Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Are Shakespeare’s Comedies Actually Funny?

Is there really anything funny about
Shakespeare's Comedies?

Shakespeare wrote seventeen plays that are labelled comedies. However, as I touched on in my post on problem plays, the categorisation of these plays is not so simple.

 
Subsequently, readers or audiences who expect Shakespeare’s comedies to be a laugh-a-minute may be disappointed. The fact is, the things that determined which genre a play was placed in didn’t necessarily have to do with the number of humorous moments contained therein.

 

What Are Shakespeare’s Comedies?


In the First Folio, fifteen plays were classed as comedies. Later a further two would join the club and the seventeen plays that were listed in the comedy genre are as follows:
 

 
All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like it
The Comedy of Errors
Cymbeline
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merchant of Venice
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Twelfth Night
Two Gentleman of Verona
The Two Noble Kinsmen
The Winter’s Tale


 
However, more recently, the term problem play would come to be applied to a number of Shakespeare’s plays. And All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Merchant of Venice are now all deemed problematic. For more on these plays and why they are known as ‘problem plays’, click here.

 

What is a Shakespearean Comedy?


 
Today, we have a very broad range of genres to choose from and it’s fairly readily accepted that these can converge. However, when Shakespeare’s plays were published, they were wedged (sometimes with a shoe horn) into just three categories: tragedy, history and comedy.

 
So, if a play wasn’t a tragedy; in other words, if it didn’t fit the tragic mould, and it wasn’t based on a historical event, there was only one other place to shove it. The fact that there may be more laughs in King Lear than in Love’s Labour’s Lost (for example) is irrelevant.

 
Unlike tragedy, which has to fit a specific from, comedy can be anything - essentially, there are no rules (with perhaps the exception of the obligatory wedding, although even this is absent from Love’s Labour’s Lost). However you may find these common themes among Shakespeare’s comedies:

 
Love - Particularly young love that is being scuppered by elders, often parents.
Confusion - Often caused by a disguise and/or a far-fetched conceit involving twins.
Labyrinthine Plots - One thing almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies do have in common is that they have several plots that are running in tandem and entwined.

Is the torture of Malvolio too cruel to be funny?
Helena Bonham Carter and Nigel Hawthorne
in Twelfth Night (1996)
But the fact that there are no ‘rules’ to Shakespearean comedy means that there are facets of them that we find quite difficult to swallow in the context of a play that is supposedly funny. The quasi-tragic opening of The Comedy of Errors or the edgy cruelty in Twelfth Night is difficult to square with something that we assume should be light-hearted fun.

 
Of course, the reality is that almost all comedy swings from laughter to heartbreak. After all, any good comic actor will tell you that a comedy performance must arouse pathos, otherwise it is fruitless. So, perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so freaked out by the fact that it’s difficult to find ‘jokes’ in Shakespeare’s work.

 

What Makes a Shakespearean Comedy Funny?


 
All that said, I’m not suggesting that there isn’t anything laugh out loud hilarious in Shakespeare’s comedies, because there is.

 
Much of Shakespeare's humour can only be appreciated
in performance | Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline
in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
From the pithy word play of Petruchio and Katherina in The Taming of The Shrew, to the slapstick in The Comedy of Errors and the silliness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is many a laugh to be had. Just about every form of comedy can be found within Shakespeare’s comedies.

 
However, it’s easy to miss, because it was never intended to be read. If you’re desperately searching for a glimmer of humour in one of Shakespeare’s comedies, then I encourage you to watch a version of it; either on stage or screen. Things that don’t seem funny on the page, will make themselves much clearer in performance.

 
If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare, in order to help you understand his work or assist your studies, check out my Introduction to The Bard of Avon, available at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or any European Amazon outlet.

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