Shakespearean Comedy: Main Features in Literature

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      Shakespeare has composed more number of comedies than tragedies among his thirty-seven plays. Among the literary critics, Dr. Johnson has much spoken about the comedies of Shakespeare. According to Dr. Johnson, Shakespeare is a natural comic writer or his view of life is essentially comic. He continues about Shakespeare that “In tragedy he writes with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his comic scenes, he seems to produce without labor, what no labor can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comic, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes, there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action..... His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy, instinct.”

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) Comedies

Comedy of Errors (1592-93)
Taming of the Shrew (1593-94)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594-95)
Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594-95)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-96)
The Merchant of Venice (1596-97)
Much Ado about Nothing (1598-99)
As You Like It (1599-1600)
Twelfth Night (1599-1600)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600-01)
All’s Well That Ends Well (1602-03)
Measure for Measure (1604-05)
Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608-09)
Cymbeline (1609-10)
Winter’s Tale. (1610-11)
The Tempest (1611-12)

      Nevill Coghill in his essay The Basis of Shakespearean Comedy opines that Shakespeare’s conception of comedy is influenced by the formula of Vincent de Beauvais of the 13th century, according to whom a comedy is tale of trouble that turns to joy. Shakespeare is in fact, very poetical and humanitarian. He cannot laugh at people; he can only laugh with them. Occasionally he is also satirical or ironical. But there is no sting in his satire. According to Gordon, “Shakespeare’s comedies regarded purely as comedy, present us with a holy war conducted without malice, or bloodshed on Egotism, Sentimentalism, Pedantry, and Self-importance; on precisely those weakness and follies, in short, which without being criminal, make bad citizens and bad neighbors — tiresome husbands and tiresome wives — which make man and women unsociable, and unfit for the friendly purpose of life. Shakespeare’s characters may be devoid of classical virtue, but not the subject to ridicule. They are happy and inspire the readers and the audiences to be happy. His comedy is in no way satiric, this is poetic. It is not conservative, it is creative. The way of it is the imagination rather than that of the pure reason. It is the artist’s vision, not a critic’s exposition. The world of the comedies may be Utopian, but there is also the occasional blending of reality and romance. For example, in the fairy land of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom and his comrades give us a picture of contemporary English society. In the romantic world of Viola, Olivia and Count Orsino we have Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. At the same time, in the comedies there is also an atmosphere of make-belief.

      Shakespeare’s comedies are the stories of love. Love is the leitmotif of, the keynote of most of the plays of Shakespeare — both tragedies and comedies. In the comedies, however, the tone of love is heightened. The heroes and the heroines look upon love as the guiding principle of life. All their thoughts are the ministers of love and feed its sacred flame. At an auspicious moment the hero and the heroine meet, and they fall in love at once. But love is not all about comedy. It is also noticed that while the lovers keep themselves busy in love-making, there are inmates of the comic world, who drink and laugh at the tavern and talk of things that are hardly romantic. Fools also have a good role in Shakespeare’s comedies (as also in tragedies). There are some professional fools like Touchstones and Feste, who are men of judgment and wisdom. They are witty and shrewd, and take full advantage of their position by hurling retorts and repartees. They feel no hesitation in taking liberties even with their masters, who are Kings. There are rustics who unknowingly provide merriment and laughter, e.g. Dogberry, Verges, Bottom, Costard and Dull.

      Shakespeare’s early comedies are of an experimental nature and bear the stamp of the Roman dramatists — Plautus and Terence as well as his contemporaries like Lyly and Greene. In spite of their relative immaturity, Shakespeare has delineated characters, which are not mere puppets or caricatures. The Comedy of Error is based on Plautus’ Menaechnic and Amphitruo. Apart from the classical theme, Shakespeare also has
observed in it the unities of time and place. The Taming of the Shrew is less mechanical than The Comedy of Error. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is as much a drama of love as of friendship. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare is more mature than ever. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is blending of the real and the supernatural. It is the story four young lovers, who indulge in sorts of vagaries and caprices, and about whom Pucks says: “Lord, what fools these mortals be”.

      In the Romantic comedies like The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, there are the marks of maturity and originality. Through an assemblage of wit and humor, love and romance, Shakespeare has reached in them the height of comic genius. The Merchant of Venice is filled with the main plot of love between Portia and Bassanio and a few sub-plots. Much Ado about Nothing is all about love and wit. Here Benedick, Beatrice, Dogberry and Verges are Shakespeare’s - immortal creations, among which Dogberry is ever alive for malapropisms. As You Like It takes us to the forest of Arden, which is the symbol of romance. Twelfth Night is picturesque blend of romance and comedy behind which lurks the element of tragedy. Here Shakespeare has depicted one kind of love in the Duke, another kind in Viola, and still another kind in Olivia. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a burlesque on the love of Falstaff.

      All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are known as the Problem Comedies or Dark Plays. They are dark, bitter, sordid, unattractive and ironical. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are the last plays of Shakespeare. These are also called Dramatic Romances or Tragi-comedies. They are Romances as they deal with people in love, which are also heroic. They are, on the other hand, tragic-comedies in a special sense, for all the plays of Shakespeare are ‘mingled drama’. These plays have a tragic background, the incidents are genuinely tragic but the ending, however, is happy.

      However, humor is an essential ingredient of Shakespearean comedies. Cruel and harsh laughter is almost ruled out. The laughter of joy rings in the earlier and middle comedies, and a smile, beautiful in its wisdom and serenity, illuminates the comedies of the closing periods. If satire is present, it is only on rare occasions - a satire of manners. On the whole, his humor is tolerant, sympathetic, general and sparking. Shakespeare’s humor is totally devoid of cynicism. His humor is many-sided.

      In Shakespeare’s comedies, there is a predominance of women. In tragedies, heroes are towering figures while in comedies it is only women’s world. The heroines have a balanced personality and have qualities of both head and heart. It was in women that Shakespeare draws the essential equipoise, the balance which makes personality in action a sort of ordered interplay of the major qualities of human nature. In his women, hand, heart and brain are fused in a vital and practical union, each contributing to other. Whatever may be gender of the characters in Shakespeare s comedies, they are all men and women of flesh and real feelings. To conclude, the quotation of Charlton should be mentioned: “But though the ultimate world of Shakespeare’s comedy is romantic, poetic and imaginative, it is by unsubstantial and fantastic”. The locale is strange and. fanciful but yet it is related to real life. Then, there is nothing archaic about the comedies. They present the contemporary fashions, traits, habits and way of life. The worldly wisdom and deep comprehension of life made his comedies more realistic. Thus, they are not merely fanciful. The greatness of his comedies can perfectly be measured by the profundity and the persuasiveness of life which they embody.

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