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Fire-new words

Shakespeare is renowned for his puns*, particularly in his comedies. English had only recently become the language in which the well-educated expressed themselves*. It was "fire-new" (a metaphor taken from the art of the blacksmith) and offered writers a wonderful opportunity to play with words.

In Love's Labour's Lost, Don Armado is a knight who loves words. He is writing to the young King of Navarre reporting a law-breaker:

Great deputy, the welkin's vice-regent, and sole dominator of nature. . . So it is, beseiged with sable-coloured melancholy, I did commend the black-oppressing humour to the most wholesome physic of thy health-giving air. . . Where . . . I did encounter that obscene and most preposterous event, that draweth from my snow-white pen the ebon-coloured ink, which here thou viewest, beholdest, surveyest, or see'st.
(1.1.218-43)

What on earth is he talking about?

Don Armado is actually reporting that he has seen a servant with a young woman. Much of this early comedy parodies (and delights in) excesses in language, from the Latinate pompousness of school teachers* to the lovelorn Petrarchan sonnets* of the young lords.

Small wonder that at one stage the page Moth remarks that "They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol'n the scraps" (5.1.37-38).

Click here to read about lost* puns, or here to read about inventive* uses for words.

Footnotes

  1. Shakespeare's Cleopatra

    Samuel Johnson would later call this penchant for punning "the fatal Cleopatra for which [Shakespeare] lost the world, and was content to lose it."

  2. The old standard

    Latin had previously been the language of both Church and State. Click for more on the development of literary English.

  3. Too thrasonical and peregrinate

    The schoolmaster Holofernes criticizes Don Armado, in language just as absurd: Armado's "humour is lofty, his discourse peremptory, his tongue filed, his eye ambitions, his gait majestical, and his general behaviour vain, ridiculous, and thrasonical. He is too picked, to spruce, to affected, too odd, as it were, too peregrinate, as I may call it."

    (Love's Labour's Lost, 5.1.9-14)

    • humour: mood
    • peremptory: emphatic
    • filed: polished (as a blade is filed to sharpen it)
    • thrasonical: dramatic, boastful
    • peregrinate: travelled or foreign
  4. Sonneteering

    Each of the four young lords pens a love sonnet, very much in the Petrarchan mode:

    So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not
    To those fresh morning drops upon the rose,
    As thy eye-beams when their fresh rays have smote
    The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows. . . .
    (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.24-27)

    Shakespeare mocks the lovers in much the same way that some of his own sonnets mock the Petrarchan tradition--notably sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun").

    Listen to Sonnet 130:

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  5. Endangered puns

    Puns are dependent on the fact that words with different meanings happen to be pronounced alike. But what if pronunciation changes?--as it has since Shakespeare lived. (And of course it varies in different parts of the world today.)

    Listen to some puns that are lost to the modern ear.

  6. "The dark backward"

    The structure of Shakespeare's language was profoundly affected by the developments of Middle English, in which inflectional endings (endings which signified a word's grammatical function) largely disappeared. As a result, writers were able to invent new uses for words.

    Shakepeare will often use a noun as a verb, or an adjective as a noun. In The Merry Wives Of Windsor Shakespeare actually parodies this technique as he allows Evans to say "I will description the matter to you" (1.1.196). But he uses it throughout the plays, as in Caesar's "The wild disguise has almost anticked us all" (where the noun "antic" (a fool) is used as a verb -- Antony and Cleopatra 2.7.122-23) or Prospero's "the dark backward and abysm of time" ("Backward" is used as a noun, instead of performing its usual adverbial function -- The Tempest 1.2.50). The influence of foreign words also made this technique possible.

    The massive flow of foreign vocabulary into the English language during the sixteenth century created a multitude of variations for nearly every word. Shakespeare used this expanded vocabulary to make his language both more precise and more evocative. He could use a word for both its literal meaning and its suggestive value.

    In Love's Labour's Lost Berowne's ingenious comment, "Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile" (1.1.77), plays upon four different senses of "light" (respectively, "intellect," "wisdom," "eyesight" and "daylight").