William Shakespeare was a pun-mad writer. Samuel Johnson expressed his frustration with Shakespeare's frequent punning in his "Preface to Shakespeare": "A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller! He follows it to all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible." Whether he uses them for humor or to underscore a serious point, puns are an important feature of Shakespeare's writings.
Shakespeare begins his historical tragedy "Richard III" with the main character, Richard Plantagenet, lamenting his brother's ascension to the throne: Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York Richard's brother is Edward IV, and their late father was Richard, Duke of York. Shakespeare plays with the fact that "son" and "sun" are homophones, or word that sound the same. Edward is the "son" of the Duke of York, but he is also the "sun" whose rise on the horizon is troubling Richard.
"Romeo and Juliet"
In "Romeo and Juliet," Mercutio attempts to persuade Romeo to attend the ball given by Capulet. Romeo initially expresses his reluctance to attend because he is afraid of encountering Rosaline, the woman he loves. Mercutio: Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance. Romeo: Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead So stakes me to the ground I cannot move. Romeo puns on "soles," as in the soles of shoes, and "soul," as in his heart, which is heavy with grief since Rosaline began spurning his affections.
Sometimes you have to know the meaning of an archaic or old-fashioned word to make sense of Shakespeare's puns. Hamlet describes his Uncle Claudius in an aside as "A little more than kin, and less than kind." Kind is short for "kindred," which means relative. Hamlet is saying that, while his uncle is now his father, making him more than just a relative, he does not like Claudius -- he is not "kind." In Shakespeare's time, you would probably have pronounced "kind" with a hard "i" sound like in "kiss," making the two words sound even closer.
"Much Ado About Nothing"
Sometimes knowing a little bit of trivia will help you take apart Shakespeare's more complex puns. The always sharp-tongued Beatrice describes Claudio in Act II, scene 1 of the comedy "Much Ado About Nothing": "The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well: but civil, count; civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion." Beatrice plays on the similarity between "civil" and "Seville," a city in Spain, to suggest that Claudio is not an easy person to get along with. This makes sense if you remember that a Seville orange is a very bitter type of orange.
- "The Norton Shakespeare"; William Shakespeare and Stephen Greenblatt (ed.); 1997
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