Major Shakespeare Comedies: Critical Analysis

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      Comedy has always been considered inferior to Tragedy. She has remained a Cinderalla of the Muses, as Gordon says. There has been an awakening of interest in comedy in recent times. Meredith was of the view that Comedy (High Comedy) appeals to the intelligence — “aims not at our ribs or armpits but at our heads”. In Comedy, the victim is attacked impersonally and without heat. The laughter of heart and mind are inextricably interfused in Shakespearean Comedy. Meredith says:

“Shakespeare is a well-spring of characters which are saturated with the comic spirit; with more of what we will call blood-life than is to be found anywhere out of Shakespeare; and they are of this world, but they are of this world enlarged to our embrace by imagination, and by great poetic imagination.”

      Comedy has a mission and lashes at the foibles of society It should use the whip, and must have the courage to be cruel. The purpose of laughter is corrective. It deals with familiar surroundings and with society. Shakespeare does not neglect the work of comedy, but he is good-natured and kind. He attacks Egotism, Sentimentalism, Pedantry and Self-importance. These foibles do not make men and women criminals. These people are bad citizens and bad neighbors, and unsociable. In Shakespearean comedy, every excess of egotism or sentiment is treated as an illness.

      Shakespeare’s world of comedy is a world which is dominated by the women. These are two groups of people in this world. One group of the young men and women who live in a world dreams and laughter. The other group consists of workaday people—farmers, maids along with rogues, jokers and odd fellows. A love-story forms the plot of these comedies. “We are in the Utopia of lovers, where there is much despair; but no broken hearts”. A common characteristic of all the comedies is the use of disguise enabled Shakespeare to symbolize one of his favorite themes—the contrast between appearance and reality. No comic formula can be applied to Shakespeare’s comedies. The comedies have an astonishing variety. The pattern of the comedies is Kaleidoscopic, and the focus is always changing.

       Love's Labour's Lost is considered the earliest drama and comedy of Shakespeare. A study of the play reveals many immaturities, but it also shows in what direction Shakespeare's genius will find its completest expression.

      Love's Labour's Lost is his first attempt at romantic comedy. Here he introduces a variety of characters and diversity of situations, but he is not able to weld all the multifarious traits into one unified whole. However, Shakespeare's future greatness in characterisation is strengthened by a study of Holofernes and Don Armado who are variations on stock types of Elizabethan comedy. It is easy to catalogue all characteristics of Don Armado, but we do not know the core of personality from which they spring and draw their warmth and vitality. The one exception is Browne in whom we have an example of Shakespeare's art on its way to full bloom. Browne has a rich and varied individuality.

       The Two Gentlemen of Verona, another early comedy is romantic in a more specific sense than is Love's Labour's Lost. It deals not only with love and marriage, but with that special type of knightly adoration of the lady which is the foundation of mediaeval chivalry. Love, here is an ideal which absorbs all the energies of a knight and imposes a code of conduct in which faithfulness is the noblest virtue. The keynote of Valentine's character is his sudden transition from one heroic mood to another and his devotion to the knightly ideals or the love and friendship. Proteus betrays his friend and proves false to his lady-love. It is not a successful romantic play, but the characters like Julia, valentine, Launce and Speed give a foretaste of the romantic characters and the comic characters of his mature comedies.

Love's Labour's Lost is considered the earliest drama and comedy of Shakespeare. A study of the play reveals many immaturities, but it also shows in what direction Shakespeare's genius will find its completest expression.

      The Comedy of Errors is looked upon by Sir E.K. Chambers as Shakespeare's earliest comedy (anterior to Love' s Labour's Lost). In this comedy, he deals with a plot which does not allow of effective characterisation and in which the main interest is derived from the peculiarity of the situation. It is a comedy of confused identity. The characters of Aegeon and Luciana introduce romantic element. Here he mixes farce with romance. Here he shows his immaturity in characterisation and the plot is complicated.

      The Taming of the Shrew coupled with the Comedy of Errors marks Shakespeare's recoil from romanticism. The Comedy of Errors is based on a classical model, but Shakespeare tries to diversify and enrich the theme by adding to the number of surprising incidents and breathing into a mere farce the spirit of romance. The comedy of love is swamped by the force of intrigue. However, it provides rollicking fun. Triano is a representative of the clever Roman servant. Bianca is as far from the true Shakesperean heroine. Biondello is from the true Shakespearean servant as represented by Launce or Launcelot Gobbo.

      A Midsummer Night's Dream is Shakespeare's first successful experiment in the domain of comedy. Here he displays a command over characterisation and a power of creating romantic atmosphere. Here he combines the stories of fairy kings and queens, human lovers and Athenian Mechanics. It is a blend of romanticism and realism, romance and comedy which constitutes the charm of Shakespeare's comedies. He does not analyse the human lovers-Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, in the manner he will later apply to Viola and Beatrice. All the episodes and characters have human significance but over them all reigns the spirit of fantasy and romance. Shakespeare shows his ability in the portraiture of Bottom who is the most romantic of mechanics. He is an anticipation of Shakespeare's great humour characters. With his vanity, his realisation and his self-contfidence, he creates his own world.

      The Merchant of Venice introduces us to the middle period of Shakespeare's dramatic career. Though Shakespeare shows great ingenuity in handling his plots in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night 's Dream, the early comedies do not contain any great character except Nick Bottom. In the Merchant of Venice we see for the first time, that characters have deep emotional and intellectual life. The bond story (Skylock and Antonio) and the casket story (Bassanio and Portia) are skilfully interwoven. Shakespeare adds the underplot of Lorenzo and Jessica which is important as a story as well as dramaticaly for goading Shylock to revenge and ultimately to his mental collapse. Bassanio is the connecting link between the two stories, In this play, character takes precedence over plot. Shakespeare makes Shylock a complex character and Portia is a brilliant woman with wit and womanliness. he incident of rings has its importance as an incident and at the same time it gives additional glimpse of Portia's brilliance and liveliness. The play is mature from the point of view of plot structure, characterisation and style. Here comedy is remarkably fused with tragic issues. It is a tragic comedy. Here blank verse acquires strength and flexibility, and rhymes are few.

      Much Ado About Nothing, As you Like It and Twelfth Night are Shakespeare's mature comedies. Here he combines romance and realism, romance and comedy in a remarkable manner. They are called joyous comedies. In Much Ado About Nothing, hero, the heroine is a lyrical portrait rather than a dramatic character. Hero-Claudio episode is more a comedy of surprise than a comedy of character. Claudio pays his best tribute to Hero whom he supposes to be dead and then, without further compunction, proceeds to marry Leonato's niece who reveals herself as none other than his old sweet heart Hero. Hero's character is not realistically depicted. The characters of Benedick and Beatrice are portrayed with great skill. This part of the drama may be described as a comedy of intellect. Benedick in trying to avoid Beatrice really flies from his own weakness and when Beatrice mocks at Benedick, she only tortures an emotion whom she is too proud to acknowledge even to herself. Shakespeare draws in Benedick and Beatrice a picture of the interaction between intellect and the inner soul which is a triumph of characterisation.

      Disguise is one source of Shakespeare's comic laughter. It appears in early comedies, and at the same time in his mature comedies. Portia assumes the role of a lawyer. Claudio wooes Hero by proxy. Beatrice appears as a male-hater and Benedick a misogynist, but they are mutually attracted. Behind antagonism, each finds in the other a kindred spirit. Dogberry is a comic character who lives in his own world with his peculiar motions about man's character and his duties in relation to society. Dogberry is a puzzling amalgam of commonsense and stupidity. He is an anticipator of Falstaff. Much Ado About Nothing has a tragi-comic overtone in the main plot of Hero and Claudius. Its structure is loose because of the totally different impressions produced by the main plot and the sub-plot. Benedick-Beatrice episode has an intellectual interest in the debate between the two characters.

      As You Like It and Twelfth Night are the maturest of romantic comedies. As You Like It has diversity of characters, and the main plot centring on Orlando and Rosalind is reinforced by the three sub-plots illustrating different types of love. It shows romantic courtship under disguise. But it is a comedy of dialogue rather than of incidents. Moreover, its diversity is achieved at the cost of unity and subtlety. It has such interesting characters as Rosalind, Celia, Touchstone, Jaques, but here plot is subordinated to the characters. But in scintillating dialogues, in its wit and humour, in its contrast of different points of view, in its flexibility of blank verse and quick transition from verse to prose, it is a unique achievement of Shakespeare.

      Twelfth Night is distinguished from the two other comedies in its superb characterisation and structural unity and coherence. It is the last of Shakespeare's joyous comedies. Here he has combined romance and comedy with consummate art. There is no better and more convincing demonstration of this combinations than to pass from Orsino and Viola in the first two scenes to Sir Toby and Maria in the third scene, from Illyria to the Buttery Hatch. Viola's wooing of Orsino in the disguise of Cesario, her expression of disappointed love to Olivia shows her romantic passion as well as the comic portraiture of love. The delineation of different forms of love highlights the contrast between the serious and the comic. Here joy is touched with sadness. It has a silvery tone of sadness which makes it perhaps the loveliest of all Shakespeare's high comedies. Here Shakespeare's style is the best with the mixture of the lyrical and the dramatic. The befooling of Malvolio which is Shakespeare's invention has the mixture of the comic and the tragic.

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