In act I, scene 2, of Measure for Measure, the clown uses the word seed:

Clow. All howses in the Suburbs of Vienna must bee pluck'd downe.

Bawd. And what shall become of those in the Citie?

Clow. They shall stand for seed: they had gon down to, but that a wise Burger put in for them.

I did some research on ShakespearesWords.com but to no avail. Methinks that by seed is meant semen here but I'm not sure. What does the clown mean by saying that brothels in the cities "shall stand for seed"?


1 Answer 1


Some agricultural crops are normally harvested before the plant produces its seeds, or before the seeds mature. For example, hay is mown when the leaves are largest, before the seeds ripen and the stalks turn to straw. But for productivity it is important not to keep harvesting the same plants year after year, but to allow some of them to go to seed so that new plants can grow. Thus some of the crop is left to stand for seed instead of being harvested.

I would advise, that if you have a good kind of Colly-Flower that blossoms early, and has large and close Flowers, to let some of the forward Plants stand for Seed, carefully tying them to Stakes, that the Winds may not injure them. When the Seed-Vessels are full grown, and the Seeds within them are perfected, cut off the whole Stalk, and let it dry in the House before it be thrash’d out; for it is not necessary to leave the Seed upon the Plants till the Pods are dry, lest they open and shed.

Richard Bradley (1718). New Improvements of Planting and Gardening, p. 148. London: W. Mears.

So the clown’s joke in Measure for Measure likens the “houses of resort” (brothels) of Vienna to an agricultural crop, where some of it (in the suburbs) is harvested, but a proportion (in the city) is allowed to go to seed for the production of the next year’s crop. There is also a rude pun on “stand” (meaning “to have an erection”) and “seed” (meaning “semen”), alluding to the activity in these houses.

I doubt that Shakespeare can have intended a pun on “gone down” as the sense “go down, v. perform fellatio or cunnilingus” is much too late—Chambers Slang Dictionary says “(1910s+) (orig. US)”.

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    There are many such rude puns in Shakespeare plays, not all in relevant contexts like brothels: some obvious, e.g. "the bawdy hand of the clock is now upon the prick of noon", and some less so. (Of course you know this, I'm just mentioning it for readers who may not.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 11:00
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    +1 for an excellent explanation of the sentence in question. Just for context, it’s perhaps worth explicating the followup sentence, “…they had gon down to, but that a wise Burger put in for them”, since it’s rather archaic and may be unclear for many modern readers: “They would have been shut down too, except that a wise prominent citizen of the town spoke in their favour.” Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 12:32
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    Many people are surprised to learn how many common idioms originated from Shakespeare. In this case it's somewhat surprising that he didn't invent "go down" :)
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 15:20
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine the Burger "putting in" for them is another layer of pun, and likely the real explanation as well.
    – fectin
    Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 0:54

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