Quaint Knowledge: A “Body-Mind” Pattern Across Shakespeare’s Career

  • Laurie JohnsonEmail author
Part of the Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind book series (SHPM, volume 15)


Shakespeare was prone to bawdiness in the name of entertainment but never resorted to downright profanity. The commonly used noxious term for female genitalia is not to be found in his writing, for example. Yet studies of the plays easily unpack a raft of puns on the word. My interest is on a euphemistic term that seems to have eluded the work of most readers, possibly owing to the fact that it began to fall into disuse, according to the OED, in the period immediately after Shakespeare was writing. By 1623, when the First Folio was published, it is likely that many cultured readers no longer knew of the euphemistic double meaning of the word ‘quaint,’ or at least they cared not to know even if they retained memory of its use for that purpose over the previous three centuries. Of even greater interest to me in this paper is the prospect that via the euphemistic meaning of ‘quaint,’ the verb ‘to acquaint’ acquired a none too subtle sexual meaning at this time, which Shakespeare exploited on numerous occasions in the plays and sonnets. It is no coincidence, I think, that the verb associated with ‘knowing’ also acquired a relation to ‘knowing’ in the Biblical sense, as another euphemism puts it, which in turn gave expression to a particularly gendered differentiation around two distinct forms of knowledge. It is my contention that Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets thereby participate in the formation of—and interrogation of—a gendered distinction in the field of knowledge about knowledge at the turn of the seventeenth century, just as the euphemistic associations of ‘quaint’ begin to fall into disuse.


William Shakespeare Body-mind Cognition Bawdy Intersubjective form 


  1. Open Source Shakespeare. (2003–2013). Concordance of Shakespeare’s complete works. Accessed 16 Oct 2012.
  2. Bicks, C. (2003). Midwiving subjects in Shakespeare’s England. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  3. Breitenberg, M. (1996). Anxious masculinity in early modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carew, R. (2010). Tasso’s ‘Godfrey of Bulloigne’ 5 cantos (1594), (A.B.GrosartEd.). Charleston: Bibliobazaar.Google Scholar
  5. Cavell, S. (2003). Disowning knowledge in seven plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cefalu, P. A. (2000). ‘Damnéd Custom… Habits Devil’: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, anti-dualism, and the early modern philosophy of mind ELH: English Literary History, 67(2), 399–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chapman, G. (1895). All Fools (1605). In W. L. Phelps (Ed.), The best plays of the old dramatists: George Chapman (pp. 37–120). London: T. Fisher Unwin.Google Scholar
  8. Coggins, G. (1989). Queint device: A guide to sexuality in Edmund Spenser. Huntsville: Distek Publishing.Google Scholar
  9. Demastes, W. W. (2005). Hamlet in his world: Shakespeare anticipates/assaults Cartesian dualism. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 20(1), 27–39.Google Scholar
  10. Farley-Hills, D. (1990). Shakespeare and the rival playwrights, 1600–1606. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Greene, R. (2007). A notable discouery of Coosnage (1591), (Risa Bear Ed.). Renascence Editions. University of Oregon.Google Scholar
  12. Hillman, D., & Mazzio, C. (Eds.). (1997). The body in parts: Fantasies of corporeality in early modern Europe. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Hopkins, L. (2002). The female hero in English Renaissance tragedy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Johnson, L. (2009). ‘Nobler in the mind’: The emergence of early modern anxiety. Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association, Special Issue, 141 −1 56.Google Scholar
  15. Kiernan, P. (2006). Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s most outrageous sexual puns. London: Quercus.Google Scholar
  16. Knutson, R. L. (1991). The repertory of Shakespeare’s company, 1594–1613. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.Google Scholar
  17. McGinn, C. (2007). Shakespeare’s philosophy: Discovering the meaning behind the plays. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  18. Partridge, E. (1968). Shakespeare’s bawdy. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Rubinstein, F. (1989). A dictionary of Shakespeare’s puns and their significance. Basingstoke: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  20. Shakespeare, W. (2005). The Oxford Shakespeare. Second Edition, (John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor, & Stanley Wells Eds.). Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  21. Shapiro, J. (2005). A year in the life of William Shakespeare: 1599. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  22. Spenser, E. (1996). Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale (1591), (Risa S. Bear Ed.). Luminarium Renascence Editions. University of Oregon Press.Google Scholar
  23. Thomas, S. (1988). On the dating of Shakespeare’s early plays. Shakespeare Quarterly, 39(2), 187 −1 94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Wallace, K. (2013). Lessons in music, lessons in love. In D. Kambaskovic (Ed.), Conjunctions of mind, soul and body from Plato to the enlightenment (History of the philosophy of mind series). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  25. Wells, S. (2010). Shakespeare, sex, and love. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Williams, G. (1994). A dictionary of sexual language and imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart literature. London: Athlone.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Public Memory Research CentreUniversity of Southern QueenslandToowoombaAustralia

Personalised recommendations