Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.10.27, Smith, Between Two Stools

13.10.27, Smith, Between Two Stools

The "two stools" of Smith's book are two contrasting methods of deploying scatology: as a force of generation, merriment, and the carnivalesque; or as an agent of self-disgust and misanthropy. Smith presents this distinction as an organizing principle of the book, identifying the transition from the first to the second as a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century phenomenon. This analysis of the development of literary attitudes is alluded to from time to time, but the study is equally a series of studies of scatalogical features in a series of texts from the late Middle Ages to the eighteenth century.

Of most immediate interest to medievalists will be Chapter 1, "Turning the other cheek: scatology and its discontents in The Miller's Tale and The Summoner's Tale." Smith begins by lamenting a "the very paucity of scatalogically explicit studies of Chaucer," a state of affairs "indicative of a sensibility which remains under the thumb of a censorial Victorianism" (13-14). This was certainly the case until fifteen or twenty years ago, and Smith cites legions of disapproving nineteenth-century critics (though, intriguingly, Wordsworth and his sister were exceptions). But he tends to undermine his claim by his thoroughness is citing a wealth of other present-day scholars--some fifteen (Cook, Lochrie, Allen, Patterson, Williams, Hanks Jr., Bishop, Farrell, Rudat, Leicester, Walker, Morrison, Tripp Jr., Jordan, and Neuss) on the scatology of The Miller's Tale alone. He notes, moreover, that a Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of The Canterbury Tales was excluded from a Spanish Dominican monastery in 2006, which is mildly interesting but perhaps not indicative of mainstream Anglophone attitudes.

In any case, Smith aims to remedy deficiencies in discussing the scatological elements of the two tales, armed with a full complement of modern critical sources and insight. He analyzes the resonances of pryvetee and pryvee at length, and investigates the possibilities of Chaucer's scatology, like Absolon, ful savourly.

Smith is thorough in weaving in most of the relevant modern scholars as he works through the material, but there are some surprising reference gaps. Freud is introduced to buttress the "connection between financial and viceral costiveness" (43) in the Summoner's Tale, but perplexingly it is not Freud himself who is quoted, but medievalist Tiffany Beechy on Freud. Surely the author of one of the modern era's foundational texts on scatology deserves some direct allusion, as well as a reference that does not require one to go through the medium of Tiffany Beechy, however excellent Beechy's observations? Smith does not hesitate in accepting Freud's views. Since the subject of discussion is The Summoner's Tale, with its association of money and excrement, it is certainly tempting to give Freud's association of the two free rein. But does Freud think the two are related for the same reasons Chaucer does? I would have been interested to read Smith's thoughts on the subject.

There are further instances in which Smith does not do all his homework. On the Host's comments, Smith writes: "As well as this devilish rhyming being not worth a turd, it is repeatedly characterised as 'drasty.' Larry D. Benson glosses the term as 'crappy'" (49). Larry D. Benson may make any reasonable choice in conveying the effect of the word for readers, but does this warrant assigning the word drasty a precise scatological meaning? Why does Smith not give us actual evidence, instead of Larry Benson's remark, free of substantiation? A quick look at the OED reveals that drasty is defined as "Dreggy; fig. vile, worthless, 'rubbishy'," which is only excremental in an associative sense. The OED's citations similarly do not support the view that the word literally means "crappy." That Benson gives it scatological resonance is understandable, but not evidence that it actually had scatological force.

Smith's argument about the Summoner's Tale is also less precise than it might be. However tempting it is for Freudian critics to contend that money and feces are interchangeable, Thomas does not actually claim to have money in his anus, as Smith would claim: "In light of [Freud] it is entirely fitting that the miserly Thomas, who in psychoanalytic terms is the very archetype of the anally retentive personality, should keep his brass up his arse" (43). But Thomas never claims to keep it up his arse; he merely says he is lying on it, and it is the priest's unseemly greed that induces him to grope around Thomas' nether regions so crudely. And what is the justification for calling Thomas miserly, when he has spent on friars "ful many a pound" until his gold "is al ago" (Summoner's Tale, 1590-1593)? The argument looks suspiciously like massaging the evidence to make the Freudian sum come out right.

Some observations also seem to be irrelevant asides. For instance, Smith notes the description of Nicholas's burned nether regions, "Of gooth the skyn an hande-brede aboute, / The hoote kultour brende so his toute" (Miller's Tale, 3811-3812; Smith, 34). Smith goes on to relate this to a description of an anal fistula that "Of whiche some hole3 was distant fro the towell by the space of a handbrede of a man" (57 n. 34). He notes himself that it's "coincidentally used"--so what is the significance of this? That two different authors used common medieval measurements in describing different anal maladies?

The second chapter, "Ajax by any other name would smell as sweet: Shakespeare, Harington and onomastic scatology," brings in Saussure, Foucault, the signified, and the referentiality of names. Smith goes through Shakespeare's wide array of meaningful names, giving special attention to those with scatalogical implications, such as Bottom. A key text in these considerations is Sir John Harington's infamous latrine-based satire, A New Discourse on a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), which punned on the homonyms Ajax and a jakes (a privy). Smith asserts that the name Jaques was also pronounced identically. Though this is very plausible, it would have been helpful to see some of the evidence supporting this contention, assuming the evidence does not solely consist of the alleged puns themselves.

With this double meaning in mind, Smith proposes that the character and situation of Jaques in As You Like It (written four years after Ajax) has been influenced by Harington's text. According to Smith, the name Jaques, pronounced "Jakes," would have been understood as an allusion to lavatorial matters, and this association underlies Jaques' melancholia, which "was a problem of indigestion or constipation" (86). This would explains such remarks about Jaques as "I love to cope him in these sullen fits, / For then he's full of matter" (As You Like It, II.i.66-67). "More important perhaps," Smith continues, "is the suggestion that Jacques's name would make him less the serious thinker that he has come to be in post-Renaissance productions of As You Like It, and rather more of a standing joke" (88).

That Jaques may represent a lowly comic impulse is intriguing. Smith goes on to examine the melancholy of Hamlet. If melancholy is caused by dyspepsia or constipation, has Hamlet too been having difficulties in the privy? Smith advances this suggestion cautiously: "It is obviously too much to claim that the fecal overtones of the comedies contain all the answers to this most enigmatic play but I would point out the capacity of a reading of this nature to solve some of the play's more insistent mysteries surrounding the characterisation of its protagonist as a melancholic (89)." It is not entirely clear what mysteries would be solved by this proposal--are the mysteries about why Hamlet is melancholy? Apart from the murder of his father and his mother marrying his uncle, which might make anyone melancholy, it remains unclear how constipation would be a thematically appropriate cause of Hamlet's melancholy. In support of his thesis Smith proffers a number of quotations, such as, when he contemplates murdering Claudius as he is praying, "Am I then revenged to take him in the purging of his soul?" (Hamlet, III.iii.84-86; Smith's emphasis). So Hamlet's own constipation means that he infects others with digestive thematics? Further, if Hamlet's melancholy is related to digestive troubles, what is the significance of this revelation? Does this mean that Hamlet is somewhere on the spectrum between carnivalesque scatology and misanthropic disgust? Is the state of his innards meant to suggest additional reasons for self-loathing? For centuries preceding Hamlet, moral literature regarded constipated people as either ridiculous or sinful. Does Shakespeare mean us to view Hamlet as either of these? Constipation as tragic torment is unprecedented in literature--is Shakespeare a pioneer in this regard? Smith leaves it to others to pronounce on this aspect of his analysis.

If locating digestive problems in the center of Hamlet is a paradigm shift, Smith's analysis of another play is more tenuous. He has an innovative analysis of the character of Gobbo. (The reader is expected to be a Shakespearean adept to the point of knowing that Gobbo is found in The Merchant of Venice, a fact only mentioned in a footnote at the back of the chapter). In the early editions themselves, as Smith describes, the name appears as Gobbo, Iobbe and Job. Smith's first line of analysis follows the OED, which notes Old French gobber, "to swallow," which suggests "fecal possibilities" (66). But the letter I at this period can denote the initial sound in job, and so it is plausible that the name was pronounced as Jobbo. Smith argues, "The slang expression for a stool, 'job,' is of course widespread and may well lie behind Shakespeare's naming of Lancelot and his father." Since the OED has just provided witness for gobber, it would seem an obvious course of action to consult it about the slang possibilities of job as well, but Smith does not seem to have done so. In fact the OED says:

job. n2 9. orig. U.S. colloq. (euphem.). Excrement, a lump or piece of this; an act of defecation. Esp. in to do a job: to defecate. The singer of the words in quot. ?1942 assigns to them a date of 1892. 1899 B. W. Green Word-bk. Virginia Folk-speech 204 Job... Do a job, to go to stool. ?1942 in V. Randolph & G. Legman Roll me in your Arms (1992), 66 Old woman got up to do a little job.

With an earliest use in the late nineteenth century, then, we cannot establish a scatological underpinning of Iobbo after all. It would have been simple enough for Smith to check the usage record. Apart from this obvious lacuna, the analysis omits any discussion of a larger question: if Gobbo meant Jobbo and Jobbo did indeed mean "excrement," what implications would this have for The Merchant of Venice?

Chapter 3, "M.O.A.I. 'What should that alphabetic position portend?': Shakespeare, Harington, Reynolds and the metamorphosis of scatology," appears to be at least partially reprinted from Renaissance Quarterly 51 (Winter 1998): 1199-1224, although I could find no mention of this in the book. The heart of the chapter is an analysis of Maria's baffling riddle in As You Like It, as read out by Malvolio (II.v): I may command where I adore, But silence like a Lucrene knife With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore. M.O.A.I. doth sway my life. Smith traces a lengthy history of unconvincing suggestions as to how to interpret the enigmatic M.O.A.I., a history so unsuccessful that it might serve as a warning. He begins by mentioning Malvolio's protest that there is "no consonancy" and dismissing the idea that this might hint that that the sequence is lacking consonants. But this is in fact the same kind of double meaning that Smith has been proposing for other phrases throughout the book. Smith suggests that the letters form an acronym, a device rare in the Renaissance. Nevertheless the answer is clear to Smith: M.O.A.I. stands for Metamorphosis Of A IAX.

The attentive reader may have some queries at this point. Were Renaissance acronymic habits unlike modern practices, such that they would include a preposition such as Of and an article such as A in the acronym, but leave out the initial word The? Does the name in the title of the book ever appear spelled out as A IAX rather than AIAX, or Ajax? And finally and most importantly, if we accept M.O.I.A. as alluding to The Metamorphosis of Ajax, what does that mean for Maria, for Malvolio, and for As You Like It? Why refer to The Metamorphosis of Ajax in this play? Smith is silent on these questions.

Smith identifies an aftereffect of the M.O.A.I. riddle in the play The Famelie of Love, written the following year. In this piece a character makes a different kind of word riddle out of Amore: Here me exemplify loues Latine word Together with thy selfe As thus, harts ioyned Amore: take A from thence, Then more is the perfect morall sence? Plurall in manners, which in thee doe shine Saintlike, immortall, spotles and diuine. Take m away, ore in beauties name, Craues an eternall Trophee to thy fame, Lastly take o, in re stands all my rest, Which I, in Chaucer stile, do terme a iest (Smith, 127; quoting from the 1608 edition, D 2-2v). Smith argues: "The fact that the specified letters (A, M, O and I) are exactly the same as those that intrigue Olivia's steward and which have foxed generations of literary critics, suggests that the correspondence is more than a coincidence" (127). But here the letters add up to Amore, not to Metamorphosis Of A IAX, and it is unclear to this reader how this whole riddle could be connected to The Metamorphosis of Ajax, much less to scatology either carnivalesque or misanthropic. Is the implication that the author was so impressed by the riddle in As You Like It that he wanted to put those same letters in a riddle of his own? Is this scatological? And even if we believe it, is there a reason to care?

From The Summoner's Tale, where Thomas is analyzed as Thom-arse, to Iobbo, to M.O.A.I. and beyond, Smith's keenness to discern scatology in a host of hitherto innocent passages brings to mind Bryan Wilson Key's 1974 book Subliminal Seduction, which maintained that advertisements featuring ice cubes and folds of clothing actually had the word SEX embedded in them. His enthusiasm for his subject has perhaps led Smith to read farts and constipation into passages of every kind. This is less of an issue in the chapters on later centuries, where scatological satire is so abundant that covering even the most overt taxes the capacity of a single volume. The rest of the book surveys scatology in a host of early modern and Enlightenment authors--the Earl of Rochester, Swift, Boswell, Smollett, Defoe, John Oldham, John Gay, and others--combining history and commentary with similar literary detective work.

Some jokes like "shiterature" aside, Smith steers clear of the sniggering approach that sometimes characterizes the study of scatological literature. He does a worthy service in bringing a good deal of neglected literature into the light of day, and his work will remind others that the world of authors is often far more inclusive than the world of critics.