Author (Your Name)

Matthew K. Crane, Colby College

Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. English Dept.


Patricia A. Onion


The Shakespearean canon is characterized by indeterminacy. His world is one where nothing is as it seems; men pose as women, nobles as commoners, and sisters as brothers. The resulting confusion challenges conventional norms, questioning gender, cultural, and other social boundaries. The surface uncertainty extends beneath the costumes and performers to the very foundation of theatre—language—as spaces emerge between words and meaning, and what is said and what is meant. Shakespeare’s use of ambiguous language opens his plays to multiple interpretations, creating a constant but fluctuating separation between the reader and text, the literal and figurative, and the expressed and implied. From gaps in the language itself to indeterminate spaces within gender and sexuality, Shakespearean theatre’s porous quality enables each play to constantly assume new and different meanings and a timeless quality. Whether a play's uncertainty appears in plot, characters, or setting, it can ultimately be attributed to the subtleties of the language in which it is composed. For instance, Hamlet’s deceit and revenge of Claudius is an outward function of verbal wordplay. Othello’s murder of Desdemona and subsequent suicide results from vague language and a problematic communication process rather than misogynistic impulses and suspected adultery. As You Like It’s confused reality is literalized by its ambiguous text. Both the characters and setting of Titus Andronicus occupy a wavering middle-ground between the literal and figurative rooted in textual vagueness and duality. Meanwhile, Twelfth Night’s comic treatment of gender and sexuality are rooted in sexually charged dialogue rife with innuendo and double entendre. The five aforementioned plays help illuminate the effects, capabilities and boundaries of language.


Ambivalence in literature, Shakespeare, William, Criticism and interpretation, Ambiguity in literature