Camel, Weasel, Whale: Shakespeare's Riddles

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John Elliott


Elizabethan life, Dramatic technique, Classes of riddles, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Pericles

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


This study of Shakespeare and riddles seeks to develop three central points. First, riddles were an important element of Elizabethan life and had a long literary and popular tradition. Second, Shakespeare employed riddles not merely as minor elements of a few plays, but also as major contributors to his dramatic technique. Third, knowledge of this riddle element significantly increases the critic's understanding and appreciation of the plays as well as of Shakespeare's dramatic genius.

To demonstrate that riddles are an enduring form of expression with a literary and popular tradition, the first chapter provides background on the human impulse to form riddles and presents various occasions where riddling might be appropriate. In addition, the initial chapter discusses general definitions of the term "riddle" and examines in depth those definitions of the term provided by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. This opening chapter also provides numerous illustrations of riddles in Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, and Renaissance England, discusses the dramatic utility of riddles, and suggests some reasons why this important element of Elizabethan life may have been overlooked.

The second chapter addresses the general dramatic functions of riddles in Shakespeare's plays and describes the eight chief classes of riddles which he used. Through numerous examples this chapter illustrates both the versatility of riddles and the important and consistent role riddles play in the Shakespearean canon. This chapter demonstrates that Shakespeare employed riddles as a significant element of his dramatic technique.

The final two chapters illustrate how critical insights can be generated from this discovery of one of Shakespeare's major dramatic techniques. The third chapter approaches The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Pericles by examining the riddles in these plays. This approach helps the critic clarify conflicts and themes, identify central issues more clearly, and see the coherence in events he previously saw as unrelated. The fourth chapter looks at the history plays and shows how Shakespeare consistently utilized a riddle technique to detail shifting levels of power in a coherent, artistic way. Once again, the critic finds that knowledge of this central technique creates an appreciation that numerous events and passages, which formerly drew minor notice, now seem strokes of artistic genius. ...


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