No better source for pun than the Bard

As I complete the second year of writing this column (I know. I can’t believe I got that far either), I sometimes think back to some of the sources I used during that time, like Merriam – Webster Dictionaries and Strunk and White’s little gem “The Elements of Style”.

One source whose number of contributions surprised me is William Shakespeare, whose three witches (Weird Sisters) from “Macbeth” were mentioned in the very first column to warn you of some of the strange words you might encounter here (and I hope I didn’t disappoint you). So join me, will you, as I take a look at the bard’s contributions to my endeavors. (I promise there will be no test at the end.)

His second appearance here came when I wrote about censorship. At that time I mentioned how the English physician Thomas Bowdler and his sisters, Henrietta and Jane, had published “The Family Shakespeare”, a “fig leaf” version of his works which omitted words and passages “which do not can suitably be read aloud in a family.”

Among other things, the trio changed Ophelia’s cause of death in “Hamlet” from suicide to drowning, and transformed Lady Macbeth’s famous line “Out, damned spot!” to a more family-friendly “Out, crimson spot”!

When I broached the subject of overcorrection, I borrowed: “But sweet! What light through this window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”, from “Romeo and Juliet”. It was to make it clear that if little words were good enough for the bard, then they should be good enough for the rest of us.

In the play, Shakespeare also shows that he is not above making a bad pun. When Romeo tells the wounded Mercutio that it can’t be that bad, the mortally wounded man replies, “That’s enough, it’ll do.” Ask me tomorrow and, and you will find me a serious man.

Nor was Shakespeare averse to using long words. When I wrote about them, I mentioned his creation of “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” which refers to the state of being able to obtain honors. Spoken only once by Costard in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, it is the longest word the bard has used in any of his works.

I revisited “Romeo and Juliet” when I wrote about my old army knowledge, the phonetic alphabet, pointing out that star-crossed lovers’ names were used to ensure that the letters “R” and “J ” were clearly understood when communicating by radio.

While the phonetic alphabet is still used by the brave members of our military, not all of Shakespeare’s words have stood the test of time. Some of them, I noted, even became what are called “fossil words”, which are words that are no longer used today. In ‘Hamlet’ he tells of a bomb-maker being ‘hoisted up by his own firecracker’ (hurt by his own efforts), while in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ he talks of two people ‘at loggerheads’ (involved in a quarrel).

In “Henry VI”, Shakespeare has a character who describes the English as “brainless” slaves, whereas today the insult is spelled “brainless”, due, no doubt, to the erratic behavior of the hare.

And finally, in my article on malapropisms, I was able to use a line of “Much Ado About Nothing” uttered by Prominent Agent Dogberry, who reported: “Our watch, sir, did indeed include two people from auspicious”, which is not quite tied, I think, as having apprehended two suspicious people.

You did it, you read a whole column on Shakespeare without having to look up the Cliffs Notes once.

Lewiston’s Jim Witherell is a writer and lover of words whose works include ‘LL Bean: The Man and His Company’ and ‘Ed Muskie: Made in Maine’. He can be reached at [email protected]


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