Such Ado: The Fight for Shakespeare’s Puns

The evolution of English pronunciation has eroded much of the evidence of the Bard’s wit—but a new approach aims to bring some of his original wordplay back to life.

Hero worship on the big screen in the 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing (The Samuel Goldwyn Company)

Much Ado About Nothing is a play (and also, at this point, an opera, and a TV show, and a movie, and the source of many additional songs and shows and movies) with a very good title. It’s a little bit ironic, a little bit knowing, a little bit whimsical—but also, with its efficient quartet of words, suggestive of some of the primary themes of Shakespeare’s iconic comedy: gossip, the ceremonies of social drama, the wooziness of love. The title suggests more than that, though. In Elizabethan English, the word “nothing” was pronounced as “no-ting,” and it suggested our modern sense of “noting” as “noticing” (and even as spying)—so, yep, yet another theme in the play.

But! There’s another pun, too. Wordplay-happy Elizabethans often used “nothing”/“no-ting” as a euphemism for ... “vagina.” (There’s no thing there, get it?) Which means that the title Much Ado About Nothing, on top of everything else, also suggests Much Ado About … yeah.

So: Four little words, with three layers of meaning. A pun parfait, in the title of the play! Today, the fashionable reaction to a pun is to roll one’s eyes and/or groan—except, of course, when the pun in question is used in the service of what we have deemed to be Poetry, in which case it is treated as a tool of literary “ambiguity.” Some of the credit/blame for that belongs to Shakespeare—who, despite and because of being perhaps the greatest poet ever to wield the English language, was also an inveterate punster. The bard of Avon took advantage of rhymes and doubled-up (and occasionally tripled-up) meanings to turn his plays and poems into interactive riddles.

As performed, that made for plays that pulsed with life for their audiences. A groundling at the Globe may have been illiterate, but he might have chuckled—or at least nodded along in historically inscribed sexism—when King Lear chided his daughter that “nothing can come of nothing.” There, right in the middle of Shakespeare’s great tragedy about parents and children and the human condition ... a joke about ladyparts.

In the 400 years since Shakespeare made his bawdy puns, though, the evolution of language—and of pronunciation, in particular—has eroded many of the embedded bits of wordplay that would have been obvious to Elizabethan ears. “Prove” and “love,” in most English dialects, no longer rhyme. This is unfortunate for Sonnet 166, also known as the “marriage sonnet,” and its now-only-semi-rhyme: “If this be error and upon me proved/ I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Same with “hour” and “whore,” which colluded to make Maria’s now-outdated pun in Twelfth Night: “My lady takes great exception to your ill hours.” Same with “ace” and “ass,” formerly homophones that allowed Demetrius, playing a card game at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mock a fellow player with the following observation: “No die, but an ace for him, for he is but one.”

What all that means is that contemporary audiences, often taught to approach Shakespeare’s work with the hushed reverence of ceremonial celebration, can also miss its jokes—and, as a result, can miss its full range of ambiguity and meaning. And also, quite often, its fun. David Crystal is a linguistics scholar who has pioneered an “original pronunciation,” or OP, approach to reading and performing Shakespeare. He has made a study of how much of Shakespeare’s original meaning has been, well, (p)undone. And according to Crystal’s research, at least 96 of the 154 sonnets credited to Shakespeare contain rhymes that have since been lost to linguistic history. For the plays, which together form a much larger corpus, the number is likely much higher.

Which is a shame. Romeo and Juliet’s mention of “the fatal loins of these two foes,” for example, is much richer if you know that, for Shakespeare, “loin” rhymed with “line.” Line! Written words, stellar constellations, bloodlines, inheritance, the behind-the-scenes workings of theater ... all of those, and more, come into play with the new—and old—pronunciation.

So Crystal, for his part, is trying to bring back some of the plays’ and poems’ original linguistic depth. Later this month, his lengthy reference on the matter—The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciationwill be published. It’s a book, a guide to Shakespeare’s first folio, that Crystal has been working on for 12 years (on and off, because, as he notes, “it’s deadly boring” to put a dictionary together). That work involved, essentially, linguistic sleuthing: Crystal started by looking at the words that might have originally rhymed, based on rhyme schemes and the words’ current pronunciations, and then cross-referenced them against other appearances of those same words in Shakespeare’s corpus.

The resulting dictionary is meant, he explains, as a resource for anyone who wants to understand Shakespeare’s plays and poems not as amber-frozen relics of literary history, but as works that have evolved along with English itself. “I’m not suggesting for a moment that Original Pronunciation replaces other approaches to Shakespeare,” Crystal says. “It simply is an extra tool in the kit that you use when you’re putting on a play.”

And OP doesn’t simply add dimensions to Shakespeare’s work (or, for that matter, to Marlowe’s, and Jonson’s, and Webster’s). It can also help modern audiences simply to parse the plays, to tease out basic meanings that have been eroded in time. In Henry IV Part I, for example, Falstaff tells Hal, “Give you a reason on compulsion? If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.” The line would seem, Crystal points out, to make very little sense—unless you understand that “reason” was pronounced, in Shakespeare’s English, as “raisin,” and that “raisin” was a synonym for “blackberry.” (Sorry for doubting you, Will. The heart has its raisins, and all that.)

OP also helps to explain this otherwise baffling exchange in Twelfth Night:

Sir Andrew Aguecheek: What is “pourquoi”? Do, or not do? I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear-baiting. O, had I but followed the arts!

Sir Toby Belch: Then hadst thou had an excellent head of hair.

Sir Andrew: Why, would that have mended my hair?

Sir Toby: Past question, for thou seest it will not curl by nature.

It’s jibberish, essentially, unless you realize two things: 1) “tongue” was pronounced, in OP, as “tong,” and 2) a “tong” in Elizabethan England was a rudimentary flat iron, a tool people used to straighten their hair. Aha. Sick burn, Toby.

OP’s ability to serve as a kind of Rosetta Stone for Shakespeare is partly why recent years have seen a rising movement to produce plays using its pronunciations. The Globe in London did Romeo and Juliet in OP. The Shakespeare scholar Eric Rasmussen put on an OP production of Hamlet. (Crystal’s son, Ben, also a Shakespeare scholar and actor, served as the production’s artist-in-residence.) Troilus and Cressida and Midsummer and Twelfth Night and Cymbelinethey’ve all gotten the OP treatment, in the U.K. and in the States. Beyond simply highlighting the wordplay of the original works, Crystal points out, OP also helps modern audiences to parse the plays as oral presentations. “It’s just like any dialect,” Crystal says, and it sounds like a hodgepodge of several different modern accents, among them the English spoken in Cornwall, Somerset, Ireland, Black Country, Lancashire, and Australia. There’s also a dash of the English spoken in Pirates of the Caribbean. In some ways, it’s closer to American English than to British.

In all that, OP helps to reclaim Shakespeare for modern audiences—to demystify his words, and to democratize them. Olivier’s Hamlet, Branagh’s Benedick, McKellen’s Richard III, all with their posh British accents—“people think that’s how Shakespeare should be done,” Crystal says. But those accents are accidents of history. And they are pretty much as far removed from Shakespeare’s own way of speaking as an American accent, or an Australian, or a Sparrowian, is today. Shakespeare sounded like all of us, and none of us. Given the ado made about his words and works over the past 400 years—and given the ado that will likely be made over the next 400—that’s well worth noting.