Why we should quibble over puns

What is it about a pun that is so pungent in literary terms - so exactly poised between a fragrance and a stink? Samuel Johnson famously wrinkled his nose at their presence in Shakespeare, taking them as evidence of an impurity of talent. "A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller," he wrote. "He follows it to all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of the way, and sure to engulf him in the mire." For Johnson Shakespeare's quibbling (or punning) was a regrettable linguistic incontinence. It stained the work with something base and uncontrolled, and though we're a good deal less fussy these days about word-play, puns still have a capacity to make us uncomfortably aware of class distinctions. They might be all very well in a Kathy Lette novel - the 18-30 Holidays of literature - but you don't quite expect their raucous vulgarity in a work of more serious demeanour. And when one does pop up you don't quite know where to look.

It happened to me the other night while watching Five Gold Rings - the second play by Joanna Laurens, a young playwright whose first staged work, The Three Birds, was generally greeted as evidence of great promise. If I'm to judge from the occasional fidgeting and stifled giggle at the Almeida, I wasn't the only one to be disconcerted by the crossword puzzle playfulness of Laurens writing. In press interviews she's explained, rather winningly, that she originally had no idea how unconventional her stage language is, because when she wrote her first play she had hardly seen anyone else's, barring the odd Shakespeare and several pantos. It's a small miracle, she says, that her first work didn't contain the line "Oh no he didn't!" Not a great surprise, though, that her work oscillates weirdly between brief flashes of naturalism, Shakespearian allusion, and more puns than a Christmas cracker factory. The overall effect is very strange indeed - and not made less strange by the fact that the most obvious cultural models for the strange jumbled syntax Laurens' characters employ are Jar-Jar Binks and Yoda from the Star Wars films. I take it she hasn't been to the cinema much either.

Name a form of word-play and you can probably find it somewhere here - pivotal twists in meaning ("we must walk away from our old rings - leaving them unanswered"), reanimated clichés ("I'll drive you wild" says one character, just after his new lover has suggested they go out in the car) and boiler-plated Beano groaners (a reference to "wait watching"). And the effect of this Joycean stew is two-fold - firstly to remind you of how conventional most British theatrical writing is, and then to make you wonder whether conventions don't sometimes have their uses. Because, however invigorating it is to encounter something other than kitchen-sink naturalism, there's something unnerving about her susceptibility to a quibble. One problem is that punning at this level is uncontainable. It begins to spill out in all directions and some that are starkly at odds with her intentions. One assumes she intends us to savour the pun about a breast-feeding child - "Madonna/my dinner" - but does she really mean us, just a few lines earlier to think of unwelcome sexual assaults on lesbians when a character is described as "the boy with his finger in the dyke"? There are no lesbians in Five Gold Rings (not obviously anyway), but the pun is such an old chestnut one can hardly think she's unaware of it. At this moment, and at many others when she wanders off after an ambiguity or an echo, you sense a writer helpless in front of language, quite unable to pull herself free of its net of meanings. The words seem to tug us away from the subject not towards it - and Johnson's image of a man lead astray by a delusive glimmer suddenly seems strikingly pertinent.

Richard Ellman, writing about the greatest literary punster of them all, James Joyce defined a pun as "the verbal emblem of a coincidence". At its best word-play can find genuine meaning in such coincidences. Anne Tyler's new novel, for instance, is called The Amateur Marriage - a genuinely witty use of a word than can mean both "passionate" and "unprofessional". Shouldn't all marriages be done "for the love of it", and aren't most marriages amateur anyway - given that few of us get any training? But then how the hell do you conduct a marriage properly, with that undertone of incompetence hanging over you? In other puns, though, and quite a lot of Laurens' as it happens, coincidence is all there is - diverting enough if you like that kind of thing and evidence of an extensive vocabulary, but not evidence that the vocabulary can be used in an artful way. I can't imagine anyone would now want Shakespeare rewritten to conform to Johnson's strictures but if other writers want to ignore them they had better be sure they're as good as Shakespeare.

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