Throughout Shakespeare’s work, more famously in “Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Othello”, and “Merchant of Venice”, there are cleverly placed puns in the poems, plays, and some sonnets. A pun is a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings. These puns are either overlooked, unrecognized, or not credited well enough. The puns that Shakespeare utilizes in each of his works can have either an erotic, humorous, or an ironic purpose to give a deeper, more effective meaning to the stories.
Before one can go into detail about the puns that Shakespeare used to create a humorous result, there are different factors that come in to play as to why he wrote them. Firstly, it was common for Elizabethan writers to use rhetorical devices such as puns because they were widely known (due to them being in the textbooks of that time). Later, some scholars such as Samuel Johnson despised this type of humour because they considered it vulgar and offensive . Nowadays they are recognized as clever poetic devices because of their quick wittedness and ability to throw those off who do not/cannot grasp the complete idea of a pun.
Secondly, ‘Shakespeare plays with verbal meanings, not because the rhetoricians approve of wordplay, but because his imagination as a poet works through puns, or because his characters are placed in situations where it is natural for them to pun, or because puns help to clarify the particular view of life that he seeks to present in a particular play. Shakespeare quibbles as a poet, as a dramatist, and as a dramatic poet; and these divisions, though in part arbitrary, give us three means of approaching to the functions of his word play’. A perfect example of this is in “The Merchant of Venice”: Portia: Then must the Jew be mercifull.
Shy: On what compulsion must I? Tell me that. Por: The quality of mercy is not strain’d It droppeth as the gentle raine from heaven Upon the place beneath. (IV. i. 182-6) When Portia uses “strained”, it was meant to have the same meaning as constrained, but the following lines give it the connotation of “filtered” or “squeezed through”. This helps to form an image of heaven pouring forth the blessing of mercy from its domain. Thirdly, this is one of the most important reasons, ‘another psychological function of word play which everyone has witnessed or experienced it its use to gain relief from a state of emotional tension’.
Another scholar named Hussey agrees that puns can relieve tension in plays when written effortlessly and at the most opportune time. Shakespeare uses this reason in the darkest of moments, especially when Mercutio starts bleeding to death whilst saying: Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man (Romeo and Juliet: 111. 1. 97-98) Shakespeare is toying with the meaning of grave, which can carry the denotation of “serious”, or “important”, but also as the noun form, which is a synonym for tomb.
The last reason that Mahood gives is the point that ‘the vital wordplay in Shakespeare’s writing is that between the characters and their creator, between the primary meanings of words in the context of a person’s speech and their secondary meanings as part of the play’s underlying pattern of thought. The chief function of the pun is to connect subject and object, inner force with outer form, the poetic vision with the characters in action that are its theatrical embodiment. The play is the thing -not the elusive mind of the playwright nor the illusory minds of his characters.
Wordplay is one of the most effective means towards the ironic interplay between character and may be anticipatory or retrospective, may imply a difference of values between what the speaker is allowed to say for himself and what the writer and his audience think, or it may simply intensify or widen the speaker’s meaning to give it significance beyond the moment of speech’. Certain words that have conflicting meanings are most subject to anticipatory irony. This is found in Othello’s praise of lago in front of the Senate, which also contains tragic irony: A man he is of honesty and trust: To his conveyance l assigne my wife. (I. iii. 84-5) Conveyance has a second definition from Elizabethan times, which means “trickery” or “deceitfulness”.
A person cannot both be truthful and honest but hold some sort of trick to play at the right time To quote Ewbank who can condense all the points before mentioned into one brief statement: ‘Shakespeare’s interest in the arts of language is as practical, as much directed towards function, as that of rhetoricians. His ultimate interest, after all, is to persuade us, the audience, of the human realities of thought and feeling in his plays’. The kinds of puns used throughout Shakespeare can be categorized into four different groups.
The first two are Antanaclasis (the repetition of a word that can be used for two different meanings), Dilogy (using an ambiguous word or expression). Then we have Paronomasia (the play on words that sound alike), and Paronymy (when a word is derived from another or from the same root and then combined with a cognate or a derivative form within the same sentence). For Antanacalsis there are a few examples. The first example is in Hamlet when Polonius approaches Hamlet whilst he is reading: Pol: What do you read, my lord? Ham: Words, words, words Pol: What is the matter, my lord? Ham: Between who?
Pol: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord. (II. ii. 191-195) The word matter has two meanings, which are as a ‘subject/ topic’ or a ‘problem/concern’. Then in Henry V (V. 1. 87) ‘To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal. Here, steal is explicitly clear as to what is conveys with both of its meanings ‘to go, depart secretly’ and ‘to take something away from someone’. Finally, in Twelfth Night (II. iv. 72): ‘Give me now leave to leave thee’ leave also plays to both of its meanings clearly, ‘permission’ (as a noun) and ‘depart’ (as a verb). Next are the Dilogy examples, which are closely related to the Antanaclasis ones.
Looking first at Sonnet 135, which contain every possible meaning of the word will: a noun ‘desire, wish, determination, and capacity to do something’, a verb’as an auxiliary for the future tense’, and a nickname for the name William. Similarly, the word lie in Richard II: That lie shall lie so heavy on my sword That it shall render vengeance and revenge, Till thou, the lie – giver and that lie do lie In earth as quiet as thy father’s skull. (IV. i. 66-69) However, the best example of this category of pun would have to be in Cleopatra’s speech as she removes the asp from a basket:
Come thou mortal wretch. With thy sharpe teeth this knot intrinsicate Of life at once untie (V. ii. 302-305) Explained by Mahood ‘intrinsicate is not just ‘intrincate’, Shakespeare is bringing together half a dozen meanings form intrinsic and intrinse; ‘familiar’, ‘intimate’, ‘secret’, ‘private’, ‘innermost’, ‘essential’, ‘that which constitutes the very nature and being of a thing’–all the medical and philosophic meanings of his time as well as ‘intrincate’ and ‘involved’. Thirdly, there is the category Paronomasia, which to one’s surprise only a couple of examples were easily found.
Paris’ line in Romeo and Juliet is a prime example with the use of ‘woe’ (distress or great sorrow) and ‘woo’ (to gain the love of someone): ‘These times of woe afford no time to woo’ (III. iv. 8). Another example of this is in Hamlet (1. ij. 65) ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind’. Finally, there is Paronymy, which is sometimes a challenge to find if one does not know the root of words. The most apparent example is in Polonius’ speech to Queen Gertrude: … and now remains That we find out the cause of this effect Or rather say, the cause of this defect, For this effect defective comes by cause.
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus (II. ii. 100-104) In closing, this paper only recalls a few examples out of numerous ones out there of the many occurrences of word play discovered in the works of Shakespeare. Looking back at Shakespearean times, one can see that most of these puns are from his early work so they will be very dated. One can also conclude that different cultures and age groups will respond to puns differently than the people of whom lived during Shakespeare’s time. These wordplays were used to create humour, release emotional tension, and capture and maintain the audience’s attention.