Shakespearean Comedy

Dr Raphael Lyne, lecturer in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, writes about Shakespearean comedy

When we think about the experience of reading or watching a comedy, the first association we make is with laughter. Laughter, however, might not be the most important characteristic of Shakespearean comedy or of the tradition of comedy that he inherited. Laughter results from details – verbal jokes, physical jokes, and so on – that are secondary characteristics of comedy. Its primary characteristics are what make us specially ready to laugh. Comedy, at this primary level, is a kind of story: one in which good people come through trials and tribulations and find the good fortune they deserve. It is also a kind of world, a kind of atmosphere, in which such stories can actually exist – a world rather different from reality. When these fundamental conditions apply the witty wordplay and the hilarious pratfalls come naturally.

Because comedy is (if I am right) based in an unreal world, there is a kind of pressure on audiences and readers. They – we – are attracted by all the happy things that happen, but at times might resist all the happiness because we know it cannot be real. Most of the time it is easy to reconcile the good fortune with the impossibility because we know how to watch comedy – we know that we have to indulge different rules, and we relish the indulgence. Sometimes, however, writers can put us under greater pressure by making the comedy difficult. For example, a writer might make it harder for the audience to ignore the unreality of a happy ending, or might incorporate touches of reality to disrupt the comic atmosphere.

Shakespeare takes this to a fascinating extreme and as usual he never lets his audience stop thinking. In all his comedies there are sharp edges that stop the comedy becoming a passive experience. In Love’s Labour’s Lost the death of the King stops the Princess and her friends continuing their romances. The play flounders without a conclusion because the audience cannot wait for a year, but the characters must. In Measure for Measure the Duke reveals his plan to marry Isabella but the text include no verbal reaction from her, despite her being present onstage. In performance a solution has to be found – she cannot just stand there – but whether she looks delighted or appalled the ending is problematic. This is an extreme case, to the extent that Measure for Measure is sometimes called a ‘problem play’ rather than a comedy, but elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work there are many examples of difficult comedy.

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s happiest plays, a comedy which consistently delights its audiences, so it is an ideal place to demonstrate how Shakespeare tests the boundaries of comedy whenever he can. The play ends with no fewer than four weddings and Hymen, the classical god of marriage, is in attendance. Shakespeare overloads the conclusion with fantastic comic happiness but the rest of the play includes a surprising amount of realistic thinking in a variety of contexts. he play’s heroine, Rosalind, who does what romantic heroine should do and falls hopelessly in love at first sight, is very ironic and even cynical about her own condition and the world of comedy. In a bizarre plot-twist, she is dressed as a man, but persuades him – he has no idea what is going on – to pretend she is actually Rosalind. When he tells her he will die if his love is not returned she gives a brilliant response:

Rosalind: Am not I your Rosalind?

Orlando: I take some joy to say you are because I would be talking of her.

Rosalind: Well, in her own person I say I will not have you.

Orlando: Then in mine own person I die.

Rosalind: No, faith; die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club, yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year though Hero had turned nun if it had not been for a hot midsummer night, for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and, being taken with the cramp, was drowned; and the foolish chroniclers of that age found it was Hero of Sestos. But these are all lies. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love. (4.1.80-104)

Troilus and Leander are great paragons of love, but Rosalind refuses to accept the legendary stories. In her realistic view ‘foolish chroniclers’ are to blame for the idea that anyone could really die for love. This is part of a test for Orlando: to some extent she is teaching him about real love rather than fantastic love, making him a better husband for her. However, this is also bittersweet resistance to the plot in which she stars. Rosalind is, to put it bluntly, too intelligent, too subtle and ironic, to fall for the story of As You Like It, and yet she is right in the middle of it.

The world of As You Like It, like its central character, keeps reality in sight. The Forest of Arden is a bit like a fantasy forest, where the court figures can go to be free and to work out the problems of everyday life. In contrast to this, for some characters it simply is everyday life, which offers no additional freedom at all. So, when Rosalind and Celia meet Corin on the edge of the forest, they expect to find rustic hospitality and wholesome pastoral conversation. Instead, they encounter a harsher existence:

Rosalind: I prithee, shepherd, if that love or gold
Can in this desert place buy entertainment,
Bring us where we may rest ourselves, and feed.
Here’s a young maid with travel much oppressed,
And faints for succour.

Corin: Fair sir, pity her,
And wish, for her sake more than for mine own,
My fortunes were more able to relieve her;
But I am shepherd to another man,
And do not shear the fleeces that I grave.
My master is of a churlish disposition,
And little recks to find the way to heaven
By doing deeds to hospitality.
Besides, his cot, his flocks, and bounds of feed
Are now on sale, and at our sheepcote now
By reason of his absence there is nothing
That you will feed on. But what is, come see,
And in my voice most welcome shall you be.

Rosalind: What is he that shall buy his flock and pasture?

Corin: That young swain that you saw here but erewhile,
That little cares for buying anything.

Rosalind: I pray thee, if it stand with honesty,
Buy thou the cottage, pasture, and the flock,
And thou shalt have to pay for it of us.

Celia: And we will ment thy wages. I like this place,
And willingly could waste my time in it. (2.4.70-94)

This image of the rural economy would have struck a chord with some of Shakespeare’s audience: life was tough for shepherds when land was being enclosed and others benefited from their work. Faced with this incongruous realism Rosalind and Celia react differently: the heroine offers a practical solution from her privileged position – she will buy Corin’s way out of trouble. Celia reflects her privilege in a different way: for her the rustic world can still be a way of wasting time, and she has not recognised the significance of Corin’s problems.

What does all this mean? It might seem as if this introduction of irony and realistic thinking must undermine the effect of Shakespeare’s comedies. Clearly it is difficult to be categorical about something that might have a subjective component. Nevertheless it does seem possible to argue that in fact the effect of the comic ending – the happiness at the characters’ good fortune and the positive image of the world that is conjured up – is not undermined at all. Indeed, I suggest that a play like As You Like It actually intensifies the pleasure of the fantasy because it contains the realistic objections within itself. Thus they cannot operate negatively from the edge of the play. In As You Like It Rosalind works through the problems of believing in comedy and then succumbs: so do we. In other plays the balance is more precarious, or may even tip away from comedy altogether.

Suggestions for Further Study

  1. If you are studying another play, or other plays, you could look for moments like these in As You Like It, where the comic atmosphere and the comic story are disrupted by reality.
  2. Do you agree with the general view of comedy here? There is not a huge amount of heavy theory around comedy (in that respect it’s very unlike tragedy), so we can come up with ideas of our own. How do you think laughter and comedy relate? Can you imagine comedy without laughter? Can you imagine laughter without comedy?
  3. As You Like It, like most Shakespearean comedies, has a special setting for most of its comic action – a Forest that includes lions and hermits and magical transformations and hard-working shepherds. Think about the characteristics of these worlds in different Shakespeare works: are there recurring themes?
  4. Are there fundamental similarities, or fundamental differences, between Shakespearean comedy and other examples of comedy? You could choose something quite closely related (a play by another playwright of Shakespeare’s time, like Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist) or something very different (a TV show or film).

Raphael Lyne reveals how he researched and wrote this essay.

When setting out to write this essay I decided I had to start with general comments. I did consider starting with something specific and detailed to get things moving, but it seemed important to establish first of all what I think comedy is. Then the natural second paragraph followed: here I state that Shakespeare does not make comedy easy. There is also a general point, which follows from the first paragraph. In the next paragraph I give a number of examples in brief: there is only room here to discuss one play properly but I wanted to state that the overall point is true of all Shakespeare’s comedies.

Having chosen my main play for discussion – As You Like It – I then wrote two paragraphs centred on two long quotations. The two passages in question are, I think, particularly rich and utterly brilliant, but more importantly they serve to illustrate my point. Given the constraint of space I could not include too much quotation. For this kind of argument it seemed best to explore it with reference to two longish passages, but for a lot of other kinds of argument it would have been better to cover more ground in the text with briefer quotations.

Having written the second paragraph I thought I’d probably got the main point across about Shakespeare and how he complicates his comedies. At this point I felt that there was another question to answer at a general level – what the consequences of the complications are. So instead of writing a straightforward conclusion my final paragraph opens up the scope of the argument.