Wordplay in Twelfth Night

Wordplay Examples in Twelfth Night:

Act I - Scene I 1

"the noblest that I have..."   (Act I - Scene I)

When asked if he will go on a hunt for a “hart” (a male deer), Orsino puns on the word “hart” by giving it a double meaning in order to employ a metaphor for his love of Olivia: he is both the hunter and the hunted; he is the hart pursued by his desire for Olivia. Such wordplay is so overly dramatic that it’s as if Orsino were self-conscious of his own performance.

"perchance..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Even though Viola has suffered a shipwreck and lost her brother, the tone of this scene is not tragic. “Perchance” is repeated with subtle wordplay, which signals to the audience that this play is a comedy.

"it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin(95) it off...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Sir Toby and Maria have been teasing Aguecheek throughout this scene. Here, Aguecheek asks about his hair, and Sir Toby responds by saying it “hangs like flax on a distaff,” meaning that it is like flax thread from a spindle (which is not a compliment). Sir Toby then engages in a sexual pun, but Aguecheek does not understand the reference to syphilis (“spin it off”), a disease which causes hair loss, among other far worse things.

"Quinapalus..."   (Act I - Scene V)

“Quinapalus” is an invented philosopher that Feste uses to comically demonstrate his learned nature and make fun of the tendency to reference “authorities” in elevated jargon. This jargon elevates the fool to the educational status of the nobility with whom he interacts. This wordplay shapes Feste’s character and signals to the audience that he is the smartest person in the play: he is able to play with social boundaries by manipulating the meaning of words.

"colours..."   (Act I - Scene V)

This is a pun on “collars” which would sound similar to the British pronunciation of “colours.” A collar, also called a “ruff,” was a piece of folded fabric that lined the top of a shirt and kept one’s doublet from becoming dirty. It was a potent symbol of wealth in the Renaissance. Here, Feste claims that he who dies does not need to fear those with wealth and power.

"Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou write with a goose-pen..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Sir Toby is punning on the word "gall," which in this context refers to the substance used in the making of ink. However, the word "gall" also means bitterness or disagreeableness. Sir Toby makes another joke on the term goose-pen. A goose-pen was a quill used for writing. However, Toby uses the term to insult Andrew—the goose was symbolic of foolishness.

"Still you keep o' the windy side of the law. Good.(155)..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

In this line, Fabian mocks Sir Andrew with praise. He says that it is “good” that Sir Andrew has included this bit because if Cesario kills him Andrew will still be on the right side of the law. This seems like a silly thing to care about if one is dead.

"To bed? ‘Ay, sweetheart, and I'll come to thee.’..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Malvolio misinterprets Olivia’s suggestion that he “go to bed.” She means he should lie down because he is sick, but he thinks she has asked him to go to bed with her. Notice that the multiple meanings of words here allow these two characters to drastically misinterpret each other.

"Why, it hath bay windows transparent as barricadoes,..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

Although by “dark house” Malvolio means that there is something bad going on in the house, Feste intentionally misinterprets his words as meaning the house lacks light. This wordplay further makes Malvolio look crazy.