about the society that I and almost everyone else reading or seeing the play will be a part of. Therefore, it should be considered when answering a question on Johnny not to condemn his rudeness entirely because partly it adds so much to buying into the characters but ironically he is also holding the mirror right back at us showing us that if we are disgusted by these words then perhaps we shouldn’t use them ourselves.

  6. Here is more thought provoking material from Mark Haddon, author of Curious Incident…
    “the wilson county school board in tennessee has banned curious incident from its reading list for ninth graders taking honours level english classes (full story here). my own feelings are largely ones of weary bemusement. it’s happened before on many occasions (sometimes blasphemy and atheism are added to the charge sheet) though i’m only aware of cases in the usa. curious is not short of readers, banning it almost certainly makes the book more attractive to those from whom it is being withheld and these kind of controversies make people talk and think hard about books and reading which is always a good thing.

    it’s a little self-serving for an author to get on their high horse about a book of their own being banned. better to save that indignation for the bannning of someone else’s book when it has more force. some thoughts, though…

    the fact that there is swearing in a book does not mean that the book “promotes swearing” any more than it promotes, for example, killing a dog with a garden fork, or telling your son that his mother is dead.

    christopher never swears.

    because christopher is largely deaf to tone and subtext he is utterly oblivious to the intended effect of “bad language” and it has absolutely no power to offend him. i find this funny. i think it also says something instructive about how swearing works. there is a good (and, I confess, complimentary) article about this subject by john mullan here.

    most of those banning the book have not read the whole thing. almost always they talk about the prevalence of what they coyly refer to as “the f-bomb”. if they had read the whole book they would know that it also contains what i shall coyly refer to as “the c-bomb” and “the s-my-c bomb” (those are two quite different “c”s).

    you cannot stop children soaking language of all kinds (unless you take them halfway up a mountain and shut the door and burn the tv and that’s not a recipe for a happy adulthood). what children need to learn is how to use language in context, how to articulate their ideas and feelings, how to be heard in a certain way by some people and in another way by other people, how not to offend and (occasionally) how to offend. it’s not about what you say. it’s about what you say to whom, and when, and how.

    there is a temptation to suggest that banning books is a sinister act. it’s too ridiculous and self-defeating to be sinister. it is pretty much guaranteed to have the opposite effects to those intended. and it makes you look foolish.”

  7. Amal

    Society has developed a key use for swearing in english language which now just comes naturally. this relates to Jerusalem because all the characters swear naturally so it is not necessarily ‘vulgar’ that swearing is so frequent in everyday english language. I think it relates to the way we are brought up as we are surrounded by swear words at school and at home if we are to be honest. Butterworth and Shakespeare are known for using swear words constantly, this could have a relation to what they believe Englishness is.

  8. Sonny

    This is a very interesting way of thinking about how people use “vulgar” language or how people perceive “vulgar” language to be. The generation has changed that everyone uses swear or cursing words in everyday language. Not because we are intending to be rude or hurt others all the time but to emphasise our point to others. It is used everyday in the current and the immediate past English Language. This relates to Jerusalem because Johnny frequently uses language that is deemed to be “vulgar.” It is not vulgar language, it is just how he has grown up and the way he is out of society and everyone else swears.

  9. Antara Bhattacharya


    I happened to chance upon your blog and found it very interesting!

    We have recently launched a science app that uses augmented reality to enhance classroom teaching. The app has 3D models for kindergarten to grade 12. I thought you might want to check it out and may be review it on your blog, if possible.

    It is a paid app(with a few models free) but in case you are interested in trying it out I will be happy to provide you with a free copy.

    The link to the app is:



    You can also search for the app on the app store as ‘Augmenter’.

    Do let me know if you would be interested. I am really Looking forward to your response.

    happy teaching!


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