A pun is a figure of speech that plays on various meanings of a word, usually to create a comic response or ambiguity. Romeo and Juliet is filled with puns.
Shakespeare uses many puns in this play to offset some of the tension of the sword fights, the deaths, and the anxiety that builds toward the deaths of his two protagonists. Although audiences in the twenty-first century might not understand the puns that Shakespeare uses in this play, his audiences in Early Modern England would have grabbed their meaning and laughed out loud at the humor and clever wit of the author.
Some of the puns are lost on audiences today because the words that are used as puns no longer exist in contemporary language. However, some are still evident. Such a one is in Mercutio's statement after he has been wounded by Tybalt. In act 3, scene 1, Mercutio says: ''Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.'' His reference to ''grave man'' implies both a serious man as well as a dead man. Many other of the puns have sexual connotations, especially in the speeches of Nurse and Mercutio.
In the first scene of act 1, less serious puns are spoken between Sampson and Gregory, two servants of the house ofMontague. As they walk down the street, the first young man mentions the word coal, which is Shakespeare's time also referred to an insult. The second young man picks up on the meaning of coal as modern readers would understand it, a fuel, stating that if they ''carry coals'' they then would be called ''colliers,'' which refers to people who bring the fuel in wagons to various houses to sell it. Then Sampson mentions the word ''choler,'' which sounds the same as the word ''collier,'' but means ''anger.'' And Gregory continues this word play by mentioning the word ''collar,'' an allusion to the rope noose that is used to hang a person and a word that sounds the same as ''choler.'' In Shakespeare's time, the audience would have understood all these allusions as well as the playful confusion between the double meanings of the words and how those meanings completely change the context of the young men's speech. In this way, despite the fact that the men are talking about dueling, anger, and possible murder, the audience cannot help but laugh at the word play.
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