150+ essays on literary topics
Shakespeare could always see the funny side. His first comedy, A Comedy of Errors, was based on Menaechmi (The Twins) by the Roman playwright, Plautus, the Ben Elton of ancient Rome.
Shakespeare’s classical models were the comedians, who made fun of the upper classes and gave all the best lines to the slaves. His friend, Ben Jonson, on the other hand spent a lot of time imitating Seneca in plays that are now rarely if ever performed.
The classics were never really to Shakespeare’s taste, perhaps because, unlike Jonson, he wanted to please the audience and had no wish to be considered a ‘serious dramatist’ by the intellectuals of the time.
More than the classics, what influenced him as a playwright with an ambition to be popular (and make a living) was the popular drama that he grew up with. The English monks who dramatised bible stories for the benefit of an illiterate audience gave him a more immediate model. Their Corpus Christi plays, named after the festivals when they were put on, are better known now as Mystery Plays, not because there was anything mysterious about them, but because they were performed by the ordinary working men of the town, mystere in Norman English meaning trade. In other words they were the ‘rude mechanicals’ or ordinary working men who got laughs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
That play, written not long after A Comedy of Errors, was a deliberately anachronistic mixture of classical and pagan, myth and fairytale. The play within a play, The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby, is chosen by Theseus for what he sees as the homespun honesty of its players.
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
The play and the play-within-a-play are both comedies of errors. Mistaken identity is the simple plot device that runs through all of Shakespeare’s comedies and some of his tragedies.
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
So says Viola when her own disguise begins to get her in trouble. Perhaps she was speaking for Shakespeare too. After Twelfth Night, disguise as a comic device seems to have run its course, until it makes a surprise return in King Lear, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.
The line between comedy and tragedy was for him always a fine one. Critics have a word for it. They call it ‘comic relief’, but that is to miss the point. When the Porter in Macbeth is woken by someone knocking at the gate, the same knocking which has just prompted Macbeth to say, “Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!”, a moment of high drama becomes an occasion for low comedy.
“Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub?” And so on until, when at last he opens the door he holds out his hand and says, “I pray you, remember the porter.”
What critics call comic relief is just real life. It’s what W.H.Auden wrote about in Musée des Beaux Arts.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
The fine line between comedy and tragedy is at its finest in King Lear, Act IV, Scene 6, when the blind Gloster is made to think that he has fallen off a cliff. The scene could easily be played for laughs, as could Lear’s entrance “fantastically drest with wild flowers” while Edgar, disguised as a peasant, talks to his blind father. This is, as you might say, mistaken identity gone mad.
Shakespeare went his own way with comedy towards a kind of drama that pushed the boundaries and set new challenges. Since then what makes us laugh and what makes us cry might have changed in some respects, but the boundary between them is what matters most and tells us most about the society we live in.
Chekhov wrote tragedy as comedy, Ibsen as sociology, Strindberg as psychology. Tragedy and comedy meet in realism, which is perhaps where Shakespeare was heading all along.