In this early play, Shakespeare makes much use of puns. A pun is a play on words that uses words with identical sounds but different meanings. An example occurs in Act 2, scene 3. Launce is about to depart and has been complaining about his dog when Panthino enters and tells him to get moving or he will miss his boat. The following dialogue reveals the pun on “tide” and “tied”:
PANTHINO: Away, ass! You’ll lose the tide if you tarry any longer.
LAUNCE: It is no matter if the tied were lost; for it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied.
PANTHINO: What’s the unkindest tide?
LAUNCE: Why, he that’s tied here, Crab, my dog.
Another type of pun is called an equivoque, in which one word is used in such a way to bring out two different meanings. An example occurs in Act 2, scene 5. Speed inquires of Launce about the situation between Julia and Proteus:
SPEED: Why then, how stands the matter with them?
LAUNCE: Marry, thus: when it stands well with him, it stands well with her.
The second meaning of “stand” here is a bawdy one, referring to the male sexual organ.
Stichomythia is a form of repartee between two characters. It is common in Elizabethan literature. Holman Hunt in A Handbook of Literature defines the term: “It is a sort of line-for-line ‘verbal fencing match’ in which the principals in the dialogue retort sharply to each other in lines which echo the opponent’s words and figures of speech.” An example of stichomythia occurs in Act 1, scene 2, between Julia and Lucetta, as they argue about whether Proteus loves Julia:
JULIA: And wouldst thou have me cast my love on him?
LUCETTTA: Ay—if you thought your love not cast away.
JULIA: Why, he, of all the rest, hath never mov’d me.
LUCETTTA: Yet he, of all the rest, I think best loves ye.
JULIA: His little speaking shows his love but small.
LUCETTTA: Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all.
JULIA: They do not love that do not show their love.
LUCETTTA: O, they love least that let men know their love.
A conceit is a figure of speech in which two apparently unlike things are compared in such a way as to bring out a parallel between them. The Petrarchan conceit is named after the medieval Italian poet Francis Petrarch (1304-1374), who wrote love sonnets in which he applied exaggerated conceits to his desired mistress, Laura, comparing her to a heavenly spirit or to the sun, or similar. Equally exaggerated were the torments he endured because of the mistress’s disdainful attitude toward him. These Petrarchan conceits were taken up by Elizabethan writers of sonnets, and Shakespeare uses them satirically in this play. For example, in Act 2, scene 4, Valentine tells Proteus, without irony, of the “bitter fasts,” “penitential groans,” “nightly tears,” and “daily heart-sore sighs” that he has endured since he fell in love with Silvia. He then praises her in extravagant terms, calling her divine, and then, when Proteus objects, describing her as a “principality, / sovereign to all the creatures on the earth.” (A principality is a celestial being, an angel.) In using the conceit, Shakespeare undermines it, inviting the audience to laugh at the foolishness of the terms that lovers use to describe the beloved.