Discuss The Function of Puns in Shakespeare’s Drama



Puns are valuable textual phenomena. According to Delabastita (2016), puns are “facts of language insofar as they depend on the structured characteristics of language as an abstract system" (p. 129). From a linguistic context, the pun is a symbolic device that subverts and abstracts the implied meaning. Because a pun apparently weakens, subverts, and muddles the intended meaning of a language, we could view it as both a sign of danger and a weapon. Similar sentiments have been echoed by Burckhardt, who defines the pun as “an act of verbal violence, designed to tear the close bond between word and meaning” (Burckhardt 2015, p. 25).   

Puns act as an instrument of knowledge, not to mention that they frequently inspire narrative and momentous action.  Palfrey (2005) draws a distinction between puns in tragedy and puns in comedy. Puns in tragedy entail 'the spoken moment of bearing multiple lines of possible unfurling' (Palfrey p. 112) as opposed to a 'dizzying display'. On the other hand, puns in comedy involve developing an affinity between the speaker and the audience. Palfrey's description of the 'basic architecture of a pun' qualifies to be categorised as tragic: “It is multiple, folded, or at cross-purposes; things lurk or move at angles; to beckons toward different pasts and possibilities; it evokes alternatives within predetermination” (Palfrey 2005, p. 111). In the pun in comedy, the speaker courts the effect, in addition to developing a relationship with the audience. In tragic pun, however, the speaker is addressing no one. The tragic pun thus functions independently within the play and speech, much like an allusion and echo (Palfrey 2011, p. 129).

Shakespeare's plays are full of puns, and this rarely goes down well with the modern reader owing to various reasons. To begin with, puns, in a similar way to comedy, demand an instinctive reaction.  Having to explain a joke means that its punch disappears (Minear 2016), and that is also the case with puns. In this case, puns count on an unanticipated association being drawn between two hitherto separate ideas (Delabastita (1993). In the event that the audience has not long established these two distinct ideas in their minds, the intended punch will be lost when they are “short-circuited”. Nevertheless, Shakespeare has demonstrated his literal prowess at using puns in varied contexts, including in comic and tragic situations.

Various critics and scholars have voiced their concerns about how hard it is to understand Shakespeare's work. According to Schalkwyk (2005), it is hard to understand the complex literal texts that Shakespeare uses that if simplified, could lose their meaning. Also, Shakespeare's literal work is characterised by unique linguistic patterns that many readers find difficult to identify. The pun constitutes one of the literary devices that Shakespeare so artistically utilises in his various plays. Drabble (2000) opines that Shakespeare used puns in most of his works as he had a great ability for serious and comic punning. LI Xin-hua (2000) has acknowledges that Shakespeare was highly gifted in developing puns. For example, incomplete statistics on the works of Shakespeare reveals that the average play by Shakespeare contains no less than seventy-eight puns, with Macbeth and Rome and Juliet having 114 and 175 puns, respectively.  

Certain puns by Shakespeare raise some serious questions regarding the operation of poetry and language. For example, in As You Like It, Touchstone remarks thus:  “the truest poetry is the most feigning’’ (cited by Corcoran 2010, p. 152). He gripes between the terms “to fain”, meaning to wish or desire for something, and “to feing”, implying to pretend or fake.  At face value, Touchstone's comment is a mystery, as there is no way something can be feigning and true simultaneously. 

 That Shakespeare’s plays were full of puns is no coincidence. Various factors are responsible for his desire to pun.  To begin with, punning was a common practice among Elizabethan writers. Even in his maiden plays, Shakespeare demonstrates an acute awareness of rhetorical devices. Another reason why punning was a common ingredient in Shakespeare’s work is that he places his characters in such situations that it becomes rather natural for them to pun. Alternatively, he could be relying on puns as a tool to shed light on the specific perspective of life that he wishes to portray in a certain play. 

Puns play a psychological function when used to elicit a state of relief under emotional tension (Thornborrow & Wareing 1998). Besides being humorous and witty, puns also add significant meaning to texts, as well as shape the manner in which readers interpret such texts (Wiggin 2001). Punning allows authors to play with their words and in this way, reveal not just their cleverness, but also that of their characters (Gutknecht 2002). Moreover, puns when used in literary works function as a tool for releasing tension or a deliberate attempt by the author to demonstrate her/his creativity in language usage. 

According to Delabastita (1997) puns contribute toward the thematic understanding of the text, compel the listener/reader to be more attentive, elicit humuor, and incorporate compelling force to the statement.  Similar sentiments have been echoed by Hussey (1982) who acknowledges the fleeting reassurance from tension which is often realised by punning in drama. Hussey thus identifies Shakespeare's infamous puns even under the gravest of situations. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio suitably signifies the change from light-hearted to tragic astuteness. Even as Mercutio is bleeding to death, he can still afford to make a witty remark: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man”.  (cited by Burton 2009, p. 78 ). Here, Shakespeare has used the word “grave” in a bid to create a pun. This statement can thus assume one of two meanings. First, it could imply that Mercutio will be a “serious” man the following day, and this is the state that Romeo would find him. Alternatively, it could imply that Romeo will find Mercutio dead and buried in the grave the next day. Since Mercutio is aware that he is dying, he means the latter.  This blends in well with Mercutio's character considering his tendency to be demonstrative and excitable in his speech. Furthermore, this is not the first time that Mercutio is punning in the play. 

Mercutio's murder embodies the shift of the play from supposedly comic redeemability to tragic inevitability (Bonn 2010). Nonetheless, this could also be seen as a moment of transition in Shakespeare's art from comic to tragic wit. This is quite evident in Mercutio's jest, 'Come between us, good Benvolio, my wits faints' (Shakespeare 2009, p. 90). There is yet another example that we can draw evidence of this decisive transition of Shakespeare's art in Romeo's jest, 'He jests at scars that never felt a wound' (Shakespeare & Yates-Glandorf 2009, p. 12). It is important to note that the two jests pre-empt Mercutio's calamitous accidental stabbing. More importantly, we could view the entire Mercutio's jest as a deliberate attempt by Shakespeare to push puns further than they could possibly go. 

While puns can be an elusive category in literary work, it is by far the most wisely applied aspect of Shakespeare's rhetoric (Keller 2009).  Shakespeare uses puns as a powerful tool to make meaning. In Shakespeare's plays, his most intelligent characters frequently make use of puns in a liberal manner with the goal of understanding the world around them. It is no coincidence therefore that Hamlet, possibly the most intelligent character to have been developed by Shakespeare, also happens to be one of the greatest punsters. The unprecedented frequency with which Shakespeare uses the pun in Hamlet clearly affects the plot of the play, along with its characters. Polonius sometimes protests, although his language is largely driven by a desire to ornament; accordingly, he relies on puns as a tool to add art and colour. While Ophelia makes use of puns on several occasions, she largely relies on allusion as a tool for self-expression. The flower scene captured in 4.5 exemplifies Ophelia's process of communication, as opposed to approaching a subject candidly, she utilises other stories, songs, or symbols as a substitute: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance… and there are pansies, that’s for thoughts” (cited by Blits 2001, p. 296). While there is no evidence of Claudius punning, nonetheless, many of his speeches reveal his fondness of semantically similar parison. Of all the characters in this play, only Hamlet relies on the pun as his natural and primary means of articulation.

As noted earlier, the pun functions as a violent genre of language. Accordingly, Hamlet utilises it not just as his basic weapon, but also for defence; he targets his objections at virtually every character, resorting to a linguistic ploy of attack and counterattack as evidenced in the Danish court. The use of the pun, given its ambiguous nature, act as a route for Hamlet to evade having to provide an explicit answer.   

Tragedy, it appears, often generates its own puns. A good example in Hamlet is the wry comment that Hamlet makes in the graveyard, which he directs at a 'chopless skull: 'Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with 'em? Mine ache to think on't' (cited by McElroy 2014, p. 87). The key word here is 'ache'. It conveys Hamlet's complete identity with the skeleton, along with his desolation with this identity. It manifests Hamlet's helpless sympathy not just for himself, but also for all those who must die or have died. The comment also serves the purpose of a joke. In this case, it indicates Hamlet's transitioning from the ideation of 'breeding' to one of 'bone-ache' The joke here is that bone-ache is a colloquialism for the pox, known of which breeding acts as the mode of transmission, and hence the tormenting cause of death. The pun on 'ache' is thus directed at the chronological advancement that Hamlet is so obsessed with. This type of joke is not directed at any particular audience and hence does not solicit anyone's laughter. Rather, the pun is intended at Hamlet. It permits a pleasurable release but on account of the impotent nature of this release, the pun ends up reinforcing just how trapped Hamlet is. Another use of pun under tragic circumstances can be found in Richard II: ”Gaut am I for the grave a, gautn as a grave” In this statement, retrieved from Richard II, Gunt is obviously dying but Shakespeare finds humour even in moments of tragedy. 

Still, in Hamlet, Shakespeare shows the use of punning as a defensive tool. Hamlet manages to cunningly and carefully evade Claudius' endeavours to snare him into submission. When Claudius eventually talks to him at court, he begins by attempting to compel an unwarranted ancestral bond against Hamlet by addressing him thus: “now my cousin Hamlet, and my son” (cited by Daniel 2013, p. 135). Nonetheless, Hamlet recognises this to be one of the many examples of Claudius' attempt at fusing natural deceit (Zhang 2007). Accordingly, Hamlet repulses him with his own pun,  “A little more than kin and less than kind” (cited by Mock 2004, p. 77).  This utterance diverts the power of Claudius' assertion and reveals Claudius' concealed intentions. This encounter reveals Hamlet's extraordinary skill at identifying and maneuvering various levels of communication. 

Not only does Hamlet succeed in sidestepping Claudius' trap, but he also prevails by delivering his own insult that Claudius is at pains to answer (Booth 1977). Hamlet's defensive puns, it appears, can also be a deadline, such as when he compels Claudius to drink the poisoned chalice and states that it symbolises his union with Hamlet's mother. This utterance describes the pearl contained in the cup and Claudius' hand in the death of Gertrude (Hamlet's mother). 

Puns function as ice breakers and in this way, relax everyone by releasing tension. Shakespeare's play Richard III provides one of the most memorable puns: “ "Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York..."  (Shakespeare 1999, p. 51). This statement could mean that Edward IV, who is Richard’s brother and the son of York, has transformed winter into summer thanks to his glorious rule (Garden 2014).  

In both The Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare capitalises on the more/Moor pun with the objective of achieving comic relief. The puns used in these two plays are conspicuously clever. Compared to the synchronous ostentatious and bland misuse of the possibilities ingrained in the words “more” and “Moor”, it would be befitting to contemplate how Shakespeare handles similar possibilities in Othello. In this latter play, Shakespeare proceeds to create an environment that amasses the aspects crucial for a pun but ensures that they do not consummate the relationship. As opposed to wasting the innate power of the pun, Shakespeare ensures that all its untapped potential is maintained. A good example is Duke's statement in which he appears to give advice to Brabantio: "If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far fairer than black" (cited by Toshack 2001).  

While the word “more” as used in the statement seems to call to mind Othello's race, Shakespeare is careful in ensuring that the context under which “more” is placed does not become in itself a pun on “Moor.” Reading through these lines, a careful reader can make out the actualised possibilities for a pun. This is because Shakespeare has assembled the sounds and ideas required in a more/Moor pun into an almost crash. 

Evans (2013) is of the view that Elizabethans played upon the different meanings of a word as a show of wit and elegance of style but more importantly, it acted as a tool of persuasion and means of emphasis. The use of lewd, witty, and sexually charged remarks in literary work is not unusual. There are various instances of clear punning duels between Shakespeare's characters in his rhetoric. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, Margaret, the maid to Hero, attempts to cheer up the bride who is obviously heavy-hearted, by making a bawdy look to the effect that Hero will 'be heavier soon by the weight of a man'. This, even as virginal heroines are not renowned for their bawdy jokes. In matter romance, heroines restrict themselves to conventional lyric rules. Hero is quick to scold her maid for her immodesty, remarking thus: 'Fie upon thee, art is not ashamed?' (cited by Johnson 2016, p. 230). There is also evidence of the use of a bawdy pun in Romeo and Juliet, albeit a weak one.  In which Juliet remarks: 'Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die...' Juliet is trying to use a sexual innuendo that was fairly common in Renaissance literature so that while it might appear to be a common pun by ordinary standards, any Renaissance audience would have obviously understood its double meaning. (Alexander 2001). 

In sum, Shakespeare's rhetoric is laden with puns. The author relied on this literal device in order to relieve tension amongst the audience and delight the audience. While puns are mainly intended to create humour or act as a source of wit for the audience, Shakespeare has also variously used puns to express tragic moments in such plays as Macbeth, Richard II, and Romeo and Juliet, among others.  This is partly the case because the use of words to imply double meaning was common practice in Renaissance times. More importantly, Shakespeare relies on puns as a tool to demonstrate his literary wit and that of his characters.





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