Shakespearean Comedy - By Adam Immerwahr

“How to identify a comedy”
The strategies described in this article can help you read a comedy, but how are you going to know whether or not the play you are looking at is a comedy? Don’t worry, there’s a simple solution using only the title of a play — and it works for almost every play by Shakespeare!  If the play title has the name and a number in it, it is most likely a history (Richard III, Henry V). If the title of the play has either a pair of names or a single name, but no numbers, it is probably a tragedy (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet). If the title of the play has a phrase or saying in it, you can bet that it is a comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Measure for Measure).

“Why are Shakespeare’s comedies so similar?”
There are several factors that might explain certain shared patterns in Shakespeare’s comedies.

Biographical: Shakespeare wrote most of his comedies early in his career; perhaps it is no mistake that the plays he penned in his youth deal with young people rebelling against the social order of their parents’ generation, while in the tragedies and romances he wrote at the end of his career, the theme is often of children betraying or refusing to obey their parents. 

Historical: When Shakespeare was writing romantic comedies, the other playwrights of his era were too, and when he later began focusing on tragedies, it was also part of a large shift in the theatrical vocabulary around him. This shift (from comedies to tragedies) corresponds to the change in England’s politics as James I succeeded Elizabeth I on the British throne. Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen,” had refused to marry, and all of England was concerned about what would happen to their society if she died without an heir. Perhaps it is because of this that the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries during her life glorified marriage and the positive transformative effect it could have had on the society around it. 

Architectural: During the early part of Shakespeare’s career, the adult playing companies were primarily based in large, outdoor theaters, but midway through his career they began to move into the indoor playhouses that had once been occupied by children’s companies. It is possible that the noisy hubbub of the outdoor playing spaces required more festive, boisterous, celebratory comedies, and that the indoor playhouses, with their more refined audiences, allowed for the more nuanced tragedies and romances.

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)