Puns in Twelfth Night by Shakespeare

Instructor: Adam Hembree

Adam has an MA in English. He has taught a range of literature and theatre subjects at the university level. He has also worked as a writing tutor and academic advisor.

In this lesson you will learn about Shakespeare's use of the pun, one of his favorite rhetorical devices. Below you will find examples from his famous comedy, Twelfth Night, and learn to identify what each pun means as you read.

What's in a Pun?

A pun is, quite simply, a P.O.W.

If you did a double take just then, that's understandable. If you had a bit of a giggle, perhaps you've already gotten the joke. A pun is most certainly not a prisoner of war. It is, however, a play on words! Just like the above joking definition, puns take advantage of words and phrases that SOUND similar, but actually mean different things.

We come across puns constantly in common conversation and especially in comedy. Here are some examples:

I'd joke about chemistry with you, but I definitely wouldn't get a reaction.

I wasn't sure why the frisbee was growing larger and larger. Then it hit me!

The Easter Bunny isn't allowed to the North Pole anymore. He always eggs Santa on when the drinks start flowing.

The italicized words above all have multiple meanings. Reaction forms a pun because it could mean a laugh from the audience or a chemical event. Hit colloquially means that a realization occurred to someone suddenly, but in this case it literally means the frisbee striking his head. Eggs means to stimulate or push into doing something, but the word is also associated with the Easter Bunny's yearly job.

Many examples of puns may seem like real groaners, and those won't necessarily score you cool points at parties. That said, puns can also be incredibly insightful ways of linking formerly disconnected ideas, or even making sneaky social commentary. Stephen Colbert's 'The Word' segment on his popular comedy news show, The Colbert Report, is a great example.

Puns in Shakespeare

Shakespeare is notorious for his use of pun throughout all of his plays and sonnets. Of all character types, his 'fools,' which are like court jesters or clowns, use puns the most. Take this passage from Act III of Othello between Desdemona and the Clown:

DESDEMONA. Do you know, sirrah, where Lieutenant Cassio lies?

CLOWN. I dare not say he lies anywhere.

DESDEMONA. Why, man?

CLOWN: He's a soldier, and for one to say a soldier lies, 'tis stabbing.

Here the Clown plays on the double meaning of the word lies. Desdemona means 'where does Cassio sleep' (as in 'lie down'). The Clown knows this, but toys with Desdemona by deliberately mishearing her. When he says 'to say a soldier lies, 'tis stabbing,' he means that to say a soldier tells lies is insulting to his honor.

Puns in Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night has its own merry fool, Feste, who is very fond of using puns. See how he responds in Act III when Viola asks him about his 'tabor,' which is a kind of drum:

VIOLA. Save thee, friend, and thy music. Dost thou live

by thy tabor?

FESTE. No, sir, I live by the church.

VIOLA. Art thou a churchman?

FESTE. No such matter, sir. I do live by the church, for I

do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the

church.

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