‘Made to write “whore” upon?’: Male and Female Use of the Word ‘Whore’

  • Kay Stanton
Part of the Palgrave Shakespeare Studies book series (PASHST)


Anita strode into the room smiling, attired in earrings, high heels, and a red dress. That did not seem anomalous to me: she always had a sunny disposition, and she was scheduled to present her research paper for my graduate seminar in Renaissance Drama that day; sometimes my students dress up a little more than usual to do their oral presentations. I was always particularly proud of Anita. She had transferred to my university, before completing her undergraduate work, from a small Bible college, where she had met and married her husband. The first of several courses that she had taken from me was my undergraduate Shakespeare course, in which she began as a good student and became the best, and on her course and instructor evaluation form, she had written what remains the most unconventional comment on my teaching that I have yet received: ‘Her Shakespeare course improved my sex life with my husband!’ I remember reading it and wondering what the committees that would be evaluating my file for tenure consideration would make of that. Anita was definitely the one who had written it, because she had made the same remark directly to me, further explaining that after class she would go home and share with her husband the sexual implications of various passages that we had covered in class discussion, and apparently that had an effect similar to the one experienced by Dante’s Francesca and Paolo as they read the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere.


Male Character Female Character Feminist Criticism Oxford English Dictionary Double Sexual Standard 
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  1. 3.
    In order to keep length manageable, I do not here analyze Shakespeare’s uses of ‘whoremaster’ (5 instances), ‘whoremasterly’ (1), ‘whoreson’ (40), and ‘whoresons’ (1), which, although dependent on the notion of female as ‘whore’, are applied exclusively to male characters. Marvin Spevack’s The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare (1973), my initial guide to locating the citations, lists one further instance of ‘whore’ as noun, ‘to be his whore is witless’, II. iv. 5 of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a play not included in the Shakespeare folios, but that most contemporary scholars believe to have been co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. As I cannot be certain that Shakespeare rather than Fletcher wrote that line, I do not consider it here, although its implications do not contradict my overall argument. Interestingly, no form of the word ‘whore’ appears in The Comedy of Errors, which includes a courtesan among its characters, nor is it found in Pericles, which features a brothel as one of its settings and three bawds among its characters. The near-absence of use of the word ‘whore’ in Shakespeare’s comedies, in contrast with the tragedies, is consistent with their more playful attitudes toward language and their increased acceptance of female sexuality as part of the reproductive processes of nature.Google Scholar

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© Linda Kay Stanton 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kay Stanton
    • 1
  1. 1.California State UniversityFullertonUSA

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