David Lucking. Plays Upon the Word: Shakespeare's Drama of Language. ix+228pp. Collana di Studi e Testi, 22. Lecce: Millella, 1997. ISBN 88 7048 329 0.
John Pendergast
Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville

Pendergast, John. "Review of David Lucking, Plays Upon the Word: Shakespeare's Drama of Language." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 10.1-6<URL:

  1. David Lucking's Plays Upon the Word: Shakespeare's Drama of Language studies the manner in which "language is an unnamed protagonist" in the six plays he discusses, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Othello, and Coriolanus: "The common terrain shared by all of the following essays is their mutual concern with Shakespeare's exploration of the role played by language in fashioning the reality which human beings inhabit" (vii). Lucking's focus on Shakespeare's language and Renaissance linguistic paradigms places his study in the tradition of such classics as Caroline Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us (1935), M. M. Mahood's Shakespeare's Wordplay (1957), and Keir Elam's Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse (1984), all of which he often cites, as well as Jane Donawerth's Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language (1984) and William Carroll's Great Feast of Language in "Love's Labour's Lost" (1976). Critical studies which concern themselves with linguistics and verbal representation are often complicated by the difficulty of describing how language works; sometimes the meta-linguistic nature of the discussion necessitates a reliance on obtuse and extremely slippery terms, and as a result the ontological relation to the work of literature is at best strained, and at worst made irrelevant. Lucking brings many original insights to Shakespearian criticism, but what makes his book most worthy of praise is the manner in which he manages to avoid either of these extremes.

  2. Although Lucking focuses more on tragedies than on comedies, his discussions of The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing are the strongest chapters in the book. Traditionally, comedy has lent itself better to discussions of language, perhaps because of its inherent reliance upon the instability of language. This is a point made by perhaps the greatest example of philological criticism, William Carroll's Great Feast of Language. Like Lucking, Carroll's emphasis is on how language constructs can shape a character's dramatic existence. In Lucking's most effective chapter, "Bringing Deformed Forth: Engendering Meaning in Much Ado About Nothing," he rises to Carroll's standard by showing how the play is "about the interpretation of events, about the difficulty of correlating sign and signification, about the pitfalls in the construction of meaning" (87).

  3. However, even in this chapter, which does a wonderful job of fulfilling his thesis and, even when not opening new territory, clarifies the multi-faceted linguistic texture of the play, the limitations of linguistic analysis are occasionally seen; studies such as this can force a reading on the plays which is anti-dramatic. For example, in citing IV.i.77-102, in the Arden edition, Lucking concludes that "even names have come adrift from their moorings, have divided against themselves, been made to assume divergent meanings that cannot be reconciled . . . Chaos is come again" (103). In the passage cited, Hero answers Claudio's ironic comment upon her name: "Is it [my name] not Hero? Who can blot that name/With any just reproach?" Claudio responds by stating:
    Marry, that can Hero; Hero itself can blot out Hero's virtue. . . . O Hero! What a Hero hadst thou been, If half thy outward graces had been plac'd About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart!
  4. Rather than chaos, the resulting exchange is deep in intended ironic comments not only upon the verbal signs of a name, which is still "attached" to the signified (in fact, through punning it becomes even more relevant to the signified), but on the dramatic situation as well, i.e. that Hero herself is somehow not a stable signified, that she is something more than the virginal and dutiful woman she appears to be. In short, Lucking sometimes seems to ignore what the play is doing at the level of performance, i.e. as a script, and focuses more on largely generalized conclusions about the relation between signs and signifiers. What makes so many of Shakespeare's overt comments on language work dramatically, and puns are perhaps the best example of this, is that someone is in control of the exchange. One exception, noted by Lucking in his discussion, is Dogberry, whose malapropisms are not "controlled" by any one character, but it should be added that they are mistakes with a specific dramatic purpose.

  5. Lucking's chapter on Coriolanus is the most successful of the chapters on tragedy, perhaps because it manages to uncover how the "public" nature of tragedies is also dependent upon language as a protagonist; Coriolanus works best for this concept since in the play "human beings themselves [are] frequently represented merely as voices" (167). In Lucking's reading, the play revolves around the inevitable tragedy which results when public men such as Martius refuse to see the "practical dynamics of language use" and the corresponding "social mechanisms by which values, including the values upon which his own sense of self is dependent, are created and sustained" (168). This observation best reflects Lucking's thesis that language is an " unnamed protagonist" in the plays.

  6. Ultimately, Lucking must contend with a problem with which all critics of Shakespeare's language must contend: how do you define language? As Lucking notes himself, defining "language" is not easy, especially in light of the dramatic uses to which it is put: it can either mean "the names by which things and persons are designated" or narratives by which stories get told (vii). By combining these two definitions, Lucking has added to our understanding of how Shakespeare dramatized language and brought it to life. It is this focus which ultimately makes Lucking's book satisfying.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).