Language as a weapon

The power of speech

Shakespeare makes us aware throughout Measure for Measure that words are powerful:

  • Claudio hopes that Isabella will be able to save him because she has,
‘prosperous art
When she will play with reason and discourse,
And well she can persuade.'

(He himself receives some of her powerful invective in Act III sc i when he fails to accept his imminent death.)

  • Pompey shows us in Act II sc i how words can be manipulated, as he tries to out-manoeuvre Angelo and Escalus. Angelo soon tires of being led in circles by the loquacious Pompey and leaves, remarking:
‘This will last out a night in Russia, When nights are longest there.'
‘My wife, whom I detest before heaven and earth'

(he means ‘protest') and that Pompey and Froth are ‘benefactors' when he means ‘malefactors' (criminals).

  • Lucio uses words as weapons to attack others' characters, particularly the Duke, who is only too well aware that Lucio is lying when he slanders the Duke in Act III sc ii:
You speak unskilfully: or, if your knowledge be more, it is much darkened by your malice … Love talks with better knowledge.
  • As the Duke comments bitterly in Act III sc ii, those in positions of power are often subject to malicious slanders:
No might nor greatness in mortality
Can censure ‘scape. Back-wounding calumny
The whitest virtue strikes. What king so strong
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?

He certainly has difficulty in ‘tying up' the tongue of Lucio in Act V, where Lucio, being told, 

‘You were not bid to speak
‘Nor wish'd to hold my peace.'


Both in real life and in drama, not all speech is addressed to someone else: it is possible to talk to oneself. In drama this process is called soliloquy from the Latin ‘solus' (alone) and ‘loquor' (to speak). However, on stage this ‘thinking aloud' is overheard by the audience, giving us an insight into the mental processes of characters. Sometimes theatre directors feel that it is a useful and convincing device for the character to speak straight to the audience, as if aware of their presence and wishing to share his or her thoughts with them. This is often done, for example, at the start of Shakespeare's Richard III, where the devious Richard makes the audience his accomplices, telling them exactly what he plans to do:

I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous …
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other …

In Measure for Measure, it is unlikely that any of the soliloquies from Angelo, the Duke or Isabella would be played as if directed to the audience, but it is important to be aware when Shakespeare chooses to use soliloquy and what effect this has.


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, where they pun on ‘crown' as a coin and on a bald head, and ‘dollar' as a coin and ‘dolour' meaning ‘misery'

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 Themes and significant ideas: Money and materialism; Coinage and forgery) 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.

More on malapropisms: 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 – but there is a serious point here, which is summed up by Escalus's frustrated remark:

‘Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?'

The apparent inability of the law, represented by such an inept officer as Elbow, to deal with such men as Pompey betrays the corruption existing in Vienna – and also reflects ironically on the hypocrisy which allows a judge such as Angelo to preside over cases of corruption and sexual misconduct.

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