A recent fixture in the news-media has been the royal marine who murdered a wounded Taliban prisoner at point-blank range in Afghanistan. Before emptying one off into the suspected insurgent’s chest, Sergeant Blackman thought it right to quote the revered playwright of his motherland, Shakespeare, by saying, “There you are, shuffle off this mortal coil, you c*nt.”
Naturally, I got to wondering how the expression ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ has come to mean ‘pop off’ in the modern world. Turns out that in the 16th century, ‘coil’ meant troubles, turmoil or other similar irritations, so I guess – to put it optimistically – we’re talking about leaving this rather trying life of bull-crap. (Although shuffling off of it sounds quite nice really, compared to having your chest violently blown apart by a piping hot bullet by a plum named Sergeant Blackman.)
Schopenhauer thought maybe there’d been some mistake somewhere along the line, and that instead of ‘shuffle’ Shakespeare actually meant ‘shuttle’. Rather than being carried away from existence by that little monorail thing at Gatwick, he was actually referring to a weaving instrument from which a coil of thread unwound. Nice imagery and all that, but unfortunately ol’ Shopey was about 230 years too late to put this one to ol’ Shakey, so I guess we’ll never know.
Anyway, as one might guess, Shakespeare avoided the ‘C’ word in his famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy of Hamlet, from where the quote derives, which otherwise would have read:
“What dreames may come, When we c*ntes haue shufflel’d off this mortall coile, Must giue vs pawse”
Not that Shakespeare wasn’t well aware of the word or without the balls enough to allude to it in front of the queen. In Twelfth Night he basically spells out the clown-pocketed obscenity; in Henry V, Katherine takes to peals of laughter at the word ‘gown’ for sounding like the French translation, ‘con'; and in Hamlet, Hamlet himself asks to lay his head in Ophelia’s lap and starts going on about “country matters”, quite clearly a weak disguise for the rude reference to a lady’s snatch.
Shakespeare also loved his characters to trash-talk each other, and offences that may admittedly seem a bit pussy today are thrown around in his plays as if in the classroom. Put downs such as, “Thou poisonous bunch-back’d toad!” (Richard III) or “You tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck!” (Henry IV) were apparently the height of insult back in renaissance times.
So how might Shakespeare react to the inevitable career resurgence based on the fresh tailoring of his quote to the attitudes of the modern mouth? Well, being rather a forward-thinking linguist, clearly finding joy in playing around with the word ‘c*nt’, and having his characters cuss each other freely, I’d imagine he wouldn’t necessarily argue. In any case, anything to modernise the old bard and get him speaking the kids’ language wouldn’t go amiss, and surely he’d have to agree that these days, “shuffle off this mortal coil, you rampallian” doesn’t quite pack the same punch.