Please explain the pun(s) used by Maria while having a conversation with Sir Toby about Sir Andrew. and by Sir Toby as he speaks to Sir Andrew.Act 1, Scene 3 of Twelfth Night

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Maria and Sir Toby Belch of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, introduce the audience to the lower class characters of Illyria, and as such their language is more bawdy that that of Orsino and Olivia.  Also, Sir Toby Belch is meant to be a comical and festive character.  So, he has fun with double entendres such as the word except when he declares , "Why let her except before excepted" (1.3.7) parodying the legal jargon commonly used in leases and contracts:  exceptis exceptiendis ["with the exceptions previously noted"].

He also employs the literary device called ploce as he switches the sense of Maria's word, confine meaning "to limit oneself," changing its meaning to "clothe":

Maria:  Ay, but you must confine yourself withing the modest limits of order.

Toby:  Confine?  I'll confine myself no finer than I am.  These clothes are good enough to drink in....(1.3.8-11)

Then when Maria scolds Sir Toby for having brought in a foolish knight, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Toby objects, claiming that Sir Andrew is bold and handsome.  Sir Toby adds that Sir Andrew is polygot and "hath all the good gifts of nature"(1.3.28).  Maria, punning on the word nature, says, "He hath indeed all, most natural;..."(1.3.29),suggesting instead that Sir Andrew is a "natural" meaning as it did in Shakespeare's time "a natural fool or an idiot."

When Maria is greeted by Sir Andrew, who is truly a "natural" in Maria's meaning, he thinks Sir Toby's urgings to accost her mean that her name is Accost:  "Good Mistress Mary Accost."  Sir Toby tries to explain that his meaning is to "assail her," which implies seduction.  Maria joins in the bawdy talk and tells Sir Andrew to bring his hand to th' "butt'ry bar [a storeroom] and let it drink"(1.3.65). Crassly, Sir Andrew asks her "What's your metaphor" (1.3.66), and Maria replies, "It's dry, sir"(1.3.67), suggesting impotence on Sir Andrew's part.  For, in Shakespeare's time, a man with a dry hand was believed to be impotent.  When Sir Andrew still does not catch on, Maria indicates that she is out of jokes with another somewhat sexual word, "I am barren."

Likewise, Sir Andrew does not understand Sir Toby's sexual puns such as

An thou let part so, Sir Andrew, would thou mighst never draw sword [male reproductive organ] again. (1.3.55)

and when commenting on his hair's appearance, Sir Toby says,

Excellent.  It hangs like flax on a distaff [rod,male organ], and I hope to see a huswife take thee between her legs and spin it off[syphllis]. (1.3.99-101)

Another pun that Sir Andrew misses is in this line:

Sir Andrew:  Faith I can cut a caper[frisky leap, dance].

Sir Toby:  And I can cut the mutton to't [type of salted berry eaten with mutton]. (1.3.111-112)

These exchanges among Maria and Sir Andrew and Sir Toby indicate the high-spirited nature of Sir Toby Belch, especially.

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Twelfth Night

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