Shakespearean scholars have identified upwards of 175 instances of puns and wordplay throughout the text of Romeo and Juliet. Though the play is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, there is no shortage of comic relief throughout the action—and the play’s comedy often comes from Shakespeare’s free dispensation of double entendre, homonyms, puns, and sexually explicit twists of phrase. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses language and wordplay to radical ends: language is a tool of rebellion, and in allowing his characters to rebel against formality, honor, and the status quo through the things they say to one another, he suggests that language is an eternal means of freedom. Even when one is trapped behind a high orchard wall, bound by the cloth of religion, or stuck in an immobile social station, Shakespeare argues, language is humanity’s great equalizer, and allows those constrained by circumstance to experience a different kind of freedom.
Language and wordplay are, in the world of Romeo and Juliet, not just for the wealthy leisure class—the servants, musicians, and other tertiary members of the noble clans of Montague and Capulet are the primary pun-makers throughout the play. Extended bouts of ribaldry, punning, and plays on words (often featuring sexually explicit double entendre) dominate the first half of the play. Gregory and Sampson, two men of the house of Capulet, trade insults with Abraham and Benvolio, men of the house of Montague, leading the two clans to brawl in the street. Mercutio and Romeo trade sexually tinged barbs about being “rough with love.” Juliet’s nurse, in trying to remember Juliet’s age, launches into an inappropriate yet comical reverie about her late husband’s crude remarks concerning Juliet’s sexual coming-of-age. A Capulet servingman, Peter, jokes with a group of musicians who have come to play at Juliet and Paris’s wedding only to realize they’re out of a job when Juliet is found dead—until Peter suggests they play at her funeral instead. Mercutio’s rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness pun-making is contrasted against the nurse’s rambling, embarrassing, and all-too-possibly accidental reminiscences, while the sneaky, sly insults traded by the younger, lesser members of the houses of Montague and Capulet are designed to offend while just barely toeing the line of what’s acceptable to say in order to transgress without causing actual bloodshed.
As Shakespeare revels in the plays countless twists of the tongue, designing verbal fencing-matches for his noble and common characters alike, his purpose in so doing becomes clear. Juliet’s nurse, a common woman who has been forced to give up her duties to her own family in order to serve the Capulets, has just as quick a tongue as a nobleman of house Montague. Peter, a lowly and put-upon servingman, uses his wits—unappreciated and overlooked by his haughty, self-concerned employers—to wheedle favors out of a group of musicians. Romeo and Benvolio, friends and kinsman since a time before they can even remember, make boyish quips in an attempt to keep up with their fleet-tongued friend Mercutio, whose rambling, dense, sexually provocative jokes and stories unite his friends and family even in times of danger and social tumult. Language, Shakespeare posits through all of these master jokesters, is a force for equality in places of unfairly stratified social orders—a way of creating joy and levity in times of darkness. It is the means by which men and women of all backgrounds, ages, and social, sexual, and political leanings can connect over a good laugh. Language is humanity’s equalizer, and a means of asserting one’s freedom, autonomy, and nonconformity even in the face of the most rigid, unforgiving social structures.
Ultimately, Shakespeare uses language and wordplay to even the playing field, so to speak, for his characters, and even out their disparate social backgrounds. In so doing, he suggests that language and humor are ways for individuals from every social stratum to come together. Though the nobility of Shakespeare’s day may have kept wealth and power consolidated amongst themselves, Shakespeare acknowledges that there are other kinds of social currency that are important, too—and argues that language is a means of honoring street-smarts, cunning, and wit, even if the tongue cracking the jokes is not a noble one at all.
Language and Wordplay ThemeTracker
Language and Wordplay Quotes in Romeo and Juliet
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson: I do bite my thumb, sir.
Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson (to Gregory): Is the law of our side if I say ay?
Sampson: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you sir; but I bite my thumb, sir.
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; —
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title: — Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Romeo: Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.
Mercutio: No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
Come, gentle night, — come, loving black brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo; and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of Heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.
Believe me love, it was the nightingale.