What are examples of wordplay in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The literary devices used by Shakespeare throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream includes notable examples of witty, clever wordplay in the form of puns, malapropisms, and oxymorons.

The "rude mechanicals"—local craftspersons including Peter Quince, the carpenter; Snug, the joiner; Nick Bottom, the weaver; Francis Flute, the bellows-mender; Tom Snout, the tinker; and Robin Starveling, the tailor—are the source of many puns, malapropisms, and oxymorons in the play.

A pun is used to suggest two or more possible meanings of the same or similar-sounding words.

One of the most famous puns in the play occurs in act 3, scene 1. Puck has magically changed Bottom's head into the head of an ass (a donkey). When Bottom's friends first see him after his transformation, they run away from him in fright.

BOTTOM. I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me;
to fright me, if they could. (3.1.112-113)

Bottom thinks that they're trying to make a fool (an ass) of him, when, in fact, he really looks like an ass (a donkey).

In act 5, scene 1, Shakespeare beats this same pun nearly to death. The mechanicals are performing a play for Duke Theseus entitled Pyramus and Thisbe. Near the end of the play, Pyramus believes that his lover, Thisbe, has been killed by a lion, and Pyramus decides to kill himself,

PYRAMUS. (stabbing himself repeatedly) Now die, die, die, die, die.

DEMETRIUS. No die, but an ace, for him; for he is but one.

LYSANDER. Less than an ace, man; for he is dead; he is
nothing.

THESEUS. With the help of a surgeon he might yet recover
and yet prove an ass. (5.1.304-309)

During Shakespeare's time "ace" was pronounced to sound like "ass." The pun is doubly comic because Bottom—whose head was turned into an ass's head by Puck—is playing the role of Pyramus.

There is also a pun on die, meaning that the die (one of a pair of dice), has no dots on it, and is basically worthless.

A malapropism in the substitution of a word by a similar sounding word that has a different and often unrelated meaning. Bottom is the master of malapropisms, which he uses throughout the play.

BOTTOM. I will aggravate my voice so... (1.2.74)

He means that he will "modulate" or "moderate" his voice.

BOTTOM. We will meet; and there we may rehearse most
obscenely and courageously. (1.2.97-98)

Bottom means that they will rehearse "obscurely," in secret.

BOTTOM. (as Pyramus) Thisbe, the flowers of odious savours sweet... (3.1.75)

He means to say that the flowers give off an "odorous," pleasant smell, not an "odious" or extremely unpleasant smell.

BOTTOM. (as Pyramus) Since lion vile hath here deflower'd my dear... (5.1.290)

Bottom means to say "devoured," not that the lion has taken Thisbe's virginity.

Quince utters a phrase in which a word serves as a malapropism and a pun.

QUINCE. Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated. (3.1.111)

Quince means to say that Bottom is "transformed," but "translated" can also mean that Bottom's name can be taken in another sense—that of a person's backside—the slang term of which is "ass."

An oxymoron is the use of contradictory words in the same phrase or sentence, which, nevertheless, makes an odd sort of sense.

QUINCE. Marry, our play is, The Most Lamentable Comedy
and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. (1.2.11-12)

BOTTOM. An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too. I'll
speak in a monstrous little voice... (1.2.46-47)

HIPPOLYTA. ...I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder... (4.1.117-118)

Shakespeare uses a pun previously mentioned—"I will aggravate my voice so" (1.2.74)—and expands on that pun with malapropisms.

BOTTOM. but I will aggravate my voice so, that I
will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar
you an't were any nightingale. (1.2.74-76)

In act 5, Theseus is given written descriptions of performances from which Theseus can choose to be presented at his wedding, including a brief description of Pyramus and Thisbe.

THESEUS. ... ‘A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord? (5.1.60-64)

This is a good question.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial