You know those books you had to read for your English classes in high school and crap out a sub par essay or two about? Those books you probably hear and resent because they felt archaic, boring, and hard to relate to? Those books that aren’t just books but are “literature”? Well — I’m sorry to say but we’re going to be talking about them today because many of them are LITtered with puns.
Puns and wordplay have existed in the books we read long before internet memes took them by storm. And the punny thing about their usage is that they haven’t always been used in humorous ways. Authors have cleverly employed puns in their writing a lot of times to bring attention to something or to make social commentary on something.
We see the usage of a pun for a less humorous but more for a attention-grabbing, pathos inducing, implicit commentary about a character in the story “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway.
In the short story we have our main female protagonist named Jig and her unnamed boyfriend arguing about whether or not she should get an abortion. Throughout the story Jig goes from being passive and non-confrontational to standing up to her boyfriend by the end of the story and — while made unclear whether or not she aborts her baby — the reader feels a sense of closure as it is implied that she has arrived at her own decision about what she wants to do in spite of her boyfriend’s pressures.
Something I could never get over in this story was that the name of the main character was “Jig.” So many implications come with this name, and not necessarily humorous ones. A jig if often another word for a dance which seems fitting for this character because for most of the story she dances around the topic of her unplanned pregnancy and doesn’t want to have the discussion with her boyfriend who is strongly pushing her to get an abortion. In addition, “jig” has another even more deeply rooted meaning when you consider the phrase “the jig is up.” This is also fitting for the main protagonist because at the end of the story she finally does confront the issue and makes it clear to her boyfriend that the jig really is up and that she is going to do what she wishes with her unborn child and he’s just going to have to deal with it. A surprisingly feminist character carefully crafted within Hemingway’s work — Jig’s true power and the nature of her character is revealed through the connotative puns of her name.
And what kind of puns in literature blog post would this be if I didn’t talk about the pun king himself — William Shakespeare? He often PLAYed with words in his theatrical works in ways like Hemingway did — to bring attention to something or add social commentary to a topic. Conversely, Shakespeare is unafraid of reminding us it’s okay to not take life so seriously and laugh at an Elizabethan fart pun.
The bardtender’s plays are crawling in puns. His comedies have puns to add the the humorous, often sexual nature of his work and his dramas often employ puns to break the serious tension and serve as comedic relief after something awful has either just happened or is implied to happen by the end of the play.
If you don’t believe me when I say the man we’ve all been forced to study and taught to honor and put on a pedestal for his innovative playwriting did in fact pack his work with amazingly witty and likely groan inducing puns — I give you just a few of many, many, MANY examples:
This drama follows the internal struggle of Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, as he grapples with how to avenge his father’s death after discovering his uncle Claudius murdered his father in order to marry his mother and become King of Denmark.
Claudius at the start of the play refers to Hamlet as both his son and his cousin — failing to acknowledge the uncomfortable ickiness of this. Hamlet then remarks with a witty comeback “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (Act I, Scene II.)
This famous line is a pun on the word “kind” which at the time could sometimes be used as a shortened version of kindred. Hamlet is basically using some angsty wordplay to throw shade at his uncle/stepdad saying to himself as an aside that they may be even closer now as family but he still has plenty of hostility toward him.
This comedy has plenty of sexual puns as well as witty, and often defiant puns administered by Feste the clown. Feste, who is supposed to be a low status fool of the play, is often the one to give advice and make some rigid social commentary about class systems and power.
My favorite example of this is when Feste has been absent from doing his work and another member of the help, Maria, says Lady Olivia who they both work for will have him hung for leaving. Feste in a very mic-droppable way states “Let her hang me: he that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colours” (Act I, Scene V.)
Despite the word looking like the British spelling of colors it actually at this time meant collars. At this time collard shirts were a sign of wealth and power. Feste essentially tells Maria “bring it,” stating he is unafraid of both the literal collar of a rope hanging around his neck or the rich and powerful people of society who are trying to keep him in line and oppress him with their high status collared shirts.
Shakespeare sadly did not shy away from racial puns in his plays, often at the expense of characters of color. In this play the protagonist of the play, Othello, is clearly marked as an “other” of society because he is a Moor, which at the time was a term used to describe both people of Arab or African descent. While it’s unclear what race Othello actually is, the play makes it abundantly clear he is not white and many of the characters make it a point to mention it in rather unsavory ways, exposing the darker and racist side of punning at this time.
In Shakespeare’s time calling people “his worship” was a way to show respect to someone of high status. Iago, the main villain of the play refers to Othello as “his Moorship” as a play on the phrase, making a point to say — even though Othello is a well respected war hero and high in the social ranks, he still refuses to respect him because of the color of his skin.
I could go on with more examples but I understand most people are not nerds who care about these things as much as I do. But there are puns in literally every Shakespeare play: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing — you name it.
Puns are hidden deep in the crevices of every piece of literature we read and when discovered and pondered — or PUNdered — can make profound comments on certain social norms, hegemonies, and characters while of course, giving us a good chuckle.