John Lee and Martin Green raise a series of interesting questions regarding puns. My original simple point was that the pun is a mark of linguistic instability in what is otherwise a field of normative stability.
Perhaps I should try to specify the context for this assertion. I am thinking particularly about the ways in which in the modern world we fix meanings as in dictionary definitions, standardized spellings etc. I want at this stage to refrain from embracing the deconstructionist notion of the radical undecidability of all language, even though generally, this is the result of a particular, and, I think, rather partial, reading of Derrida. My concern is not to argue for or against linguistic stability (John Lee's question), but to try to locate and explain a set of historical phenomena which are inimical to the linguistic processes with which we are familiar.
Martin Green is right in that not all puns are humorous, but I think that he needs to take this observation along with the inconsistencies of spelling that we find in renaissance theatrical texts. If he looks AT the material of a theatrical text, and not through it to some locatable meaning beyond it, then he will find that deciding on what is a conscious playing with words is not quite so simple a matter. Green seems to confuse pun and metaphor at one point in his reply, and he continues to assume that theatrical texts are truthful records of stage speech, and that stage speech is dominated by an intending presence.
The New Bibliography raises some questions about this. May I suggest that Green and Lee look at the debate in the last 2 issues of Textual Practice, but also Stephen Orgel's contribution to the Stallybrass/Kastan STAGING THE RENAISSANCE raises similar questions. Margreta de Grazia's work, epsecially her article (written jointly with Stallybrass in SQ recently on "The Materiality of Shakespeare's Text", and the Holderness, Loughry, Murphy reply in Textual Practice 9.1) will help to provide a context for my question. From there it would be useful to return to the quartos and Folio texts of Shakespeare and to ask specific questions about the actual spellings encountered there. I am not suggesting that we dispense with the category of puns altogether, or that somehow renaissance writers always played with language without realizing it. The question of how CONSCIOUS this kind of writing was is a vexed one and is well beyond the scope of this present discussion. What I am saying is that given the current debate on what is now referred to as "the materiality" of the text we may well need to revise our view.
That is what I meant when I suggested that the simple labelling "pun" masks a whole range of textual practices which, if we attend to them closely, will not allow us to collapse cultural difference into sameness.
University of Stirling