A particular use of language which shows us how words and their meanings can be used to manipulate the listener is the device called a ‘pun'. This means a play on the dual meaning of a word or words:

  • A homograph is a word that is spelt the same as another but with more than one meaning, as in ‘bow' or ‘sole'.

  • A homophone is where words sound the same although they are spelt differently – e.g. ‘knight' and ‘night' or ‘threw' and ‘through'.

Comic puns

Often puns are used for humour; for example:

  • The coarse and joking conversation between Lucio and his friends in Act I sc ii of Measure for Measure, where they pun on ‘crown' as a coin and on a bald head, and ‘dollar' as a coin and ‘dolour' meaning ‘misery'

In the same play, Pompey also deliberately uses coarse puns or ‘double entendres' (literally, 'double meanings') in Act II sc i to mock the law; for example:

  • When he speaks of ‘stewed prunes': a ‘stew' could mean a brothel

  • His comment that the widow he works for has had nine husbands and was ‘Overdone by the last' is also a comic pun.

Puns and double standards

Throughout Measure for Measure there are puns with a more serious import, directing our attention to important aspects of the play. For example:

  • Angelo's name is linked to that of a coin, an ‘angel' (see also Imagery and symbolism: Money and materialism) and his ‘mettle' – his character – is compared to the ‘metal' from which a coin is created.

  • Isabella's role as a ‘sister' – meaning ‘a nun' – is set beside her relationship as a sister to Claudio.

  • There is a pun on the idea of ‘habit' as a custom of behaviour and the ‘habit' or robe of a friar – for example the Duke in Act I sc iii asks Friar Thomas to,

‘supply me with the habit and instruct me
How I may formally in person bear
Like a true friar'
  • Angelo uses the same pun in Act II sc iv when he comments on the outside appearance and behaviour of people in power, which can

‘with thy … habit wrench awe from fools.'

By using puns, Shakespeare asks the audience to think further about dual standards.


Another way in which a play on words can have a significant effect is through the use of malapropisms. This is where a character unwittingly chooses the wrong word, selecting one that sounds similar to the right one.

Although Shakespeare used malapropisms in several of his plays, the term was not coined until the eighteenth century, when the name derived from Mrs Malaprop, a character in the play ‘The Rivals' by Sheridan. ‘Malaprop' comes form ‘mal à propos' – the French for ‘inappropriate'.

The character in Measure for Measure who frequently uses malapropisms is the constable Elbow. Throughout his attempt in Act II sc i to get Pompey jailed, he betrays his ignorance:

  • Claiming that Pompey is ‘respected' when he means ‘suspected'

  • That Pompey is a ‘benefactor' (doer of good deeds) when he means ‘malefactor' (criminal).

Elbow's mistakes add humour to the play, and the audience enjoys seeing him being misled by Pompey.

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