Friday, 16 August 2013

Shakespearean Comedy / Shakespeare as a Comedy Writer


A comedy, like the drama in general, may be of two types—Classical and Romantic. The classical comedy follows the rules of dramatic composition as laid down by the ancient Greek and Roman masters. Its models are the classical dramatists like Plautus, Terence and Aristophanes. The more important of these rules are:

  1. The observance of the three unities of time, place and action.
  2. The strict separation of the comic and the tragic, or the light and serious elements.
  3. Realism. It deals with the everyday familiar life of ordinary people
  4. Its aim is corrective and satiric. Some human folly, weakness, or social vice is exposed and ridiculed. It laughs at the people and not with them. The most noted exponent of the Classical Comedy in England was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson.
          William Shakespeare's plays come in many forms. There are the histories, tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies. Among the most popular are the comedies, which are full of laughter, irony, satire, and wordplay. Following are the salient features his comedies.

  1. A greater emphasis on situations than characters (this numbs the audience's connection to the characters, so that when characters experience misfortune, the audience still finds it laughable)
  2. A struggle of young lovers to overcome difficulty, often presented by elders
  3. Separation and re-unification
  4. Deception among characters (especially mistaken identity)
  5. A clever servant
  6. Disputes between characters, often within a family
  7. Multiple, intertwining plots
  8. Use of all styles of comedy (slapstick, puns, dry humour, earthy humour, witty banter, practical jokes)
  9. Pastoral element (courtly people living an idealized, rural life), originally an element of Pastoral Romance, exploited by Shakespeare for his comic plots and often parodied therein for humorous effects
  10. Happy Ending

The Romantic Comedy Of Shakespeare

The Shakespearean comedy, on the other hand, is a Romantic Comedy. The dramatist does not care for any rules of literary creation but writes according to the dictates of his fancy. The three unities are not given any importance. There is a free mingling of the comic and the tragic, the serious and the gay. Its aim is not corrective or satiric, but innocent, good natured laughter. We laugh with the people, not at them. In the words of Charlton ‘The Shakespearean comedy is not satiric, it is poetic. It is not conservative, it is creative. The way of it is of imagination rather than that of pure reason. It is an artist’s vision, not a critic’s exposition.’

The Romantic Setting

The Shakespearean comedy is romantic not only in the sense that it does not observe the classical rules, but also in the sense that it provides an escape from the sordid realities of life.
 Its characters are also different from us as they are denizens of not our humdrum world but the imaginary, colourful world of their own. Venice is not the real historical Venice but an ancient town of enchanting beauty in which loans could be obtained by offering the flesh of one’s heart as security. What is true of setting is also true of the characters. They too are romantic and remote from the ordinary people of flesh and blood. They are somewhat unearthly. They go about making love, dancing, feasting, engaging themselves in battles of wit with one another, singing and making merry. Life for them is one long spring. Let us quote Thorndike here

‘There are only three industries in this land, making love, making songs, and making jests. And they make them all to perfection. It is well to interrupt the love-making with a little joking and the joking with a little music and perchance some cakes and ale, and then back to love again.’

Theme Of Love In All Its Variety

A Shakespearean comedy is a story of love, ending with the ringing of marriage bells. Not only are the hero and the heroine in love, but many are in love, and so in the end there is not one marriage but a number of marriages. However, to use Shakespeare’s own words, ‘the course of true love did never run smooth’. Difficulties come in the way of the lovers before the final union takes place.

Music And Spirit Of Mirth

Since music is the food of love, the Shakespearean comedy is intensely musical. Music and dance are its very life and soul. Twelfth Night opens with music. Several songs are scattered all over As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice, too, abounds in music.

Women In Shakespearean Comedy

Women in Shakespearean comedy constitute its very soul. George Gordon observes: ‘All lectures on Shakespeare’s comedies tend to become lectures on Shakespeare’s women for in the comedies, they have the front of the stage.’

Ruskin remarks, ‘Shakespeare has only heroines and no heroes’.

Shakespeare’s comic heroines are much more sparkling and interesting than their male counterparts. We have the vivacious and intelligent Portia, the witty Beatrice, and the charming Rosalind. Bassanio does not come to the level of Portia, Benedick pales in wit beside Beatrice, and Orlando has no comparison with Rosalind.

Though all these heroines differ in their characters pattern, yet they have in common one important characteristic—their typical womanhood. The quality makes them surprisingly modern. These are dateless.

Mistaken Identities

The plot is often driven by mistaken identity. Sometimes this is an intentional part of a villain’s plot, as in Much Ado About Nothing when Don John tricks Claudio into believing that his fiance has been unfaithful through mistaken identity. Characters also play scenes in disguise and it is not uncommon for female characters to disguise themselves as male characters. The trial scene in The Merchant of Venice is one of the finest scenes of English drama in which Portia disguises as a lawyer to save her lover’s friend Antonio from the intolerant Jew, Shylock.

Humour, Use Of Puns

A very attractive feature of Shakespeare’s comedies is their humour. It is as it should be. Ben Johnson’s humour is sarcastic, satirical, but Shakespeare’s attitude towards his fellow being is acceptive and genial. He does not laugh at others, but with others.

 Shakespeare’s comedy plays are peppered with clever word play, metaphors and insults. He was a master of wordplay, and his comedies are filled with puns and witty language games.
Sometimes silly, sometimes bawdy, yet always clever, his plays on words are a distinguishing feature of all his works. You'll need to brush up on your Elizabethan English if you want to catch all of his jokes.

Plot Construction

The plotline of a Shakespeare comedy contains more twists and turns than his tragedies and histories. Coleridge is of the view that ‘The heart of Shakespearean play lies in its characterization and not in plot’.

There is much that is superfluous, ridiculous, shapeless, grotesque and artificial. Too much depends on chance or fortune, deceits, disguises, mistaken identities are the stock devices used by the dramatist to maintain suspense or interest. How strange it seems that Portia in the disguise of a man is not recognized by any one in the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice. Further, all the ships of Antonio returns home safe just at the right moment. But these absurdities of the plot are concealed by heightening the character interest.

Shakespearean comedies also contain a wide variety of characters. Shakespeare often introduces a character and then discards him, never to be seen again in the balance of the play. Songs often sung by a jester or a fool parallel the events of the plot. Also, foil and stock characters are often inserted into the plot. All Shakespearean comedies end happily. Most often, this happy ending involves marriage or pending marriage. Love always wins out in the end.

Shakespeare’s comedy plays have stood the test of time. Today his plays like The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing  continue to enthrall and entertain audiences worldwide – but these plays are not comedies in the modern sense of the word. His 17 comedies are the most difficult to classify because they overlap in style with other genres. Critics often describe some plays as tragi-comedies because they mix equal measures of tragedy and comedy. For example, Much Ado About Nothing  starts as a Shakespeare comedy, but takes on the characteristics of a tragedy when Hero is disgraced and fakes her own death. At this point, the play has more in common with Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s key tragedies.

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