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.
Mercutio's many puns tend to focus heavily on sex, women, and also death. In Act 1, Scene 4, he tells Romeo that 'If love be rough with you, be rough with love. Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.' He encourages Romeo to let go of his mooning over Rosaline and also over Juliet, telling him it's not worth it and to 'be rough with love', let his ideal go. Mercutio then uses a double entendre with the word 'prick'--telling Romeo to prick love, or stab it, kill it, and also implying he should focus just on having sex rather than falling in love, using 'prick' as a euphemism for an erection.
Mercutio further uses puns to tease Romeo, playing on the words 'done' and 'dun'. Romeo, in Act 1, Scene 4, is unwilling to sneak into the Capulet's party. 'The game was ne'er so fair, and I am done,' he tells his friends. Mercutio plays on that, invoking a phrase popular in Shakespeare's time, 'Tut, dun's the mouse, the constable's own word!' 'Dun as the mouse' not only referred to the drab, unexciting coloring of a mouse, but 'dun' also meant meek or quiet. Constables were jokingly referred to as sitting around and doing nothing, meaning Mercutio just called out Romeo for being meek and boring with his play on Romeo's 'done'.
Many of the other puns in Act 1 allude to sorrow and grief as befits the tragedy and its central characters. Romeo, still bemoaning his love life, tells Benvolio, '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.' He has no joy in his life; he feels like he is weighted down by his sadness and mourning of Rosaline's rejection, while Benvolio and Mercutio are still carefree and able to love life.
A close reading of Act 1 reveals quite a few puns, plays on the meaning of words, based on homophones, words that sound like other words with different meanings, as well as popular expressions of Shakespeare's time. Mercutio's lines are the most rife with puns and are intended to serve as comic relief while advancing the story.
The play itself begins with a protracted pun between two servants of the Capulet household, something historians feel was meant to warm the audience to the play and get them in a good mood before the more fraught scenes took place. Many of Shakespeare's puns had sexual meaning in order to appeal to a wide audience, but he also alluded to death and sorrow in Romeo and Juliet with his use of wordplay, indicating the direction of a character's development.