Shakespearean Comedy – By Adam Immerwahr
What makes a Shakespearean comedy? If you tried to make a list of every Shakespeare play that had funny parts in it, you would end up with a list that included comedies, histories, tragedies, and romances alike. The comedy As You Like It begins with a Duke forcibly exiling his niece from her home; it is a poignant scene, and if sadness were the only factor, then As You Like It would be a tragedy. Rather than looking for plays that funny, sad, boring, and/or lyrical, it is helpful to think of the categories of comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances as groups of similar plays. All of the comedies have a set of shared tropes—certain patterns that help define them as comedies. It is important to remember, though, that these tropes are not necessarily inherently funny; humor is certainly a part of Shakespearean comedy, but it is not the defining characteristic.
At heart, the Shakespearean comedy is about a conflict between two opposite social groups (rulers and subjects, older and younger, wealthy and poor). The comedies tend to begin in a court in turmoil. Usually, this turmoil has arisen out of a crisis over marriage—the aristocrat female has refused to wed, or the laws of society forbid two young aristocrats to marry. The characters flee or are exiled, and they go from the court to a greener, less “civilized” world. They often choose (or are forced) to flee to a far-off exotic location, or a forest. Oftentimes, they are forced to don disguises. In this new place, far from the court that constrained them, they meet all sorts of other characters, and various plots intertwine. There are confusions and mistaken identities, but no major characters die. Central to these confusions is a topsy-turvy element in which society is flipped around: women are mistaken for men; servants end up ruling their masters; those who once chased find themselves pursued; and words are taken to mean their opposites. In this upheaval of the social order, the societal structure that once prevented the young lovers from marrying is transformed, and all the plots are resolved as the younger generation is brought back and welcomed to the court. The final act often includes a wedding and a celebration.” with this text: “In this upheaval of the social order, the societal structure that once prevented marriage is transformed, and all the plots are resolved as those where were unable to marry are brought back and welcomed to the court. The final act often includes a wedding and a celebration.
The first strategy in reading a Shakespearean comedy is to find the common elements listed above. No Shakespeare comedy fits this formula exactly, but the key points can be found—in one aspect or another—in each of the plays of this genre. The ways in which these elements differ from one play to another are often quite interesting, and one might begin analysis by asking what makes the Shakespearean comedy being analyzed unique, and why Shakespeare might have diverged from his pattern? Next, it is helpful to ponder what Shakespeare is trying to do with a given comedy. Often, the plots seem to resolve at the end of the fourth act, but Shakespeare often goes on to a fifth, celebratory act; discovering why that fifth act is necessary can often lead to surprising and intriguing conclusions. For instance, by the end of the fourth act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers have been reunited with the court, but the wedding celebration takes up an enormous fifth act. Why are the “rude mechanicals” of that play important to Shakespeare; what does the story they tell have to do with the larger story of the plot; and are there any more transformations that are necessary before Shakespeare’s tale can conclude? Also, pay particular attention to the first lines of the play, often Shakespeare will give a hint as to his prime interest in the first few exchanges. What can you glean from the first three lines of Twelfth Night?
If music be the food of love, play on
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.
Lastly, don’t forget to pay attention to the humor. Oftentimes, it is hard to find when mired in footnotes and dictionary definitions; once you understand a passage, go back and read it aloud, and you’ll often find hidden hilarity and wordplay. Not only will it make the reading more enjoyable, but you might find some clues to Shakespeare’s meaning buried in the buffoonery.
(Reprinted from McCarter Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Audience Resource Guide)
As You Like It
Orlando, the youngest son of Sir Roland de Boys, is ill treated by his brother Oliver. When he responds to the general challenge issued by the Duke’s wrestler, Charles, Oliver tells Charles to injure Orlando if he can manage it. The Duke’s daughter, Celia, and her cousin, Rosalind, watch the match and Rosalind falls in love with Orlando. Orlando wins but the Duke gets angry when he discovers that Orlando is the son of his old enemy, Sir Roland de Boys. Rosalind gives Orlando a chain to wear and he falls in love with her.
The Duke unexpectedly banishes Rosalind and she decides to find her father, the real Duke, who has been overthrown by his brother, Celia’s father, Frederick. Duke Senior lives in the Forest of Arden. Together with the court jester, Touchstone, the girls set out, disguised as a country boy, Ganymede, and his sister, Aliena. Co-incidentally, Orlando, fearing for his life, has also left home, accompanied by his father’s servant, Adam.
In the forest, the group from the court encounter a young shepherd, Silvius, and watch him being rejected by a shepherdess, Phoebe, as he declares his love for her. They meet an old shepherd, Corin, who is looking for someone to take over the sheep farm. Ganymede, who wants to settle in the forest, buys the lease.
Duke Senior, unaware that his daughter is looking for him, is living a simple life with some courtiers and huntsmen. One of them is the melancholy Jaques, who reflects constantly on life. Orlando and Adam arrive and the outlaws welcome them and feed them.
Orlando hangs some love poems that he has written to Rosalind from the branches of trees. Rosalind and Aliena find them. Ganymede helps him to cure his lovesickness by wooing him, Ganymede, as though he/she were Rosalind. A country girl, Audrey, falls in love with Touchstone and abandons her faithful William because of her love for the fool.
Oliver is searching for his brother. He has an accident and Orlando saves his life. Orlando is slightly injured and when he tells Ganymede about it she faints. Oliver and Celia fall in love. Phoebe falls in love with Genymede. It all becomes very complicated. Hymen leads a masque; Rosalind re-emerges as a woman and her father gives her to Orlando; Phoebe accepts Silvius; Orlando’s older brother returns from university with the news that Celia’s father, Frederick, has retired as Duke to become a hermit; Jaques goes to join him. There is a joyful dance to celebrate the four marriages and the happy ending