Words, Words, Words: Language and Wordplay, Part Two

Yesterday, we started talking about all the ways Shakespeare plays with language in Love’s Labor’s Lost.  But I want you to think back even further.  Remember last month, when I couldn’t figure out the whole Lady Anne/Richard trimeter thing?  And how, by the end of the discussion, I was still as in the dark?

Well, ladies and germs, there’s a name for that technique, and it’s called…


According to the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), stichomythia is “dialogue in alternate lines, employed in sharp disputation, and characterized by antithesis and rhetorical repetition or taking up of the opponent’s words.”

well whaddaya know…

And just as Berowne and Rosaline gave us great examples of “rhyming as answer” yesterday, the second half of their Act Two verbal tussle gives us a great gander at stichomythia:

Lady, I will commend you to mine own heart.

Pray you, do my commendations; I would be glad to see it.

I would you heard it groan.

Is the fool sick?

Sick at the heart.

Alack, let it blood.

Would that do it good?

My physic says 'ay.'

Will you prick't with your eye?

No point, with my knife.

Now, God save thy life!

And yours from long living!

I cannot stay thanksgiving.

— II.i.178-192

As in the earlier skirmish, the sequence begins with longer lines (though, interestingly, here the two lines are prose).  Then they begin the rat-a-tat-tat stichomythic back-and-forth, throwing in end-rhymes for good measure:

  • Rosaline answers Berowne’s “groan” with “sick”
  • Berowne answers Rosaline’s “sick” with “sick” (repetition)
  • Rosaline answers Berowne’s “sick” with “let it blood” (bleeding as a cure)
  • Berowne answers Rosaline’s “let it blood” with “that” (repetition); Berowne also answers her “blood” with his rhyme “good”
  • Rosaline answers Berowne’s “would that” with “ay”
  • Berowne answers Rosaline’s “physic” (curing, through bleeding) with “prick’t” (open the skin for blood); Berowne also answers her “ay” with his rhyme “eye”
  • Rosaline answers Berowne’s “eye” with “knife”
  • Berowne answers Rosaline’s threat with “God save thy life” (sarcastic blessing); Berowne also answers her “knife” with his rhyme “life”
  • Rosaline answers Berowne’s “thy life” with “yours from long living”
  • Berowne answers Rosaline’s curse with an inability–sarcastic as it is–to stop from showing her gratitude; Berowne also answers her “living” with his rhyme “thanksgiving”

If Shakespeare did pre-date Howard Hawks by three centuries, I’d say the Bard stole this kind of rapid dialogue from His Girl Friday.


Sometimes a word will be repeated as a rhetorical device, with the effect of either driving a point home dramatically, or making the repeated word a kind of comic punch line.  Take a look at two sequences from Act Three, Scene One, in which Costard is paid for his delivery of messages.  Armado first gives Costard money, using a big word “remuneration” (“reward… payment, pay”) that Costard doesn’t understand:

Now will I look to his remuneration. Remuneration! O, that's the Latin word for three farthings: three farthings--remuneration.--'What's the price of this inkle?'--'One penny.'--'No, I'll give you a remuneration:' why, it carries it. Remuneration! why, it is a fairer name than French crown. I will never buy and sell out of this word.

O, my good knave Costard! exceedingly well met.

Pray you, sir, how much carnation ribbon may a man buy for a remuneration?

What is a remuneration?

Marry, sir, halfpenny farthing.

Why, then, three-farthing worth of silk.

I thank your worship: God be wi' you!

Stay, slave; I must employ thee:

— III.i.133-148

Because Costard doesn’t understand the word, we hear him repeat it as he attempts to discover its meaning.  Added chuckles could be had if the actor playing Armado has a “wacky accent” which Costard might imitate in saying the word (as Timothy Spall and Nathan Lane do in Kenneth Branagh’s movie adaptation).  When Berowne arrives, further repetition in dialog also adds to the wordplay.  At the end of Berowne’s request, he uses yet another word for “reward” when the word itself would have been more understandable to the rustic:

This seal'd-up counsel. There's thy guerdon; go.

Gardon, O sweet gardon! better than remuneration, a'leven-pence farthing better: most sweet gardon! I will do it sir, in print. Gardon! Remuneration!

— III.i.165-169

Berowne’s use of the word “guerdon” confuses Costard again, who even as he mispronounces the word makes an incorrect assumption to its meaning.

A more dramatic use of the technique happens later when Berowne is attempting to convince the King and his fellows to abandon their oath of abstinence:

For wisdom's sake, a word that all men love,
Or for love's sake, a word that loves all men,
Or for men's sake, the authors of these women,
Or women's sake, by whom we men are men,
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.

— IV.iii.331-337

The first striking repetition is of the word “sake” (“Out of consideration for; on account of one’s interest in” [OED[), building his argument on account after account after account.  But note, too, the subtle repetition from line to line: the ending word of one line is repeated in the next (save for the second “men” in the fourth line).  This repetition allows his argument to be driven forward, while noting what came before it.  It’s a remarkable speech.

Extended Metaphor or Simile

Often, it would be rude to attach to a person an adjective (especially when that adjective can be or must be negative in connotation).  Much more acceptable is to use a metaphor or simile to draw that comparison to the person.  In this case, both the King and Rosaline discuss her fickleness, her changing mood or affection:

O vain petitioner! beg a greater matter;
Thou now request'st but moonshine in the water.

Then, in our measure do but vouchsafe one change.
Thou bid'st me beg: this begging is not strange.

Play, music, then! Nay, you must do it soon.
[Music plays]
Not yet! no dance! Thus change I like the moon.

Will you not dance? How come you thus estranged?

You took the moon at full, but now she's changed.

Yet still she is the moon, and I the man.

— V.ii.208-216

Here, Rosaline is like the moon.  The moon goes through phases, always changing from night to night, just as Rosaline’s moods and actions change from moment to moment.  The King uses a bawdy reference to bring the simile to a close: he will be the “man in the moon,” he is sure of it… he will have her sexually.  Of course, unbeknownst to him, he’s barking up the wrong tree.


While all four male would-be lovers compose poems to their loves, Shakespeare goes even further in the use of sonnets in the play, embedding one in Berowne’s Act One speech questioning the abstinence amendment to the three-year study agreement:

Why, all delights are vain; but that most vain,
Which with pain purchased doth inherit pain:
As, painfully to pore upon a book
To seek the light of truth; while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look:
Light seeking light doth light of light beguile:
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed
By fixing it upon a fairer eye,
Who dazzling so, that eye shall be his heed
And give him light that it was blinded by.
Study is like the heaven's glorious sun,
That will not be deep-search'd with saucy looks:
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others' books.
These earthly godfathers of heaven's lights,
That give a name to every fixed star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
Too much to know is to know nought but fame;
And every godfather can give a name.

— I.i.72-93

Berowne begins his speech with a rhymed couplet, and follows up with a quatrain in an alternating rhyme.  But he’s just warming up: he presents another rhyming couplet (this one fully end-stopped with a period) before diving into the sonnet proper.  Beginning with “Study me,” he outlines his argument.  First, a quatrain (ABAB that comprises a single sentence: Show me how to please my eye by having it stare into the beautiful eye of a woman, which will blind my eye, but her eye will become my guide and show me the way.  The next quatrains (CDCD) is another standalone sentence: Learning is like the sun that cannot be stared at because only small victories come to those who constantly study, and those victories come from the thoughts of others — experts — found in a book.  In the next quatrain (EFEF), he takes these experts to task: These men on earth, who study and give names to the stars, gain nothing more of those stars than who have walked about free of unrelenting study and don’t know the names of the stars.  He ends his sonnet and argument with a final rhyming couplet (GG): To know too much is to know nothing but rumors, what others have said (“fame” in Shakespeare’s day meant not only “renown,” but “rumor” as well [OED]), and if you want to name something, become a godfather.  Berowne’s sonnet, embedded transparently in his longer speech, perfectly uses the same building techniques of the standalone sonnets: The first two stanzas, quatrains, set up the situation or problem; the third quatrain usually contains a turn in the thinking, the beginning of the resolution or solution; the final rhyming couplet tends to state or restate the theme of the poem.


Not satisfied with merely presenting poems in the play, or even embedding sonnets within speeches, Shakespeare also plants songs in the play, at the conclusion:

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, "Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, "Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, "Tu-who!
Tu-whit, Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, "Tu-who!
Tu-whit, Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.


Think of these final two poems as the concluding couplet of a sonnet: they sum up what has happened.  The first song is by Spring, the season of love, of flora and fauna (daisies to turtledoves).  But the season of love also brings fear to married men of being cuckolded.

could this fear be an analog to (or even a cause of) an oath of abstinence?

The second song is sung by Winter, the season of death.  But it is also the season when the family is brought together under one roof, huddled for warmth, with dinner cooking in the pot that the wife stirs.  Death and solemnity may reign at the end of the play, but maybe this song is supposed to tell us that as long as we have each other, we’ll be all right.

of course, at the end of the play, the lovers are NOT together… so what to make of that?

So, over the course of the last two days, we’ve seen an explosion of language in Love’s Labor’s Lost, in forms varied (and some unseen in the Canon until now).

Why the sudden release of linguistic prowess?  Had Shakespeare been feeling stymied by the linguistic constraints put on him in the historical and tragical genres, or by the source materials in the comedies?  Did he use this first sourceless play to also experiment with language?  Or was he just playing?

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