You’re a Punny Guy with Those Rhymes: Language and Wordplay, Part One

For the sheer amount of different uses of language, Love’s Labor’s Lost marks a departure from Shakespeare’s earlier works.  While we have seen some wordplay before (answering rhyme, antilabes, and rhetoric) before, never before have we seen such sheer volume.  Over a third of the play is in prose (the former champ Taming had just over a fifth), and of the remaining poetic lines, nearly TWO-THIRDS rhyme (the former champ was Comedy which had just under a quarter).  But beyond simple prose vs. verse, unrhymed vs. rhymed, we have HOW the language is employed.

Here are but a few…


When a speaker (or writer) employs a pun, he is counting on the audience (whether within the play or without) to be listening, and to play with the different meanings of the similarly sounding words.  A classic example is in the play’s very first scene, with constable Dull’s arrival with Costard and the letter from Armado.  Berowne asks what the matter (subject) of the letter is, and Costard responds:

The matter is to me, sir, as concerning Jaquenetta. The manner of it is, I was taken with the manner.

In what manner?

In manner and form following, sir; all those three: I was seen with her in the manor-house, sitting with her upon the form, and taken following her into the park; which, put together, is "in manner and form following." Now, sir, for the manner, it is the manner of a man to speak to a woman.

— I.i.197-206

Costard plays with the words “manner,” “manor,” and “mainour”:  The “nature” of the matter is that I was taken with the stolen item (“mainour”… all definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).  Berowne, that master of words, goes along with the river of meanings: In what way?  And then Costard, knowing he has a kindred spirit with which to play, unleashes a masterpiece: In the (il)legal way (“manner and form” was used many legal documents, such as wills), sir; I was seen with her in the “mansion”

and any Freudian tangent you want to go on… go right ahead, I’ll wait here

… and sitting with her on the “window-frame” (though an additional meaning of “form” is “liveliness”… and you can see how that might be taken in a bawdy direction), and taken following her into the park

and any bush allusions you’d like to make, like I said, go right ahead

… which when you take all three together, is the legal way of looking at it (he knows he’s broken the law… of course, “in the mainour” also meant caught “in the act of doing something unlawful, ‘in flagrante delicto'”).  Now, sir, for how I was doing it, it was in the way a man converses with a woman.

and of course, it would not be out of the question to add to the possible puns here: to “man” her… the verb “man” having meanings including “to escort,” “to furnish with a rider,” and “to fill up with men”

Another example comes during the French party’s hunt. The Princess asks her forester guide where they should stand to hunt the deer.  The forester responds,

Hereby, upon the edge of yonder coppice;
A stand where you may make the fairest shoot.

I thank my beauty, I am fair that shoot,
And thereupon thou speak'st the fairest shoot.

Pardon me, madam, for I meant not so.

What, what? first praise me and again say no?
O short-lived pride! Not fair? alack for woe!

— IV.i.9-15

The forester tells her that there is a position where she may take the best shot. Of course, she turns the meaning of his “fairest shoot” from the shot that is best to something completely different: the place from where she should make the most beautiful of the women shoot, but only after thanking him for the compliment of calling her “fair.”  When he then tries to tell her that she has misinterpreted him, she toys with him further saying now that he has taken away from her the praise (of her beauty) that he had recently given her.

A third example comes from the final scene, as Moth is reading a poem of praise from the Muscovites to the women:

Once to behold with your sun-beamed eyes,
--with your sun-beamed eyes--

They will not answer to that epithet;
You were best call it 'daughter-beamed eyes.'

— V.ii.169-173

Here, Boyet puns on the “sun” which is heard as “son” (the male), and he says that Moth needs to compare their eyes not to the male child, but to the female instead (“daughter”).

We hear Shakespeare (and his characters) playing with the sounds of words, as well, to subtly convey meaning.  In the midst of the post-hunt bawdy-fest, Maria and Boyet trade commentaries:

A mark marvelous well shot, for they both did hit it.

A mark! O, mark but that mark! A mark, says my lady!
Let the mark have a prick in't, to mete at, if it may be.

— IV.i.131-133

The repeated “m” sounds (Mark Marvelous Mark Mark Mark mark Mark Mete May) creates an MMM MMM MMM implied meaning, perfect for the double-entendre-spouting Boyet to convey.

Internal Rhyme

As we noted above, we hear end-rhymed poetic lines a majority of the time in the play, but Shakespeare also has his characters rhyme within poetic lines themselves.  In the first scene, Berowne uses internal rhyme in two consecutive lines:

At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled show;

— I.i.105-106

While the first line’s rhyme is weak (no/rose), the second is undeniable, and it’s fitting that it’s our play’s verbal master who uses it.  He even uses it later in the same scene as he completes an antilabe with Longaville, with a rhyme of his compatriot’s line:

Marry, that did I.

Sweet lord, and why?

— I.i.124

The rhymed antilabe completion makes Berowne seem all the wittier as he has to rhyme more quickly than just at the end of full pentameter lines.

And speaking of antilabes…


Probably the best example of the verbal flourishes Shakespeare puts into the mouths and antilabes of his characters comes in Act Four, Scene Three, as Berowne, the King, and Longaville, eavesdrop and comment on Dumaine’s poem:

Her amber hair for foul hath amber quoted.

BEROWNE [aside]
An amber-colored raven was well noted.

As upright as the cedar.

BEROWNE [aside]
Stoop, I say;
Her shoulder is with child.

As fair as day.

BEROWNE [aside]
Ay, as some days; but then no sun must shine.

O that I had my wish!

And I had mine!

KING [aside]
And I mine too, good Lord!

— IV.iii.83-89

In this sequence, Dumaine begins by saying that the amber (red) found in nature now finds itself foul or inferior since it has seen his love’s red hair.  Berowne answers sarcastically (both in content and in rhyme) that her red was noted, but more like black than red.  And then the partial lines and antilabes begin: Dumaine comments on her upright stature; Berowne completes the pentameter line by saying that she isn’t upright, but stooped. In fact, he says, beginning the next line but continuing his own thought, that she is deformed, a female version of last month’s “mis-shapen Dick,” a hunchback, as her shoulder looks like it’s pregnant.  But Berowne’s line is short, and allows Dumaine to continue his praise of his love, calling her as beautiful as the day, Dumaine’s “day” answering Berowne’s “say” in rhyme.  Berowne has a full pentameter aside, sarcastically answering (in content but not in rhyme) Dumaine’s assertion.  Then Dumaine has another short line; now, instead of Berowne finishing the antilabe, it’s another eavesdropper Longaville.  And as befitting a royal, the King gets the final word–or short line, as it were; there is no completion of his antilabe.

Rhyme as Answer

As we’ve seen in plays before, and in some of the examples above, Shakespeare is fond of using rhyme as a rhetorical “answering” device.  The first half of Berowne and Rosaline’s Act Two verbal joust has some great examples:

Your wit's too hot, it speeds too fast, 'twill tire.

Not till it leave the rider in the mire.

What time o' day?

The hour that fools should ask.

Now fair befall your mask!

Fair fall the face it covers!

And send you many lovers!

Amen, so you be none.

Nay, then will I be gone.

— II.i.119-127

The sequence begins with a call-and-response (tire/mire) in pentameter.  Then Berowne asks a question in a short line, only two iambic feet in length.  Now, Rosaline answers in content (hour to Berowne’s time), but not in rhyme; it’s interesting, too, that her line has three iambic feet, which could be an antilabe completion of Berowne’s line.  But more importantly, it sets off a series of trimeter lines that carries through to the end of this joust.  What’s great about the sequence is that, until the end, the rhymes are only poetic answers, not answers in content. There is something wonderfully equal in their fight: Berowne can answer her rhymes (ask/mask, covers/lovers, none/gone), but it’s Rosaline who can answer content (time/hour, mask/face, many/none).  Only at the end is Berowne able to answer her both in rhyme AND content (none/gone, and you/I).

It’s a great sequence, and there’s more to it, but I need a break, so you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the rest… but let’s just say, on a purely edification level, it WILL be worth it.