Maria Clement Quesada
Victor Colon Garcia
Rita Costell Chueca
Karla Diaz de Heredia Garcia
Begoña Espert Sanchez
Aroa Lara Fayos Julia
Maria Carmen Ferrando Oñate
Javier Soriano Molla
Juan Enrique Tortajada Gimeno
Claire Louise Young
Dr. Vicente Forés Lopez
Curso monográfico de literatura inglesa: “Shakespeare through performance”
Recurrent Patterns in Shakespearian Comedies
In 1964, Robert Graves noted that “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”1 This remark gives but a glimpse of the great influence that Shakespeare exerted over a large proportion of the world’s population. Never before, nor after did a secular imaginative writer have such success and wake such admiration among his contemporaries and later generations. William Shakespeare is looked upon as a universal genius that outshone all his contemporaries and managed to outshine every writer ever since. His genius is to be found in the freshness of his verse, in his capacity of pleasing theatre goers today, as he has done for the past four hundred years, in his ability and his luck (for want of a better word) of writing about subjects that were and are universal subjects, that are interesting today as they were at the time he wrote about them. Shakespeare is new. Every representation of his work brings forth new themes, new ideas, new ways of looking at things, but always from a Shakesperian point of view. Shakespeare draws his power from each and every one of the representations of his works, from each and every one interpretation of his works, from the light in which each and every one of us sees these works, because each time we think about the genius behind the wonders we are beholding we reinvent Shakespeare. And we always get to the same conclusion. That he is really very good, in spite of all those who say he is very good.
What do we really know about Shakespeare? One unfounded myth claims that what we know about his life could be written on the back of a postage stamp2. In fact we know a lot about some of the less exciting aspects of Shakespeare life, such as business deals and tax debts, but this is not the object of the present work. What we are interested in is Shakespeare literary production, which, although not extremely extensive, stands, as we have said before, as the best and the most important one in the whole history of literature.
Shakespeare wrote thirty-eight plays, a sequence of 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and various short poems. But nothing is as simple as it seems with any of the things concerning Shakespeare. Even this simple enumeration becomes complicated, when we take into consideration that at least two of the plays were co-authored with fellow playwright John Fletcher, that another couple of plays attributed to Shakespeare never really reached us, that Shakespeare wrote passages for an another play and that we do not have an accurate catalogue of the shorter poetry.3 But verifying the autenthicity of Shakespeare’s plays is not our purpose. The purpose of this work goes further than a simple enumeration of comedies, tragedies, histories (the subgenres which Shakespearian plays have been divided into), sonnets, long poems, collaborations, etc.
Our main interest and the theme of this work is the comedy and those elements that make a Shakespearian play a comedy. We will try to identify those elements and analise them, as well as trying to observe whether there is a recurring pattern, whether those elements appear in more than one play, or whether they are peculiar if given a certain comedy. But before we get to that, let us look at what we understand by the term comedy.
“Comedy” has a classical meaning (comical theatre)
and a popular one (the use of humour with an intent to provoke laughter in general). In the theatre,
its Western origins are in ancient
Humor being subjective, one may or may not find something humorous because it is either too offensive or not offensive enough. Comedy is judged according to a person’s taste. Some enjoy cerebral fare such as irony or black comedy, others may prefer scatological humor (e.g. the "fart joke") or slapstick.”4
In Shakespeare’s time, comedy was considered a lower genre than tragedy, just as tragedy was considered a lower genre as epic. This consideration was due to the fact that many writers followed Aristotle’s Poetics, a work focused on tragedy, so there existed no theory of comedy. A common definition of comedy at that time was given by George Whetstone in the prologue to Promos and Cassandra (1578) and it reads: “grave old men should instruct: young men should show the imperfections of youth: strumpets should be lascivious: boys unhappy: and clowns should speak disorderly: intermingling all these actions, in such sort, as the grave matter may instruct: and the pleasant delight.”5 Nevertheless, many playwrights, and Shakespeare foremost, ignored the boundaries between the playful and the serious, blurring the supposed lines between the two main genres of the age, tragedy and comedy, and introducing comic elements into the tragedies and also (increasingly after 1600) tragic elements into comedies.
So, if we know that comedies have tragic elements and tragedies comic elements, then the natural question rises: is there any difference between the comedy and the tragedy? The answer is, of course, affirmative. A simplyfied contrast of tragedy and comedy will say that comedy begins with disorder and ends in order, while with tragedy is the other way round. All plots involve threats and dangers, in tragedies these threats are fulfilled, but in comedies they are evaded. All of Shakespeare’s characters face alienation, abandonment, death, but in comedies there is some kind of “evitability” that breaks the chain of misfortune and leads the situation towards a happy ending, towards life, because comedy celebrates life, the promise of life, whereas tragedy ends with death, with dead bodies that litter the stage.
To give another definition of comedy, we could say that comedy refers to a literary structure, be it drama, novel or film, that moves toward a happy ending and implies a positive understanding of human experience. Comedy is usually funny, but this is not a prerequisite. A comedy must always end happily, a happy ending involves marriage, or at least some kind of union or reunion that resolves the conflict and brings the characters together, in a state of harmony. In other words, a comedy moves “from confusion to order, from ignorance to understanding, from law to liberty, from unhappiness to satisfaction, from separation to union, from barreness to fertility, from singleness to marriage.”6
So far, from the definitions we have given, we can easily encounter a few of the elements that are essential to a comedy, that make a given play a comedy (namely, happy ending, marriage or the promise of marriage, obstacles that we shall later describe, etc). Next, we shall deal with these elements, trying to explain them, trying to see why they are important in whole of the text and how they have helped to create the atmosphere of a comedy, why the audience expects to encounter these elements in a comedy and so on. The plays we shall refer to are: A Midsummer Night's Dream; All's Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Cymbeline; Love's Labour's Lost; Measure for Measure; The Merchant of Venice; The Merry Wives of Windsor; Much Ado About Nothing; Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Taming of the Shrew; The Comedy of Errors; The Tempest; Twelfth Night, or What You Will; Troilus and Cressida; The Two Noble Kinsmen; The Winter's Tale. They are what we know as comedies, although many critics would argue that Troilus and Cressida; Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are what they call “problem plays”, while Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are “romances”. We shall make no such distinction and we may refer to any of these plays.
As we have seen, humour and laughter are not prerequisite in Shakespearian comedies, but its main attraction is laughter that comes from wordplay, intricate plotting and ocassional “pies in the face”. But the “happiness” we associate with comedy comes from the fact that we are aware and familiar with the conventions of drama, with the natural ending of a comedy. We know that nothing bad will happen to a character because we know that he/she is protected under the comfortable blanket of comedy. We also know that everything will end up ordered and safe, and for that reason we laugh. We laugh at the world because we know it will end up ordering the chaos. And although that order comes only in the last five or ten minutes of the play, the expectation of it and what occurs before it, the misunderstanding, the confusion, the foolishness, the evil, are what really make us laugh. In the end we laugh at life (which in a way becomes the evil character who tries to put down the main character and to stop him/her from being happy), because although the human being is shown as small and silly, he still manages to be happy.
A happy ending is thus the main feature of Shakespearian comedy, a prerequisite to it, whereas, as we have said before, humour and laughter are not. In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare dedicates his energy in amplifying the confusion generated by the two sets of twins. The play is hilarious, but several years after, in an another twin comedy, Twelfth Night, although the confusion still provokes laughter, the play fails to be a hilarious, due mainly to the fact that the author complicates the tone of it by exploring the pleasures of romantic love and offering large doses of melancholy and music. Does that mean that some comedies are more comic than others? Definitely yes, but it does not mean that some comedies are “more of a comedy” than others.
As we have
said before a happy ending is a prerequisite to a comedy, but Shakespeare chose
to create some endings “happier” than others, they are the so-called
“problematic endings”, in which the promised marriage is delayed or in some way
compromised. It is the case of Love’s
Labour Lost, where a messenger enters amid the jolity of the final scene
and announces the death of the Princess’ father. The wedding is thus postponed
for a year, and the main male character is sent to “exercise his wit among the
It must seem strange that we have begun our analysis of the basic elements of a Shakespearian comedy with the ending, but we have not done so randomly. The happy ending is a sine qua non condition of a Shakespearian comedy, and of comedies in general. For this reason we have chosen this order of analysis.
For Shakespeare, a happy ending meant marriage or the promise of a marriage of the restoration of a marriage, although this last situation is not very frequent (we have it in The Comedy of Errors, where Egeon and Emilia are reunted after thirty-three years of separation). To arrive at this scenario where a wedding takes place, or the promise of a wedding is made, we have another element that is continually present in Shakespeare’s comedies, namely the wooing (which means “to sue for the affection of and usually marriage with”8).
The primary forces behind the comic plots of Shakespeare’s comedies are the romantic sentiment and the erotic desire and the primary action is the overcoming of obstacles (if two characters really love each other they must overcome obstacles) that stand in the way of the romantic and sexual fulfillment. The romantic sentiment is always bound up with wooing. Romanticism is about the elaboration of feelings which lead members of opposite sexes to idealise and also to fantasise about each other. Wooing is about the approaches which they make to each other in order to transmit their feelings and to awaken reciprocal feelings in the other. Wooing is thus the preliminary of marriage, and marriage is but the crowning point of the lives of the characters that appear in Shakespeare plays.
If marriage is the denouement of the comedy, wooing is undoubtely the climax of it, the centre of the plot and its dialogue is concerned with the testing of emotional responses, which constitute the well-understood ritual of courtship.9 Wooing scenes are tests of the maturity and the humanity of the characters involved in them, and also points where the personal affairs intersect with public ones. They are also scenes apt for mockery and satire (usually the scenes that carry most comical value are these), due to their excessive sentimentality. The lover is an ambiguous figure, who may excite pity for his painful emotional condition, but also seem ridiculous because of his excessive virtuousness. Romance is almost always accompanied by features that are anti-romantic. The lover becomes a figure of awe and fun. His raptures may be a source of richly flowering, delicate poetry, but they may also lapse into an absurd recital of merely convetional clichés.10 Orlando, in As You Like It writes poems to Rosalind on trees, poems Touchstone mocks for their poor style and which embarrass Rosalind.
is not a matter of only two. There is a broader social context in which it
necessarily functions, and personal choice determines a range of comlexities in
that society (in A Midsummer Night’s
Dream Egeus complains to the Duke Theseus that his daughter Hermia does not
want to marry the man he has chosen for her). Wooing is also a process of
maturation, throught it
Wooing is thus one of the main elements of Shakespearian comedy and it is very important in the lives of the characters that are involved in it, but we must bear in mind that even though the wooing and the comedy ends in marriage, there is still life after that marriage.
The conventions of comedies, as those of all literature are consistent with the customs of the society in which those pieces of literature were produced. Thus, Shakespearian comedies will reflect the society of early modern English, patriarchal and authoritarian, inhospitable to disorder or diruption. They represent the unshakable power of husbands, aristocrats and other dominant cultural voices. It is strange then, when we observe the author’s “alliance” with a woman in her refusal to marry the man her father has chosen for her (Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream rejects her father’s claim to marry the man he has chosen for her, and claims to marry the one she loves). This situation is but a reflection of the cultural anxiety pervading this period, when notions of romantic love began to challenge the norms of patriarchal authority in the matter of marriage11. We see thus another recurrent element in Shakespeare’s comedies, the parental disapproval of the one the lover has chosen. (in The Merchant of Venice this disapproval is more of an imposing will, and Portia has to marry the one her dead father has chosen for her) or the forcing of an off-spring to marry the one the parent has chosen for her (as it happens in the case of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew).
Many critics have claimed that Shakespeare sides with his young women, but in the end he marries them to husbands whose superior power is assumed. Nonetheless, to arrive to this desired moment, these women will have to disguise themselves as men in order to acquire recognition for their intellect (which is rather ironic, for they never really acquire recognition as women). It is a remarkable feature of Shakespeare’s comedies his prominence given to women. It may almost be said that whereas men dominate the tragedies, it is women who dominate the comedies. They take control of the events, they seem to possess not only greater intuitive awareness than the men, but also more common sense and emotional maturity. Given the fact that in Elizabethan theatre the female parts were played by young boys, there is no surprise at the frequency with which these actors played the part of a woman disguised as a young man. It has been often said that Shakespeare employed this tecnique to confuse his audience even more (audience who saw a young man who played the part of a woman who disguised herself as a man). But the employment of young men that played women’s part also served Shakespeare, for he was able to put words into a “woman’s mouth” without them sounding outrageous as they would have if truly uttered by a woman.
disguising themselves as men and deceiveing men is thus a recurring element in
Shakespeare’s comedies. They manipulate other characters through their superior
knowledge and their stratagems are indispensable for the dramatic structure,
generating both complications and resolutions. Portia in The Merchant of Venice disguises herself as a lawyer and manages to
find a flaw in the Venetian law to save Antonio. Rosalind in As You Like It is also the young
Ganymede who “helps”
This might seem a trick of the comedy, but it was not really such, given the fact that at that time it was a woman, Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled a man’s world. Shakespeare’s comic heroines become social androgynuous, just like the Queen. This androgyny comes not only from their embodiment as boy-actors on the stage, but also from their speech, from their language. All dramatic characters are made of words, but the comic heroines assume masculinity to control language.
Language is extremely important in comedies, and fun to play with. Shakespeare knew this very well and puns are one of his favourite methods of entertaining. Samuel Johnson identified the pun as “Shakespeare’s fatal Cleopatra”, noting that he was “content to lose the world for the sake of a good, or even a bad, play on words.”12 Puns used in comedies complicate and split language, make it fertile. A pun pushes more meanings into a word, meanings that the word cannot hold, and it always, always find sex.
Playing with words means sometimes Shakespeare gives a double meaning to his words, he does this using irony: the word “irony” is used in expressions or actions in which there are at least two levels of meaning: the evident superficial meaning and a second entailed signification which may be different to the first. The second meaning, in other words, blunts the first meaning or modifies it; in some cases the second meaning may entirely contradict the first (when that happens and both speaker and listener are aware of the second meaning contradicting the first, we call the irony, which is very strong and obvious, “sarcasm”). In a more general sense, irony can also mean ambiguity.
An ironical expression is one in which we cannot be sure precisely what is meant because there is a range of possible meanings.
The most common is called “dramatic irony”, which takes place through an “uneven distribution of knowledge”. Often, the audience or readers know more about what is going on than any of the characters. Therefore, when a character says something, his or her discourse will often have two levels of meaning: what the character thinks it means or intends to say and what the audience, with a fuller understanding of the entire situation, understands it to mean. This causes a situation of confusion which intends to be funny for the audience because the audience knows everything, the characters of the story only know a part of the truth (and what any one particular character may know may change in the course of the play), and much of the comic confusion will embroil a series of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and so on, which arise from the incomplete distribution of information. During The Comedy of Errors, the couple of twins are very often mistaken, and they are not even recognizable to themselves. For example, Antipholus of Syracuse sends his Dromio away, and when Dromio of Ephesus cames back he is addressed by Antipholus as if he was his Dromio:
- Antipholus of
What now? how chance thou art return'd so soon?
The confussion in this scene goes on without any of tha characters knowing they are addressing to the wrong person. In this scene we can find a clear example of play with words: Antipholus asks for a certain amount of money, whereas Dromio who does not know what he is been asked about, understands “mark” as “scar”:
Some of my mistress' marks upon my shoulders,
But not a thousand marks between you both.
If I should pay your worship those again,
Perchance you will not bear them patiently14
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ambiguity and mistaken identity are the source of the main conflict; that is, Robin Godfellow casts the spell on the wrong person (Lysander instead of Demetrius) based on the description he is given ( “Thou shalt know the man / By the Athenian garments he hath on “). Once again, plays with words are a very important part of the play, when Bottom changes into a donkey, all of his friends run away, and he not knowing what he has became claims : “ I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me ”. Afterwards he starts to sing, and Titania awakes falling in love with him and say :“Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful.” Only the audience here knows that he is actually an ass, and that she is in love for no reason, and that donkeys are not wise, nor beautiful.
During the final part of the play, we finally get to see Piramo and Tisbe’s tragedy (or is it a comedy?), which not only does it represent part of the peculiar events taking place in the woods, but also contains some of the funniest moments of the play. There are slips of the tongue, like the one where Piramo declares that the Lion “deflowered” Tisbe, instead of devoured. There are also funny remarks by the audience (the main characters) about the doubtful quality of the play:
Moonshine: This lanthorn doth the horned moon present
Demetrius: He should have worn the horns on his head.
Theseus: He is no crescent, and his horns are invisible within the circumference. 15
Another pattern that we can find in Shakespeare’s comedies is the fools and clowns. These are characters that have contributed to the greatness of Shakespearean comedy. Usually, they are considered as humorous characters that make people laugh, create a comic relief and even they have been as silly persons. But there is more than that in these characters, they are more complex that it apparently seems. They are observant, intelligent, they have more inside than just jokes. But, in order to see that we, as spectators, have to do an effort. In relation to these characters it is also important their use of language, since depending on it they can cause an effect or another.
These characters, especially fools, are very useful since they guide us through the play; moreover they also act as commentators on the behaviour of the main characters, and always tell the truth but they are hardly ever believed. They are essential in Shakespearean plays since they are necessary for the audience thanks to their humanity.
The first false impression these characters give us is that they have any function, or that they only act to entertain the audience. They have a very high contribution in the action of the play, above all, in forming the humour and confusion. We have to notice that in Twefth Night fools are who control the comedy and humour in the play, and they can guide us trough the play.
But their more important role in Shakespeare’s comedies is acting as a mask for the author to criticize the points relevant for him. The author is hiding behind these characters to criticize English society. Because fools are the only one who have license to tell the real truth, the rude truth; they are traditionally licensed to speak out where others have to be silent. And some fools have more influence than others.
And they are also used to provide a contrast between them, with their ridiculous attitude, and other characters in the play. Shakespeare is implicitly comparing each of us to the other characters of the play. All of us run through our lives, blustering, feeling that we are in full control of our circumstances. And when life confuses us, we become upset and angry.
Shakespeare’s use of the foolish characters is much more complex than in a first view. They are used to contrast other characters of his plays to make important points that Shakespeare wishes his audience to understand.
We can distinguish between those fools who are intelligent, like Feste in Twelfth Night, requiring some mental effort on our part to appreciate their intelligence and humour; or those who only make us laugh but not with clever wit, because they are deliberately acting simple, in order to entertain.
Intelligent fools are also capable of possessing and developing deeper human traits.
These foolish fools often serve to contrast the dark moments of a play with a lighter feel (Dogberry brings humour to Much Ado About Nothing to contrast the darkness Don John adds to the play). They also love language, but they are comic because of how ridiculous their words and actions are.
The appearance of the fool’s scene usually occurs just as the shock or trauma level of the play has reached a point when the minds of the audience members begin to become desensitized. These scenes give spectators a chance to catch their breath and mentally prepare themselves for what follows.
In conclusion, the elements that make a comedy from a Shakespearian play are many and varied. Firstly, a comedy cannot be called comedy without a happy ending. Although humour and humorous language may miss from a comedy, the happy ending is a prerequisite of it. This happy ending may mean a marriage or the promise of a marriage, marriage to which the characters arrive after overcoming obstacles, such as parental disapproval. Wooing is also an important element of Shakespearian comedies, it is the prerequisite of marriage and helps develop comic characters.
Man like women are also something very common in Shakespearian comedies. Women disguise themselves as men and this leads to complications and resolutions in the play, as well as helping create a comical atmosphere.
Moreover, we have also seen other important characters that appear in Shakespeare’s plays, which are fools and clowns. But we don’t have to confuse fools with clowns, above all the clothes, clowns are characterised with coloured cloths.
As we have observed they help to the development of the play and they serve as entertainers.
As we have seen all throughout the essay, there are various elements that are peculiar to Shakespearian comedies that make them unique and a very important part of the history of literature
2 For further reading about Shakespeare’s life
see Wells, Stanley & Gary Tayllor. The
3 Wells, Stanley & Lena Cowen Orlin. Shakespeare. An
4 “Comedy.” Wikipedia
: The Free Enciclopedia.
5 Carroll, William. “Romantic Comedies” in Shakespeare. An
6 McDonald, Russ. The
7 McDonald, Russ. The
8 “Woo.” Merriam-Webster
9 Draper, R.P. Shakespeare. The Comedies. (
10 Draper, R.P. Shakespeare. The Comedies. (
11 McDonald, Russ. The
12 Danson, Lawrece. Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres. (
13 Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors in The
14 Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors in The
15 Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in The
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Orlin. Shakespeare. An
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