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A few years ago I was invited by my sister-in-law, Sinead, to a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Holland Park theatre in London.

Lovely setting on a summer evening. The actors performed in Edwardian costume to a half empty auditorium.

I had some laughs, but to keep up with Shakespeare is exhausting. There was also the irritation of some theatrical dude with long hair, a few rows back, who spluttered with mirth whenever certain lines were delivered.

The Dude almost died laughing at the following gag, but it sailed over my head.

In the play the puritanical Malvolio is presented with a letter he has been duped into believing was written by Olivia, a lady he’s convinced has fallen in love with him. Complicated, but this is romantic comedy.

Malvolio’s reaction to the letter (act II scene V 80):

“By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her very
C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her
great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.”

Read it with a lazy pronunciation of the “and” between the CU ‘n T. The gag spills over when you consider how she makes her great P’s.

There is an anti-smut explanation, based on the passage that follows Malvolio’s line:

Sir Andrew: Her C’s, her U’s and her T’s: why that?

Malvolio: [Reads] ‘To the unknown beloved, this, and my good
wishes:’–her very phrases! By your leave, wax.
Soft! and the impressure her Lucrece, with which she
uses to seal: ’tis my lady. To whom should this be?

The explanation requires CUTP to refer to an endorsement commonly used in Tudor love letters: “To the Unknown beloved, this, and my good wishes, with Care Present.” An old version of Sealed With A Loving Kiss.

I guess the point is Shakespeare never went for the cheap laugh – everything was backed up with a plausible excuse. Perhaps it was a discipline made necessary by the severe censorship of the time.

To me this is a gag for the benefit of the actors rather than the audience. Maybe the groundlings at the Globe had a reaction similar to mine, wondering why the clever people in the balconies were having such a laugh.