A ‘pun’ is usually defined as a play on words, or a play upon words, but it would be more accurate to describe punning as playing with the sound of words to achieve particular effects. Those effects can be amusement, thought provocation, clarification or explanation. Puns can also achieve a combination of two or more of those effects. In Shakespeare’s works puns are often an important part of the economy of his poetic texts.
Shakespeare’s plays and his sonnets are crammed with puns. Many of them are among the most quoted phrases in the English language: for example, the opening lines of Richard III – ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York,’ where the speaker, Richard, is referring to himself, a son of the house of York. By using that pun Shakespeare transforms the seasons of winter and summer into the idea of bleak and good times.
That is a simple, uncomplicated play on the word ‘sun’ but there are different kinds of puns: some of them go much deeper than the sun example. The following pun is quite amusing but, more important, it is Romeo’s penetrating self- assessment of his emotional state. Mercutio asks Romeo to dance at Capulet’s banquet but Romeo refuses. He says that he doesn’t have ‘nimble soles’ like those on Mercutio’s shoes, but that he has ‘a soul of lead.’
When Mercutio, stabbed by Tybalt when Romeo gets in the way of their play fighting, is dying, no-one believes that he is badly hurt because he continues with his joking while he is bleeding to death. Just before he dies he makes a final joke, about his death, retaining his sense of humour even in his last moment. It is both amusing and serious. He tells his companions that he may be a joker but ‘ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.’
Shakespeare loved puns and used them as a powerful method of making meaning, as we see in the examples above. Some plays have more puns than others. The most intelligent of Shakespeare’s characters use them liberally to make sense of the world around them, as Shakespeare does to explain the world that he sees around himself. And so, Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s most intelligent character, is also Shakespeare’s greatest punster. Hamlet is funny in making his serious points, although sometimes he makes puns just to annoy the people around him. Sometimes he does both at the same time.
Here are four examples of Hamlet’s puns: some of them are complex and go very deep.
- After he has killed Polonius and stowed his body away the king asks him where Polonius is. Hamlet tells him he is at supper – ‘not where he eats, but where he is eaten,’ meaning that Polonius is the supper – for worms.
- Wandering in a graveyard, Hamlet asks a gravedigger whose grave it is he’s digging. The gravedigger who is standing in the grave, says: ‘Mine, Sir.’ Hamlet picks up the banter and laughingly accusing the man of lying, says, ‘I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in it.’
- In Hamlet’s first words in the play he is already punning as a means of stating the paradox that confronts him. Claudius, now married to Hamlet’s mother, very soon after the death of Hamlet’s father, is now doubly related to him: he is both uncle and stepfather but is neither kinsman nor the kind of person that Hamlet is. Hamlet states it like this: ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’
- Hamlet is annoyed by Claudius’ constant referral to him as his son, so when Claudius asks him ‘how is it that the clouds still hang over you?’ meaning why is he still in mourning for his father, Hamlet responds: ‘Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun.’