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Some Notes on the Comedies of William Shakespeare Eng 255 Shakespeare on Film Terra Community College Introduction to Comic Theory

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Some Notes on the Comedies of William Shakespeare

Eng 255 Shakespeare on Film

Terra Community College


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Introduction to Comic Theory

Comedy meant something very different to the Elizabethan culture of Shakespeare’s time than it does to the Twentieth Century. Humor was not a requirement (note The Merchant of Venice where it is hard to find anything funny about it). A comedy was a play which started out in chaos and ended with everyone in the script alive and living “happily ever after.”

There are four sub-groups in Shakespearean Comedy.

1.The Confusion Comediesare early and primitive. Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Merchant of Venice, and Taming of the Shrew all thrive on disguises2.The Festive Comedies are later and more sophisticated plays. They are wrapped around celebrations of life such as folk-festivals and weddings: Love’s Labors Lost, Twelfth Night, Midsummers Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and even The Merry Wives of Windsor.

3.The Black Comedies are more morbid and were written at the same time most of Shakespeare’s best tragedies were and were probably affected by the death of his young son. There are two plays typically listed here: All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure.

4. The Late Romances need to be mentioned however some scholars do not classify them as a sub-set of comedy but as their own category. They are products of Shakespeare’s late career and follow quite different dramatic conventions. Included would be four plays: Pericles, Coriolanus, Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.


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Societal Conventions

Shakespeare was a professional entertainer who had to exist in his own societal milieu. Remember that while the vast majority of his audience were lower class, it was the upper aristocracy who had financially invested in his company. He uses two approaches to comic action: both reflect his environment. Aristocratic, noble or royal characters who are in comedies are portrayed very differently than the “base, common, or popular” folk.

Aristocratic comedy tended to be sedate, witty word-play oriented, clever, and sophisticated.Upper class characters were always present. Dukes were very common however Kings were very rare. Manners and social mores are very “correct.” This characterization tended to preserve the self-image of these upper class groups -- a very important consideration to Shakespeare and his business partners since they were “sponsored” by such nobles.

Popular comedy tended to be slapstick; almost “three-stooges” style of farce.Lots of violence, lots of raw sexual double-play language, lots of tomfoolery, lots of noise, lots of drunkenness, and lots of “wrong” uses of language.

Both Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing contain both levels of comic action and move back and forth. The comedy level between the Duke, Lady Olivia and Viola/Cesario is very different than the comedy of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Malvolio, and Maria. And the raw tomfoolery of Constable Dogberry and his deputies is in stark contrast to the witty word-play between Benedick and Beatrice.


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Comic Conventions #1

  • Comic conventions were comic features that Shakespeare consistently used. There is some distinct difference between the “early” comedies and the “late” ones.

  • Early comedies had lots of simple and uncomplicated characters playing shallow and caricature roles. They also have stereotypical names. In Midsummers Night’s Dream, for instance, we have lower class characters called Snug, Bottom, and Flute. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the clown’s name is Dull. In Twelfth Night, the clown is Feste and the drunk is Sir Toby Belch. Don’t forget Constable Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing.

  • Early comedies had lots of naive and cliche driven dialogue filled with malapropisms. A marvelous example is Constable Dogberry’s terrible use of vocabulary in Much Ado.

  • Comedies often used mistaken identity based upon identical twins. For some reason, twins fascinated the Renaissance culture. Excellent examples of mistaken identity based upon identical twins are Comedy of Errors or Twelfth Night.

  • Comedies often used mistaken identity based upon gender switches. Five plays here include Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, and Merchant of Venice. When one remembers that young men played the parts of women in the Shakespearean theatre, you clearly have men playing the roles of women disguising themselves as men!

  • Later comedies tended to move away from slapstick as a primary comic convention. If you compare the earlier comedies with the later ones, you will note that Shakespeare starts to pay more attention to upper class characters. The “Black Comedies” for instance, have very little tomfoolery in their action/ plot.


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#2

This was a cruel and harsh society. It did not have the same sensitivity to minorities as we do in our “politically correct” generation.

If you were:

A racial minority (the term “Ethiop” is a term of insult and derision in Much Ado About Nothing and in Midsummers Night’s Dream),

A national-origin minority (spoke a foreign language such as in Merry Wives of Windsor or Merchant of Venice),

Uncultured and uneducated (“white-trash/ rude-mechanicals” such as in Merchant of Venice or Midsummers Night’s Dream),

A religious minority (Jewish in The Merchant of Venice, Puritan in Twelfth Night, or Roman Catholic in Taming of the Shrew or Measure for Measure),

Had physical, mental or medical handicaps (the father of Laurence Bobbo in The Merchant of Venice),

An alcoholic (Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night)

A convict (background scenes in Taming of the Shrew),

or even a Social Misfit (Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night or Don Juan in Much Ado about Nothing)

you were the brunt of a great deal of often violent humor.

Even upper class witty humor was at the expense of minorities: In Act I scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice, check the dialogue between Portia and Nerissa as they are are waiting for the Prince of Morocco! They insult the French, the Germans, the English, the Scotch, and even other Italians by using Elizabethan cultural caricatures.


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#3

Gender issues were socially very relevant and important!

Many of the comedies have themes wrapped around courtship and marriage. Often these portrayed the conflicts between a proposed love marriage and a proposed arranged marriage. You will see this pattern in such diverse comedies as All’s Well that Ends Well, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummers Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice and even in Much Ado About Nothing.

Often, the most mature, sensible, and integrated personalities in the comedies are the women. The men are often the biggest fools. Women control critical actions in the plots of such plays as Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, Loves Labors Lost, Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It, among others.

While Elizabeth I was on the throne, these two issues above were quite serious social concerns of the time. First off, remember that this was a strange innovation, not just to have a woman monarch (her half-dsister Mary precededbut to have a woman monarch who did literally refused to marry. Elizabeth, became, then, the model for all these innovative social conventions. Women could lead, were balanced and mature, did not have to get married to find their proper place in society! As soon as she died, and James came to the throne, social values changed back. You rarely find balanced and mature women in any of the plays that Shakespeare wrote later in his life.


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#4

There are evil characters in comedies. Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Don Juan in Much Ado About Nothing, and Shylock in Merchant of Venice. In these examples, however, evil is booted out at the end. “We don’t want your type...” in this kind of happy play.

While modern audiences have problems with Shakespeare’s “old” language. If we can get past it, we find that it is obscenely funny. Sexual double entendres were common. This is particularly true about costumes. The humorous reference to a “cod-piece” in As You Like It probably doesn’t make any sense unless you recall that scene in Taming of the Shrew where Petruchio cautions one of this servants about “sheathing his dagger.” There is the song “Hold thy Peace” in Twelfth Night and all kinds of reference to horns on cuckolds in Much Ado About Nothing. Scholars note that Elizabeth, the Queen, was known to have a sexually coarse sense of humor and since she often was in Shakespeare’s audience, he played to her enthusiasm.

Music is an important part of comedy. More than in history or tragedy, songs and music were an important component of almost every comedy portrayed in this era. We will see music in several comedies.

In the very earliest comedies, Shakespeare often wrote his lines in rhyme. Rhymed couplets are seen in the early comedies such as Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. Eventually, Shakespeare changed this and wrote his plays in “blank-verse” -- poetic lines without rhyme but with a deliberate iambic-pentameter beat.


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Differences betweenComedies and other plays

In comedy and histories, the characters are social beings; in tragedies, the characters are isolated and we explore psyches. The only example of a “dramatic monologue” in a comedy would be Benedick’s commentaries about women. Perhaps the best example in a history play would be King Henry’s prayer scene before the Battle of Agincourt.

In comedies and histories, any conflict is between individuals or groups; in tragedies, the conflict is internal. The only exception might also be the internal conflict demonstrated by King Henry in his walk-about mentioned above.

In comedies and histories, characters are never changed during the plot; in tragedies, the individual character dramatically changes during the plot. Both Macbeth and Hamlet are very different characters at the end of the play that what they are in the beginning.

There are “comic-relief” characters in “non-comedies!”A characteristic of Shakespearean tragedies and histories is that there are “comic-relief” characters in nearly all of them. The drunken porter in Macbeth; the gravedigger in Hamlet; Falstaff in the Henry IV series; and clowns, fools, and other humorous characters in most of them.

Women were treated quite differently in all of Shakespeare’s plays. In his history plays, they have only minor roles. In comedies the women are wholesome. In the tragedies, they are monsters (Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan), innocent victims of slaughter (Cordelia, Lady Macduff, and Desdemona), Machiavels (Cleopatra), or psychological cases (Ophelia). More on this in the slides on tragedies.


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