New Comedy and Elizabethan Context

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      New Comedy, being derived from the Latin adaptations by Plautus and Terence, is the fundamental resource of comedies written in Elizabethan literature. The New Comedy writers were most of the time prolific and sometimes wrote more than 300 plays. The most important poets include Philemon (368/60-267/3 BC), the author of 97 comedies, Diphilus who wrote around 100 plays, and Philippines. However, the writer of this genre whose work survived longest is Menander (340-290 BC). Philemon actually won more festival victories than Menander, but it is the latter that came to be considered the great poet of New Comedy. He wrote around 100 plays and many survived up to the 7th century CE when unfortunately they were lost to posterity. The New Comedy of Menander is the noteworthy milestone of comedy, which has evolved around love plots. The Dyskolos (originally performed in 316 BC) is the most complete surviving play and significant portions of six other plays also survive. The popularity of Menander is attested by over 900 quotations preserved in secondary sources and his works were frequently adapted by latter Latin playwrights. Famous for his imaginative situations, fast-moving dialogue, suspense, and attention to private domestic dramas, he often included a romantic lead, typically a young single male (in contrast to Aristophanes’ heroes who are usually middle-aged and married).

      The New Comedy influenced much of Western European literature, primarily through Plautus: in particular the comic playwrights like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and the Restoration playwrights like Congreve and Wycherley. The five-act structure of modern plays was also first found in Menander’s comedies, while in the comedies of previous generations, the choral interludes and dialogues with song were the regular practices. Much of contemporary romantic and situational comedy descends from the New Comedy sensibility, as in All in the. Family and Meet the Parents. The young lovers have to face trials and tribulations, often the opposition of their parents and other senile or conservative members of society, but with the help of their witty servants, they overcome the difficulties, and get united in the end. New Comedies had a great impact on the Elizabethan playwright’s romantic comedies. The genre can probably be best defined by two Shakespearean quotations — “the course of true love never did run smooth”, as Lysander says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After misunderstandings, plotting and counterplotting, finally, “Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill,” the comedy ends in weddings and general reconciliation.

      Menander’s comedies were reinvented around the 2nd century BCE by two Roman authors - Plautus (254-184 BC) and Terence (195-159 BC) who, in turn, influenced both the Commedia delicate of the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance plays of Shakespeare and Lope de Vega. Commedia del Arte is an Italian form of comedy whose plot mainly centered on love and intrigue, with often farcical dialogues, and which was a popular type of marketplace entertainment until the 15th century. The comedies of Plautus and Terence have influenced the comedies of the Middle Age and Renaissance not merely in their plots, but mostly in the usage of stock characters. Stock characters are stereotyped figures characterized mostly by their roles and not by their inner qualities. Such stock characters include the senex — the old miser, the miles gloriosus — the braggart soldier, the witty servant, etc. whom we can also find in Shakespearean tragedies (Polonius in Hamlet), or histories (Falstaff in Henry IV, 1-2), or comedies (Touchstone in As You Like It). Moreover, prologues to shape the audience’s understanding of events, messengers’ speeches to announce offstage action, descriptions of feasts, sudden recognitions, satirical and farcical elements, ex machina endings were all established techniques in New Comedies which Elizabethan playwrights exploited and evoked in their comedies too.

      Comedy in its Elizabethan usage had a very different meaning from modern comedy. A Shakespearean comedy is one that has a happy ending, usually involving marriages between the unmarried characters, and a tone and style that is more light-hearted than Shakespeare’s other plays. The Punch and Judy show has roots in the 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte. The figure of Punch derives from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella. The figure who later became Mr. Punch made his first recorded appearance in England in 1662. Punch and Judy are performed in the spirit of outrageous comedy — often provoking shocked laughter and are dominated by the anarchic clowning of Mr. Punch. Appearing at a significant period in British history, professor Glyn Edwards states - “(Pulcinella) went down particularly well with Restoration British audiences fun-starved after years of Puritanism. We soon changed Punch’s name’ transformed him from a marionette to a hand puppet, and he became’ really, a spirit of Britain - a subversive maverick who defies authority, a kind of puppet equivalent to our political cartoons.”

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