Puns in Romeo and Juliet Act 1

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  • 0:00 Puns in Act 1 of…
  • 0:28 Puns to Engage the Audience
  • 1:39 Puns to Reveal Character
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

Shakespeare included numerous puns in all of his plays, including ''Romeo and Juliet''. Even though ''Romeo and Juliet'' is a tragedy, we can find prolific puns based on word meanings and homophones.

Puns in Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet

Though Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, or a play in which the characters suffer extreme loss or misfortune, Shakespeare included numerous puns. A pun is a play on a word's meaning or it may be a homophone (a word that sounds like another word with a different meaning, like the words 'eight' and 'ate'). Shakespeare used puns and wordplay to engage the audience as well as reveal his characters' attitudes and feelings.

Puns to Engage the Audience

Act 1's opening scene is filled with puns intended to warm up the audience. Sampson and Gregory, two Capulet servants, are bantering. They play on the words 'collier/choler/collar', all sounding alike, as you'll see in the following dialogue:

Sampson: Gregory, on my word, we'll not carry coals.

Gregory: No, for then we should be colliers.

Sampson: I mean, if we be in choler, we'll draw.

Gregory: Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.

They joke about refusing to do low labor (carrying coals), or the work of a collier. They proclaim they'd be angered (in choler) if made to do so, and draw arms against their master. Gregory points out that's fine, but then they'd then have to 'draw your neck out of collar,' meaning they'd be hung (the collar being the hangman's noose).

Sampson and Gregory continue their exchange, making puns about taking the virginity of the maids (cutting off their heads, making them lose their maidenhead) until they are interrupted by the arrival of Benvolio and Tybalt. The exchanges between Sampson and Gregory are typical of puns in Shakespeare's plays, ribald and fast, serving as an antidote to the more serious parts of the play and keeping the audience's attention.

Puns to Reveal Character

By far, the most notable puns in Act 1 come from Mercutio, a nobleman and close friend of Romeo. He engages in witty wordplay in every scene he is in, revealing his attitudes about life while trying to cheer up his friend. He is a major character in Scene 4 of Act 1, where he spouts ribald puns and banter with the other characters. Most famous is his Queen Mab speech, which is one long and extended pun beginning when Romeo tries to tell him of a dream he'd just had. Mercutio says he had a dream as well, and it was that 'dreamers often lie,' a pun on the word 'lie' meaning untruth, and also the fact that dreams come most often in sleep, when one lies down. He is also using the word 'dreamer' in a double meaning, one being a dreamer is asleep, but also a dreamer is one who is given to flights of fancy and ignoring responsibility.

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