In a Blacklist episode, the following conversation takes place, the first and last speaker is the sophisticated Raymond Reddington:

-'Ambition's debt must be paid'.

-Julius Caesar?

-One of my favorites. The play, not so much the man. The man was a bit full of himself. He did have a brilliant military mind, but he couldn't smell a plot to save his life. Intentional pun.

I cannot for the life of me understand the joke. My only hypotheses circle around the words plot - also a place for a grave - and the mention of smell in the following soliloquy from the Shakespeare play, but I have found nothing satisfying:


O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,--
Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips,
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue--
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.


8 Answers 8


The pun is on 'couldn't (do something) to save his life'.

Usually 'to save his own life' is used metaphorically, meaning that he couldn't do X very well. Except here the X, 'discovering a plot', is what he couldn't do and he literally could not save his own life because of it, the plot was to kill Caesar.

As everyone else said, it's not a particularly strong pun, because it is based on the weak difference between metaphorical and literal meanings, rather than very distinct meanings or close sounding words, but it is technically a pun.

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    @JoeBlow: 'literally' definitely would have been a better choice. One definition of 'pun' is a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word, and metaphorical and literal are different meanings. I find 'pun' very weak for that (I usually think of it as a slight mispronunciation), but technically it was a pun. A clever play on words, a trope, not best described as a 'pun', but it fulfills the technical requirements.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 15:39

" He couldn't run to save his life;"

"He couldn't swim to save his life;"

morphed into such phrases as

"He couldn't play bridge to save his life." "...fry eggs..." "...tie a reef knot..."

Here R R finds himself using the phrase literally. I think that is the play on words that catches him by surprise, an informal phrase in a real context.

  • Steven, your answer was posted as I was reading mine through.
    – Hugh
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:29
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    Indeed, "He couldn't fry an egg to save his life" would be a pun when describing someone who actually starved to death surrounded by eggs and hot frying pans.
    – oerkelens
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:37

Another consideration: instead of referring to to word plot, maybe he's referring to the idiom "to save his life." It's used to colorfully describe one's inability/incompetence with regard to the described action: It's like saying "He's so bad at X, that even if his life depended on his doing X, he still wouldn't be able to it adequately."

It's a common hyperbole, but I think the "pun" here may be that, in this case, it's not.

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    What you describe is not a pun.
    – Robusto
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:33
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    @Robusto: I do agree with Steven that what he describes is the pun. The expression is usually a hyperbole, but the pun is that it is to be taken literally in this case. If I would describe a security official as unable to smell a plot to save his life, nobody would assume I meant that the person is actually in danger of his life. The fact that in JC's case, his life was at stake makes the choice of words a pun. Whether it's your taste of humor is another matter.
    – oerkelens
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:35
  • Thank you, brilliant! It also explains why he says the pun is intentional, while the usual way is saying something to the effect of "no pun intended".
    – Pifagor
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:38
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    Granted, as @Robusto says, that it is not a pun, this seems to be the true account of the smidgen of wit present in the line—that a usually hyperbolic expression is being used literally. Calling this a pun is not Steven’s error but Reddington’s, so that Steven’s quotation marks are apropos. Commented May 13, 2015 at 13:48
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    Whether it is a pun or not is debatable. A pun is usually defined as a play on words and using a common hyperbole literally could certainly be seen as a pun.
    – oerkelens
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 14:41

I would suggest there might be three verbal ambiguities:

  • to save his life: a metaphorical set phrase about lack of skill or a literal statement, as mentioned by others
  • plot: the historical conspiracy against Caesar or the storyline of Shakespeare's play
  • plot to save his life: there was no plot aimed at keeping him alive so the conspiracy killed him

Personally, given the earlier words "The play, not so much the man", I am slightly drawn to the second of these as the intentional pun.


the pun I would say is not on a double meaning of the word "plot" but on the second half of the common idiom "couldn't ------- to save his life" ie the pun is on the phrase "to save his life"

This phrase is usually used in very banal circumstances to describe someones lack of ability but not one that would ever be a matter of life or death. Such as "He couldn't write a recursive function to save his life"

But in the case of Julius Caesar, betrayed by Brutus and stabbed in the back, It would have saved his life to have been able to "smell a plot"


I think the pun is on "plot" as a storyline vs a conspiracy. In one sentence, the speaker says both:

  • Caesar may be a military guy, but he isn't exactly sophisticated. He wouldn't recognize a good play if it hit him over the head
  • Caesar is so full of himself, he wouldn't recognize a conspiracy against him

Edit: I don't think the speaker used the wrong aside. Using "to save his life" isn't the joke; it's just a bit of verbal flair. Adding "literally" instead of referencing the pun would have made the joke trite. Instead, he uses our expectations against us. We have a shared cultural knowledge about Caesar being killed by conspiracy. But by mentioning the pun, we realize that we overlooked the second meaning of "plot" and go "ahh, I see what you did there".

As a written joke, it isn't particularly funny. Spoken aloud, with decent pacing, it's a fun bit of wordplay.

  • So like, the actual physical J Caesar was aware of ....... being in a Shakespearean plot? What?
    – Fattie
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:09
  • It's a jab about Caesar not recognizing the greatness of something in front of him (like a masterfully-written story) because he is so self-important.
    – Nicholai
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:23
  • Here's an obvious sentence: "JCaesar was so lame he couldn't recognise a plot against him to save his life -- literally!!!" This is, unbelievably obviously, what is "meant" here. It's a totally and completely obvious use of the hackneyed "...literally!" device. It makes complete and total sense and is 100% obvious and coherent. That is the amazingly obvious state of affairs here - regarding this QA, 100% of people should just point out, in a few words "oh, the writer meant to say .. '-literally!' but got confused and wrote a different aside. ....
    – Fattie
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:29
  • Yes, there's a staggeringly obtuse interpretation of "plot" as a pun. But so what? I could tease out 7 other ridiculously obtuse irrelevancies here. The totally overwhelming observation to be made here is that the writer accidentally typed "pun!" rather than "literally!". It's Just That Simple. Once again: this sentence: "JCaesar was so lame he couldn't recognise a plot against him to save his life -- literally!!!" is an incredibly obvious and straightforward "joke", using the usual "-literally!" device.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:31
  • While reading and seeing the source material in context, I did grin slightly (especially the bit about the Rubicon). But I now retract my grin and in its place transfix a scowl. The bounty of adjectives and exclamation points you've delivered unto me have sparked to life the flame of knowledge, burning away the dross of humor. The sitcom joke applies to all genres of American writing, stage, and screen! The scales are lifted! "He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus; and we petty men walk under his huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves."
    – Nicholai
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:33

It's simply a case of the writer being an idiot. The writer in question has seen intelligent people using the aside "pun intended!" or "intentional pun!" and the writer thought he would try to use that device, but unfortunately, it became only a situation for the stupidity and illiteracy of the writer in question to be displayed.

There's a common humorous device in English where, you state an idiom, but then afterwards point out that in the case at hand, the idiom applies literally.

[Note: this has utterly no connection, at all, to "puns".]

For example, the other day someone said unto me, after I had spilled some wine from a glass: "there's many a slip between the cup and the lips - literally in this case!!" Once, a child was spinning around with a cat in her arms, and an adult said: "there's not enough room here to swing a cat - and I mean that literally here!!!"

This aside ("literally in this case!!") is a completely common device in English.


what the writer was trying to do was this:

[Caesar...] couldn't smell a plot to save his life - and in this case I mean that literally!

or more simply,

[Caesar...] couldn't smell a plot to save his life - literally!

However, the writer is so incredibly stupid - so incompetent - so poorly versed in communications - that the writer got confused and used the wrong aside. The writer added the phrase "pun intended!" rather than "and I mean that literally!"

It's just that simple. The writer used the wrong aside. It's essentially a typo, any editor would have just changed it to what it was meant to be, with no further comment.

It's a good example of the staggering stupidity you see in writing - even published commercial writing - commonly, these days.

I'll tell you a similar situation: very often writers use the aside "sic!" in the wrong way (thinking it means "sick!" or something). It's an example of using the "wrong humorous aside" in writing.

Regarding this as a common phenomenon:

It's extremely important to understand that, today, in English linguistic culture it is extremely common that people "utterly fuck up" the use of words, even in professional writing. Note that there is a whole category of questions on this site, where someone (perhaps a foreign speaker) asks a question - exactly like the one here - where the answer is in fact "oh, you were right, the original writing at hand is simply a total screw-up".

Here is a long essay on the phenomenon: https://english.stackexchange.com/a/197637/8286

Regarding the staggering confusion on this page..

This web site simply goes from bad to worse. There are people on this page who don't know what a pun is, who are addressing the question for some reason. There is endless restating of irrelevant incidental confusion ("is plot a pun?!" etc) which is like not being able to see the amazon because a blade of grass is in front of your face (sarcasm intended).

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    I suggest you come back in a day or so and revise this answer, there is potentially useful information here amidst all the shouting.
    – augurar
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 6:08
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    You really need to start taking herbal tea, breathe deeply and resign yourself that no prophet is accepted in his own country! You are that prophet. Now calm down with all these comments. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:28
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    I don't understand the force of your conviction and eagerness to utterly reject (and crucify) anything else. You could absolutely be correct. You could also be wrong. This is not a question about a definition some grammar rule; it's a question about the intent of the author. Was it a poor pun? Was it incorrect phrasing? You can certainly assert the latter, but you can't know it. Make your assertion and defend it. The comments that all seem to say "Duh! How could you be so stupid?" are completely inappropriate.
    – DanielST
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 15:31
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    @slicedtoad, it's like Cicero said in the play: "But men may construe things after their fashion, Clean from the purpose of the things themselves."
    – Nicholai
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:36

Off point here but to a point: Antony's soliloquy says - there's gonna be trouble - big trouble; but the phrasing and imaginings are superb and pure poetry. It's a pleasure to serendipitously encounter such masterful language synthesis.

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