Misleading and relevance in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Scott, Kate (2019) Misleading and relevance in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In: Chapman, Siobhan and Clark, Billy, (eds.) Pragmatics and Literature. Amsterdam, The Netherlands : John Benjamins. pp. 94-114. (Linguistic Approaches to Literature, (35)) ISSN (print) 1569-3112 ISBN 9789027204448 (In Press)


Much of the plot and comedy in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night relies on misunderstandings and misinterpretations. What makes it particularly interesting from a pragmatic perspective is that throughout the play the characters intend to mislead each other. Furthermore, they do so, on the whole, without explicitly lying. According to relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1986/95; Carston, 2002), inferential processes are involved, not just in the derivation of implicatures, but also in the derivation of explicit meaning. Hearers must resolve reference, disambiguate and perform other pragmatic enrichment processes to construct a hypothesis about the speaker’s intended explicit meaning. According to the relevance theoretic comprehension procedure, hearers test interpretations in order of accessibility and accept the first interpretation that is compatible with their expectations of relevance. In this chapter I analyse three extracts from Twelfth Night and show how the characters exploit their interlocutors’ pragmatic processes to guide them to their intended, albeit false, interpretations. In each case, the speakers construct their utterances so that, without explicitly lying, they manipulate the accessibility of interpretations in order to mislead. The audience, however, holds different assumptions to the characters and so is not deceived in the same way. My analysis will show how this contrast between the two possible interpretations creates stylistic effects. In some cases this leads to comedy and in others it creates a sense of empathy between the characters and the audience.

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