Shakespeare Interpretations: One Word, Many Different Meaning

Author: Taniya Gray

There are many variations of Line 2035 “your lion, that holds his poleaxe sitting on a close-stool” of the Shakespeare’s play Love Labour’s Lost. Within the Malone’s translation, the word ‘poleaxe’ is ‘poll-ax’ (pg. 169), Oxford’s Critical Reference Edition is ‘polax’, Oxford’s Modern Critical Edition is “poleaxe’, Shakespeare’s words Original Text is ‘pollax’, and Shakespeare’s words Modern Text is ‘pole-axe’. These variations all have different meanings and different emphasis on certain ideas, so I will be explaining that.
The word ‘Poleaxe’ means the weapon used in close combat, and the variations ‘polax’, ‘pollax’, and ‘poll-ax’ are very similar in this meaning. There is an emphasis on the etymon Poll, which means “The top of the head, the crown, the vertex” and it is mainly used in references to animals. I found this interesting because the animal referenced in the play is a lion, and lions are seen as a sign of strength and leadership. Within the context of the play, Costard states this line after Alexander (played by Nathaniel) is overthrown, and I saw this as a transition of leadership from the noble (Nathaniel), to the common person (Costard). Also, as stated on the Oxford Dictionary website, these forms were mainly used in the United States in the 20th century, which has a more modern and practical approach to leadership.
The ‘poleaxe’ and ‘pole-axe’ variation have a slightly different meaning than their counterparts listed above. There is an emphasis on the etymons pole, “a stake, stave, or stick, regardless of length or thickness”, and axe, “A tool or instrument for hewing, cleaving, or chopping, trees, wood, ice, etc.”. I found these definitions to be more straight forward which leads to less interpretation of the actual meaning. But, also on the website it is states that “it is unclear whether the compound originally denoted an axe with a special kind of head, or one for cutting off or splitting the head of an enemy.” This is interesting because the weapon ‘poleaxe’ was used specifically between enemies, which gives Costard and Nathaniel’s relationship a little bit more depth. This spelling of the word is mainly used in older English texts (17th century), which can explain the enemy aspect of the meaning because everything was so divided during this time period.