|Under the heading of ‘swearing’ we include any emphatic expressions in which the speaker makes an invocation to affirm something or to make something happen. In this sense it is more narrowly focused than the notion of ’bad language’, which includes a wider range of intensifying expressions, some of which are mild (such as verily), some much stronger (such as whoreson), and some very strong or rude (such as figo). Several items permit varied amounts of force, such as beshrew (‘curse’, ‘devil take’), which is mild when used by Theseus in TNK II.iv.63 but strong when used by Richard in R2 III.ii.204. Intensifiers of this kind are illustrated in the A--Z section. The description of swearing is massively complicated by the influence of expurgators during the period. The ‘Act to restrain Abuses of Players’ of 1606 made it illegal for players to ‘jestingly or prophanely speak or use the holy Name of God or of Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghost or of the Trinity’, on pain of a severe (Ł10 ) fine for each offence. The late plays were obviously affected by this law, as well as performances of the earlier plays, and large-scale but erratic expurgation affected the First Folio (1623), as seen in any comparison with earlier Quarto texts (e.g. before God often replaced by trust me).
Modern editions, having restored original text as much as possible, provide evidence of a remarkable number of swearing expressions. This is chiefly a reflection of the range of characters in the plays - lords and peasants, old and young, men and women - whose swearing habits range from princely affirmations of honour (‘by the honour of my blood’) to servants’ allusions to horse diseases (‘bots on’t’),
|and include many special usages, such as the clown’s comic use of ‘i’th’name of me’ upon encountering Autolycus (WT IV.iii.50), the puritan oath ‘by yea and no’ used by Falstaff in his affected letter to Prince Hal (2H4 II.ii.124), the fashionable swearing of gallants on items of clothing (Slender’s ‘by these gloves’, MW I.i.142), and the delicate nature of ladylike oaths - specifically as noted by Hotspur, who takes his wife to task for swearing ‘like a comfit-maker’s wife - “Not you, in good sooth!”, and “As true as I live!”, and “As God shall mend me!”, and “As sure as day!”’ (1H4 III.i.241-4). You can swear ‘by’ virtually anything you hold dear, and these expresisons range from the most sacred notions of Christianity to quite everyday notions of human behaviour and the environment. In the Roman plays, the Christian god is replaced by members of the Classical pantheon. In terms of formal construction, the commonest locution uses an introductory ‘by’ followed by the sworn phrase, but there are several other types of construction. These are grouped below in relation to the entities sworn by. No indication is given of frequency in the list, so it is important to note that some items are very common indeed, such as marry, sooth, and faith, and others are very restricted - sometimes even to individuals, who have their ‘favourite’ swear-words or versions of swear-words, such as Coriolanus’s swearing by Jove (Cor III.i.86) or Dr Caius’ French pronunciation as represented in ‘by Gar’ (MW I.iv.106).