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date: 13 November 2019

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that Shakespeare’s wordplay is integral to his communication of ideas in audible and/or visual signs that must be interpreted by a reader or audience member. The essay builds on and counters Samuel Johnson’s famous critique of Shakespearean ‘quibbles’ as excessive deviations from a proper communicative path. Shakespeare’s theory and practice of wordplay does not accept the Johnsonian view that a word has a single or even a predominant ‘proper’ meaning. Paradoxically marked both by a concern for ‘measure’ (in syllable or line counting) and by a tendency toward transgression of rules, Shakespeare’s interest in ‘numbers’—a figure for poetry in metrical forms—shows his awareness of wordplay as a game requiring at least three players: a historically situated writer, a text (in Shakespeare’s case, usually an unstable one); and an interpreter. Key examples of wordplay come from As You Like It,Love’s Labours Lost, and the Sonnets, particularly 135, which plays on the word ‘will’ in ways some have found excessive.

Keywords: wordplay, numbers, rhetorical figures, will, measure, pun

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