In Shakespearean comedies many characters are repeated through different plays. This is especially easy to see in the case of “fools”, “clowns”, “buffoons”, or “vices”, for instance. These repeated characters are usually called stereotypes or stock characters.
A tradition in British comedy dating back to Shakespeare is to laugh at lack of intellect of a character. Shakespeare always uses fools who are considered to be lacking of intellect by the other characters but are actually wiser. Fools and clowns who have important roles (at least two can be seen in each play) in early plays of Shakespeare share certain characteristics. They are clumsy, ridiculous and slow witted. The function of the clowns and fools is to keep the comic action going throughout the play. However the function of clowns and fools is not only to get the audience or reader started laughing but also to show the important truths often ignored by the others: the deepest secrets hidden from the wise may be revealed by a child or a fool. Actually they don’t appeal to the intellect but to the emotions.
Some characters in Shakespearean comedies show us that there are two kinds of fools: the conscious fool and the unconscious one. The most interesting example of a fool can be that of Feste from “Twelfth Night”. There is an ironic situation since the licensed fool (Feste) is not actually a fool but a wise character who contributes to the meaning of the play, and the actual fool (Sir Andrews or Molvolio) is the most entertaining character with his foolish actions. By acting as a fool, Feste becomes privileged in telling the truth of the people around him.
The clown is used as a free observer that mocks the faults of the other characters. Feste (clown in “Twelfth Night”) with his intelligence is aware of what others do and criticizes the actual fools, the characters who are not seen as witty at all. Lack of self-knowledge makes the characters fools as Molvolio or Sir Andrews in ‘Twelfth Night’.
Also the clown Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’ can be considered as wise as Feste. Shakespeare explains the importance of such characters in his plays with these words: “It is meat and drink for me to see a clown” 1.
When we have a look at the roles of the clowns and fools in the comedies of Shakespeare, almost all of them are the servants of heroes or heroins. This can be seen in the clowns Touchstone and Feste, the servants Dromios (servants of Antipholus in “The Comedy of Errors”), in the character of Tranio (servant of Lucentio in “The Taming of the Shrew”), in Grumio (servant of Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew”), or in Maria (servant of Olivia in “Twelfth Night”). On the other hand, Ariel (the spirit helper of Prospero in “The Tempest”) and Puck (the servant fairy of Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) are the vices whose role is to cause a great deal of disguising. In two plays they cause the misunderstandings and make the play more complex.
Shakespeare gives place to buffoons and vices in his comedies. His aim in creating buffoons is to increase the mood of festivity rather than contribute to the plot. A few examples can be seen in some Shakespearean comedies: Nell, who is the fat maid of Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus’ wife (“The Comedy of Errors”), Snug (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) or Tinculo and Stefano (“The Tempest”).
The other stereotypes in Shakespearean comedies can be considered the “blocking characters” which are seen in most of the comedies. They always put boundaries or some rules that can cause a chaos in the play. Generally these blocking characters are seen in the beginning of the play and the comedy starts with the problem caused by them. If they were not in the comedies, the events would not be like what can be read in the plays. If Egeus were not in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the lovers Hermia and Lysander would not have escaped to the forest and there would not be a chaotic situation that makes us laugh, or if Minola Baptista, the father in “The Taming of the Shrew”, had not decided that Kate would have to marry before Bianca, all those events would not have taken place. Duke Frederic who banishes his brother and his niece in “As You Like It” or Solinus, the duke of
, in “The Comedy of Errors” can be considered as “blocking characters” as well. Ephesus
Shakespeare sometimes uses disguises and mistaken identity that makes the play more complex and funny. Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ and Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’ can be the best examples of stereotypes of women living in Elizabethan times. Adriana and Luciana in “The Comedy of Errors” are the contrast female stereotypes of that time, and also Bianca, who is admired by gentlemen and her father, in “The Taming of the Shrew” is the stereotype of a “young modest girl”, but after marrying she reveals her true face. By creating Bianca, Shakespeare criticizes the social roles of people, especially the role of women in marriage. However, Kate is far from being the stereotype of the modest maiden, and by creating Kate, Shakespeare also shows that he rejects the social roles of people at that time.
1. “As You Like It” - V, 1, 2198 (Touchstone)
Academic year 2006/2007
© a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López
© Ayse Ayanoglu
Universitat de Valčncia Press