This 17th-century ballad entitled ‘Cuckolds Haven’ betrays the early modern obsession with cuckolds – men who were depicted with animal horns as a shameful sign that their wives had been unfaithful. The woodcut shows a cuckolded man at his window, identified by the horns on his head and the antlers on his wall sign. Meanwhile, his wife cavorts with the devil at their door and another man warns, ‘Looke out’.
Cuckolds are a running joke in many 16th- and 17th-century ballads, pamphlets and plays, including Much Ado About Nothing. The humour surrounding the image arises from fears of being publically exposed as a laughing stock, ignorant of your wife’s deception but also unaware of the horns sprouting from your head. It is an early version of making ‘bunny ears’ with your fingers behind someone’s head! At the same time, the idea of the cuckold reveals serious concerns about female sexuality in this period, as shown in plays like Othello.
The ballad of the ‘Cuckolds Haven’
With cruelly misogynistic humour, the male speaker in this ballad portrays women as defiant and sexually promiscuous. Though he keeps a close eye on his wife, using ‘Lock, Bolt and Latch’, she repeatedly outwits and ‘hornifyes’ him. When she’s drunk she’s like a ‘punk’ (i.e. prostitute), and ‘all keys will fit her Trunk’. On the other hand, men are presented as patient, honest and long-suffering, forced to cover for their wives’ unashamed ‘baseness’.
Click here for an easy-to-read transcription and a recording of the ballad being sung
What is a broadside ballad?
Broadside ballads are lively narrative verses or songs, often illustrated with woodcuts. They were recited and sung to familiar tunes in alehouses and public places, and circulated widely as a kind of tabloid press in early modern Britain. The ballads appear on broadsides, which are cheaply-produced single sheets of paper, printed only on one side and designed to be pasted on walls or thrown away after reading.
Where did the idea of cuckolds’ horns come from?
The word ‘cuckold’ derives from the word ‘cuckoo’, a bird which lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. However, the origin of the sign of the horns is more uncertain. One possible source is the story of Diana and Actaeon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Actaeon the hunter unintentionally catches a glimpse of Diana the virgin goddess bathing. She punishes him by transforming him into a stag and he is killed by his own hounds.
Cuckoldry in Much Ado About Nothing and Othello
Bawdy jibes about cuckolds echo throughout Much Ado About Nothing as a form of man-to-man banter. Don Pedro teases Benedick that he will soon submit, like a ‘savage bull’, to the yoke of marriage. Benedick counters by saying that if he does so they should ‘pluck off the bull’s horns, and set them in my forehead’ (1.1.261–64). This image resurfaces in later scenes as Benedick falls for Beatrice (5.1.181–84), and the joke recurs for the last time only minutes before their wedding (5.4.43).
While these jokes could be dismissed as harmless, critics have also noted that the potential tragedy caused by Don John centres on anxiety about female sexuality and deception. The villainous bastard is himself the product of an affair outside marriage and he manages to convince Claudio that Hero is a ‘common stale’ (4.1.65) or prostitute. This raises the threat of violence as Benedick prepares to fight Claudio to defend Hero’s honour.
The threat of tragedy is realised fully in Shakespeare’s Othello, where Iago plays cruelly on the hero’s fears of being cuckolded by his wife (1.3.368; 3.3.167). Convinced that Desdemona has slept with Cassio, Othello swears that ‘A horned man’s a monster and a beast’ (4.1.62). He vows to ‘chop’ his wife into pieces (4.1.200), but then kills her by suffocation.