Multiple meanings

Part of the richness of the language used in Shakespeare's plays is the many layers of meaning with which the playwright infused his words. Here are some examples of many-layered meanings.

These examples were put together by Heloise Senechal, from the Complete Works of Shakespeare (2008) published by the RSC and Macmillan.

1. From Macbeth, 5.5.24-25

MACBETH: Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage…

shadow insubstantial thing/illusion/ghost/actor (a ghostly sense transforms walking into 'haunting'; the theatrical meaning is picked up in fools and player) frets wears out/worries his way through/rants and rages (in the manner of a melodramatic actor) poor wretched/unskilled

2. From The First Part of Henry the Fourth, 2.3.20-22

HOTSPUR: O, I could divide myself and go to buffets, for moving such a dish of skimmed milk with so honourable an action!

go to buffets come to blows (with myself) moving trying to persuade dish … milk i.e. weak, cowardly person action course of action/military enterprise/rhetorical gesture/division in a logical argument

3. From The Winter's Tale, 1.2.220-222

Leontes, here addressing his son, is wrongly convinced that his pregnant wife has been unfaithful. She has just left to accompany his brother (whom Leontes suspects of being her lover) on a walk.

LEONTES: … Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave.

plays amusesherself/is busily engaged/practises deceit/has sex (in the next line the sense shifts to 'perform a role') so … part i.e. the cuckold, butt of jokes issue outcome/action/offspring (i.e. the unborn child)

4. From Troilus and Cressida, 2.1.2-5

THERSITES: Agamemnon, how if he had boils, full, all over, generally? … And those boils did run? Say so: did not the general run? Were not that a botchy core? … Then there would come some matter from him: I see none now.

How what full everywhere/big, swollen generally all over (puns on Agamemnon's military rank as general) run seep (sense then shifts to 'run away') Say so say it were so botchy core boil-covered body/flawed (i.e. cowardly) heart (core may pun on 'corps', i.e. 'soldiers stationed on guard'; it can also mean 'hardened mass in the centre of a boil') matter pus/significant subject matter, reason.

Developed with Macmillan and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Contact us & FAQs

Ticket Hotline

0844 800 1110
Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm

Email newsletter

Sign up to email updates for the latest RSC news:

RSC Members

Already an RSC Member or Supporter? Sign in here.

Teaching Shakespeare