In a play about a war between Trojans and Greeks, a word in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida seems a bit out of place: the Italian word capocchia. The notes in the text of The Complete Pelican Shakespeare edition of the play merely translate it to mean “simpleton” (508). However, Gretchen Minton and Paul B. Harvey Jr. suggest that it may have a more raunchy meaning that better fits with the character of Pandarus (who utters the word) and the word play so beloved by Shakespeare.
The word in question occurs in 4.2.31 within a conversation between Cressida and her uncle Pandarus. This dialogue takes place the morning after Cressida spent the night with Troilus, a tryst arranged by Pandarus. Established as a character with a love for sexual innuendos, Pandarus begins teasing Cressida about her night:
Ha, ha! Alas, poor wretch! A poor capocchia!
Hast not slept tonight? Would he not – ah, naughty
man – let it sleep? A bugbear take him!
This brief quip has caused much debate amongst Shakespearean scholars, wondering to whom or what Pandarus is supposed to be referring. Because of the translation of capocchia to mean simpleton, many scholars assume Pandarus refers to Cressida herself. However, this interpretation causes some syntactic confusion within the next line, as the word “hast” is a contraction meaning “has it,” which is an odd way to address a person (Minton and Harvey 311). While Minton and Harvey cite one scholar’s explanation that Pandarus is talking down to Cressida using a form of “baby talk,” the authors argue that there is a much more adult meaning behind the word given the context of the scene (311).
Some argue that the word refers not to Cressida at all but to Troilus… or rather a specific part of him.
It’s… it’s his penis.
This is based on the original translation of the word capocchia, which is derived from the Latin caput meaning “head” (Minton and Harvey 309). Because of the common double meaning of the word head to refer to part of a male’s genitalia, a modern interpretation of the word in context proposed that Pandarus poked fun not at Cressida, but at Troilus. Despite resolving the issue of what the “it” in “hast” refers to, it is hard to concede that Pandarus refers solely to Troilus in this particular utterance, as he is speaking directly to Cressida and the words directly preceding the line refer to directly to her (“Alas, poor wretch!” (4.2.31)).
Minton and Harvey provide a new solution: Pandarus is in fact referring to Cressida… or rather a specific part of her.
It’s…not her legs.
The main argument Minton and Harvey provide lies within the word itself, which is not even correct to begin with. The use of the word capocchia in Troilus and Cressida texts began in 1733 when Lewis Theobald revised it in his edition of the play. The word found in earlier versions of the play (including the Quarto and Folio versions) is chipochia, which is not actually a real Italian word. As such, Theobald “began with an assumption about what the word, contextually, should mean….then looked for an Italian word that would have a relatively close spelling” (Minton and Harvey 308). This is also the origin for the assumption that Pandarus is calling Cressida simple or dull—at the time, capocchia best translated to “the thick Head of a Club” and was occasionally used as slang for a dull person. Minton and Harvey argue that the original chipochia was a misspelling of the phrase che póccia, which essentially refers to “the most desirable sexual part of a woman” (310). This remedies the issue of the object both in terms of grammatical and situational context and provides an understandable double entendre for the scene—Pandarus is poking fun at Cressida not only as a young girl but as a sexual object.
This reading can only occur, however, if original texts are referenced, a seemingly common practice in Shakespearean analysis. What perhaps is most baffling about this contentious word is how recently Minton and Harvey introduced their interpretation: 2004. For centuries, a supposedly straightforward scene baffled modern readers due to a mere mistranslation. What other small nuances might be lost due to the decisions of editors? We may never know, but if it is just more sex jokes, perhaps we are better off not knowing.
Minton, Gretchen E., and Harvey Jr., Paul B., “‘A Poor Chipochia’: A New Look at an Italian Word in Troilus and Cressida 4.2.”Neophilologus 88.2 (2004): 307-14. ProQuest. Web. 4 Aug. 2015.
Shakespeare, William. “The History of Troilus and Cressida.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Orgel, and A R. Braunmuller. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2002. 482-524. Print.