Shakespeare’s Humor, Irony, and Language Play by Don L. F. Nilsen

Shakespeare’s Humor,
Irony, and Language Play
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
Humor in Shakespeare’s Comedies
As an example of a Shakespearean comedy
consider A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It is a “comedy of humors” with many eccentric
characters, but the magic in the play makes the
characters even funnier.
Bottom, for example, ends up with the head of an
ass. His name is Bottom, and in English, one’s
“bottom” is one’s “ass.”
Humor in Shakespeare’s Romances
The women in Shakespeare’s romances can be uppity until the last act, when
everybody gets married and the natural order is restored (with the man in charge) so
they can live happily ever after.
This is true in Much Ado about Nothing, and it is also true in The Taming of the
Shrew, where in the last act the shrew gets tamed.
Romeo and Juliet is a romance that begins as a comedy and ends as a tragedy.
Mercutio is a mercurial or comic figure. When Romeo asks how badly he is
wounded, he says,
“ ‘Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill
serve…. Ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man.”
Humor in Shakespeare’s Histories
Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar is dripping with irony:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones….
The noble Brutus hath told yo Caesar was ambitious;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault….
I thrice presented him a kinglyl crown,
Which he did thrice refuse; was this ambition?
Humor in Shakespeare’s Tragedies
The humor in Shakespeare’s tragedies is more important than is that in his comedies.
When the tragedy becomes unbearable, Shakespears inserts humor not only for
comic relief, but also to contrast with the stark tragedy that came before and will
surely follow afterward. Here are some examples:
The drunken porter scene in Macbeth
The fool-is-smarter-than-the-king dialogue in King Lear
The Polonius in the wings speech in Hamlet
And the grave digger’s scene in Hamlet:
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horation; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent
fancy…. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of
merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your
own grinning.”
Comedy of Errors (1592)
Alleen and I will discuss the humor, irony, and language
play of Shakespearean plays going from 1592 to 1606.
In the process, we will contrast the humor of
Shakespearean comedies with that in his tragedies, and
we’ll also contrast the humor of Shakespeare’s male
characters vs. that of his female characters.
Comedy of Errors (1592) is a knockabout farce, but a
knockabout farce with a difference, because the
characters in the play and the issues being presented
are serious ones—love, fidelity, and personal honor
(Bryant 25).
The Taming of the Shrew (1593)
The bawdiness of Petruchio’s and Katherine’s punning is
illustrated in the following dialogue:
PETRUCHIO: …come sit on me.
KATHERINE: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
PETRUCHIO: Women are made to bear, and so are you.
KATHERINE: No such jade as you, if me you mean.
As the dialogue continues, the punning becomes even stronger and more sexual:
KATHERINE: If I be waspish, best beware of my sting.
PETRUCHIO: My remedy is then to pluck it out.
KATHERINE: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
KATHERINE: In his tongue.
PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?
KATHERINE: Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay come again, Good Kate; I am a
gentleman--. (Colby 156)
In Act II, Scene I of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio’s ironic speech overshadows
Kate’s ironic speech which appears at the end of the play. Petruchio says,
PETRUCHIO: Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain
She sing as sweetly as a nightingale;
Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew;
Say she be mute, and will not speak a word,
Then I’ll commend her volubility.
Contrast Petruchio’s speech above with Katherine’s speech at the end of The Taming
of the Shrew. Kate shows a last bit of defiance by saying that the sun is not the moon
although Petruchio claims it to be. But she relents and through ironic exaggeration
knows it is the moon (Evans 121, Bamber 35).
KATHERINE: Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please;
An’ if you please to call it a rush candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
PETRUCHIO: I say it is the moon.
KATHERINE: I know it is the moon.
Thus Kate is tamed and Petruchio wins his wager; but Kate nevertheless
retains her independence.
By the end of the play, Katherine is more dominant than ever because she
has learned how to phrase her attacks so irresistibly— “by humbly
recognizing her own limitations and disarming resistance” (Richmond 91).
Kate uses her wit and intelligence and her undefiled spirit to show her
equality to men, and teach the other women the rules by which to govern
their marriages if they are to be independent as well (Madden 7-8).
By the way, Petruchio’s name comes from the Greek word petros meaning
“stone or rock,” thus demonstrating Petruchio’s strong, consistent, and
willful nature.
At the end of the play, Petruchio “proves” that he has tamed Katherine by
saying “Why there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate.” (Levith 70)
Thus providing the name for the musical comedy which is to follow.
Romeo and Juliet (1595)
Romeo and Juliet has an ironically humorous death scene
that not only advances the plot. It changes the genre of the
play from a Romantic Comedy to a Tragedy.
Mercurtio (a mercurial figure) has been portrayed in this play
as a likeable and easy-going fellow, but in Act III, Scene i,
Mercutio, who has been mortally wounded, reacts in his
usual humorous fashion:
MERCUTIO: “No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door, but ‘tis enough; ‘twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am pepper’d, I
warrant, for this world.” (Evans 99)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594)
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a group of men are planning a
performance to celebrate the wedding of Duke Theseus to Queen
In Act I, Scene ii, Nick Bottom, the vainest member of the group, tells
the other characters that he would like to run the entire show.
Bottom has already been given the role of Pyramus, but he also
wants to play Thisby and the Lion as well. In fact, Bottom wants to
enact all of the parts in this play within a play.
“Let me play the lion too. I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart
good to hear me. I will roar, and I will make the Duke say, ‘let him
roar again; let him roar again.’” (Evans 73)
Bottom continues by saying, “let me play Thisby too. I’ll speak in a
monstrous little voice…. Let me play the lion too. I will roar that I
will do any man’s heart good to hear me….” (Evans 226).
Bottom attempts to add drama and suspense to the play by
prolonging the death scene of his character, but in the process, he
mixes up his lines and ends with a comical adlib: “Thus die I, thus,
thus, thus. Now am I dead. Now am I fled…. Tongue lose thy light,
Moon take thy flight, Now die, die, die, die, die” (Evans 245).
Tom Snout is probably the most amusing character in this play within
a play, for he must assume the role of “a wall.” He dons stones and
mortar as a costume, and during the play, he spreads his fingers to
symbolize a hole in the wall through which Pyramus and Thisby must
kiss” (Woodford 3-4).
Here, Shakespeare is mocking himself and the theatrical profession by
parodying his company and the relationships among the playwrights,
the directors, and the actors (Homan 941).
In Act III, Scene I, Puck decides to have a bit of
fun with Bottom. Puck replaces Bottom’s head
with the head of an ass, and because the “Love
in Idleness” potion has already been placed in
the eyes of Titania, the queen of the fairies, she
immediately falls in love with Bottom, bearing
an ass’s head, as soon as she sees him.
This example of someone named Bottom
becoming an Ass is one example of the sexual
punning that Shakespeare does in A
Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Another example is “Snug the Joiner, since a joiner
is a person who fits things together as people do in
sex. ‘Flute’ and ‘Snout’ are English slang words for
‘Quince’ is a play on the word ‘quointes,” which
was the Middle English spelling for ‘cunt.’ Quince
is a carpenter, and works with ‘wood,’ which
rhymes with ‘wode’ (madness), and which is also
slang for a penis
An erection in England is often called a ‘woody.’”
(Brewer 148).
The Merchant of Venice (1596)
In The Merchant of Venice Shylock’s daughter,
Jessica, is forbidden by her father to marry a
gentile, so she elopes with a Christian and steals
her father’s money.
Shylock’s reaction to this is comical—he doesn’t
know which he values more, his money or his
daughter. “My daughter! O my Ducats!—O my
Daughter! Fled with a Christian!—O my Christian
ducats!” (Act II, Scene viii).
Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is a character of
contradictions. He is both unjustly sinner, and sinned
Shylock appears in the midst of much pageantry, singing,
dancing, and lovemaking, but he is seen as an intruder,
“oftentimes vicious usually devious, sometimes almost
admirable, and occasionally pitiable” (Bryant 83).
As the play progresses, Antonio loses his ships at sea and is
therefore late in paying back the debt. The court is
reluctantly forced to uphold Shylock’s legal but immoral right
to kill him. The court pleads with Shylock to have mercy, but
Shylock refuses, even though he is offered three times the
price of the debt.
“The pound of flesh which I demand of him / is
dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it: / If you
deny me fie upon your law!” (Act IV, Scene i)
Then Portia comes into the courtroom disguised as
a judge. She outwits Skylock by saying, “Tarry a
little; there is something else.-- / This bond doth
give thee here no jot of blood; / The words
expressly are a pound of flesh; / Take then thy
bond… / But, in the cutting, if thou dost shed / One
drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are,
by the laws of Venice, confiscate…” (Act IV, Scene
Much Ado about Nothing (1598)
It should be noted (pun intended) that the title of
Much Ado about Nothing contains a pun.
In Elizabethan English, “nothing” was pronounced
very much like “noting.” This play in fact
dramatizes the much ado which the characters
make in their interpretation and understanding of
the world, and each other. “The sophisticated
gentlemen of Much Ado about Nothing tend to
take noting in the sense of interpreting, resulting
in a comedy of misunderstandings” (Tuverson 1-2).
Much Ado about Nothing has three plots, and it is basically humor
that holds these three plots together in a single play.
The main plot is about Claudio and Hero, and the two subplots
feature the witty arguments of Beatrice and Benedick on the one
hand, and the comic fumbling of Dogberry and his friends on the
other hand.
The wit that is shown by Beatrice and Benedick in arguing their cases
ranges from puns to conceptual wit, in which the characters use
“allusive understatement and sophisticated logic” (McCollom 73).
When Dogberry gets excited his words get especially confused,
“Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover they have
spoken untruths; secondarily,they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they
have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and to
conclude, they are lying knaves” (Evans 358).
In Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick don’t so
much disdain each other as they enjoy the enactment of
disdain. Benedick shows his affection for Beatrice in an ironic
way at the ball, when Beatrice has insulted him and he then
asks Don Pedro for any excuse to leave the party. The fact is
that he could have left at any time on his own accord, but he
“Will your Grace command me any service to the world’s end?
I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you
can devise to send me on; I will fetch you a toothpicker now
from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester
John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great Champs berare, do
you an embassage to the Pygmies, rather than hold three
words’ conference with this harpy” (Act II, Scene i).
But Benedick actually loves Beatrice, and he
tries to write her a love poem. When he has
difficulty, he is forced to ask Margaret for help
in the writing of his courtly love poetry:
“Marry, I cannot show it in rhyme; I have tried.
I can find out no rhyme to ‘lady’ but ‘baby,’ an
innocent rhyme; for ‘scorn,’ ‘horn,’ a hard
rhyme; for ‘school,’ ‘fool,’ a babbling rhyme:
very ominous endings. No, I was not born
under a rhyming planet.”
Dogberry’s outrageous malapropisms and utter stupidity, such as
“They are condemn’d into everlasting redemption” (Act IV, Scene ii)
in general provide occasion for some of the memorable merriment in
this play (Bryant 142).
Dinesh Biswas considers Dogberry to play a major part in the action
of Much Ado about Nothing, which is not normally the case for
It is Dogberry who discovers and delays the exposure of the scene
that provides the major tension of the play.
It is his blunders that make the play’s most suspenseful moments
By giving this critical role to a minor character, Shakespeare shows
that “much ado” has been made about a matter that really was
“nothing” (Biswas 189-190).
As You Like It (1599)
Carrie Morene says that much of the humor, satire and irony of As
You Like It resides in the words and actions of Rosalind, Jaques, and
Touchstone. “Rosalind and Touchstone are whimsical yea-saying
skeptics who affirm the values they seem to mock” (Ornstein 141).
Rosalind adopts the role of a saucy lacky, and in this guise she
assures Orlando that he can’t be Rosalind’s true lover because he
lacks the marks of a lover: “a lean cheek…a blue eye and sunken…an
unquestionable spirit…a bear neglected hose ungarttered…bonnet
unbanded…sleeve unbuttoned…shoe untied…and everything about
[him] demonstrating a careless desolution.”
At the end of this speech Rosalind (as Ganymede) says that Orlando’s
being well-groomed is suggestive of his “loving himself [more] than
seeming the lover of any other.”
In As You Like It, Touchstone has the role of a
Court Jester, but he also contributes to the
action of the play. One of his monologues is
very similar to Cyrano de Bergerac’s monologue
about his nose, as he attempts to “quarrel by
the book.”
He describes the different degrees of argument
as the “Retort Courteous,” the “Quip modest,”
the “Reply Churlish,” the “Reproof Valient,” and
so on. (Evans 399).
When Touchstone hears the romantic love poems
which Orlando has written for Rosalind,
Touchstone taunts Rosalind by creating some
parody verse of his own: “Sweetest not hath
sourest rind, / Such a nut is Rosalind” (Evans 109110).
One of the most often quoted lines in all of
Shakespeare appears in Act II of As You Like It: “All
the world’s a stage, and all the men and women
merely players: They have their exits and their
entrances; and one man in his time plays many
Twelfth Night (1599)
In sixteenth century England there were the twelve days of Christmas
which was followed by “twelfth night,” the title of one of
Shakespeare’s plays.
On the twelfth night, Christ was supposedly revealed to the Magi,
who represented the Gentile world. The “Twelfth Night” was,
therefore, the night of the Epiphany. It also became celebrated as a
festive day of misrule.
“Servants took their masters’ places for a day and the lower orders
were allowed impertinence against their betters that would have
been heavily fined any other time of the year. The festivity generally
celebrated the age of grace that Christ ushered in, the age in which it
was revealed that human sins were already cleansed in the blood of
God’s Son” (Grawe 110-111).
In Twelfth Night, everyone is a fool except for the fool. Viola fools
others by dressing up as a man. Sir Toby fools Malvolio. The lovers
fool themselves by pursuing characters who are not interested in
Feste, on the other hand, knows them all for the fools that they are
(Draper 211-212).
Feste is perhaps the shrewdest character in Twelfth Night. He is an
excellent manipulator and can quickly adapt his talents and wit to
serve him in any situation. The tools of music, speech, and action
are always in close reach of his clever mind.
He confounds Sir Andrew with nonsense, and outwits his mistress
with logical paradoxes. He wisely ascertains that he cannot
entertain Malvolio at all and so he entertains himself at Malvolio’s
expense (Draper 204).
Feste, the fool in Twelfth Night is a character
reminiscent of the character of Vice in the Tudor
morality plays. Vice was a crude character who
taunted the Devil with a wooden dagger and rode
off the stage on the Devil’s back (Hotson 84). Fest
leaves the stage in the same way:
“I am gone, sir, / And anon, sir, / I’ll be with you
again, / In a trice, / Like to the old vice, / Your
need to sustain; / Who, with dagger of lath, / In
his rage and his wrath, / Cries, ah, ha! To the devil:
/ Like a mad lad, / Pare thy nails, dad; / Adieu,
goodman devil” (Evans 132).
Hamlet (1600)
There is much irony in Hamlet. The most famous
pun in Hamlet occurs after Hamlet decides to obey
the ghost. Horatio’s question, “To what issue will
this come?” is a play on that which issues from an
arse, i.e. a fart, and Marcellus answers that
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Claudius, of course, is the state of Denmark, and it
is Claudius which is rotten (Rubinstein 186).
When Horatio mentions that the funeral of
Hamlet’s father and the marriage of Hamlet’s
mother come very close together, Hamlet
ironically replies, “ ‘Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The
funeral bak’d meats / Did coldly furnish forth
the marriage tables.’”
Hamlet gives this ridiculous explanation of his
mother’s hasty wedding ironically, in order to
intensify his revulsion at the lust which he and
Horatio both recognize as the real explanation
(Booth, 177).
Much of the humor in the conversation between the two
gravediggers in Hamlet comes not from the words themselves, but
rather from the contrast between the language of the men and their
occupation (L’Estrange 255):
HAMLET: Whose Grave’s this, sirrah?
HAMLET: What man dost thou dig it for?
CLOWN: For no man, sir.
HAMLET: What woman then?
CLOWN: For none neither.
HAMLET: Who is to be buried in’t?
CLOWN: One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she’s dead.
HAMLET: How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or
equivocation will undo us. (Act 5, Scene i)
Hamlet’s soliloquy as he talks to poor Yorick’s skull in this same scene
seems less concerned that the life is gone than that the laughter is
gone. It begins, “Alas, Poor Yorick. I knew him well.” And it
“He hath borne me on his back a thousand times. And now how
abhorred to my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung
those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft. Where be your gibes
now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that
were wont to set the tables on a roar?
Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfall’n? Now
get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick,
to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.” (Act V, Scene
Hamlet considered Yorick to be “…a fellow if infinite jest, of most
excellent fancy.”
King Lear (1605)
Northrup Frye says that in King Lear, Shakespeare is ironically parodying a tragic
Many of Shakespeare’s play contain a fool, a clown, a jester, or a madman, but the
“fool” in King Lear is not so much of a “fool” as the king is. In fact, at one point in
the play, the fool says, “Nuncle! Would I had two coxcombs and two daughers?”
Lear asks, “Why, my boy?” and the fool responds, “If I gave them all my living, I’ll
keep the coxcombs myself. There’s mine; beg another of thy daughters” (Muir 39).
The fool is here saying that he would give something to his daughters if he had
daughters, but he would still keep the cap so that he could make a living. He is
further telling Lear that he has given everything to his daughters, and this means
that he must now beg his daughters for a living (Lin 8).
When the King says, “Dost thou call me a fool, boy?” the fool replies, “All the other
titles thou has given away; that thou was’t born with” (Evans 441).
Macbeth (1606)
There is very dark humor and irony in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth taunts
her husband by equating his desires to kill the king with his sexual promises.
“She links his twin deeds of assassination and lovemaking” (Homan 940).
The play Macbeth also contains the famous “drunken porter scene of Act 2,
Scene iii. This scene comes between the murder of King Duncan and the
discovery of his body, and is therefore the most tense moment of the play.
The audience is in an extreme state of arousal, as the drunken porter, before
answering the loud knocking at the castle gate, decides to play the role of
the gate keeper in Hell.
In his fantasy, he opens the gates of Hell to admit a failed farmer, an
equivocator, and an English tailor, before he, in reality, actually opens the
castle gate and admits the messenger.
The drunken porter scene is comic relief, and
occurs at a time in the play when the audience
needs comic relief. But the comic relief of the
drunker porter scene also adds to the tragedy of
the play in two ways:
First, it allows the audience to take a breath and
prepare themselves for more tragedy.
And second, it provides a comic foil against which
the tragedy becomes even more tragic (Derks 52).
Conclusion # 1:
Shakespeare’s Tragedies
vs. Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespearean tragedy is engaging, while Shakespearean comedy is
transcending. But they are different in another way as well.
Northrup Frye says, “just as comedy often sets up an arbitrary law and then
organizes the action to break or evade it, so tragedy presents the reverse
theme of narrowing a comparatively free life into a process of causation.”
This process of causation happens in Macbeth when he accepts the logic of
usurpation, to Hamlet when he accepts the logic of revenge, to Lear when
he accepts the logic of abdication (Frye 212).
Frye says that in comedy there tends to be a “tricky
slave” (dolosus servus”) that is an “eiron” figure who
acts from a pure love of mischief, and is able to set the
comic action going (212).
Some of these “tricky slaves” or “vices” can be as lighthearted as Puck in A Midsumer Night’s Dream, or as
malevolent as Don John in Much Ado about Nothing
(Frye 137).
Shakespeare’s comedies also have a buffoon character,
which Frye describes as an “entertainer.” He is jovial
and loquacious and both Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch are
examples (Frye 175).
Conclusion # 2:
Women in Shakespeare’s Comedies
Carol Neely suggests that in Shakespeare’s comedies there are four women whose
skills at logic, wit, and language play make them as strong as the strongest of
Shakespeare’s men.
These women are Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew, Portia in The Merchant of
Venice, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Rosalind in As You Like It.
Katharine ends up subjecting herself to marriage, but is able to keep her
independence in the end.
Portia, the most intellectual of the women, takes on the disguise of a male lawyer in
order to prove her superior intellect to the men of Venice.
Beatrice uses her charming intellect to match wits with Benedick,
thus proving her equality.
And Rosalind disguises herself as a man, in which guise she befriends
her own lover and takes control of all the events around her, making
sure that everything comes to a happy conclusion.
These plays all begin in a man’s world, but the women come in and
take over, and by their intelligence and wit, they “transform the men
from foolish lovers into—we hope—sensible husbands” (Neely 215).
In her Shakespearean Comedy, Chintamani Desai notes that whenever
Shakespeare has a battle of wits between a man and a woman the
woman is bound to win. Much of Shakespearean Comedy is the
result of the clash between the male and female intelligences. They
hinge on the conflict between their wits. “And in this conflict, man is
the loser. For wit is woman’s special quality as well as weapon”
(Desai 45).
William Shakespeare’s Humor:
William Shakespeare’s Humor: