ENGLISH LITERATURE can boast of some prolific literary punsters, such as Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, but one name stands far above those illustrious writers: William Shakespeare.
Not everyone, however, appreciated the Bard’s puns. Lexicographer Samuel Johnson said that “a quibble was to Shakespeare his fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to do so.” In his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson defines “quibble” as “a low conceit depending on the sound of words; a pun.” A “punster” is described as “a low wit who endeavours at reputation by double meaning.” Hardly high praise. Samuel Coleridge, on the other hand, was much more understanding of Shakespeare’s penchant to pun and stated that “a pun, if congruous with the feeling of a scene is not only allowable ... but oftentimes the most effective intensive of passions.”
One study uncovered 3,000 puns in the Bard’s works, with an average of 78 puns per play. Many of these occur at climactic moments. In Macbeth, after Macbeth has killed the King, Lady Macbeth displays a lucid dispassion when she avers, “I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal. For it must seem their guilt.” At the beginning of Julius Caesar, the cobbler says he is “a mender of bad soles,” and “when they are in great danger, I recover them.” In Romeo and Juliet, the dying Mercutio exits stage left with this vaudevillian pun: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” Even noble Hamlet can’t forgo expiring without the pun “the rest is silence,” proving the maxim that “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
Nowadays we look at puns as merely exercises in jocularity, but we must bear in mind that, in Shakespeare’s era, there were few unsuitable moments for puns; even religious puns were acceptable.
Some of the witty wordplay in Shakespeare is wanton and somewhat aggressive. The liveliest exchanges are between lovers who fight their way to the altar, where the wordplay is usually both seductive and initially hostile. Some bawdiness occurs in seemingly innocuous phrases like “too much of a good thing,” spoken by Rosalind to Orlando in As You Like It. In Shakespeare’s day, “thing” was a euphemism for genitalia.
Some scholars see sexual allusions everywhere. Frankie Rubinstein, in A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance, claims that the following words all have sexual connotations: “abhor,” “abominable,” “abuse,” “access,” “accommodate,” “acorn,” “acquaint” — and we’re not even one-quarter through the letter A! In Hamlet, the prince refers to Polonius as a “fishmonger” and is angry because he believes Polonius is responsible for Ophelia rejecting him. The term “fish” was used in the 16th century as an off-colour allusion to a woman, and hence, Rubenstein surmises, Hamlet is calling Polonius a pimp.
Many of Shakespeare’s puns would nowadays be considered groaners. On the other hand, the fact that so many people enjoy bad puns shows that they serve a purpose and even contribute to a sense of community, for they transcend class distinctions. One should remember that Shakespeare is also employing them as a device to release tension in an audience.
Puns also serve as a denial of anxiety. Shakespearean characters use puns in this manner, none more so than Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s Wordplay, Molly Mahood writes that, at times, “Hamlet’s word-play does double duty by both masking his hostility towards Claudius and affording him a safety-valve for his bitterness at his mother’s guilt.” Prince Hamlet is forced to quibble and speak in ambiguous language, lest he utter something overtly treasonous. In the first encounter between Hamlet and his uncle Claudius, the latter tries to placate Hamlet by addressing him as “my Cosin Hamlet, and my sonne.” Hamlet then quips, “A little more than kin, and lesse than kind.”
Here, “lesse than kind” may imply that Claudius is less than a direct blood relation or is inconsiderate, and as “kind” also meant “natural” in Shakespeare’s era, Hamlet could be alluding to Claudius’s unnatural lust. And since Hamlet is in many ways an elaborate detective story, many of the utterances by other characters are deliberately ambiguous, making it difficult for an audience to detect their intent. Hence, in the ghost scene Horatio says that he fears that the apparition “bodes some strange eruptions to our state.” The “eruptions” can refer to a possible invasion of the “state” of Denmark by Norway, or how regicide has disrupted the natural “state” of life.
Victor Margolin, a professor emeritus of design history at the University of Illinois, once expressed the immortal Bard’s dominance in the sphere thus: “In the art of punning, Shakespeare was great shakes and without peer.”
Howard Richler’s latest book, Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit, was published in 2016; this month’s column was adapted and excerpted from it.