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Welcome to Episode #94 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

No one asks a question better than William Shakespeare. When we explore his plays, they are full of question marks but it turns out that for the 16th century, the concept of what constituted a question was still a new thing for printers who were in charge of selecting the actual marks which would go on the page to indicate a question. Not to mention, since Shakespeare’s plays were written on paper originally, or recounted in letters, often times the text that printers were working with to compile works like the First Folio required the printers to interpret pretty hard to read Elizabethan handwriting. That resulted in what is known as punctuation variations, and as our guest this week presented at the recent Blackfriars Conference, there were even some writers who suggested there be brand new kinds for question marks all together.

Our guest, James Loehlin, is here this week to take us back to Shakespeare’s England and explore how we know when Shakespeare was actually intending to ask a question.

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Shakespeare is known for his eloquence with words, but he was also pretty great at snazzy zingers that can scathe to the core. Sign up for That Shakespeare Life newsletter and get the guide that lets you start insulting your friends with class. 

James Loehlin is the Shakespeare at Winedale Regents Professor of English and director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program at the University of Texas at Austin. He has published books on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV, and Henry V, as well as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.  He is also the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Chekhov. At Winedale, he and his students have done more than fifty productions of Shakespeare’s plays. He is currently co-editing, with David Kornhaber, Tom Stoppard in Context for Cambridge University Press.

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Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
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In this episode, I’ll be asking James Loehlin about :

  • When did the question mark become commonly used in printed text? Was the question mark used when someone was writing with a pen? 

  •  When it comes to questions, and for someone who is reading a Shakespeare play, how do we tell the difference between a rhetorical question and a genuine ask?

  • How does this understanding of the fluidity of questions, and the competition between rhetorical and genuine questions change the way we understand Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech–was that, indeed, the question?
  • … and more!
I answer you right painted cloth, from whence you have studied your questions.

As You Like It (III.2)

German woodcut of a printing press from c. 1777. Original description translated to English reads, “DANIEL CHODOWIECKI 62 previously unpublished drawings for the elementary work by Johann Bernhard Basedow. With a foreword by Max von Boehn. Voigtländer-Tetzner, Frankfurt am Main 1922” Source

Exclamation Points vs Question Marks

The Renaissance across Europe not only saw the invention of the printing press and movable type, but saw the rise of questions about how to express emotion. The exclamation point served the purpose of indicating admiration, or exclamation (hence the name) and the question mark was there to indicate when someone was asking a question. However, handwriting seems to have interrupted, or at least distorted, the collective agreement on what these marks should look like on paper. Some historians believe the original question mark, for example, might have been written sideways with a tidle followed by a dot “·~” with the tidle representing what Lynne Truss, scholar of English aesthetics in the English language, calls a “lightening flash.”

Introduced into English printing before Shakespeare, during the 15th century, it would remain called the “sign of admiration or exclamation” as well as the “note of admiration” throughout the life of bard, with that title dying out by the mid-17th century. 

Other emotions and expressions, like the asking of a question, also required a specific mark. Despite the age of the question mark, with scholars in the 8th century commenting on the “lightning flash” with a dot, exactly how to write a question mark remained a point of debate. Exclamation points and question marks were subject to the handwriting styles of the authors who employed them, and suffered a lack of definition in stylistic look literally at the hands of the various writers. How to write a question mark remained such a point of debate and uncertainty that modern typewriters would not have a dedicated exclamation point on the keys until the 1970s.

While I was not able to find an instance where the phrase Shakespeare would have used to describe what we call the Question Mark today, I was able to find that for Shakespeare, the exclamation and question mark were often used interchangeably. An example of this interchange is seen in the various copies of Shakespeare's works, where the First Folio version will use an exclamation point, while another text will substitute in a question mark. Which is correct? Well, that, as they say, is the question.

Did Shakespeare write with a pencil? 

In this related episode, Dr Tiffany Stern talks with us about graphite pencils and the liklihood that Shakespeare's famous quill pen might of actually pen a pencil.

That's a question: how shall we try it?
Dromio of Ephesus

Comedy of Errors (V.1)

Last page of Shakespeare's Last Will and Testament. 1616. Current scholarship suggests only the line “By me William Shakespeare” was actually written by Shakespeare, the rest composed by scribe. Source

Elizabethan Secretary Hand

A very appropriate example of Elizabethan secretary hand is the will of William Shakespeare. This kind of script was developed in the early 16th century for it's legibility, a fact I find personally hilarious given the great effort it demands of my eyes to read it today.

There was a need in commerce and among the classes who conducted business via letter (almost everyone), to universalize a script that was widely legible which is not unlike the standard requirement of “Times New Roman” on professional papers today. The idea was that if everyone wrote the same way, it would be easier.

As a result,this script was taught to secretaries, scribes, or other professionals whose profession rested in alot of writing at court, chanceries, and the equivalent of city clerks. It's use by secretaries, and for business in particular, is how it came to be known as the secretary hand.

It is a little unclear when precisely that Elizabethan secretary hand and “Italian script” preferred by Henry VII converged onto one another, but I did find that Shakespeare could have used this “Italian script” to indicate what we call “italics today. One scholar, Grace Ioppolo, wrote in 2010 that when a playwright was writing a drama, they would often indicate the non-dialogue information like act, scene, and stage directions, using the italic script while the dialogue would be written in this Elizabethan Secretary hand. It is like the 16th century version of changing fonts on your computer.

If you're curious about Shakespeare's will, here's a transcription of what is written:

Males of the bodies of the saied fourth fifth Sixte & Seaventh sonnes lawfullie yssueing, in such manner as yt ys before Lymitted to be & Remaine to the first second and third Sonns of her bodie & to their heires Males; And for defalt of such issue the said premisses to be & Remaine to my sayed Neece Hall & the heires males of her bodie Lawfullie yssueinge, and for defalt of such issue to my daughter Judith and the heires Males of her bodie lawfullie yssueinge, and for defalt of such issue to the Right heires of me the saied William Shackspare for ever. Item I gyve vnto my wief my second best bed with the furniture, Item I gyve & bequeath to my saied daughter Judith my broad silver gilt bole.
All the Rest of my goodes chattels leases plate jewels & household stuffe whatsoever, after my dettes and Legasies paied and my funerall expences dischardged, I give devise and bequeath to my Sonne in Lawe, John Hall gent & my daughter Susanna his wief whom I ordaine & make executours of this my Last will and testament. And I doe intreat & Appoint the saied Thomas Russell Esquier & ffrauncis Collins gent to be overseers hereof. And doe Revoke All former wills & publishe this to be my last will and testament. In witnesse whereof I have hereunto put my [seale] hand, the daie & Yeare first above Written.

by me William Shakespeare

witnes to the publyshing hereof.
Fra. Collyns
Julyus Shawe
John Robinson
Hamnet Sadler
Robert Whatcott

Probatum fuit testamentum suprascriptum London, coram Magistro William Byrde, Legum Doctore, &c. vicesimo secundo die mensis Junii, Anno Domini, 1616; juramento Johannis Hall unius ex. cui, &c. de bene, &c. jurat. reservata potestate, &c. Susannae Hall, alt. ex. &c. eam cum venerit, &c. petitur, &c.

“Note: Words shown in brackets are crossed out in the original document but still legible.

Transcription sources:

  • Internet Shakespeare Editions, citing E. K. Chambers
  • William Shakespeare, a Study of Facts and Problems, vol. 2. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930). 170-4.
  • E. Fleischer, The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare. (1833). xxxi-xxxii.”


The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


Come in, and let us banquet royally, After this golden day of victory.
Charles, King of France

Henry VI Part I (I.6)

This woodcut references flyting, if not an outright illustration of it. From a series of woodcuts (1545) usually referred to as the “Papstspotbilder” or “Papstspottbilder” in German, or “Depictions of the Papacy” in English, by Lucas Cranach, who was commissioned to paint it by Martin Luther. This wor is titled “Kissing the Pope's Feet.” The drawing shows German peasants responding to a papal bull of Pope Paul III. Caption says: “Don't frighten us Pope, with your ban, and don't be such a furious man. Otherwise we shall turn around and show you our rears.” Source

Flyting: The Contest of Wit

Flyting is a ritual, poetic exchange of insults practised mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries. It would not be to far off the mark to think of it as a rap battle, or a contest of “yo momma” jokes. In Anglo-Saxon England, flyting would take place in a feasting hall. The winner would be decided by the reactions of those watching the battle. Once a winner was declared, they enjoyed a large cup of beer or mead. After the winner had his beverage, the loser was invited to drink as well. Despite the insulting nature of the exchange, the battle itself was done in a good spirit of mutual frivolity. In the 15th and 16th century, flyting was a popular public entertainment in Scotland. Particpants would hurl provacative insults at one another, specifically of a sexual or scatalogical nature, and always highly poetic. It demosntrates the popularity of this pastime to note that it was illegal. Flyting came with a fine of 20 shillings if it was done by a lord, and if committed by a servant was also accompanied by physical punishment. Despite the risks, both James IV and James V (James I of England) encouraged flyting, being known to request “court flyting” as entertainment at their feasts, even going so far as to engage with the poets themselves. One very famous episode of flyting occurs between William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy who appeared before James IV to flyt one another. This contest includes the earliest recorded use of the word “shit” as a personal insult. In 1536, the poet David Lyndsay wrote a 60-line flyte to James V in response to the King's request for a reply to his own flyte. There are numerous examples of flyting within Shakespeare's plays. This past time of public rap battles hurling insults at an opponent in poetry form is a key feature of Shakespeare's life, though often overlooked in historical circles. Undoubtedly, the unsavory nature and less than sophisticated reality of this battle is one reason it's skipped over so often.

A Rap Battle Shakespeare Would Appreciate:


This video contains explicit content and the jokes they hurl at one another are obscene. What the exchange demonstrates remarkably, however, is what it would have been like to participate in an episode of Flyting in the 16th century.

To be, or not to be- that is the question

Hamlet (III.1)

An excerpt from a French manual describing the “Irony Mark”, the backwards question mark. « Ironie », in: Nouveau Larousse illustré, publié sous la direction de Claude Augé, Paris, Larousse, 1897–1905, t. V., p. 329 Source

The Backwards Question Mark

With the advent of the internet and specifically Twitter, modern writers have taken to using marks like the hastag and #sarcasm to indicate when they are speaking rhetorically, or with irony. History did not always have these indicators, however, an in the 16th century, Henry Denham proposed a symbol he felt would help readers delineate between a genuine and a rhetorical question. That mark was called the Percontation Point, or the Irony Mark, and it was drawn as a backwards question mark. There is a distinction between the percontation point and the irony mark that should be stated. The mark Henry Denham proposed was specifically designed to indicate rhetorial questions, whereas the irony mark was designed to show irony. That's a fine difference, but it's worth noting that the irony mark is analogous to the percontation point, but not identical. The first use of sarcasm, the word, occurs during Shakespeare's lifetime, in this quote from 1579 (When William was about 14 years old) The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser:
Tom piper, an ironicall Sarcasmus, spoken in derision of these rude wits, whych …
Despite not being assigned to sarcasm by Denham in the 1580s, both Denham's Percontation Point and the 19th century Irony Mark were represented visually by a ⸮ backwards question mark. They were both used to indicate that a sentence could be ironic, but not necessarily sarcastic. I believe this splitting of hairs and relatively impossibility to be certain when it was appropriate to use a backwards question mark could be one reason it became obsolete by the 17th century.

Books & Resources James Loehlin recommends:


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