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Forsooth and by the saints, we are exploring curse words today from Shakespeare’s lifetime. The changeover from Catholic to Protestant England may have changed the way people worshipped but it didn’t change the strongly religious influence of the English language, including their swear words. Today our guest, John Spurr joins us to help us explore all the expressions of emphasis, oath, and cursing that appear in Shakespeare’s plays so that we can understand the history behind why they are there, what they mean, and what kinds of words were considered bad language for Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

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John Spurr is emeritus professor of history at Swansea University, UK. He is the author of numerous books on seventeenth-century British history and has been working on a study of early modern oaths and swearing since the 1980s.

I’ll be asking John Spurr about:

  • What curse words were the most popular for Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • Did the 16th century use the same curse words we have today?
  • Are there any curse words we have today which might have been ordinary, non-offensive words, for the 16th century?

Books and Resources John Spurr recommends:

Francis Shirley, Swearing and Perjury in Shakespeare’s plays

John Carrigon, Shakespeare’s Binding Language, discusses play by play, the language evolving in the characters and the plots of Shakespeare’s plays. Vows, pledges, oaths, etc, as devices for a plot. Once you’re committed to a course of action by an oath, you have a serious of plot consequences. 

Shakespeare’s plays and Ben Jonson’s plays as well. Jonson was very interested in this kind of bad language. 

Screenshot taken by me, Cassidy Cash, on August 24, 2022, of the digital edition of the Profane Swearing Act of 1694. This document not only outlines the parameters for offensive speech, but details that the act should be read in parish churches four times a year, right after Morning Prayers. This act was intended to follow on the Profane Act of 1623, which this act states was insufficient at preventing foul language. Source (You can read the entire act at this link).
Screenshot of a paper by Hugh Gazzard. This paper looks through the history of this document. I was not able to find a digital version of the Act itself.

Curse words popular for Shakespeare’s lifetime

Most of the curse words from Shakespeare’s lifetime centered around taking God’s name in vain. It was considered incredibly offensive to use God, Jesus, or even church words in a flippant or disrespectful way. John explains:

The phrase “curse word” is a modern, American English. In British English we’d say “Swear words” or “profanity” and in some ways, there is a difference between a profane word and a curse. In 1606, a man in Essex got into trouble because he told the church wardens that “by god, he’d be revenged upon them” and brought a curse down upon them. 

Another is “what is most popular” we don’t have a survey, we rely on Shakespeare’s plays to tell us the language of the times. We don’t have many records of ordinary speech except now and agin in church courts or exceptional legal cases where they are prosecuted for defamation. They will be prosecuting people’s sexual behavior and accusing them to be a whore or whoreson, and it’s about their behavior rather than their speech, so it’s a question of their moral respectability…

1606 statute from a compilation of Acts of Parliament, from the academic subscription service Historical Texts.  Https:// | Provided by John Spurr | Used by permission.

Curse Words Changed Over the Centuries

While swearing and profanities was based on the same idea in Shakespeare’s lifetime as today–that of insulting or offending someone with your speech—the actual words that were considered offensive have evolved over the centuries.

For example, the phrase ‘ “oh my God” or OMG, that’s something that in the 16th century would have gotten you into a lot of trouble.’ (Quotation from John’s conversation in the episode today).

Many modern offensive words today were ordinary parts of everyday speech in Shakespeare’s day. John gives one notable example:

There are lots of words that are curse words in modernity that would not have been part of the vocabulary in the 16th century. Words which we now find very rude, like the f-word, was part of the natural language. It was perhaps vulgar language, but it wasn’t offensive. Saying things like “fucking” he’s caught “in flagrantio” committing adultery and he says he’s going to continue to do what he’s doing, “By God” and both blasphemous [and offensive].

Margaret Jones from A Series of Precedents and Proceedings in Criminal Causes Extending from the Year 1475 to 1640 Extracted from Act-books of Ecclesiastical Courts in the Diocese of London, Illustrative of the Discipline of the Church of England  By William Hale Hale · 1847 – p. 231

Act Against Curse Words by Actors, 1606

An official act of Parliament was passed in 1606 that was “designed to prevent anyone in any stage play or show, pageant, etc, to jestingly or speak to holy name of God, the Holy Ghost or the Trinity, are not to be spoken but with fear and reverence, and if a player did use the name of God, they were fined a ten pound fine. It was famous for Shakespearean scholars because there’s some evidence it led to printed versions of some plays that we don’t have before 1623, being censored, such that the swearing was taken out in response to that threat of prosecution.” (quotation from John’s conversation today.)

Screenshot of the book The Statutes Relating to the Ecclesiastical and Eleemosynary Institutions of England, Wales, Ireland, India, and the Colonies: With the Decisions Thereon, Volume 1, Archibald John Stephens, 1845, which names the law as part of Statuta Jacobi, outlining a statute (On page 546-547 of the above linked document), statutes against profane swearing, dated 1634. Source Huge thank you to “muru” on for providing this reference.

The difference between a curse word and an oath

To swear an oath was considered a good thing in 16th century society. To take an oath meant to make a solemn promise, often backed up by the Bible or a connection to God and the Church, both symbols of truth in themselves as well as foundational motivators towards fidelity by the devout. As John explains, “[an oath is] used in court, swearing allegiance to the government/King/Queen, and taken with great seriousness. You don’t break that oath unless you are prepared to risk eternal damnation.”

You could pervert a good oath, however, to create what’s called a “profane oath.” John defines this kind of oath as, ‘a profanity. “By God, it was the best fish I ever caught” that’s a vain, trivial way to take God’s name in vain. It is a very straightforward definition: if you’re using God’s name to support something trivial that’s a profane oath.”

The line between profanity and an oath of allegiance is very narrow, and quite blurry, because the two terms interact all the time. You can swear something even if you’re not certain, and then you’re committing not only perjury, but you’re taking God’s name in vain if you swear by God to something you can’t guarantee. John shares that for Shakespeare’s lifetime, the overlap of curse words and oaths is “a web of solemn oaths that underpin social and political life in 16th century.”

Picture 1.PNG A nice image from the C18th!   This is the transcription:
Be it remembered that on the twentieth day of October in the Eighteenth year of his Majesty’s Reign [King George III], Thomas Powell of the Parish of Devynnock in the said county farmer, was convicted before me one of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the said county, of Swearing one Profane oath. Given under my hand and seal, the day and year aforesaid. | Provided by John Spurr | Used with permission.

Curse Words and Preachers

With a strongly religious society, there was a move by preachers and church people to push against profane language. Not only were several acts of Parliament passed against those that used swear words, but it was actually written into the law that the act needed to be read to the congregation by clergymen 4 times a year just before morning prayers.

For some in Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was important to consider what was at the heart of the issue behind your curse or oath.

“What matters if whether you think there are some people concerned with the sanctity of the oath that they wont’ take any oath, and some won’t take any at all. The quakers, for example, refused to take any oath at all. “Let your nay be nay and your yay be yay” so they are completely opposed to swearing oaths. Others are very slippery about their oaths…huge scruples of conscious, cannot square a solemn oath with their conscience. Swearing means both things simultaneously and refer to the belief that God is part of the universe and them. 

One man wrote about oaths and swearing in the 16th century. Robert Crowley penned a tract “Blasphemous Swearer”, “it’s an attempt to expose to readers what swearers does and the risks you take, swearers gain little by swearing and they risk their eternal life. Some swear by God’s nails, hearty body, some by his flesh, his blood, and his foot…and others would see all swearers…What Crowley is criticizing is people feel they can avoid the danger of a profane oath, swearing by God if they swear by a made up word. Euphemism, or creatures (things God created). Crowley thinks you can’t get off the hook by using these sideways curses. Throughout the early modern period there are people who believe they are so simple minded to say “god’s bodykins” they aren’t being offensive and the preacher says ‘yes you are offending god, you’ve just wrapped it nicely”

The titlepage from Crowley’s book and the relevant page, from the academic subscription service Historical Texts.  Https:// | Provided by John Spurr | Used by permission.

Curse Words and Their Shock Value

Like today, profanities were useful for their shock value and the need to endow a situation with emphasis. As Hotspur says “A good mouth gilling oath.” John explains that cursing was considered “a pleasure when people are drinking or gambling. Getting things off your chest, or showing you really mean what you say.”

There was also a sense of community around swearing where you would considered “one of the boys” if you used foul language. “…there’s one sense that you want to show you “belong” because swearing was the kind of thing apprentices and men about town go in for. In other words, if you go to the tavern and you want to join in and be greeted by your fellow adolescents and young men, you join in the swearing. At the same time, if you wanted to mark yourself out as a Godly person, or a Puritan wing of the Church of England, you would avoid swearing and the company of swearers and then there’s those who hangover from the Reformation and swear “by the mass” or “By my lady” and these terms go back before the Reformation in England, and in some ways they use these swears to reveal their connections to the older form of Christianity supplanted by the reformation. 

Curse Words for the Nobility

I had expected John to share with me that curse words were a trait stereotypically assigned to the lower classes and those “down by the docks” as it were, but surprisingly, he said that some of the curse words used in 16th century England were actually seen as specific attributes of the upper classes.

“Swore like a lord” the aristocrats and upper classes were marked out that they were disdainful of the conventional and pious language and they became famous for their willingness to swear. IT’s as much about gender as it as about class. You find for instance there’s a lot of emphasis on how women will swear more daintily, using “forsooth” or “by my troth”, swearing more gentile and restrained than men. It’s very strongly associated with males, and it’s not simply aristocratic well born males (though that’s the ones who lead) but you find in army camps and people riding the barges on the Thames, the waterman, were famous for their swearing, and perhaps in many ways the working class and upper class asserted their freedom from the bourgeois or middle class responsibilities and pieties. If you went down the themes on a skiff, you’ve be met with a skiff of profanities form the people rowing you. It goes back to the easy in which people took a cue from the top of society. Queen Elizabeth was famous for saying “God’s death” Or “God’s wounds” when she wanted to make a point.

Curse Words and Legal Prosecution

Queen Elizabeth (despite being famous for things like sumptuary laws that control what a person eats and wears) did not specifically police language, at least not herself. John outlines that prosecution for swearing came in the form of prosecution for disturbing the peace or for swearing an oath. This prosecution did not very often happen at the upper levels of the judicial system, however (i.e. not by Elizabeth herself) but instead, happened with the local government prosecution. That being the case, handling of curse words and profanity varied greatly from place to place, depending on what precisely the local government wanted to enforce.

… the JPs and the Church Wardens would police communities and they would prosecute people, but they weren’t using statue law, no acts of Parliament. There weren’t any acts of Parliament until after Shakespeare’s death in the 1620s, so the late 17th century into the 18th century there was a fine, 12 pound fine for every oath sworn and if you were too young, you were whipped, and if you were too poor, you were put in the stocks. The pressure behind that move was the Puritans from Shakespeare’s lifetime. Part of it was to do with the Reformation and manners. Women and men of all kinds were prosecuted [disturbing the peace with profane language.]

John tells the story of one woman, named Margaret Jones, who in1606 was prosecuted as much for her attitude as for her words. She was brought before the Justice of the Peace to be presented for crimes of disturbing the peace.

[She was]…presented…for a swearer, most cursed oaths, God’s wounds, and “God’s heart”” and she sweared in response to the accusation and hit the minister. She followed him swearing devilishly from one end of the town to the other. She so annoyed the minster that he told her off, and she responded with more swearing. Very often in these accusations of bad language, the local community authorities were caught up with unruliness and drinking and refusal to live by conventions of what’s small and sort of heavily policed community.

If you are into this sort of history, check out Strong Language on Twitter (also at their website). They research curse words around the world and throughout history.