Archive for Wordplay

Words Are But Wind

Posted in The Comedy of Errors with tags , on 2014/02/10 by mattermind

The Comedy of Errors, Act III

Deft and prolific wordplay is one of the quintessential qualities setting Shakespeare apart from other playwrights –  and The Comedy of Errors proves that he had the knack from the beginning.  One wonders how and where he acquired it, this love of multiple meanings and double entendres, especially those of a comedic or erotic nature.  Might it have begun with the pranks of a bored schoolboy struggling to get through the tedium of endless Latin lessons?

At any rate, Shakespeare does not hesitate at the lengths he will go to keep his audience entertained.  Take this passage, for instance, when Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus wish to return home for dinner, only to be locked out by the duteous (and unknowing) Dromio of Saracuse:

ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS: Go, fetch me something; I’ll break open the gate.

DROMIO OF SARACUSE (within): Break any breaking here, and I’ll break your knave’s pate.

DROMIO OF EPHESUS: A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind.
Ay, and break it in your face, so break it not behind.

DROMIO OF SARACUSE (within): It seems thou want’st breaking. Out upon thee, hind!

Character doublings and trebblings in The Comedy of Errors are but metaphors for the multivalent meanings that Shakespeare set against each other here and the rest of his works.

It’s fascinating to see him doing this in the Comedy, especially since it is commonly dated as his earliest play.  Surely Shakespeare must have enjoyed an apprenticeship of some sort to achieve this kind of mastery from the start.

Again we see Shakespeare reveling in witty banter when he has Dromio of Saracuse describe a kitchen servant who claims him to be her own.  Her circumference is said to be so great that her body can be taken for a globe, upon which can be identified distinct countries.  Antipholus demands specifics, asking him in turn where Ireland, Scotland, Spain and the “Netherlands” may be found.

Such passages highlight how Shakespeare alternates between highbrow concepts and lowbrow humor, sometimes within the span of a single dialogue.  One minute he can be as brazen and cheeky as an Irish limerick, the next have Antipholus of Saracuse say to Luciana:

ANTIPHOLUS OF SARACUSE: O train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note

To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears.

Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote.

Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs,

And as a bed I’ll take them and there lie,

And in that glorious supposition think

He gains by death that hath such means to die.

Let love, being light, be drowned if she sink.

Has anybody besides James Joyce ever displayed such a wingspan, reveling in lowly sophomoric puns and pranks only to soar to lofty heights of linguistic expression when he went a-wooing?


Villain, What Hast Thou Done?

Posted in Titus Andronicus, Wordplay with tags , , , , , , , on 2014/01/17 by mattermind

Titus Andronicus, Act IV

I’d like to step back from the revenge frenzy to dwell for a moment on one of the things I love most about Shakespeare: his fondness for wordplay.

In Othello, characters toy with the word “think” – a metaphor for the speculation all people must engage in when evaluating the motives of others.  Such banter permeates the play, but one particular exchange between Othello and Iago exaggerates the point as if Shakespeare were knocking us over the head to assure we get the message.

In Titus, a tale of dreadful tragedy and murderous revenge, the setting does not discourage Shakespeare from once again demonstrating his pyrotechnical gifts with language.  My favorite exchange occurs in Act IV, a saucy back-and-forth between Aaron, Demetrius and Chiron that hinges on the multiple definitions of the verb “to do.”

DEMETRIUS: Villain, what hast thou done?

AARON: That which thou canst not undo.

CHIRON: Thou hast undone our mother.

AARON: Villain, I have done thy mother.

DEMETRIUS: And therein, hellish dog, thou hast undone her.

Aaron freely confesses that he has slept with Tamora, who has borne him a black child. This fact, of course, cannot be “undone.”  While at the same time, to “do” somebody is to, well, you know.

The subtlety of language goes further though, because “undoing” somebody also implies to undress them.  Or to sabotage them.  And to undress and to sabotage add their own shadings and complexities.

Thus, we can do something, undo something, do someone, do something to someone that can’t be undone, undo a dress, undo a queen, and on and on and on.

Listening to Shakespeare’s wordplay at times gives me the sensation I’m hearing a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach.  To match these towering geniuses of musicality would be asynchronous, since Shakespeare died in 1616 and Bach in 1750.

More fitting perhaps to choose a Renaissance composer such as Palestrina (1525-1594) .  But even Palestrina’s mellifluous polyphony (that alone bespeaks his music’s beauty) can’t match how multi-directional, multi-valent and manifold Shakespeare’s harmonies are.

Here’s a stunning example of Palestrina:



Yet a key composer even closer to Shakespeare’s age like Monteverdi (1567-1643) might be more in keeping still.   Listen for yourself:

With a timeless master like Shakespeare, it’s easy to forget that he was born and lived within a historical age and setting. Just as when we listen to Mozart or stare at a painting by Monet, our thoughts lift skyward toward the timeless, engaging in the Great Conversation that underlies all art since the beginning.

And yet we are all marked to some degree by the age in which we live.  Shakespeare didn’t watch television, fly in an airplane, talk on a cell phone or go online.  To what extent was he influenced by the artists and events surrounding him?  How was he able to break free from the fetters that have bound most works by his contemporaries and to achieve immortality?

This weekend I shall make headway in two Shakespeare biographies: Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare: the Biography by Peter Ackroyd in the hopes of learning more.