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Wordplay in Earliest Shakespeare.

SHAKESPEARE is UNIMAGINABLE without wordplay. Although they sometimes challenge our patience, his puns, quibbles, and witty plays on words remain a central, even defining feature of his works. If Shakespeare "was destined by his age and education to play with words," he proved remarkably eager to meet his destiny (1) Samuel Johnson described the personal grounding of a style in the following, now-famous passage:
A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the
traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out
of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant
power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be
the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging
knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with
incidents or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up
before him and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden
apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop
from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such
delight that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason,
propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which
he lost the world, and was content to lose it. (2)

In Johnson's rich conceit, puns have the uncanny property of enticing Shakespeare from the true way of his journey. Like Macbeth and Banquo on their way to Forres, Shakespeare willingly attends to the "luminous vapours" of the quibble. Indeed, as significant as the trio of analogies that Johnson offers for the lure of wordplay ("vapours," "the golden apple," "the fatal Cleopatra") is the fascinated person it lured: while other writers play with words, Shakespeare cannot resist dallying with them.

This insight has long informed our understanding of Shakespeare's writing, and of how widespread punning is within it. From the beginning of his career to its close, as Johnson reminds us, Shakespeare was addicted to wordplay. To explore this element of his style, however, scholars have typically examined instances from the middle of his career, where clowns, fools, and jesting characters in such works as As You Like It, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night provide sophisticated, even iconic instances. (3) Even more extensive studies of the topic tend to concentrate on the era that produced Shakespeare's best-known plays. M. M. Mahood's classic Shakespeare's Wordplay, for example, features chapters on Romeo and Juliet through The Winter's Tale, whereas Patricia Parker's Shakespeare from the Margins largely treats The Comedy of Errors through All's Well That Ends Well. (4) In both books, as well as in scholarship on Shakespeare's wordplay generally, plays and poems written at the beginning or end of Shakespeare's career contribute far fewer examples. The decision to focus on wordplay from the long middle of Shakespeare's career is understandable: works from this range are more familiar, and drawing on them lessens some of the difficulties raised by collaboration and chronology in works composed early and late. Following The Winter's Tale, for instance, Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher. Most readers who are not Shakespeare scholars are not familiar with either of these plays.

Shakespeare's earliest days as a writer were busier still; before and perhaps during the watershed interval of the playhouse closures circa 1592-94, he appears to have composed parts of at least eight works. These include 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Edward III, Arden of Faversham, and some of the sonnets. To examine wordplay from this era of Shakespeare's career involves uncertainty: chronology and attribution remain open questions for the majority of these texts. (5) Recently, The New Oxford Shakespeare has made provocative attributions regarding Shakespearean authorship, including for several of the early works treated in this essay. The benefits of such inquiry are of course manifold, and we hope to demonstrate that distinctive wordplay can lend nuance to these conversations, enriching our portrait of both chronology and authorship. Taking Johnson's insight seriously, this essay traces wordplay's emergence in the early canon in order to gain a deeper appreciation of the textures as well as the distinctiveness of Shakespeare's compositional habits. By better understanding those habits, in fact, we may give ourselves not only insights on his development as a writer, but an additional tool with which to recognize his earliest writing.


Any discussion of wordplay needs to define its terms, however difficult that may be. It is fair to say "difficult" here because in a literal sense "wordplay" could cover any verbal element in Elizabethan drama: the language of theater pieces, after all, would have been seen by audiences and readers alike as fictional, as the words of plays. To a skeptical commentator of the time, in fact, the recreational nature of drama might have characterized its language of "playing wit" as unserious and immoral wordplay through and through. (6) Even defining wordplay more precisely--for instance, "language which calls attention to itself as language"--we are left with an axis stretching from the graphemic--say, the acrostic in the Argument to Jonson's Alchemist--to such phonetic formations as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme. Along this expansive eye-to-ear axis of play are countless instances of the arts of language, of playwrights unfolding words through both classical and native figures of speech. To this end, George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589), only one of many such handbooks, catalogues and defines hundreds of ways that writers might manipulate the English language to their and their listeners' and readers' benefit. While acknowledging this range, we will focus here mainly on wordplay of which playwrights--and, through playwrights, their characters--seem conscious. Wordplay, that is, flagged as such by consequential repetition of words within close proximity. Called many things by scholars (including quibbles, puns, and plays on words), the wordplay explored in this essay is largely intentional in nature. As we will attempt to show, it is also more deeply engrained and functional in the plays of this period--particularly Shakespeare's--than criticism is used to admitting.

Three remarkable puns from early works to which Shakespeare contributed--Arden of Faversham, Edward III, and 2 Henry VI--help foreground the signature nature of his wordplay. While the authorship of at least part of all three plays is currently in dispute, it will be the burden of this essay to demonstrate that wordplay in them is characteristic of Shakespeare, and even a likely marker of authorship that we might add to our list of identifying features. (7) Combining phonetic pleasure and semantic doubling, each compresses, in few words, a larger argument about the playworld to which it belongs. "To an Elizabethan," as F. P. Wilson noticed, wordplay "was not merely an elegance of style and a display of wit; it was also a means of emphasis and an instrument of persuasion." (8) To extend Wilson's observation, we would offer that puns in the early works are often a tool for discovery, a reaching after still unfamiliar knowledge and effects.

We encounter this experimental quality in the short eleventh scene of Arden of Faversham, when Thomas Arden (the character after whom the play is titled) and his companion, Franklin, engage in dialogue with a Ferryman. Where the scene ends in prose, with the Ferryman making bawdy jokes about his wife, it begins with short verse lines that convey the travelers' urgency:
Here enters Arden and Franklin
ARDEN. O, ferryman, where art thou?
Here enters the Ferryman
FERRYMAN. Here, here, go before to the boat
And I will follow you.
ARDEN. We have great haste: I pray thee come away.
(11.1-4) (9)

At this point, the Ferryman interrupts to comment on a fog that obscures their vision: "Fie, what a mist is here!" To this, Arden responds with an unusual play on words that slows the scenes urgency:
ARDEN. This mist, my friend, is mystical,
Like to a good companion's smoky brain,
That was half-drowned with new ale overnight.

Arden's wordplay leads to a simile ("Like to a good companion's... ") qualifying his observation. After this, the dialogue switches from verse; thereafter, both travelers and Ferryman banter in prose, as though the wordplay has triggered, even licensed, a shift to a language of relationships posed in a novel and jesting manner. Arden's almost wistful observation reads, in the language of the 1592 quarto, "This mist my frend, is misticall." This is a spelling option for mystical that would survive through the 1620s, and may not have seemed archaic to Shakespeare (or to a scribe or compositor) when the two words, mist and misticall, were put into alignment.

The source for Arden of Faversham, in fact, offered even more prompt for the wordplay. To explain the failure of the murder plot, Holinshed's Chronicles uses the spelling "mist" for our "missed":
He therfore lurking there, and watching some opportunitie for his
purpose, was willed in anie wise to be vp earlie in the morning, to lie
in wait for maister Arden in a certeine broome close, betwixt Feuersham
& the ferrie (which close he must needs passe) there to doo his feat.
Now blacke Will stirred in the morning betimes, but mist the waie, &
taried in a wrong place. (10)

Holinshed's account uses the word mist twice; these come on successive pages, and in both instances the word refers to Arden's assassin (singular in the chronicle, plural in the play) missing the opportunity to kill him. The compositional process might be imagined as follows: reading Holinshed, Shakespeare latches onto the word mist, and by imagining it not as a verb but rather as a noun--that is, by hearing its potential for wordplay--generates the fog that causes Black Will and Shakebag to miss Arden. The likelihood of this scenario is confirmed in the scene immediately following, when Shakespeare continues the wordplay through a namesake character of his invention:
SHAKEBAG. See how the sun hath cleared the foggy mist:
Now we have missed the mark of our intent.

If Arden's own wordplay on "mist" seems to derail the physical project of his scene--the boarding of a boat to complete their journey--it nonetheless advances an aesthetic one. For with this wordplay, Shakespeare proposes an associative cluster based on verbal likeness, one in which a missed assassination is attributed to the mystical mist that shrouds the innocent travelers. (11) It may also be the case that the words Mistress (used throughout this play) and amiss (1.589; 14.297) figure into this cluster, along with miss/missed, which remain the operative verbs for talking about the murder attempts on Arden--from Shakebag's "see thou miss him not" and Black Will's reply "How can I miss him[?]" (3.41-42) to Greene's '"We have missed our purpose at London'" (letter, 9.157) and Alice's "How missed you of your purpose yesternight?" (14.44). Arden's improbable survival in this play (so many attempts to kill him go awry) is advanced as a mystery dimly perceptible in and through the uncanny accidents of sound.

To appreciate the textures of such wordplay, as well as its function, we could contrast it with a similar moment from a play written later in Shakespeare's career. When Macbeth travels with his companion Banquo--much as Arden does with Franklin in scene 11--he pauses just prior to seeing the Witches and remarks, memorably, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.38). We remember this line in part because we have heard "fair" and "foul" uttered as early as the play's thirteenth line, in part because its verbal artfulness sets the scene in ten efficient monosyllables, and in part because its alliteration and paradox (foul and fair) convey the speaker's wonder at the imagined environment. As in Arden of Faversham, this environment is an enchanted one: immediately following this line, Banquo registers the appearance of the weird sisters. It seems worth noting that when the three Witches yoke "fair" and "foul" earlier in the play, they follow it immediately not by "mist" but by "fog and filthy air" (1.1.13). In contrast to his practice in Arden, however, in Macbeth Shakespeare prepares us for the uncanny through the logical tension of paradox: foul and fair rather than mystical mist. By the time he writes Macbeth, Shakespeare has added to his repertoire of effects. Arden's punning is the earlier drama's way of unfolding the supernatural in language itself, through the compression of sound ("mystical" and "mist") rather than that of ideas ("fair" and "foul") and identities (the androgynously ambiguous witches).

Similarly resonant wordplay graces a passage in Prince Philip's lament about the French defeat in Edward III. This play has a number of links to Macbeth, including its Scottish interlude and a prophecy involving apparently impossible conditions for a military defeat: "When feather'd fowl shall make thine army tremble, / And flint-stones rise and break the battle ray" (4.3.68-69). Predictably, the outnumbered and unarmed English pluck stones from the ground to drive back the French troops ("And flint-stones rise and break the battle 'ray"). Philip uses a Biblical analogy to convey the anguish of the situation:
Pluck out your eyes, and see not this day's shame!
An arm hath beat an army: one poor David
Hath with a stone foil'd twenty stout Goliahs:
Some twenty naked starvelings with small flints
Hath driven back a puissant host of men,
Array'd and fenc'd in all accomplements.

Philip's "An arm hath beat an army" recalls Arden's mystical mist, with the resemblance in sound bringing pleasure with difficulty: as with all such wordplay, we admire the similarity of the words while working to disentangle them. That disentanglement comes with an explanation: just as David beat Goliath with a single stone, so did the English rout the French against overwhelming odds. If the passage reminds us of Shakespeare's interest in Agincourt, and of his play with numbers through Henry V, the genre, geography, and historical setting of Edward III offer even further connections to that drama (although Philip's speech narrates a smaller version of Agincourt from the perspective of the defeated). Philip's arm/army wordplay further advances the punning and rebus-like arrangements of coats of arms, where a name like "Shakespeare" could be represented, armorially, by a falcon shaking a spear. In a similar manner, Philip's wordplay compresses a larger action--we see little to no stage combat in Edward III--into a short, punning phrase. The scene that includes this pun is not among those traditionally attributed to Shakespeare, but the distinctive wordplay here could challenge this view. Shakespeare's co-author or co-authors do not use many puns of this sort in the rest of the play. Further, the two most relevant lines of this passage (18-19) have feminine endings, which the Arden editors view elsewhere as indicating a Shakespearean hand. (12)

Perhaps the most concentrated instance of wordplay in Shakespeare's early works comes also in a chronicle play, 2 Henry VI, and, like the Edward III passage examined above, develops as a response to a national trauma. The play begins with the demoralizing fact of the loss of English territory in France. The gains treated in Edward III and, later, Henry V have been undone through what is perceived as betrayal and incompetence. The lost French counties of "Anjou and Maine" are mentioned four times, in this pairing, before the Earl of Salisbury remarks to his son, the Duke of Warwick: "Then let's make haste away, and look unto the main." Whereupon Warwick responds:
Unto the main? O father, Maine is lost!
That Maine which by main force Warwick did win,
And would have kept so long as breath did last!
Main chance, father, you meant, but I meant Maine,
Which I will win from France, or else be slain.

The word "main" and its variants appear seven times in this exchange. Salisbury's first use (line 208) means main as either "main chance" (that is, part of a betting situation in an Elizabethan game of chance) or perhaps main as in ocean (as in King John, 2.1.26) or mainland (King Lear, 3.1.6). Warwick repeats the word as a transitional unit to be defined (main as a sound, 209) in order to redefine it as the French county of Maine (209, 210), then as a modifier meaning "sheer" or "exerted to the full" (210) before adding the gambling sense of "Main chance" (211, hyphenated as a compound in the folio text: Main-chance) only to return to Maine as the French county for his capping couplet. Never again would Shakespeare rotate through such a concentration of senses in his wordplay.

Although 2 Henry VI appears to have been revised, six of these seven mains grace the quarto of The First Part of the Contention, published in 1594, confirming that the passage printed in the Folio was largely that which Shakespeare wrote early in the 1590s. (13) And while recent computational statistics have argued that this scene matches the profile of Christopher Marlowe, the insistence of its wordplay is not a good fit for Marlowe's style. (14) To the contrary, it is a close stylistic match for the wordplay we see across the early works of Shakespeare, including the instances from Arden and Edward III examined above.

In all three examples, a character of higher rank (rather than a clown, importantly) uses wordplay to describe the improbable--the mystical mist, the arm beating an army, the loss of a hard-won Maine--temporarily freezing the play's action in order to stage a miniature drama within language. Shakespeare's characters often turn to quibbles in moments of distress: Mercutio with his dying words, Titus on his mutilated daughter's lack of hands, and messengers with the double meaning of "well" when delivering news of death. Sometimes, as with the Maine and arm puns, wordplay arises as a response to the urgency of impending conflict. Faced with the fact that "Richmond is on the seas" to conquer England, for example, Richard III snaps back "There let him sink, and be the seas on him" (R3 4.4.490-91). Likewise when Prince Hal, fearful for his life in the midst of battle and having lost his sword, begs Falstaff for his pistol, the fat knight declares, "There's that will sack a city" and provides him not with a weapon but with a bottle of sack (1H4 5.4.57-58). Hal's furious response--"What, is it a time to jest and dally now?"--has a metadramatic point with which the audience may agree. These jokes in moments of despair typically come across as incongruous to a modern audience, and may have done so in their own day. Time and time again, Shakespeare's characters divert focus from remedying urgent problems (sometimes those with national consequences) in order to quibble with words, using humor as a coping mechanism, for displaying their rhetorical dexterity, or both.

It is tempting to say that, no matter how dire the situation, Shakespeare's mind could not resist the temptation of wordplay. But perhaps his attraction to wordplay increased as he imagined various characters' psychological distress. In the three instances that formed the center of the preceding analysis, wordplay offers a choric comment on the playworld environment, both locally and internationally, and the effect of this improbable environment on the speaker's psyche. In such wordplay we see Shakespeare feeling his way into, and through, a higher level of relationships within the world of words. That he stages these figures as unable to resist quibbling is perhaps self-awareness on his part, as he finds his own relation to the mystery of language given voice through his characters' wrestling with words.


Not all wordplay calls such clear attention to itself. The critical heritage is full of notes and essays that build interpretations on hitherto unrecognized play on words, often by pressing for a crucial if unanticipated pronunciation. Tongue and ear have created countless opportunities for actors, audience members, and readers to call out potential instances of wordplay in Elizabethan plays and poems. (15) Although advances in our understanding of original pronunciation have proven a welcome addition to scholarly knowledge, the drawbacks to interpretations based on selective pronunciation are obvious: in Shakespeare's time, different parts of England must have produced striking divergences in pronunciation, rendering the precision (and hence success) of wordplay in London's market of representation vulnerable to speaker, hearer, and reader, and to these agents' relation to language in a changeful environment.

Pronunciation shares this kind of variability with Elizabethan spelling. As we see in the first of our trio of examples, the spelling of particular words could spur as well as guide Shakespeare's imagination: from Holinshed's verb mist, once again, Shakespeare appears to have derived the noun mist (meaning "fog") as well as misticall. When Shakebag returns to the word in the next scene, he says, in the spelling of the original quarto: "See how the Sunne hath cleard the foggy mist, / Now we haue mist the marke of our intent." There is nothing particularly unusual about these spellings circa 1590; what remains remarkable is how they coordinate a meaningful instance of wordplay in the Ferryman section of Arden of Faversham, particularly when encountered in the original spelling. Yet had Shakespeare not punned so clearly with misticall mist, who would not be skeptical over a claim that the verb mist in Holinshed had produced Shakespeare's foggy mist, were such a claim even to have been made? The pun confirms this word's generative properties, and by extension Shakespeare's promiscuous verbal intelligence. Like pronunciation, then, orthography can provide insight to the workings of Shakespeare's imagination as it plays with words.

A useful resource for investigating the relation of similarly spelled words in Shakespeare's early works is the list of homographs provided by Marvin Spevack in his foundational Shakespeare Concordance. There Spevack records homographs--words that are spelled alike, but possess different meanings--in the verbal environment that would become The Riverside Shakespeare. Such words as bark (a ship; a rind; the cry of a dog), rear (to raise; the back part), and wax (to grow; the plastic substance), among others, make up Spevack's list of 730 homographs in Shakespeare. Why use these homographs to examine Shakespeare's wordplay? To begin with, Spevack's list was generated without particular regard to our topic, and thus offers an objective as well as robust resource for identifying potential instances of verbal play. Although we make no pretense of conducting a statistical test, the extensiveness of the data set is also useful. Spevack's list, we should point out, would not have helped with mist and mistical, or arm and army, although it does flag two senses of main that Shakespeare joined to his crucial third--Maine as a region. Thus while it is neither statistical nor exhaustive, this list of homographs can help us identify how identically spelled words worked in Shakespeare's mind, and then on his page.

A brief word about procedure. Our text of Shakespeare's works is the second edition of The Riverside Shakespeare, which contains all of his early plays save for Arden of Faversham, for which we have employed Bate and Rasmussen's RSC text. Because the sonnets pose extreme difficulties of dating, we include a few supplementary examples of wordplay from them but did not track homographic duplication across scattered sonnets under the assumption that any two or more were written at approximately the same time. We say this in full awareness that various sonnets form meaningful pairings, even subsequences, within the collection, and in that respect may feature the same kind of wordplay we describe as unfolding within specific speeches, scenes, and acts of the plays. Before going further, we should also acknowledge that parts of Shakespeare's early plays--even those published before 1595--may have been written at different times. (16)

Of the 730 homographs on Spevack's list, 425, or over half, appeared at least one time in Shakespeare's first seven plays. These plays feature 251 instances (tokens) of these homographs, ranging from 12 in the Shakespearean parts of 1 Henry VI to 68 in the full text of 2 Henry VI. Owing to the topic at hand, we were particularly interested in tracing out repetition--whether, for instance, and where various of these homographs might be repeated in a play. The idea was to identify moments in which Shakespeare might be consciously or unconsciously influenced by similar spelling, resulting in wordplay within a discrete segment of his text.

Repetition of homographs in close proximity may be conscious or unconscious, but does not always add up to memorable instances of language. Such words as like ("similar," "probable," and as the verb) and will (as noun and verb), for example, often occur in close proximity. Many such instances can be characterized as inconsequential because aesthetically and performatively weightless. This is not to say that interpretations about, say, the role of will or liking and affinity in a play could not be constructed, but rather that these repetitions are not particularly inflected by either writer or character. Speaking to the way certain words lodge in his head, they may reveal words playing with Shakespeare as opposed to Shakespeare playing with words.

A higher level of repetition can be discerned when it gives the audience member or reader a slight hesitation or pause when the second usage qualifies or somehow stands in tension with the first. This is clear in the following passage spoken by Mosby in Arden of Faversham:
Ay, Fortune's right hand Mosby hath forsook
To take a wanton giglot by the left.
I left the marriage of an honest maid...

Here the proximity of right left left emphasizes the shift from left hand to left as the past tense of leave. The pairing of right and left, that is, makes the quick turn to verbal left more noticeable than it would have been otherwise. (17)

How might this conjunction have become lodged in the playwright's head? We could note that the word left occurs twice in Shakespeare's source for Arden, both instances coming in close proximity to each other, and in relation to the failed attempt on Arden's life in London:
After this, maister Arden laie at a certeine parsonage which he held in
London, and therefore his man Michaell and Greene agreed, that blacke
Will should come in the night to the parsonage, where he should find
the doores left open, that he might come in and murther maister Arden.
This Michaell hauing his maister to bed, left open the doores according
to the appointment. (1063)

Just as he had paused over the word mist in Holinshed's narrative, Shakespeare seems to take the word left here as a potential detail with which to enrich his dramatic version of the story, converting it to the direction left. In an earlier scene he has Michael (Arden's servant) tell Black Will and Shakebag:
This night come to his house at Aldersgate,
The doors I'll leave unlocked against you come.
No sooner shall ye enter through the latch,
Over the threshold to the inner court
But on your left hand shall you see the stairs
That leads directly to my master's chamber.

That night Franklin discovers the unlocked doors and locks them, foiling this stage of the murder plot. Later when Black Will and Shakebag angrily confront Michael over the locked doors, he returns to the word left in his apology, using it in the original sense and even generating a leaving by Franklin:
For God's sake sirs, let me excuse myself!
For here I swear by heaven and earth and all,
I did perform the outmost of my task
And left the doors unbolted and unlocked.
But see the chance: Franklin and my master
Were very late conferring in the porch,
And Franklin left his napkin where he sat,
With certain gold knit in it as he said.
Being in bed, he did bethink himself,
And coming down, he found the doors unshut.
He locked the gates and brought away the keys.

This passage from Arden's seventh scene immediately precedes Mosby's right left left conjunction in scene 8, and arguably explains where the latter came from. Latching upon left in Holinshed, Shakespeare uses the homograph to characterize the place of Arden's potential murder in London: the room accessed by stairs on the left side of the courtyard is to be accessed through a door left unbolted, but that door is locked after Franklin discovers he has left a napkin behind. Still taken by the word's potential, Shakespeare compresses the homograph in the following scene's right left left cluster.

Precisely because of its incidental nature, this kind of homographic wordplay gives us insight to the workings of Shakespeare's habits as a reader and writer even when he may not have been conscious of those habits. (18) For example, in 2 Henry VI he uses the word pitch twice toward the beginning of 2.1 to describe the height of a falcon's flight--"And what a pitch she flew above the rest!"; "And bears his thoughts above his falcon's pitch" (2.1.6, 12)--then switches to the sense of pitch as substance in a simile at this scene's close: "As, like to pitch, defile nobility" (2.1.192). Because these are the only appearances of pitch in the play, and because they neatly bookend this single scene, it is likely that we perceive the word sticking in Shakespeare's head. We see a similar instance of framing in Shrew, where Petruchio begins and ends a long sentence with two different forms of a keyword:
PETRUCHIO. Marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed;
And therefore setting all this chat aside,
Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife; your dowry 'greed on;
And will you, nill you, I will marry you.

Here marry as an interjection sets up marry as nuptial verb. Throughout Shrew, issues related to marriage are often accompanied by the otherwise unrelated interjection marry; Sly's first use of the word in the play, in fact, sets up his query "Where is my wife?" (Ind.2.102). Perhaps the Lord's repeated warnings, to his onstage players, to resist being too merry in their shared charade is related to this cluster as well (Ind.1.97, 137). In this regard, we could notice that Shakespeare has John Hume quibble on the word in 2 Henry VI; told to "Make merry, man," he remarks to himself, "Hume must make merry with the Duchess' gold; / Marry, and shall" (1.2.85, 87-88).

Repetition of homographs can occur not only across lines of dialogue, but between dialogue and stage directions as well. We do not know which stage directions in particular Shakespeare wrote, but a number of them in his plays have verbal overlap with the adjacent dialogue. Such overlap is occasioned by the word fly in Titus Andronicus, a drama otherwise sparing of much homographic wordplay. The word is used in both the dialogue and stage direction of 4.1, where Lucius's son and Lavinia enter: "Lavinia running after him, and the boy flies from her, with his books under his arm" (4.1.0. s.d.). This may be an extrapolation of a line from the ensuing dialogue: "Which made me down throw my books, and fly--" (4.1.25). Both instances mean "flee." But the homograph of fly meaning "insect" features crucially in the famous "fly-killing" scene--the addition perhaps written after the play was originally composed, and inserted, significantly, just prior to 4.1 and its twin uses of fly in the verbal sense. Did Shakespeare get the idea for the fly killing from revisiting 4.1? (19)

That Shakespeare's imagination did not separate stage directions from dialogue can be seen in the wordplay shared between Petruchio and a stage direction in Shrew:
Faith, sirrah, and you'll not knock, I'll ring it.
I'll try how you can sol, fa, and sing it.
He wrings him by the ears.

The folio's stage direction reads "He rings him by the eares," which repeats the verbal ring from the dialogue even as it gives different sense and direction to the forceful motion it describes. Similar overlap between dialogue and stage directions can be found in the word down in Arden of Faversham, which acts as a kind of keyword in stage directions--the broth is thrown down (1.367 s.d.); a wooden window falls down on Black Will's head (3.45 s.d.); Arden is pulled down with a towel as he is murdered (14.224 s.d.)--as well as dialogue, especially through the setting of Rainham Down, which comes from the play's source in Holinshed. We encounter down used in a framing structure at the end of Michael's speech quoted earlier (in which the word left was at play):
And coming down, he found the doors unshut.
He locked the gates and brought away the keys.
For which offence my master rated me,
But now I am going to see what flood it is
For with the tide my master will away,
Where you may front him well on Rainham Down...

Here the word down is both direction and place, and the looming place seems to prompt--or "prime," as linguists would say--mention of the direction. (20)

In other instances, it is clear that Shakespeare intends such repetition to be taken as wordplay, for his characters provide emphasis with undeniable purposiveness. We have already examined Warwick's main cluster in 2 Henry VI. Another, even more sardonic instance of such purposive wordplay on a homograph comes with leave in 3 Henry VI. When Edward asks his brothers to give him privacy to woo the Lady Grey, he says "Lords, give us leave: I'll try this widow's wit" (3.2.33). Whereupon Richard replies in a characteristic aside:
Ay, good leave have you, for you will have leave
Till youth take leave and leave you to the crutch.

In twenty monosyllabic words Shakespeare has Richard use leave four times: twice in the inverted "leave have"/ "have leave" once in "take leave" (which plays on the distinction of "have" and "take") and finally in the verbal sense of leave as "render up to," "abandon," in "leave you to the crutch." Richard's sardonic observation anticipates the link the play makes between Edward's sexual appetite and his declining health. Shakespeare takes advantage of the word leave in a similar way in Sonnet 73, where the "yellow leaves" of the speaker's declining body morph into the painful pun of the poem's final line: "which thou must leave ere long."

Ostentatious wordplay on homographs like this characterizes the sardonic back-and-forth of Katherine and Petruchio in Shrew, where the familiar "tongue in your tail" jest is set up by a less memorable instance:
PETRUCHIO. Should be! should--buzz!
KATHERINA. Well ta'en, and like a buzzard.
PETRUCHIO. O siow-wing'd turtle, shall a buzzard take thee?
KATHERINA. Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard.

From the verb "be" (which repeats the verb from Katherina's previous line), Petruchio understands the insect "bee" (be) and its sound buzz. Katherina turns the latter into buzzard, or fool, but Petruchio reclaims it as buzzard meaning carrion bird--only to see Katherina gloss buzzard as an insect snatched out of the air by either a turtledove or, more probably, the reptile. In three verse lines (Petruchio and Katherina share a line), Shakespeare takes us from a verb (be) to an insect (bee) to the sound this insect makes (buzz) to three potential creatures named buzzard, and two named turtle. This is wordplay in its most concentrated, elaborated form, of course, and extends from homographs to homophones and beyond. There is something revealing about this passage, as well as the wordplay in the extended stichomythia of this scene. That is, at the same time that he shows us two characters striving to gain the upper hand through intensive wordplay, Shakespeare reveals the opportunism of his imagination as it worked in and through language.

A final example from Shrew and 3 Henry VI shows us that, even when an instance of homographic wordplay is telegraphed, other verbal links can be at play too. Consider Kate and the Widow's barbed exchange toward play's end:
KATHERINA. I pray you tell me what you meant by that.
WIDOW. Your husband, being troubled with a shrew,
Measures my husband's sorrow by his woe:
And now you know my meaning.
KATHERINA. A very mean meaning.
WIDOW. Right, I mean you.
KATHERINA. And I am mean indeed, respecting you.

The Widow offers meaning, which Kate plays on with mean meaning (that is, mean as "low" meaning), only to have the Widow return to a verbal sense of mean as "intend." Thereafter Kate employs yet a further sense of mean, "moderate," to set off her behavior from the Widow's. What makes this play on mean particularly interesting is less its verb/adjective split than its relation to a submerged mean/widow cluster in Shakespeare's imagination. In 3 Henry VI, for instance, toward the end of Edward's wooing of Lady Grey that we have examined earlier, she states, "I know I am too mean to be your queen" (3.2.97). To which Edward responds "You cavil, widow, I did mean my queen" (3.2.99). Again we see the mean/mean wordplay (heightened by the parallel rhymes with "queen"), and again in relation to a widow. To this we could add Portia's "My maid Nerissa and myself mean time / Will live as maids and widows" (Merchant of Venice, 3.2.309-310) as evidence of two words that we might think unrelated--mean and widow--but which nonetheless appear to have had a bond in Shakespeare's imagination during the first half of his career. (21)


In addition to wordplay on the resemblance (sometimes identity) of sound and spelling, Shakespeare's early works are characterized by a fondness for their play with names. We have already seen, in Warwick's Maine passage, and in Michael's Rainham Down lines, that place names were almost irresistible to Shakespeare as objects of verbal play. As Laurie Maguire has reminded us, proper names of all sorts held his imagination from the beginning of his career as a writer. (22) Some of this can be chalked up to formal inheritance, for the Tudor moralities extended the homiletic impulse of earlier literature in naming characters after attributes of identity and behavior. (23) Here we might think of Dame Chat and Scapethrift from Gammer Gurton's Needle; of Ambidexter, the Vice, from Cambyses; and of such figures as Master Lust, Inclination, Greedy-Gut, and Trust in The Trial of Treasure. Because nomen is so clearly omen in such cases, thematically named figures like this could be said to obviate wordplay: by giving up Greedy-Gut, the secularization of the drama created a space for Toby Belch.

If it relied on his dramatic heritage, Shakespeare's interest in the verbal potential of proper names must also have come from his fascination with the linguistic bases of philosophical issues, and from the peculiar qualities of names themselves. Even as they can seem immutable, usage invariably reveals names' arbitrary, often contingent nature. "Am not I Christopher Sly?" the clown asks when he awakens from his drunken stupor, and proceeds to provide evidence for his identity by citing other proper names--only to have these turned against him as delusion: "And twenty more such names and men as these, / Which never were, nor no man ever saw" (Ind.2.17-96). Names, including Sly's, remain a given until they are not; they are confirmatory until replaced. This paradoxical quality--where the unquestionable transforms into the malleable--must have contributed to Shakespeare's fascination with names, for again and again in the early works he plays with the sound, grounding, and reference of proper names.

That proper names form something like the core of Shakespeare's wordplay can be seen from Titus Andronicus, which features less wordplay relative to its length than most of the early works. Aaron does have parallel wordplay, for example, with done at 4.2.75-76 and trim in 5.1.93-96, both instances of vicious sexual banter. But just as much of the obvious wordplay in Titus centers on names, as when the Clown, in the drama's brief prose sequence, misrecognizes the name "Jupiter," taking it first for "gibbet-maker" and then for "Jubiter" (4.3.81, 85). In addition to his Vice-like wordplay, Aaron contributes a descriptive epithet, Moor, to the play. This may figure into the name of his lover, Tamora, as well as in passages of wordplay on the word more, including Aaron's reply to the Nurse's query "did you see Aaron the Moor?": "Well, more or less, or ne'er a whit at all" (4.2.52-53, where "whit" may hint at "white" as well). (24)

Puns on proper names are the writer's way to supplement source material, sometimes displaying a kind of mastery over it. It seems likely that Shakespeare looked at stories not only for what we and the Elizabethans alike might consider to be dramatic--the conflict of bodies, entities, and ideas onstage; drums and trumpets; ceremonies both conducted and interrupted; pairs of characters and paired factions engaging in struggle before us. All of these things are traditionally part of what makes drama work, and there is no reason to think Shakespeare underestimated them when choosing material for a new play. But he also seems to have paused over the names in a narrative, imagining verbal play that they could fuel. Thus Maine in Holinshed--an easier pun than Anjou--may have contributed to the attractiveness of the story that became 2 Henry VI, a chronicle in which play on proper names is widespread. In addition to this first Maine/main passage, for example, 2 Henry VI features wordplay on Maine in the carnivalesque sequence with Jack Cade and his followers:
DICK. And furthermore, we'll have the Lord Say's head for selling the
dukedom of Maine.
CADE. And good reason; for thereby is England main'd...

This play on main'd/maimed follows a pun on Cade's own name:
CADE. We John Cade, so term'd of our suppos'd father--DICK.
[Aside.] Or rather of stealing a cade of herrings.

and then
CADE. My wife descended of the Lacies--DICK.
[Aside] She was indeed a pedlar's daughter, and sold many laces.

The wordplay on naming here makes comic a real phenomenon: the debt that family names often owe to occupation or traded goods. (25) Cade will pun on Lord Say's name later in this part of the play by reminding us that say is a kind of cloth:
Ah, thou say, thou serge, nay, thou buckram lord!

As the Cades can be imagined to spring from a measure of herrings, so can Lord Say be connected to cloth ("serge... buckram"), and the Lacies to lace.

Perhaps because of his continual proximity to transformational violence, Cade is often close to wordplay in 2 Henry VI. We could consider his extended pun on the word sallet (meaning both "helmet" and "salad"):
Wherefore, on a brick wall have I climb'd into this garden, to see if I
can eat grass, or pick a sallet another while, which is not amiss to
cool a man's stomach this hot weather. And I think this word "sallet"
was born to do me good; for many a time, but for a sallet, my brain-pan
had been cleft with a brown bill; and many a time, when I have been dry
and bravely marching, it hath serv'd me instead of a quart pot to drink
in; and now the word "sallet" must serve me
to feed on. (4.10.6-15)

Cade's prolonged play on sallet is Falstaffian in its rhythms and jocular focus on the means with which appetite is satisfied. Like Falstaff's catechism on "honor" (1 Henry IV, 5.1.129-141) it resolves into the materiality of the word itself.

This fascination with the material possibilities of words--particularly names--comes out in a concentrated fashion in 4.1, where the Duke of Suffolk, William de la Pole, is captured by the pirate Walter Whitmore. Hearing Whitmore's first name, "Walter," Suffolk is startled, explaining his fear with a resemblance of sound:
Thy name affrights me, in whose sound is death.
A cunning man did calculate my birth
And told me that by water I should die;
Yet let not this make thee be bloody-minded;
Thy name is Gualtier, being rightly sounded.

Suffolk fears, that is, the name Walter being pronounced (as was Walter Ralegh's first name by Elizabeth) as water; he takes refuge in what is apparently a harder "G" in the French. Readers of English history knew that Suffolk, William de la Pole, was destined to be executed, and that his head would soon "dance upon a bloody pole" in the characters own words in this scene (4.1.127). The Pole/pole pun therefore acts as an ominous prediction of the historical as well as theatrical future. But the most extensive play with his name comes not with pole [po:l] but rather pool [pu:l], as he exchanges words with his captor:
LIEUTENANT. Poole! Sir Poole! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.

The shared first line here betrays Suffolk's surprise at being addressed without honorific ("Poole?"), then leads to the Lieutenant's insulting repetition ("Poole! Sir Poole! lord!") before unfolding the disgusted analogy of Poole/pool: "Ay, kennel, puddle, sink."

If Shakespeare was lured to 2 Henry VI's story in part by various of the names involved in its pageant--Maine, Cade, Say, Poole, Lacey, Walter--he would find similar potential in the other Henry VI plays. As with Maine/main in the earlier play, for instance, some of the wordplay in 3 Henry VI is associated with Warwick. Early in the drama Warwick says "I'll plant Plantagenet, root him up who dares" (1.1.48). This quibbling with names continues with two--York and March--that figure into wordplay across contiguous scenes. At the tag end of 1.4, Margaret sardonically orders that her enemy, the Duke of York, be beheaded:
Off with his head, and set it on York gates,
So York may overlook the town of York.

Returning the title full circle to the town from which it came, Shakespeare's pleasure in playing with York finds voice in Margaret's satisfied lines. Their position at the end of the scene, punctuating it, hints that the wordplay is more than decorative; instead, it is the linguistic and imagistic goal toward which the scene is aimed.

It seems significant that the next words of 3 Henry VI introduce similar play on a title, for the opening stage direction of the next scene, 2.1, begins with "A march" (2.1.0 s.d.) which is repeated as "March" when Warwick enters (2.1.95 s.d.), figures as "March'd" and "marches" in Warwick's speech (2.1.112, 140) before he addresses Edward as "brave earl of March," only to say, three lines later "to London will we march" before concluding, of Edward, "No longer Earl of March, but Duke of York" (2.1.179, 182, 192). While the word march is a verb we expect to encounter in the chronicle plays, Shakespeare appears to have had the title--"earl of March"--in his head when he began writing this part of the play, for the word starts the scene, graces Warwick's entrance and appears twice in its verbal form before migrating Edward from March to York. That Warwick is the only character to use the word in this scene hints that, as with York in the previous scene, Shakespeare has march as movement and the title "the earl of March" already in conjunction.

The chronicle genre seems to beg Shakespeare to think about human relations in terms of titles and names. In 1 Henry VI, he has Talbot indulge in a concentrated instance of wordplay:
Frenchmen, I'll be a Salisbury to you.
Pucelle or puzzel, Dolphin or dogfish,
Your hearts I'll stamp out with my horse's heels,
And make a quagmire of your mingled brains.

Here Talbot plays on Joan of Arc's name, Pucelle (from "damsel" or maiden), and puzzel as "slut" or "drab." To this, he adds the French Dolphin with a dogfish, implying that each figure can be made less terrifying through linguistic comedy. As though coming to the end of a string of puns on proper names in the chronicle plays, Shakespeare has Talbot give us two instances in a single line.

An example of the priming tendencies of names occurs also with will in Arden. When reading Holinshed's narrative of the Arden murder, Shakespeare would have noticed that the name of a villain was Black Will; he then thought up a companion in crime for Will who shared an equally personal name: Shakebag. For obvious reasons, the word will stuck in his head. In a brief passage of dialogue, he has Shakebag, Greene, and Black Will share three versions of will:
And at some hour hence come to us again,
Where we will give you instance of his death.
GREENE. Speed to my wish whose will soe'er says no:
And so I'll leave you for an hour or two. Exit Greene
BLACK WILL. I tell thee Shakebag, would this thing were done.
I am so heavy that I can scarce go:
This drowsiness in me bodes little good.
SHAKEBAG. How now Will, become a precisian?

Coming in such close proximity, these senses of will ask us to see it as a kind of keyword in this scene and play. Similar to the homographic repetitions of will in Shrew, this cluster has the addition of the nickname Will.

This name figures famously into Shakespeare's early poetry. The name William, for example, is buried playfully within the first two words of the Latin epigraph to Venus and Adonis: "Vilia miretur." (26) Venus is of course the first text in which Shakespeare's full name is printed--the comic "Shake-scene" in Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit (1592) predating it by less than a year. Even before readers encountered "William Shakespeare" on the quarto's second leaf, therefore, they saw a version of William in its title-page epigraph. In part because of their deployment of the kind of wordplay examined earlier in this essay, it seems probable that the well-known Will sonnets--which include at least 135, 136, and 143--were written at or before the closure of the playhouses, in the same era with the seven plays treated here. Although these are not the only sonnets to play on the word will, they nonetheless feature obvious wordplay on the name, something flagged in the 1609 quarto through italics. It is possible to construct an octave and more from these instances:
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will
One will of mine to make thy large Will more.
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.
Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will,
Will will fulfill the treasure of thy love,
And then thou lovest me, for my name is Will.
So will I pray that thou mayst have thy Will...
(135.1,2, 11, 12, 14; 136.2, 5, 14; 143.13)

Each "Will" appears in italics in the original as a way of flagging the wordplay. (27) Joel Fineman understood the intensive wordplay of the sonnets late in the collection as betokening a deep sophistication and therefore likely to mark a later, more mature stage of composition. (28) Fineman appears to have perceived things exactly backwards: as we have seen in our survey of Shakespeare's earliest plays, such foregrounded wordplay is more likely to be a marker not of lateness but rather of earliness.

Sonnet 145, for instance, is arguably among the first pieces of Shakespeare's writing to have survived in print:
Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breath'd forth the sound that said "I hate"
To me that languish'd for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that, ever sweet,
Was us'd in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
"I hate" she alterd with an end
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away:
"I hate" from hate away she threw,
And sav'd my life, saying "not you."

As Andrew Gurr pointed out, this sonnet seems an early a clef tribute to Ann Hathaway. (29) Instead of placing himself in the poem through a Will pun, Shakespeare turns to his wife's maiden name, playing on both given and family name. We see hate in lines 2, 9, and 13, and away in lines 12 and 13, the latter deploying the two halves of her family name together: hate away. The sonnet's conceit is that, while the name Hathaway seems to contain "hate," Ann undid--threw away, in the phrasing of line 13--that unwelcome possibility. Further potential wordplay comes with the word "And" in the last line, which, if pronounced "An," renders a pun on Ann. If, in order to refer to his own family name, Shakespeare needed an entire stanza in the Rape of Lucrece (the so-called Achilles stanza, lines 1422-28), he managed to do justice to both of Ann's names in the witty couplet of Sonnet 145. (30)


So far we have seen the importance of wordplay to Shakespeare's earliest works, from instances featuring closely repeated words and word forms--buzz and buzzard, leave and leave--to much more subtle occasions in which words from Shakespeare's reading seem to have stuck in his head. For example, such words as mist and left in Holinshed's account of the murder of Thomas Arden led, as we have seen, to both obvious and understated wordplay in Arden of Faversham. An important subset of such wordplay was that on proper names, which seem to have had a particular hold on his imagination. From Maine to Moor, Poole to Pucelle, and including Dolphin, Lacie, Cade, Kate, Say, Will, Ann, Hathaway and many others, names were a fertile and continuing source of wordplay across Shakespeare's early works, including the sonnets.

Although badinage on names was irresistible to many Elizabethan authors, so insistent are the puns on names in Shakespeare's works that we might account it one of his special interests--if not a confirming element of his pen, then at least something strongly indicative of his style. Thus if we were uncertain as to the authorship of various scenes in a text, wordplay--and especially wordplay on names--would be a feature to take into account. For example, scholarly consensus is that Titus Andronicus is a collaborative play, with George Peele responsible for various scenes. In addition to a dozen tests of vocabulary and meter that have been used to discriminate which author was likely to have written which part of Titus, wordplay could be examined as a potential Shakespearean marker. The presence of a pun on Goth as goat (the latter a proverbially lusty animal) would flag Shakespeare as more likely than Peele to have written such lines as:
TAMORA. And then they call'd me foul adulteress,
Lascivious Goth, and all the bitterest terms

LUCIUS. But who comes here, led by a lusty Goth?

The wordplay here is not unlike that on Maine and main'd in 2 Henry VI: a pun so attractive that it stuck with Shakespeare throughout the drama. The texture of the wordplay seems significant as well, for, while not idiosyncratic, the play on identity through names is remarkably persistent. Thus in The Taming of the Shrew--over which there is no suspicion of collaborative authorship--the servants' prosaic puns on Stoics/stocks (1.1.31), countenance (4.1.99-103) and credit (4.1.104-5) are fairly undistinguished as wordplay, and could have been penned by any of a half-dozen playwrights. However, something like a signature pun arises when Petruchio refers to Katherina as a "wild Kate" (2.1.277; i.e., wild cat) in the context of his attempt to subordinate her through a series of witty Kate puns in this scene. If quibbles were "irresistible" to Shakespeare, playing on such proper names as Kate was especially so.

What might such wordplay offer attribution studies? Wordplay is obviously only a part of what makes up an author's style; many other things--including more countable elements of vocabulary and prosody--go into our understanding of authorial style. While not reliably quantifiable, however, wordplay like imagery, is such an integral part of Shakespeare's style that it bears consideration in any effort to determine what he wrote. Shakespeare's early canon, as pointed out above, is still something of a mystery to scholarship. Recent work in computational statistics has sought to resolve this mystery by attributing various parts of early plays like the Henry VI trilogy, Edward III, and even Arden of Faversham, to Christopher Marlowe. Building on the work of such scholars as Hugh Craig, John Burrows, Timothy Watt, and MacDonald P. Jackson, a group of researchers including Santiago Segarra, Mark Eisen, Gabriel Egan, and Alejandro Ribeiro has used Markov-chains to identify Shakespeare or Marlowe, respectively, as the likelier author of various scenes in these plays. In some instances, the wordplay we have examined here confirms their findings, yet in numerous others it calls into question a non-Shakespearean attribution.

Less has been written on Marlowe's wordplay than Shakespeare's, so in general little is known about it. (31) Yet a few broad observations are possible. Marlowe puns more than we are prone to remember, but on the whole less frequently than Shakespeare does, and often differently than the way we have seen Shakespeare pun in his plays as well as in his poems (about which there is no question of attribution). One distinction lies in Marlowe's stronger emphasis on decorum: his characters tend to make puns that accord with their implied stations and interests. That is, while Marlowe is quite capable of puns that are bawdy or otherwise low, in contrast to Shakespeare these tend to come largely in passages of prose or prosaic verse, and from characters lower on the social ladder. Here we could adduce Almeda's puns on movement in the second scene of 2 Tamburlaine, Robin's sexual puns in scenes 4 and 6 of Doctor Faustus, and the Soldier's bawdy wordplay in scene 4 of The Massacre at Paris. All of these constitute prosaic instances of wordplay in prose, and are not particularly distinguishable from wordplay in Elizabethan drama generally. It is worth noting, however, that Marlowe most often keys his wordplay to his speaker's social register. For instance, once when Marlowe has an upper-rank character engage a quibble, he has his speaker carefully distinguish the high and low senses of the word. Here is Tamburlaine to his pillaging army: "Hold ye, tall soldiers. Take ye queens apiece, / (I mean such queens as were kings' concubines)" (2 Tamburlaine, 4.3.70-71). The impulse to make the pun explicit (queen/quean) effectively deflates the joke by explaining it in a tendentious manner. Indeed, many of Marlowe's puns are learned in nature, grounded less in homophony than in etymology or institutional process. One of his first dramatic puns, in Dido, Queen of Carthage, employs the figure of polyptoton--in which words of the same root are repeated--to display his learning:
As I, exhaled with thy fire-darting beams
Have oft driven back the horses of the night,
Whenas they would have haled thee from my sight?
(Dido, 1.1.25-27)

The two words are actually connected more through sound and sense (that is, the sense of movement) than etymology, however, as the former (meaning "breathe" or "give out") traces back to Latin exhalare and the latter ("haul") from older European vernaculars.

The learning behind Marlowe's wordplay is evident as well in the puns early in Doctor Faustus on "graced," "profess," "commenced," and "breviated," all of which come from characters or figures of higher rank, and all of which point to either the place of Latin education or its fruits (Cho.16-17; 1.2-3; 3.10). Throughout his works, in fact, Marlowe appears to enjoy having his readers and audience members think about the background and components of words, as when Lancaster says "That villain Gaveston is made an earl" (E2, 2.11; punning on villain/villein in contrast to "earl"), or Edward "Proud Rome, that hatchest such imperiall grooms" (E2, 4.97; punning on "relating to empire" and "domineering, imperious"). Put more succinctly than the matter deserves, Marlowe's wordplay is often that of the schoolroom and study, and turns back to the dictionary more frequently than it opens up upon plot or subsequent speeches.

What does recognizing that Marlowe's wordplay tends to be more academic than Shakespeare's have to tell us about attribution in the early plays? Starting with 1 Henry VI, we might point out that Talbot's Pucelle/puzzel and Dolphin/dogfish line comes in 1.4, a scene of this play that scholars typically attribute to Shakespeare. As for 2 and 3 Henry VI, however, the attributions of the Segarra group give Marlowe a number of scenes featuring this same kind of wordplay on names. In 2 Henry VI, this includes the Maine/main passage in 1.1, and the Walter/water and Pole/pool passages in 4.1, although the latter scene immediately precedes 4.2 with its punning on main'd, Cade, and Lacies. It seems unlikely to us that two playwrights were responsible for this wordplay. The Segarra group likewise gives 4.7 to Marlowe, which features the pun on Lord Say/say (as well as prosaic puns on in capite and bills that seem less idiosyncratic). (32) The extended sallet passage occurs in 4.10, a scene universally attributed to Shakespeare. 3 Henry VI poses similar difficulties, for the Segarra group attributes 1.1, with Warwick's plant/Plantagenet pun to Marlowe, while the remainder of the wordplay we have identified (York in 1.4, March in 2.1, and leave in 3.2) occurs in scenes they attribute to Shakespeare. Given the textures of Shakespeare's punning on proper names, as well as the continuation of this particular conjunction later in 2 Henry VI, Shakespeare seems to us more likely than Marlowe to have written the Maine/main passage in 1.1, the water/Walter and Pole/pool puns in 1.4, and the plant I Plantagenet puns at the beginning of 3 Henry VI.

Such microstylistic analysis could be extended to some of the other early works. For example, Edward III and Arden of Faversham each possess a solidly Shakespearean core at the center of the play surrounded by various scenes of uncertain authorship. MacDonald P. Jackson, who has conducted the most extensive investigation of the authorship question in Arden of Faversham, suggests that Shakespeare wrote scenes 4 through 9, with the beginning (1-3) and end (10-18 and Epilogue) of the play of uncertain authorship. Several of the instances of wordplay we examined--including the right/left/left and Down/down conjunctions--take place in the middle scenes of the play that Jackson and others attribute to Shakespeare. But, as we saw, the left wordplay seems to have arisen in Shakespeare's reading, and first graces a passage that occurs earlier in the play, in scene 3. Likewise the mist/mystical and mist/missed conjunctions occur in 11 and 12, respectively, in scenes that fall after the middle section now widely attributed to Shakespeare. We would offer that such wordplay points to Shakespeare's hand across more than the middle section of Arden of Faversham: it is possible he wrote the whole play. On this, our analysis would dovetail with the conclusions of the Segarra group regarding Arden.

A wordplay cluster in Edward III offers similar usefulness for attribution study. In 3.2--a scene only recently attributed to Shakespeare--a Frenchman near a town besieged by the English notices that others are carrying their possessions, and asks one:
3 FRENCH CITIZEN....[W]herefore are ye laden thus with stuff?
What, is it quarter-day, that you remove,
And carry bag and baggage, too?

to which the burdened citizen replies:
1 FRENCH CITIZEN. Quarter-day, ay and quartering day, I fear.

The wordplay is on quarter-day as market day--during which citizens might be expected to carry goods--and quartering day as a day when one might be drawn and quartered by the enemy. The sardonic pun is in keeping with many we have examined, from Titus Andronicus through 3 Henry VI. What makes the word quarter significant here is its deployment, in Edward III, in multiple forms, from the two just examined to the French King's "The arms of England and of France unite / Are quart'red equally by herald's art" (3.1.75-76), the "quarters... squadrons, and... regiments" (4.4.50) invoked in a mathematical passage, and" quartering steel" (5.1.37) in a heroic metaphor. All of these are in scenes (and, in relation to 3.1, parts of scenes) attributed to Shakespeare, suggesting that quarter--like left and mist in Arden--functions as a kind of keyword whose interest to Shakespeare is confirmed by and through wordplay. In contrast, the arm/army wordplay in Edward III occurs in 4.7, a scene that the Segarra group attributes to Marlowe. We believe that the textures of this pun, as well as its links to the prophecy recorded in the Shakespearean 4.3, make it more likely to be Shakespeare's than Marlowe's. When viewed alongside the similar Maine/main and mist/mystical clusters, family resemblance implies single authorship. It is easier, in short, to believe that Shakespeare wrote these parts of these plays and continued this punning practice across his later canon than to imagine Marlowe become interested in and adept at punning this way only when writing with Shakespeare.


If Johnson's portrait is correct in its essentials--a Shakespeare addicted to wordplay, unable, throughout his career, to give it over--it neglects to appreciate the textures of that wordplay. As this essay has sought to demonstrate, wordplay is more than various golden apples rolling into Shakespeare's vision, distracting him from "some necessary question of the play" (Ham. 3.2.42-43). It is instead the framework on which, frequently, various actions, speeches, and scenes are constructed. In concluding that wordplay held a "malignant power over his mind," however, Johnson's observation admits what we would call a psychological dimension to wordplay, and one that transcends simple distraction. For instance, we have seen the sardonic--a kind of cool aggression--tingeing many instances of Shakespeare's wordplay. A partial inheritance from the Vice figure, it would be an orientation attached to Shakespeare's wordplay from Aaron to Autolycus, early to late in his career. For Shakespeare understood his relation to words as being complicated by their very malleability: if the world is so supple as to give way to linguistic redefinition, can a talented writer truly be satisfied with the results of his verbal opportunism? Or does wordplay carry within itself the very seeds of dissatisfaction, a payoff disappointing the successful investor through the very ease of acquisition? For Shakespeare, this game was easy to play. At the same time, he knew that plays aren't only about what is "necessary," that they are themselves games in which we admire the action of thought and language. And that the action has benefits beyond our delight. Puns uncover the hidden by insisting that a truth is already there, in language. Through his hallmark wordplay, Shakespeare both staged his relationship to language and extended it, making a name for himself as a writer by making the names of things, qualities, and actions participate in a theater of plural meanings.

University of Texas at Austin King's College London


(1) M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen & Co., 1957), 9.

(2) Samuel Johnson, "Preface" to The Plays of William Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes, with the Corrections and Illustrations of Various Commentators; To which are added Notes by Sam. Johnson (London: 1765), l:B3r.

(3) Here we might note that in Shakespeare's Language (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), Frank Kermode's first mention of wordplay comes in relation to The Merchant of Venice (71-72), and he goes on to claim, of Troilus and Cressida, that "This habit of serious wordplay... becomes much more evident after Hamlet" (127). Likewise, in the more recent Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare, David Crystal's discussion of punning moves from The Comedy of Errors through 1 Henry IV, Troilus and Cressida, and Much Ado About Nothing, while Scott F. Crider explores Shakespeare's wordplay by focusing solely on Twelfth Night. See The Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare, ed. Bruce R. Smith, 2 vols., Vol. 1: Shakespeare's World, 1500-1600 (Cambridge U. Press, 2016), 167, 231-32.

(4) See, in addition to Mahood, Patricia Parker's Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context (Stanford U. Press, 1996). Our research in this essay has also benefited from such earlier scholarship on wordplay as Leopold Wurth, Das Wortspeil bei Shakspere (Wein und Leipzig: W. Braumuller, 1895); Paul Nelle, Das wortspiel im englischen drama des 16. jahrhunderts vor Shakspere (Halle a. S.: Heinrich John, 1900); Robert Weimann, "Shakespeare's Wordplay: Popular Origins and Theatrical Functions," in Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson, eds., Shakespeare 1971 (U. of Toronto Press, 1972), 230-43; and Margreta de Grazia, "Homonyms before and after Lexical Standardization," Shakespeare Jahrbuch 127 (1990): 143-56.

(5) For the most recent statement on the chronology of Shakespeare's works, we have benefited from The New Oxford Shakespeare Authorship Companion, ed. Gary Taylor and Gabriel Egan (Oxford U. Press, 2017). See also Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson, eds., British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue, Vol. 3: 1590-1597 (Oxford U. Press, 2013).

(6) The phrase here is from Philip Sidney's Apology, quoted in Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (U. of California Press, 1981), 276.

(7) For discussion of stylistic and linguistic features commonly used to identify Shakespeare's authorship, see, among other works: Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays (Oxford U. Press, 2002); Ward E. Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza, "Oxford by the Numbers: What Are the Odds That the Earl of Oxford Could Have Written William Shakespeare's Poems and Plays?" Tennessee Law Review 72 (2004): 323-453; Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney, eds., Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship (Cambridge U. Press, 2009); MacDonald P. Jackson, Determining the Shakespeare Canon: Arden of Faversham' and 'A Lover's Complaint' (Oxford U. Press, 2014); and Darren Freebury-Jones, "Augean Stables; Or, the State of Modern Authorship Attribution Studies," in Archiv fuer das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 254.2 (2017): 1-22.

(8) F. P. Wilson, Shakespeare and the Diction of Common Life (London: H. Milford, 1941), 21.

(9) Text of Arden from Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, et al., eds., William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Throughout this essay, and for ease of understanding, we silently italicize wordplay in the body of our text, holding it within block quotations and occasionally using underline to call out paired words.

(10) Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles, 2nd ed. (London: 1586), 1064.

(11) It should be pointed out that the Holinshed passage providing this material underscores further wordplay in Arden. In another instance of sardonic punning in a moment of anxiety, that is, Michael plays on the double sense of "long home" as death and "holme" as island: "So, fair weather after you: / For before you lies Black Will and Shakebag / In the broom close, too close for you. / They'll be your ferrymen to long home" (10.45-48) (cf. OED holm/holme n. (1) II.2). On this cluster of wordplay, see M. L. Wine, ed. Arden of Faversham (London: Methuen, 1973), note to 10.45, citing MacDonald P. Jackson's unpublished B.Litt. thesis, "Material for an Edition of Arden of Faversham" (Oxford, 1963), 175. We are indebted to an anonymous reader at this journal for bringing this insight to our attention.

(12) See Richard Proudfoot and Nicola Bennett, eds., Introduction to King Edward III (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2017), 52. If Shakespeare did not write this entire scene, perhaps he revised a passage originally penned by a different author.

(13) For the textual situation of 2 Henry VI, as well as discussion of its genesis and revision, see Gary Taylor and Rory Loughnane, "The Canon and Chronology of Shakespeare's Works," in Taylor and Egan, eds. The New Oxford Shakespeare Authorship Companion, 493-96; and Wiggins and Richardson, British Drama 1533-1642, 3:92-103.

(14) See Santiago Segarra, "Word Adjacency Networks for Authorship Attribution: Solving Shakespearean Controversies," (thesis, U. of Pennsylvania, 2014); Santiago Segarra, Mark Eisen, Gabriel Egan, and Alejandro Ribeiro, "Attributing the Authorship of the Henry VI Plays by Word Adjacency," Shakespeare Quarterly 67 (2016): 232-56; and Mark Eisen, Santiago Segarra, Gabriel Egan, and Alejandro Ribeiro, "Stylometric Analysis of Early Modern Period English Plays,"

(15) For examples of interpretations shaped by theories of original pronunciation, see David Crystal, Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), esp. 144-54; and Andrew Hadfield, "How to Read Nashe's 'Brightness Falls from the Air"' Forum for Modern Language Studies 51.3 (2015): 239-47.

(16) In various ways, each of the seven plays examined in this essay poses difficulties in relation to attribution or chronology; many of them trouble both categories. Our survey of homographs began with the assumption of full Shakespearean authorship for the sonnets, The Taming of the Shrew, and 2 and 3 Henry VI. We acknowledge that attribution of Arden of Faversham and Edward III is disputed. We accept the assignment of Titus Andronicus 1.1 to Peele, and of 1 Henry VI, 1.2-1.4, 2.1-3.1, 3.3, 4.1, 4.3-4.7, 5.3-5.5 to Shakespeare. For further reading on attribution, see notes 7 and 13 above.

(17) Research into homographs, polysemy, and ambiguity has been a fruitful subfield of linguistics and psychology. Useful essays include Leslie C. Twilley, Peter Dixon, Dean Taylor, and Karen Clark, "University of Alberta Norms of Relative Meaning Frequency for 566 Homographs," Memory & Cognition 22.1 (1994): 111-26; Lawrence R. Gottlob, Stephen D. Goldinger, Gregory O. Stone, and Guy C. Van Orden, "Reading Homographs: Orthographic, Phonologic, and Semantic Dynamics," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 25.2 (1999): 561-74; and Jennifer Rodd, Gareth Gaskell, and William Marslen-Wilson, "Making Sense of Semantic Ambiguity: Semantic Competition in Lexical Access," Journal of Memory and Language 46 (2002): 245-66.

(18) Long ago Walter Whiter noted, as preface to his argument about the "association of ideas" in Shakespeare, that "Certain terms containing an equivocal meaning, or sounds suggesting such a meaning, will often serve to introduce other words and expressions of a similar nature." See Whiter, A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare, ed. Alan Over, completed by Mary Bell (1794; London: Methuen & Co., 1967), 64. Throughout his commentary, Whiter was intent on separating conscious from unconscious quibbling: the former are sought by Shakespeare with "ardour," the latter are engaged when Shakespeare failed to avoid "the association arising from the same sound bearing an equivocal sense" (see 73 and note).

(19) For an argument that Thomas Middleton, rather than Shakespeare, wrote this scene, see Gary Taylor and Doug Duhaime, "Who Wrote the Fly Scene (3.2) in Titus Andronicus?: Automated Searches and Deep Reading," in The New Oxford Shakespeare Authorship Companion, 67-91.

(20) That such may have influenced Holinshed can be seen in the following: "Arden being redie to go homewards, his maid came to Greene & said; This night will my maister go downe. Whervpon it was agreed that black Will should kill him on Reinam downe" (1064). On the concept of "priming" in linguistics, see Michael Hoey, Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language (Stroud: Taylor & Francis, 2005).

(21) On such associative clusters, see Whiter in note 18, above. Usually, credit for expanding on Whiter's ideas is given to Edward A. Armstrong; see his Shakespeare's Imagination: A Study of the Psychology of Association and Inspiration, rev. ed. (U. of Nebraska Press, 1963). But, as Armstrong himself acknowledged, he was preceded in this by Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 191-99, who spoke, in her study, of "groups of ideas which recur together" (191), and "linked ideas" (192), as well as using the terms "set," "series," (195) and "sequence" (197).

(22) See Laurie E. Maguire, Shakespeare's Names (Oxford U. Press, 2007). Noting that "names matter; and names are matter--material entities capable of assuming lives and voices of their own," Maguire explores the recurrent, "slippery overlap between proper name and common noun' in Shakespeare's works (4, 25).

(23) Maguire reminds us that "each of the mechanicals in Midsummer has a name that puns upon their trade" (Shakespeare's Names, 89), a formation that flags the historical origin of surnames in occupations. On this phenomenon, see Carl Gersuny, "Occupations, Occupational Surnames, and the Development of Society," Journal of Popular Culture 8.1 (1974): 99-106.

(24) Other instances of punning on "more" include Marcus's gloss on Lavinia's pantomime: "I think she means that there were more than one / Confederate in the fact; ay, more there was" (4.1.38-39). The name Tamora may have links to biblical Tamars in Genesis 38:1-24, and 2 Samuel 13, 14, as well as to the name Tomyris (a Scythian queen), mentioned in I Henry VI (2.1.6).

(25) See Gersuny, "Occupations," in note 23 above.

(26) On the "Vilia-m" wordplay in the Venus and Adonis epigraph, see Anne Lecercle, "Ombres et nombres: Le parergon dans Venus and Adonis" in Jean-Marie Maguin and Charles Whitworth, eds. William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis: Nouvelles perspectives critiques (Montpellier: Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches sur la Renaissance Anglaise, Universite Paul-Valery-Montpellier III, 1999), 57-83. Such playful self-invocation marks other of Shakespeare's works at this stage of his career. As the research of MacDonald P. Jackson suggests, the sonnets that famously pun on "Will" (135, 136) and "Hathaway" (i.e., "hate away," 146 line 13) were most likely composed near this time. See Jackson, "Vocabulary and Chronology: The Case of Shakespeare's Sonnets," Review of English Studies 52 (2001): 59-75.

(27) On italicization in the sonnets, see G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Sonnets (New Cambridge Shakespeare), rev. ed. (Cambridge U. Press, 2013), 265 ("The Use of Italics in Q"), and 237-38, esp. the headnote to Sonnet 135.

(28) See Joel Fineman, "Shakespeare's 'Perjur'd Eye"' Representations 7 (1984): 59-86, later expanded in Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (U. of California Press, 1986).

(29) See Andrew Gurr, "Shakespeare's First Poem, 'Sonnet 145,"' Essays in Criticism 21 (1971): 221-26.

(30) On Shakespeare's "self-concealing" artifice in the Achilles stanza, see Patrick Cheney, Shakespeare's Literary Authorship (Cambridge U. Press, 2008), esp. 26-34.

(31) An attempt to grapple with Marlowe's wordplay might begin with Clifford Leech's essay, "Marlowe's Humor," in Leech, ed., Marlowe: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1964), 167-78. Taking up "the variety of Marlowe's humor, and its high degree of integration with the fabric of his writing," Leech concludes that Hero and Leander is "a major comic poem" (178). Perhaps appropriately, then, what remains the most insightful treatment of Marlowe's polysemy focuses on this very text. See Stephen Booth, "On the Eventfulness of Hero and Leander" in Sarah K. Scott and Michael L. Stapleton, eds., Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman: Lives, Stage, and Page (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2010), 125-36.

(32) Another suggestive detail is the nonce-word "fly-blown" at 4.7.76, for Joan's utterance may continue the play's numerous "fly" references in the Talbot scenes just prior: beginning with the end of 4.4, 1H6 uses the verb "fly" 13 times across 4.4-6 in fairly close succession.
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Author:Bruster, Douglas; McKeown, Nell
Publication:Philological Quarterly
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Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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