Language in action


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 The Winter's Tale it is unlikely that any of the soliloquies from Leontes would be played as if directed to the audience; Leontes' soliloquies in the first two Acts are self-engrossed, showing his mental turmoil
  • However, Autolycus almost certainly speaks directly to the audience when, in Act IV, sc ii, he describes his past life and his trickery, and gloats as he sees the ‘Clown' (the young shepherd) approach:
I have served Prince Florizel … My traffic is sheets … With die and drab I purchased this caparison ... A prize! A prize!

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 multiple meanings of a word or words – whether it is a homograph (that is, a word that is spelt the same as another but with more than one meaning, as in ‘bear' or ‘sole') or a homophone (where words sound the same although they are spelt differently – e.g. ‘knight' and ‘night' or ‘threw' and ‘through' - though this cannot be discerned in spoken texts).

In real life, puns are often used for humour, but in The Winter's Tale the most signifcant puns are sinister, directing our attention to Leontes' state of mind:


For example, in I. ii. Leontes puns on the word ‘play', which should have connotations of childhood innocence; however, Leontes sees Hermione's conversation with Polixenes as illicit amorous play, and himself as playing a part – pretending to be friendly when he is in reality a deceived husband.

Grace / disgrace

Leontes adds that he is playing ‘So disgrac'd a part' ; Leontes means that he is a cuckold – a man whose wife has deceived him. This would only be true if Hermione had behaved disgracefully, but in fact his comment is an unintentional pun: is he who is dis-graced – that is, lacking grace – which will only be restored when he has fully repented.


Later Leontes uses a grim pun when he tells Camillo that if his servants could see, as Leontes feels he himself does, the truth about Polixenes, such a servant would ‘give mine enemy a lasting winkl' – that is, shut his eyes for good (by killing him).


However, one of the most moving lines of the play is also a pun – where the grief-stricken Leontes, realising what he has done (at the end of Act III scene ii) asks to be taken to the chapel where his dead queen and son are lying: ‘Tears shed there shall be my recreation', he says. ‘Recreation' might normally mean ‘amusement', ‘entertainment' but in giving Leontes this word, Shakespeare uses a pun to evoke a much deeper meaning: Leontes will be ‘re-created' – made new – through penitence and redemption.

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