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Romeo and Juliet is listed as one of Shakespeare's tragedies and, personally, I found it one of the more affecting ones. With that in mind I was gobsmacked to learn that there's apparently a dirty joke right at the high point of pathos in the play. When Juliet says:

O happy dagger!
This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.

Audiences are apparently supposed to infer that the "dagger" is Romeo's penis, the "sheath" is Juliet's vagina and to "die" is an Elizabethan euphemism for orgasm. Aside from the latter colloquialism, evidence given for this argument includes that, in a Dictionary believed to have been owned and annotated by Shakespeare himself, he has written the word "vagina" next to the definition of "sheath".

I'm not entirely convinced by this but that's partly my own bias in finding this moment of great tragedy ought to be treated as a joke. Nevertheless, it still seems plausible that this arrangement is coincidental and that this really is just a line about committing suicide with a dagger.

So: is there any additional evidence that this was a purposeful joke on Shakespeare's part? And, if it is, what does that mean in terms of how the play as a whole can be staged and interpreted: is it really a "tragedy" if the culmination is a sex joke, and how are actors supposed to deliver this line in context?

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    The primary female sexual organ has been called a "sheath" for at least 2000 years. And what goes in a sheath? A dagger/sword, of course.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 14, 2023 at 17:55
  • @RonJohn the linked article says the OED has it as dating back only to 1682, although it cites earlier likely examples to muddy the waters.
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 14, 2023 at 17:58
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    I’m not convinced that audiences really are supposed to infer that “dagger” refers to anything other than the prop dagger Juliet is holding, nor that the “sheath” refers to anything other than the breast she’s pointing it at. Sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke.
    – Kevin Troy
    Mar 14, 2023 at 18:03
  • @KevinTroy absolutely - hence the question.
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 14, 2023 at 18:22
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    The double entendre is probably not meant as a joke. The fulfillment of her love, including and perhaps culminating in its physical fulfillment, is denied; she chooses the ultimate fulfillment instead. I needed 21 words to say that; Shakespeare needed 13. And quantity isn't even the important measure ;-). Mar 14, 2023 at 20:23

1 Answer 1

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Shakespeare was by no means averse to sexual puns, euphemisms and allusions. In fact Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge is a classic of Shakespeare scholarship entirely dedicated to this sort of language. Interestingly, the glossary section in Partridge's book doesn't have entries for "dagger" or "sheath".

The Romeo and Juliet editions by T. J. B. Spencer (New Penguin Shakespeare, 1967, revised 1996) and G. Blakemore Evans (New Cambridge Shakespeare, 1984) do not mention double meanings of "dagger" and "sheath" in their glosses of the passage, but that does not conclude the matter. There is debate on whether the verb should be "rust" (as in the 1599 Second Quarto and the 1623 First Folio) or "rest" (as in the 1597 First Quarto):

O happy dagger thou shalt end my feare,
Rest in my bosome, thus I come to thee.

The First Quarto is of such poor quality that it is not used as the starting point of modern editions but some still prefer "rest" of "rust". Blakemore Evans describes "rest" as "a blander and easier reading" (page 189), but an additional note on this point (page 207) adds,

(…) The objection that a dagger 'rests', not 'rusts', in its sheath (…) is beside the point considering the nature of the present 'sheath'. Gibbons suggests a kind of phallic fulfilment in Juliet's action, completing 'the motif of Death as rival to Romeo, Death lies with Juliet'.

Jill L. Levinson notes in the Oxford edition (page 349) that,

the dagger in its spoken and material forms has most impact as part of the sexual wordplay in Juliet's last lines.

None of the editors cited above mention whether pre-Freudian theatre goers would have picked up the sexual allusions in "dagger" and "sheath". They also don't mention when commentators first started interpreting Juliet's last words as sexual allusions, which is a question that may be worth investigating in its own right.

However, the verb "die" in the sense of "to experience sexual orgasm" (E. Partridge: Shakespeare's Bawdy, page 93) occurs elsewhere in Shakespeare. For example in Much Ado About Nothing, Act 5, scene 2:

I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes; (…)

And even in King Lear, Act 4, scene 6 (at least according to Partridge):

I will die bravely, like a bridegroom.

The above comments on "dagger", "sheath" and "die" provide arguments in favour of the presence of an erotic allusion, but this does not imply that this is intended humorously.


With regard to the dictionary where someone wrote "vagina" next to "sheath": Wiktionary points out that "vagina" is etymologically a

Learned borrowing from Latin vāgīna (“a sheath, scabbard; a covering, sheath, holder”).

Native speakers of Dutch will also know that schede can be used for both "sheath" and "vagina". The same is true for the German word Scheide. Gefundenes Fressen for Freudian translators.

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    Interesting. So I gather from this that it seems likely this is a purposeful reference to sexual fulfillment but not one that the audience is to take humorously due to the context?
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 14, 2023 at 15:15
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    @MattThrower What contemporary audiences were supposed to make of it is something I don't know, but I would not assume that every erotic allusion is necessarily humorous.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 14, 2023 at 17:53
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    Intriguing. Juliet effectively says "This is my fate: I invite this dagger to bring me the big death instead of inviting your 'dagger' to bring about the petite mort." The petite mort article says that while the term existed in English in the 16th century, the "post orgasm" usage is modern. But I would not put it past Shakespeare to preempt this similarity.. Mar 14, 2023 at 19:31
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica I have added something about "die" in a sexual sense in Shakespeare's plays.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 14, 2023 at 19:51

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