What are some examples of polysemy in Shakespeare's writings, and how is polysemy used?
Shakespeare's plays are famous for their uses of puns and polysemy, playing on words and phrases that have multiple meanings. Sometimes these are used for comedic effect. For example, at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Sampson and Gregorio are joking about "maidenheads," which can mean literally the head of a maid or a young woman's virginity. They also play with the meanings of different homophones (which aren't exactly examples of polysemy, but are in the same vein) including "collier," "collar," and "choler." Also in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is a master of multiple meanings, and as he dies, he tells Romeo that soon he will find him a "grave man." The word "grave" means "serious" as well as suggesting a hole where people are buried, and Mercurio is punning to the last by saying that he'll be in his grave. Another example can be found in the play Antony and Cleopatra, when one character describes Cleopatra's ships fleeing before the "breese upon her," which "hoists sails and flies." As literary critic Stephen Booth has observed, this contains multiple levels of polysemy, as the word "breese" could connote flies or a wind (its more modern meaning). Moreover, to say that the "breese" both "hoists sails and flies" could mean that a wind raises sails and drives off flies, bit it could also refer to Cleopatra's ships, which hoisted sail and fled. Aside from demonstrating ample evidence of Shakespeare's skill with wordplay, Booth actually argues that this passage probably flies beneath the consciousness of most theatergoers (and readers), but that it is part of a rich complex fabric of different meanings and interpretations that create a number of different levels at which Shakespeare's plays might be consumed and enjoyed.