An introduction to Shakespeare’s comedy

John Mullan considers the key characteristics of Shakespeare's varied comedies, but he also considers the ways the playwright mixes genres by bringing comedy into his tragedies and tragedy into his comedies.

When the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the First Folio, was published in 1623, its contents page divided them into three categories: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. The list of Comedies included Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, plays that modern audiences and readers have not found particularly ‘comic’. Also included were two late plays, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, that critics often now classify as ‘Romances’. If we ask ourselves what these four plays have in common with those such as As You Like It or Twelfth Night, which we are used to calling ‘comedies’, the answer gives us a clue to the meaning of ‘comedy’ for many of Shakespeare’s educated contemporaries. All of them end in marriage (or at least betrothal).

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio - title page and introduction by Ben Johnson

The First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1623) divides them into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies.

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Marriage

Comedies head towards marriage. This is a useful place to start thinking about the typical shape of comedies. Marriages conventionally represent the achievement of happiness and the promise of regeneration. So important to Shakespeare is the symbolic power of marriage that some end in more than one marriage. Both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night end with three. In the final scene of As You Like It, Hymen, the god of marriage, takes the stage to preside over no fewer than four nuptial couplings and to celebrate ‘High wedlock’ (5.4.144) in song. All the play’s couples have achieved happiness through misunderstanding. Orlando has wooed Rosalind in make believe, not grasping how his feelings were being reciprocated. Orlando’s brother Oliver, having repented his previous vindictiveness to Orlando, has been smitten by the apparently poor Aliena, not realising that she is Rosalind’s friend Celia. Phebe the shepherdess had preferred Ganymede (in fact the disguised Rosalind) to the adoring but low-born Silvius, but has learnt her error. Touchstone has won Audrey, the country girl, almost casually by impressing her with his mock courtly talk. This last pairing, founded on vanity and ignorance, seems considerably less satisfying than the other three: even here, in one of the lightest of Shakespeare’s comedies, we are invited not to feel easy about every marriage. In other Shakespeare comedies, some concluding marriages – Claudio and Hero in Much Ado about Nothing, the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure – seem designed to look convenient rather than affectionate.

Woodcuts showing the four humours and marriage in Peacham's Minerva Britanna

Woodcuts showing the four humours and marriage in Peacham's Minerva Britanna

Marriage represented as a male figure trapped in the stocks, from Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna, 1612.

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Misconception

In Shakespearean comedies much that is funny arises from the misconceptions of lovers. In Much Ado about Nothing the friends of Benedick, whom we have seen mocking Beatrice and scorning love, arrange for him to overhear them talking about how desperately Beatrice in fact loves him. The trick is enjoyably justified when he next meets Beatrice and determinedly interprets her rudeness as concealed affection. Yet the trick takes us further. Once Beatrice has been deceived by her friends in similar fashion, these two characters, who both once disdained the follies of courtship, are on the path to love and marriage. All this deception would not be amusing if we could not feel confident that it will produce a happy resolution In the play’s sub-plot, the deception of Claudio by Don John indicates how a deceived lover might, in another kind of play, be on his way to creating a tragedy. Interwoven with the plot of Benedick and Beatrice’s love story is the drama of so-called ‘love’ (Claudio for Hero) turned into murderous hate. However satisfying the former courtship, it is shadowed by the vengefulness of the untrusting Claudio.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Titania’s awakening. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 4, Scene 1 by Henry Fuseli.

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For the most part, Shakespeare’s comedies rely on benign misunderstanding and deception. They therefore put a premium on dramatic irony, where we know better than the perplexed lovers. An outstanding example is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where we understand the magic of the love potion, mistakenly applied by Puck to Lysander’s eyes, and can relish not only the love talk he spouts to Helena, but her befuddlement. When Puck, in an effort to remedy his mistake, squeezes the juice onto Demetrius’s eyes and he, waking to see Helena, also pours forth professions of love for her, we hear how easily and eloquently men can think they love one woman or another. Hermia, who thought that Lysander loved her, is furiously jealous while Helena is convinced that there is a conspiracy to deceive her. We laugh at their perplexity because we know that the magic that produced it will eventually resolve it and ensure a happy ending. The lovers will return from the forest, that place of confusion and transgression, to the institution of marriage.

Disguise and gender

A comparable kind of dramatic irony is produced by Shakespeare’s use of disguise in comedy – particularly the disguising of women as young men. In As You Like It there is a delicious comedy in Orlando’s enacted wooing of Rosalind, who prompts him in the guise of a young man to whom he can speak without reticence. In Twelfth Night, Olivia who, mourning her brother’s death, has sworn to be ‘a cloistress’ (1.1.27) and keep herself a veiled recluse for seven years, finds herself smitten by Cesario, a young man sent with messages from Duke Orsino. Cesario is, of course, the disguised Viola, and the comedy of Olivia’s mistakenly amorous responses to him/her is all the funnier because it corrects Olivia’s self-denying and impossible mournfulness. As ever in Shakespeare’s comedies, it takes mistakes to teach characters the truths of their own hearts. Olivia bumps into Viola’s twin brother, Sebastien, and proposes marriage to him. He is hilariously puzzled but compliant; it is as if he knows that he is in a comedy, where accident and error will mysteriously produce happy consequences. The apparent restraint placed upon a playwright of Shakespeare’s day – all women must be played by young male actors – becomes a kind of artistic freedom, enabling the characters to switch their sexual identities.

Photograph of Michael Brown as Viola/Cesario and Rhys Meredith as Sebastian in Shakespeare's Globe production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Photograph of Sebastian and Cesario - looking remarkably similar due to makeup and wigs

Men playing women disguised as men: Michael Brown as Viola/Cesario (right), alongside Rhys Meredith as Sebastian.

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Copyright: © Colin Willoughby / ArenaPal

Settings

The action of Twelfth Night takes place at some uncertain date in Illyria, an imagined place where the Italian-seeming court of Orsino is neighbour to the apparently English household of Olivia. Several of Shakespeare’s comedies have such highly imaginary settings – the magical wood outside Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. Only one, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is set in England, and this is an opportunistic piece, written to exploit the popularity of the character of Falstaff. Shakespeare was unusual in invariably finding foreign (and timeless) locations for his comedies. In his day, stage comedy frequently had a contemporary and English (often London) setting. Tragedies took place in Spain, France or Italy; comedies nearer to home. Shakespeare’s best-known rival dramatist, Ben Jonson, set Every Man in His Humour (first performed in 1598) in Italy, but later revised it and relocated it to London, partly in response to popular taste. Later Jonson comedies such as The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair were also set in London and belong to a genre of so-called ‘city comedies’ that attracted other accomplished playwrights such as John Marston and Thomas Middleton.

William Blake painting of fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Blake painting of fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream

In a magical wood outside Athens, the fairies perform a ring dance, painted by William Blake, 1786.

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The boundaries of comedy

Comedy was traditionally a ‘lower’ genre than tragedy or history, and so these comedies by Shakespeare’s contemporaries justified themselves by their satirical ambitions. Satire was a higher genre than other kinds of comedy, commended by classical authors as morally improving. City comedies had a moral purpose: they mocked current follies and vices. Shakespeare was little interested in topical satire. Yet there is some evidence that the rules and conventions governing comedy were loose in Shakespeare’s day. The title pages of the various quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays indicate that generic categories were not hard and fast. The quarto edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598) announces it as ‘A Pleasant Conceited Comedy’ and the quarto Taming of the Shrew declares it to be a ‘wittie and pleasant comedie’. Yet the title page of The Merchant of Venice (1600) calls it ‘The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice’.

These title pages – almost certainly composed by booksellers rather than the playwright – tell us about the appeal of word play and contests of wit to Shakespeare’s first audiences. To us The Taming of the Shrew might seem a play about sexual politics, but it was probably initially admired for being ‘wittie’: that is, for featuring two leading characters who were skilled in verbal antagonism. Verbal humour, often dependent on puns and allusions, is sometimes difficult to translate on the modern stage, but it was essential to Elizabethan and Jacobean expectations of comedy. One of Shakespeare’s most popular comic characters, Sir John Falstaff, arrived on the stage in history plays but was celebrated for his verbal dexterity. As he announces, ‘I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men’ (Henry IV, Part 2, 1.2.9–10). The quarto edition of Henry IV, Part 1 (1598) was advertised as including ‘the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaffe’. Subsequently, the title page of the quarto edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602) described it as ‘A most pleasant and excellent Conceited comedie, of Sir John Falstaffe, and the merrie Wives of Windsor’.

Celebration of Shakespeare in Meres' Wit's Treasury, 1598

Celebration of Shakespeare in Meres' Wit's Treasury, 1598

Even early in Shakespeare’s career, Francis Meres felt that he excelled at both comedy and tragedy.

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Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

The baby Shakespeare is nursed by Tragedy and Comedy, by George Romney.

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Comedy with tragedy

Shakespeare was also remarkable for insisting on the comic in the midst of tragedy. All his tragedies include clowning. The most notable example is the Fool in King Lear, who makes jokes out of the King’s predicament and is permitted, under the guise of foolery, to admonish him. All Shakespeare’s major tragedies include a minor character who makes jests at the expense of the tragic actors. Shakespeare was not the first tragedian of his era to do this: Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy Doctor Faustus features clown scenes parodying the terrible ambition of the play’s protagonist, leading him to sell his soul. What is frightening can also be absurd. Hamlet has the grave-digger joking about mortality. He was often omitted in 18th- and 19th-century productions as offending against dramatic propriety. Also an embarrassment to later interpreters was the Porter in Macbeth, jesting about the effect of alcohol on a man’s sexual performance at the very heart of the play’s darkness. It is often forgotten that even Othello has a Clown. In Act 3, Scene 1, a scene rarely included in modern productions, Othello’s Clown mocks Cassio with doubles entendres about venereal disease that Cassio seems not to understand, comically enacting the cluelessness about sexual motives that lies behind the oncoming tragedy.

Macbeth’s Porter

Macbeth’s Porter

Amvrosi Buchma playing the role of the Fool/Porter in a Ukranian production of Macbeth directed in 1924 by Les Kurbas.

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Copyright: © Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Tragedy in comedy

Tragi-comedy has often been thought to be Shakespeare’s special creation. It is a term that can usefully be applied to four plays that Shakespeare wrote late in his career: The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Tempest. Though these all end with the prospect of a marriage that will redeem the errors of the past, none of them has much room for laughter. All of them dramatise anger, violence and bitter jealousy. All except The Tempest include the deaths of some characters. They are comedic rather than comic. Critics have long been in the habit of calling them ‘romances’, and the description, dividing them off from the comedies, seems a useful one. On the other hand, some earlier plays – Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida and perhaps The Merchant of Venice – while ending in betrothals and containing scenes of comic misunderstanding, have such dark material at their hearts as to escape our usual idea of comedy. The term ‘problem plays’ was coined for this group at the very end of the 19th century. It is a label that has been much contested by critics, but it points to an important fact about Shakespeare’s development as a playwright. Even as he relished comedy he pushed against its limitations.

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

Rowe argues that some of Shakespeare’s ‘Comedies, are really Tragedies, with a run or mixture of Comedy amongst ’em’.

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  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Professor of English at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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