Metaphors and implicatures in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado about Nothing"

Term Paper, 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


I Metaphors
1.1 Structural Metaphors
1.2 Orientational Metaphors
1.3 New Metaphors
1.4 Ontological Metaphors
2. Processing Effort and Contextual Effects
2.1 Strong and Weak Implicatures
2.2 Poetic Effects
2.3 Irony
3.1 Refernce Assignment
3.2 Disambiguation
3.3 Enrichment
3.4 Implicating
3.5 Implicatures in Proverbs
4. Metaphorical Extension
4.1 Small Extensions
4.2 Medium Extensions
4.3 Large Extensions
5. “Double Meaning” through Weak Implicatures
6. Bibliography


For many people it seems that the application and analysis of metaphors only belongs to the field of literary studies. There are, however, such a large number of metaphorical expressions and lexicalized, so-called “frozen metaphors” in both German and English that the importance of metaphors exceeds by far their poetic usage.

In their book Metaphors we live by, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson claim that the human conceptual system primarily works with metaphors and that humans think, act and live in terms of metaphors.[1] According to Lakoff and Johnson, “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”[2] They also claim that metaphors help to get a better grasp of abstract and indefinable concepts such as “love” or “life in general”. A typical metaphor for “life” would be the concept “journey”, “game” or “container”.

If metaphors are seen from a linguistic point of view, another question arises: it is not only relevant to ask what metaphors are and what they can do, but also, first of all, how they come about. In his work The philosophy of language, H.P. Grice categorizes metaphors as being part of implicatures.[3] Grice further classifies implicatures into two types: First, there are conventional implicatures (which can be inferred without the context of the utterance) and second, there are conversational implicatures (to which belong metaphors and irony and which are highly context-dependent).

For Grice, metaphors result from the flouting of the first maxim (Quality) – that of not saying what one believes to be false. Metaphorical expressions hence provoke a search for the intended speaker meaning because of the obvious discrepancy between the proposition expressed by the utterance and the “falseness” of its content. This “falseness”, however, is not always clear to see. Take, for example, the metaphor “no man is an island”. It is obviously metaphorical in both content and meaning and one could deduce a whole range of weak implicatures from it but it is in no way “literally false”.

I would therefore support P.D. Nogales objection that not all metaphors are “literally false” and therefore not compatible with the maxim of Quality, but rather that they violate the maxim of Relation.[4]

Considering that Grice labelled tropes and figures of speech (such as tautology, irony and metaphor) as cases of “maxim exploitation”[5], it seems reasonable to analyse a text which allows for a maximum of maxim exploitation and whose author is responsible for a large number of frozen metaphors in English:

What makes Shakespeare (to name just one example) extraordinary is the way he exploited this ordinary aspect of communication so that a single line or phrase triggers the discovery of a whole array of implicatures.[6]

The centre of this paper will thus be a linguistic analysis of metaphors and implicatures in Shakespeare’s play Much Ado about Nothing.

I Metaphors

1. The Ubiquity of Metaphor

Grice’s account of metaphor provides an explanation of how one determines that a given utterance is metaphorical (namely when the maxim of truthfulness is flouted), but his theory neither provides an account of how the interpretation of a metaphor is derived nor why one might want to use a metaphor instead of a literal expression.[7]

Apart from that, whenever there is a case of maxim exploitation, Grice’s method cannot distinguish between metaphors and other figures of speech. With Grice’s approach it is only possible to tell that the speaker meaning is other than the conventional sentence meaning. Whether the resulting conversational implicature is metaphoric or ironic in content must be deduced in a second step. This major flaw in Grice’s theory is also criticized by Levinson:

[…] All the other kinds of implicature due to maxim exploitation (e.g. rhetorical questions, understatements, etc.) share the same property of being generated by an overt flouting of a conversational maxim – and how we get from the recognition to the interpretation remains entirely unclear.[8]

Furthermore, Grice leaves another important question open for discussion: why might speakers want to use a metaphor instead of a literal expression? Sperber and Wilson found the following reasons:

The surprise or beauty of a successful creative metaphor lies in this extreme condensation, in the fact that a single expression which has itself been loosely used will determine a wide range of acceptable weak implicatures.[9]

Before the linguistic analysis of metaphors began, they were recognized as somewhat extraordinary forms of utterance. Aristotle, among others, wrote that “Metaphors are a means of expressing concept in an elegant and beautiful way, and thus their purpose is stylistic and ornamental in nature.”[10] This thesis was picked up by Ortony (1975) who claimed that “metaphors are compact and efficient ways to state the intended message” and that “the function of a metaphor is to illuminate, clarify or explain a concept in a way that cannot be done with literal language.”[11]

1.1 Structural Metaphors

The fact, however, that metaphors are used even though literal language counterparts are available shows that they have become a fixed and “ordinary” part of our lexicon and act as “words”. The idea that metaphors (in our every-day language) are not an exception but the rule was elaborated by the before-mentioned linguists Lakoff and Johnson. Metaphors, they argue, are a necessity of the human mind which facilitate the structuring and understanding of complex or abstract concepts. Therefore, a large number of metaphors belong to the category “structural metaphors”. An example provided by Lakoff and Johnson where one structural concept is used for another one is the metaphorical concept “time is money”: The abstract concept “time” is regarded as a valuable resource with similar properties as the literal concept “money”. For that reason, utterances such as “you are wasting my time” or idiomatic expressions like “spending time” and “saving time” have become generally accepted metaphors in Western culture.[12]

The understanding of such concepts – as Lakoff and Johnson do not forget to mention − is highly dependent on culture and society. For an analysis of metaphor in a Shakespearian context, some historical and cultural knowledge of the author and his times is therefore essential.

1.2 Orientational Metaphors

Metaphors that organize a whole system of concepts with respect to one another are called orientational metaphors. Most of them express some form of spatial orientation: “up” is good and “down” is bad.[13] This spatial orientation is also coherent with concepts like mood, status, health and general wellbeing. Again, the concept of “up being good” is very much bound to cultural background and experience.

(1) She’s in top shape.
(2) He’s at the peak of health.

Orientational concepts like these are more resistant to change than structural and ontological metaphors because the most basic human interpretation of the world is built upon them.

1.3 New Metaphors

New metaphors are outside the conventional conceptual system; apart from that, they have the same properties as the “metaphors we live by”. According to Lakoff and Johnson, “new metaphors have the power to change reality” because a new metaphor becomes a deeper reality when people begin to act in terms of it.[14]

1.4 Ontological Metaphors

Very often, events, emotions and ideas are viewed as entities and substances. An example of “ideas regarded as food” is:

(3) That is the meaty part of the paper.
(4) He devoured the book.

Metaphorical concepts of that kind are labelled ontological metaphors because they are capable of providing a link between physical objects and mental processes. Due to their dependence on physical objects, ontological metaphors are more likely to change in meaning than other metaphors. Such is the case with the expression “to be yoked together”. The meaning of “yoke” has shifted from “shaped peace of wood fixed across the necks of two animals pulling a cart or plough”[15] to “burden” or “repression” in a more general sense.

Personification and Metonymy are also part of ontological metaphors because events and ideas are viewed as (living) entities and (human) beings. The following examples will show in what a frequent and subtle way personifications (as part of ontological metaphors) are used in standard conversation:

(5) His theory explained to me the intricacies of applied linguistics.
(6) His religion tells him that he cannot go swimming on Wednesdays.
(7) Life has never been good to him.

Metonymy, on the other hand, is an ontological metaphor where one entity is used to refer to or even stand for another, as in:

(8) I never go out without my Shakespeare.

Here, “Shakespeare” stands for a specific work written by Shakespeare. But apart from this referential function, metonymy is a means of highlighting particular aspects of persons or objects, as in:

(9) We need more good heads on the project.[16]

“Good heads” does not only mean “people”, but – because of the special emphasis on “head” – it refers to “intelligent people”. However, there are quite a few other possible inferences one could draw from this sentence. Finding these hidden presumptions will be subject of the next chapter.

II Implicatures

2. Processing Effort and Contextual Effects

(9) We need more good heads on the project.

The reason why (9) conveys more than is actually said is because of its implicatures: even though a hearer of (9) does not know that “good heads” is a metonymy, where the part stands for the whole, he will still be able to work out the implied meaning. World knowledge and cultural knowledge tell the hearer of the utterance that “head” usually refers to “brain” or “intelligence in general” and that again is part of the human body. Thus, the intended meaning of “heads” must be something along the lines of “intelligent people”.


[1] Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.3.

[2] Ibid., p.5.

[3] Grice, H.P. (1990) “Logic and Conversation“ in: The philosophy of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.149-60.

[4] Nogales, Patti D. (1999). Metaphorically Speaking. California: CSLI Publications. p.127.

[5] Grice, “Logic and Conversation“.pp. 52-53.

[6] Blakemore, Diane (1992). Understanding Utterances. Oxford & Cambridge: Blackwell

Publishers. p.164.

[7] Nogales, Metaphorically Speaking. p.137.

[8] Levinson, Stephen C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: University Press. p.157.

[9] Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1995²). Relevance. Communication and cognition. Oxford:


[10] Mio, Jeffery Scott and Katz, Albert N. (ed.) (1996). Metaphor: Implications and Applications. New Jersey: LEA Publishers. P.5.

[11] Ibid., p.5

[12] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors we live by, p.8.

[13] Ibid., p.14.

[14] Ibid, p.145.

[15] Oxford Advanced Learner´s Dictionary. (1990). Cornelsen.

[16] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors we live by, p.36.

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Metaphors and implicatures in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado about Nothing"
University of Tubingen  (Neuphilologie)
Understanding Utterances
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Metaphors, Shakespeare’s, Much, Nothing, Understanding, Utterances
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Achim Binder (Author), 2003, Metaphors and implicatures in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado about Nothing", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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