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READING 1 Shakespeares comedies conservative or transgressive? Dr Emma Smith asks whether Shakespeares comedies, despite their transgressive appearance, ultimately reinforce the norms of gender and class. In our own society, comedy is something of a battleground. Is a sitcom about a dwarf acceptable? Can a comedian use a disparaging word about disabled people on Twitter and claim it was meant humorously? Can we make a comedy film about inept suicide bombers, or laugh at wheelchair users who scamper about when no-ones looking, or find a mockIndian accent funny? The cumulative sense from our current anxieties about proper subjects for comedy suggests that comedy and controversy are two sides of the same coin. To be funny is to push boundaries of taste and acceptability. Comedy is a radical, anti-authoritarian form: less feel-good than feel-uneasy. This is exemplified in Umberto Ecos medieval whodunit The Name of the Rose, which circles around a lost Aristotelian treatise on comedy, suppressed by the church because a serious philosophy of comedy is too dangerous to its own hierarchical structures. Comic Heroines Can we say the same about Shakespeares comedies? Well, at first sight, perhaps. Take The Merchant of Venice, for instance: here we see a woman, Portia, dressing as a male lawyer to save her husbands best friend in court. She proves herself a better advocate than the men present, and in a rhetorical and forensic tour de force, turns the tables on the Jewish moneylender Shylock and gains Antonios freedom. The play thus proposes a vision of female intellectual capability far beyond what we might expect from the average male Elizabethan theatre-goer; few women went to the theatre in the sixteenth century, and those who did either were, or were thought to be, prostitutes looking to meet clients). We could say something similar about the representation of women throughout Shakespeares comedies: they are active think Viola in Twelfth Night; witty think Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; and they get what they want think As You Like Its Rosalind. Prominent, active roles for women are one of the defining features of comedy for Shakespeare, which is part of what makes Measure for Measure so generically uncertain: Isabella begins that play as a comic heroine but tails off in the plays second half, eclipsed by the regenerated Duke. Thats to say, in their representation of female agency, Shakespeares comedies challenge the social orthodoxy of their time. Anything Goes Furthermore, all these female characters were played by male actors. Preachers of the time thundered that all men are abominations that put on womens raiment (John Rainolds in 1599), and even suggested that cross -dressing undermined gender boundaries: our apparel was given us as a sign distinctive to discern between sex and sex, and therefore one to wear the apparel of another sex is to participate with the same, and to adulterate the verity of his own kind Philip Stubbes in 1583 Part of what is worrying to these moralists is that the performance of gender on the stage shakes the very foundation of a social system that is based on the essential superiority of men over women. Shakespeares comedies have great fun with cross-dressing and flirt with the homosexual desirability of the transvestite actor: Orsino and Olivia are both drawn

to the androgynously sexy Viola in Twelfth Night, giving the plays subtitle, What You Will, a saucy hint of anything goes. Like other cross-dressed heroines, Viola never reappears in her female clothes and Orsino continues to address her as Cesario even as he acknowledges his love for her: heterosexual gender norms are not reinstated. As in Rosalinds teasingly flirtatious epilogue to As You Like It, the ending of Twelfth Night is reluctant to relinquish the erotic fun and possibility created by Violas sexually ambiguous persona. In terms of gender representation, therefore, Shakespeares comedies seem to challenge conservative orthodoxies and present themselves as socially transgressive. Class Boundaries But there is another side, too, in which comedies reveal themselves as socially conservative, reinforcing hierarchies and boundaries even as they seek to play with them. Class boundaries are firmly observed in Shakespeares comedies (not for him Marlowes interest in characters who transcend their humble origins). While Rosalind is disguised as Ganymede in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, she attracts the romantic interest of Phoebe. Although there is much teasing of the unwitting Phoebe, her mistake is not primarily that Ganymede is really female, rather that he is her social superior. You are not for all markets,' Rosalind tells her, urging her towards her shepherd suitor: love him, take his offer (Act 3 Scene 5 lines 61-3). The servant Malvolios fantasy of marrying his mistress Olivia in Twelfth Night results in his humiliating punishment. The twin servant Dromios in The Comedy of Errors are regularly beaten to make clear their inferior status. Here Comes the Bride Shakespeares comic heroines assert themselves, to be sure, but their spirited agency is directed towards the most normative of female destinies, marriage. We can be sure if any woman in a Shakespeare comedy asserts that she does not want a husband, the plot will contort itself to make sure she gets one: springing Isabella from the convent to plead for her brother Claudios life in Measure for Measure, letting loose the twins amidst Olivias excessive mourning in Twelfth Night, setting the elaborate hoax to persuade Beatrice who would rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he love me (Much Ado About Nothing Act 1 Scene 1 lines 125-6). Perhaps The Taming of the Shrew makes this tendency to enforced marriage clearest. Everyone in Padua her suitor Petruchio, who desires to wive it wealthily (Act 1 Scene 2 line 74), Bianca, who cannot marry before her older sibling, and Baptista, burdened with an independent daughter wants Katherina to marry, save Katherina herself. Its a matter of interpretation whether she is ultimately persuaded by the plays conclusion, in which she performs the role of obedient wife in front of her i ncredulous family. So marriage is the only possible outcome for women at the end of Shakespeares comedies, and their freedom within their plays might be read merely as the liberty to insert themselves more totally in patriarchal structures. Peace, Ill stop your mouth, says Benedick to Beatrice at the end of the play (Act 5 Scene 4 line 97). Romantics might see this as the longed-for kiss between these two will-they-wont-they soulmates, but cynics might see the emblematic silencing of the feisty female character in marriage; Beatrice never speaks again for the remainder of the play. And where comic women choose their own husbands free from paternal control, they seem to choose exactly the husbands their fathers would have chosen, had they been able to do so. Rosalinds Orlando is the son of her fathers old ally, Violas father knew Orsino, and even Perdita, in the comic second half of The Winters Tale, has chosen a suitable partner; unbeknownst to her, she is a princess worthy of her disguised prince-lover, and Florizel is the son of her fathers estranged best friend. Comic plots do not tend to endorse the idea of womens autonomy, nor to encourage them to rebel, except temporarily, about gender roles. Looked at from this perspective, comedies are ultimately conservative, indulging their protagonists in fleeting liberation but clanging the door of orthodoxy shut in conclusion. Laughter and Cruelty In part this may relate to a function of comedy often thought to be intrinsically conservative. The historian Keith Thomas writes that in the Tudor period, mockery and derision were indispensable means of preserving orthodox values and condemning unorthodox behaviour: laughter functions as a means of social control. Sir Philip Sidney gives a similar suggestion in his Elizabethan The Defence of Poetry: laughter is a scornful tickling in which we laugh either at sinful things we should reject, or at miserable things we should pity. Laughter, as the modernist French philosopher Henri Bergson put it two centuries later, is a corrective which seeks to remedy behaviour that is out of line. Bergson argues

that in order for comedy to be effective, we must retain a kind of cold distance from the object of humour. It requires, he writes in a memorable phrase, a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Bergsons suggestion is a version of the silent film comedian Charlie Chaplins distinction: life is a tragedy when seen in close -up, a comedy in long-shot. It is distance, emotional or physical, that enables our laughter. Bergsonian comedy suggests a kind of cruelty on the part of the spectators, who do not involve themselves emotionally in what is happening before them, choosing instead a harsh and heartless judgement: laughter. Its a view that challenges the assumptions of collective feel-good and replaces that warmth of shared mirth with the scornful and derisive laughter of objectification. Is this how Shakespeares comedies work? Its true that we tend to laugh at rather than laugh with the characters the habitual technique of dramatic irony (we know more than the characters). Combined with Shakespeares apparently unsympathetic class politics, this tends to mean that we, the audience, experience a general feeling of superiority over comic characters. We know that the confusions in Ephesus are because there are two sets of identical twins, or that Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona is disguised as a man, or that Dogberry, the comic constable in Much Ado About Nothing, is muddling words and saying the opposite of what he means. We observe, rather than participate in, comic confusions. Bergsons framework of comic cardiac anesthesia would suggest that our response is judgemental rather than empathic, superior rather than comradely, and disinterested rather than absorbed in these human dramas. Its an unsentimental vision of Shakespeare comedy, more the rain it raineth every day (Festes epilogue to Twelfth Night) than hey nonny no (the repeated song in Much Ado About Nothing). Back, perhaps, to those edgy, uncomfortable modern comedy dilemmas with which I began. Further Reading Henri Bergsons Laughter is at Philip Sidneys Defence of Poetry can be read at The best overview of Shakespeares comedies is Penny Gays The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeares Comedies. Dr Emma Smith is a Fellow and Tutor in English at Hertford College Oxford where she teaches Shakespeare and early modem literature. Her most recent book is The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare (2007). This article first appeared in emagazine 57, September 2012. Notes

Reading 2 Dramatic comedy an overview Beginning with the theatre of the classical world and ending two and a half thousand years later in the 21st century, Dr Sean McEvoy takes us on a journey through the development of English comic drama. Ancient Roots The dramatic formats established by the Greeks endured a very long time afterwards. In classical Athens, comedy was set apart from tragedy. The earliest theatre took place in competitive festivals, where comedy was performed on a separate day from the tragedies. AthenianOld Comed went all out for laughs, even though the writers often had important political statements to make. We now only have plays by one comic dramatist, Aristophanes (c.445-c.385 BC). His works are raucous and zany. Satire the mocking of figures in the public eye, whether politicians, philosophers or playwrights is its constant mode. Bawdy (sexual) and scatological (toilet) humour were to the fore, and were not necessarily regarded as mere means of entertaining the lower orders. These comedies had plots of a kind, but their storylines tended to be mere frameworks on which to hang a series of set-piece sketches and slapstick routines not necessarily connected to the forward movement of the narrative.

An important change occurred when, towards the end of his career, the tragedian Euripides started writing what later became known as romances. These were plays such as Helen (412 BC) which followed the formal structure of tragedies, but featured happy endings where long-lost family members were reunited. This template was later developed by the Greek comic dramatist Menander (342-c.292 BC) into what was known asNew Comedy. Plot was now central. The plays usually concerned love-entanglements in the lives of young well-to-do Athenians. Characters tended to fit into recognisable types: the love-struck young man, the cunning but cowardly slave, the angry father, the bragging soldier, the kind-hearted prostitute. The pace was fast, the dialogue was witty and the happy ending often required some implausible turn-up, such as the discovery of a long-lost child. Sex and political satire were no longer important to the genre. When the Romans began to write their own comedies a hundred years later, they took Menanders model of comedy and developed it for themselves. The Roman plays of Plautus (c.250-184 BC) and Terence (193-159 BC) survived into the modern world to become an important part of the grammar school curriculum in Tudor England. Shakespeare Et Cetera So, when the first English commercial dramatists began to write comedies for the public playhouses from the 1580s onwards they already had a genre to imitate. Shakespeares comedies are much more sophisticated than those of Menander and Plautus, but in A Midsummer Nights Dream, The Merchant o f Venice, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night and even in Measure for Measure and Alls Well That Ends Well plot, character and wit still drive the action. Young love overcomes difficulties and multiple marriage brings about a resolution, whether satisfying or not. But comedy here doesnt necessarily mean that these plays are primarily funny: a substantial part of The Merchant of Venice is concerned with anti-Semitism and vengeance, and most of Measure for Measure deals with the corrupt ruler Angelos attempts to bed the super-chaste Isabella in exchange for her condemned brothers life. Comedy refers to the formal conventions followed by the play, rather than to how funny the drama might be. Shakespeares funniest creation for many people, including me, is Sir John Falstaff in the two Henry IV history plays (and not in the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor). The tragedy Hamlet has many more laughs than Alls Well That Ends Well. I think Shakespeares funniest comedy is the one which copies the Roman plays most closely: The Comedy of Errors. But Shakespeares comedies werent just taken from classical models. The pre-commercial, community-based English theatre of the middle ages and early Tudor period frequently mixed slapstick and even bawdy humour with the treatment of serious religious matters. But unlike in Aristophanes theatre this kind of fun now began to be associated with the tastes of those of lower social status. A popular tradition of comedy developed in theatres such as The Red Bull based more on spectacle, action and physical humour. At the same time Shakespeares friend Ben Jonson had read Aristophanes, and his great comedies such as Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1611) reinstate political and contemporary satire, bawdiness, and grotesque characterisation alongside the most dazzling of plots and audienceteasing ruses. Jonsons language can shift from obscenity to lyrical beauty in a trice. His dialogue sounds out the speech of real Londoners but with a constant poetic eloquence. Jonson influenced the founding of what was known as City Comedy in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. In plays such Middletons Michaelmas Term (1606) or Eastward Ho (1605) in which Jonson had a hand the values of honest London shopkeepers triumph over the misplaced cunning of feckless but greedy aristocratic layabouts. Thwarted love remained the main plot strand, and marriage still constituted the happy ending. Restoration Rudeness and the Revenge of the Respectable Puritan dominance in London ensured the closure of the theatres during the Civil War and Protectorate (1642-1660), but when King Charles II returned from exile in France in 1660 city comedy was revived with a new twist. In Restoration Comedy the bawdy and licentious aristocratic layabouts get all the best lines and the honest people whom they dupe and attempt to seduce dont come off so well. Double entendre and farcical intrigue are the staple of plays such as Wycherleys The Country Wife (1675). In Ethereges The Man of Mode (1676) satire is added to the mix: the main character is a parody of the court rake and playwright the Earl of Rochester. In fact the theatre was very close to the court and its libertine lifestyle, and consequently an important change came into the theatre at this time, copied from France. Tragedy lost its comic element. Decorum or sober good taste was the new watchword; comedy becme very much a separate genre. When respectable and godly middle-class opinion reacted to the bawdy excess of Restoration

Comedy, what followed in the years ahead tended to be insipid and sentimental Comedies of Manners. The very best exceptions, such as Goldsmiths She Stoops to Conquer (1773) and Sheridans The Rivals (1775) combined brilliance of plotting with superb comic characterisation. But at this point comedy in the mainstream theatre had come to mean a sentimental tale of thwarted love featuring a broadly predictable gallery of stock characters. Zany and satirical comedy continued in the rumbustious working-class theatres of the nineteenth-century cities, where parodies of Shakespeare and of legitimate drama were also popular. Farce and sketch -based comedy continued in the afterpieces shown at the end of the evening in the big London playhouses. Adm ission was half-price during the second half of the evening and the cheap benches filled up to watch these surviving popular forms of theatre after the tragedians had finished their work. Comedy Gets Serious As happened with many art forms, the turn of the twentieth century brought great change to the theatre. Oscar Wildes comedies, and in particular his enormously successful The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), exploded for ever the comedy of respectable but thwarted love in its brilliantly self-conscious send-up of the conventions of the whole genre as it had existed. It was not so much that Wilde expressed a political critique of the middle-class values dominant in comedy, but rather that he made it impossible to take the form seriously ever again, though the genre staggered on in light-hearted pieces such as Brighouses Hobsons Choice (1916) for many years. A new realistic form of theatre arose dedicated to political critique, influenced in particular by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Prominent here was George Bernard Shaw. Shaw reinstated comedy in the heart of the serious play. His Pygmalion (1912), for example, succeeded in being hilarious at the same time as offering powerful insights into class, language and power in Edwardian England. French Farce a comedy of misunderstanding, evasions and embarrassment which accelerates towards finely-tuned chaos and a climactic denouement was also a successful import at this time, especially in the work of Ben Travers in the 1920s and 30s. Post-war Revival In the years after World War Two the English theatre underwent a great revival and comedy flourished in many forms, no longer as a genre with limited conventions. The rebirth of the English stage was often driven by working-class and left-wing writers, and satire was prominent. Joe Orton adapted the farce format in a series of highly irreverent comedies attacking middle-class hypocrisy, sexual and otherwise. Loot (1965) and What the Butler Saw (1969) stand out here. Mike Leighs Abigails Party (1977) combines an excoriating attack on suburban materialism with a sense of real pathos for the lives of those condemned to live in such a world. In a gentler vein, the domestic comedies of Alan Ayckbourn, such as Absurd Person Singular (1972), often have a farce-like structure which expresses a sadness and hollowness at the heart of respectable British society. Farce has remained a highly popular format to the present day, whether it deals with a playful satire of the theatre itself as in Michael Frayns Noises Off (1982), with Irish Republican terrorism as in Martin McDonaghs The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001), or in a traditional reworking of an old Italian comedy such as Richard Beans One Man, Two Guvnors (2011). Standing apart from such social cr itique were the postmodern comedies of Tom Stoppard, whose laughter arises from a self-consciously clever playfulness, whether with Shakespeares Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1969), or with a bizarre conjunction of philosophical scepticism and moon landings in Jumpers (1972). Political Comedy Many of these new writers brought back into the mainstream theatre the popular comedy traditions which had been banished to music hall, variety and working mens clubs in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. Trevor Griffiths Comedians (1975) puts working-class stand-up comedy on stage in an examination of the nature of comedy itself, in a play whose political critique powerfully anticipates the changes to British society after the breakdown of the social-democratic consensus in the late 1970s. Theatrical comedy became a powerful voice of opposition to a series of right-wing governments after 1979. In the 1980s David Hares Pravda (1985) attacked the principles of the Murdoch news empire in a manner which can now be seen as extraordinarily prescient, while Caryl Churchills uncannily prophetic Serious Money (1987) drew on Restoration Comedy and contemporary music to produce a brilliant satire on the newly deregulated money-men and women of the City of London.

Contemporary Comedy Contemporary comedy is typically structured around a series of bravura set-piece scenes which echo the sketch-format of popular theatre and much TV comedy, yet preserve the rhythms and structures of the well -made plays of the twentieth century: exposition, complication, cliff-hanger, resolution. There is often, however, a tragic edge. Two of the best and most popular plays of this century so far, Alan Bennetts The History Boys (2004) and Jez Butterworths Jerusalem (2009), exemplify these qualities. Both are also moving and intelligent reflections on their societies. Bennetts play is an examination of the value of education, literature and love in a market-driven managerialist England, while Butterworth also writes elegiacally, if rumbustiously, about a semi-legendary, wild and outrageous rural England which is passing away before we have understood its worth. English comedy today turns out to be more like Aristophanes than Shakespeare: not so much a recognisable genre, but rather an uncovering of the fear, anarchy and joy just beneath the surface of a fragile society. Yet there are signs that a possible happy ending may still be found. Dr Sean McEvoy teaches English at Varndean College in Brighton. He is the author of Shakespeare: The Basics published by Routledge. This article first appeared in emagazine 57, September 2012.


Comical tragedy or tragical comedy? The impact of Shakespeares language With clownish fooling in tragedy, and death threats, revenge and bitter jealousy in comedy, how do audiences work out what type of play they are watching? Neil King suggests it is all in the language. Shakespeare can be unlocked in any of a thousand ways; the key is the language that we share with him. Germaine Greer: Forward to Shakespeares Major Tragedies, 2000 The life of the plays is in the language Frank Kermode: Shakespeares Language, 2000 Comedy or tragedy? Tragedy is a term which has come to describe a drama which ends disastrously, usually in the death of the protagonist and others. Comedy describes a work which is primarily designed to amuse and entertain, and where, despite alarms along the way, alls well that ends well for the characters. When we attend a performance of a Shakespeare play, how do we know what kind of world we are in tragic, comic, or some other kind? With tragedy, we may be told right at the beginning that things will end badly (as in Romeo and Juliet); or more likely we know by repute before we enter the theatre (as was usually the case with an Elizabethan audience) that this is a tragedy. Perhaps sometimes we simply pick up a sense of foreboding as the characters and action are

developed. With comedy, similar conditions may apply, but this time we perhaps gain a sense of playfulness, are provoked to laughter, or simply feel from the tone of the drama that despite alarms and excursions along the way (the course of true love never did run smooth) all will end well. Such standard comic devices as disguise and mistaken identity may give us a clue. Or both comedy and tragedy? While many plays broadly fit the generic pattern, in others it may be that there is a mixture of comedy and tragedy for a significant part of the play, such that we are frequently uncertain how to respond to the events unfolding before us. It could be argued that this is the case with the treatment of Malvolio during the latter part of Twelfth Night. Shakespeares uncharacteristic type-naming of a relatively major character may signal that Malvolio is a fundamentally malevolent person, not worthy of sympathy and fit to be ridiculed. Yet, even allowing for differing responses in audiences of different periods, does this necessarily mean that he is a part of indisputable comedy in the play, and that we are in no way to feel uncomfortable at his plight or a frisson at his vow to be revenged upon everybody? Initially we might laugh at the undignified nature of a fall, and then become serious when we realise that the person involved is badly hurt. One way in which a playwright may manipulate audience response is to get them laughing, and then turn the screws of seriousness so that they wonder why they are laughing. The line between comedy and tragedy is well exploited by, for instance, Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot or in the TV series The Office. Metre and comedy in A Midsummer Nights Dream Language is a body of words combined to create an effect. Form is the shape of a piece of literature (as distinct from its content). How far do language and form help members of an audience appreciate that they are in a comic world? Look at the beginning of Act 2 Scene 3 of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Titania, entering her fairy bower, gives orders to her fairy attendants in measured blank verse, and then asks them to sing her to sleep: Come, now, a roundel and a fairy song; Then, for a third part of part of a minute, hence... They sing her a lullaby in tripping trochaic tetrameter: Philomel, with melody, Sing in our sweet lullaby... After the exit of the fairies Oberon enters and, by squeezing the magic juice of a flower upon her eyelids, casts a spell which determines that she will fall in love with the first thing that she sees upon waking. He also speaks in trochaic tetrameter, which echoes the fairies lullaby in form at the same time as it undercuts it through its threatening content: What thou seest, when thou dost wake Do it for thy true love take... When thou wakst it is thy dear; Wake when some vile thing is near. From the language and content, emphasised by the possible spondee in the third foot of the final line, we might think that we are being taken towards tragedy; but the overall trochaic rhythm prevents this, as does the rhyming apt for the casting of a spell, but not for serious black magic (in Christophe r Marlowes Doctor Faustus the spells are spoken in Latin prose). The comic world is also reinforced by the language of the pair of lovers who enter immediately afterwards, speaking in end-stopped alternate rhyming iambic pentameter couplets of almost pantomime-like lightness: Lysander: Fair love, you faint with wandering in the wood; And, to speak troth, I have forgot our way; Well rest us, Hermia, if you think good, And tarry for the comfort of the day.

Hermia: Be it so, Lysander; find you out a bed, For I upon this bank will rest my head. The comic tone is again reinforced soon after this when Puck enters, speaking in the same trochaic couplets as Oberon, although this time the trochees give the content a jaunty tone: Through the forest I have come, But Athenian found I none, On whose eyes I might approve This flowers force in stirring love. Night and silence! Who is here? Weeds of Athens he doth wear... Here and elsewhere in A Midsummer Nights Dream, despite occasionally threatening words, language a nd form signal the fact that we are in an essentially comic world. Spondee: a two syllable foot where both syllables are stressed. Foot: in poetry, a unit of rhythm (like a bar in music). Trochaic tetrameter: a verse line of four feet (tetrameter), each foot comprising two syllables, one stressed and one unstressed, in that order (trochaic). Varying the language in Much Ado Turning to Much Ado About Nothing we see the language being used to suggest that a happy ending belonging to a comedy is by no means guaranteed. From the first scene Beatrice and Benedick insult each other, using witty prose which suggests that they, like the audience, are enjoying their inventiveness with language. An audience is more likely to interpret their sparring here as flirtatious than serious; we do not seriously believe that Benedick wishes Beatrice dead. Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick; nobody marks you. Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living? While Beatrice and Benedicks balanced repartee suggests equality, mutual respect and admiration, Claudios attack on Hero conjures up a world in which a womans life depends on her good reputation. The sustained attack, delivered in blank verse, the use of apostrophe (O, what authority), alliteration, contrast and the images of corruption combine to create a high emotional tone. Claudio: Give not this rotten orange to your friend; Shes but the sign and semblance of her honour. Behold, how like a maid she blushes here! O, what authority and show of truth Can cunning sin cover itself withal!... She knows the heat of a luxurious bed: Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty. Rhetorically Claudios speech belongs to a different world from the one in which Beatrice and Benedick insult their way to love and happiness. Claudios world is one in which a woman might indeed die as a result of a stain upon her honour.

The anticipated declaration of love between Beatrice and Benedick which follows (ironically triggered by the gravity of the situation) may reassure the audience that this is a comedy and all will be resolved satisfactorily. Again, the language in which they confess their love prose, not poetry suggests that theirs is a love for a new world in which relationships are founded on equality, honesty and clear-sighted knowledge. Benedick: I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange? Beatrice: As strange as the thing I know not. It were possible for me to say I loved nothing in the world so well as you: but believe me not... Benedick: By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me... Beatrice: You have stayed me in a happy hour: I was about to protest I loved you... I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest. And then immediately, in a devastating undercutting of Benedicks romantic Come, bid me do anything for thee, Beatrice replies, Kill Claudio. If we had assumed that we were safely in the world of comedy, our assumptions are sorely challenged. Tragic tones in Twelfth Night In Twelfth Night, there are also passages which, in the midst of comedy, sound like the language of tragedy. When the arrested Antonio, under the impression he is speaking to Sebastian, asks the disguised Viola for the return of his purse and is met with a blank look and complete lack of recognition, he declaims in tragic tones against the deceptiveness of appearances: But O how vile an idol proves this god! Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame. In nature theres no blemish but the mind; None can be calld deformed but the unkind: Virtue is beauty; but the beauteous evil Are empty trunk oerflourished by the devil. Viola grasps the passion of Antonios utterance. Later Orsino turns on the disguised Viola, declaiming: thoughts are ripe in mischief: Ill sacrifice the lamb that I do love, To spite a ravens heart within a dove. ... and we might think that his passion will lead him to do a terrible thing; yet perhaps the rhyming couplet love/dove jus t reduces the serious impact enough for us to sense that everything will be well; and arguably Malvolios Ill be revenged on the whole pack of you comes too late in the play to have any dramatic force. Challenging expectations Nowhere in Shakespearian comedy are we more challenged than in The Winters T ale (although nowadays generally considered a romance, this play fits the classic definition of comedy and is categorised as such in the First Folio). Leontes seething language when perceiving, as he thinks, his wifes infidelity, would not be out of plac e in Othello or King Lear: Is whispering nothing? Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses? Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career

Of laughter with a sigh?... Is this nothing? Why, then the world and all thats int is nothing; The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia is nothing; My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings If this be nothing. Conversely, but in much the same way, the jokey, prosaic language of the Clown at the end of Antony and Cleopatra, who brings to the Egyptian queen the asp which is the means of her suicide, helps to highlight the dignity of Cleopatras language as the tragedy is consummated in her death. In As You Like It the language of the usurping Duke is generally harsh, even violent; but his two-dimensional characterisation as a kind of villain deprives his language of dramatic force. He fades out of the play, and his place is taken by a philosopher Duke who finds consolation in his rustic environment; and nature itself almost becomes a language as he discovers: ...tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything. Despite fleeting references to the Forest of Arden as desert and savage, some bitter language from the malcontent Jaques, and a threatening story taken from Ovid involving a snake and a lioness, the play is dominated by Rosalind and Celias playful prosaic wittiness which creates a holiday mood. Perhaps the very presence of threatening, darker language within a generally comic ambience helps to confirm by contrast that the prevailing tone of the play as a whole is otherwise, and actually enhances our appreciation of the eventual happy ending where alls well that ends well. As Salman Rushdie says, in Haroun and the Sea of Stories: the end of great adventures everyone wants the same thing. Oh? And whats that?... A happy ending... Neil King is Head of English and Director of Sixth Form Studies at Hymers College, Hull. This article first appeared in emagazine 29.


Marriages in Context Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night Jacob Lund uses knowledge of Elizabethan social and cultural contexts to raise questions about, and deepen his understanding of, the role and representation of marriage in Shakespeares Romantic Comedies. When we think about marriages in Shakespearean comedies, its useful to consider two important elements. The first is about the kind of social order achieved at the end of a play, while the second, related idea, involves the extent to which individual characters are integrated, or not integrated, into the societies that are presented to us. Elizabethan and Jacobean ideas about society are different from our own in a number of ways and by considering the historical context, it is possible to see that comic resolution, often signalled by marriage, can be less than clear-cut. Male Dominance

In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudios belief that Hero has been unfaithful to him prior to their marriage, produces a denunciation of her by him, during the initial marriage ceremony, that at first appears to be puzzlingly extreme: But you are more intemperate in your blood Than Venus, or those pampered animals That rage in savage sensuality. (Act 4 Scene 1, lines 58-60) One way of interpreting the intensity of this reaction is to consider the importance with which female chastity was regarded in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture. Advice manuals of the day written for men intending to marry, such as Niccholes A Discourse of Marriage and Wiving (1615), harped on about ways in which a faithful woman might be discerned. Niccholes asserted that suitable women should possess qualities such as a sober and mild aspect, courteous behaviour, decent carriage [] a fixed eye, constant look, and unaffected gate, [with] the contrary being oftentimes signs of ill portent and consequence. In Act 4 Scene 1, then, the characterisation of Claudio seems to reflect a sense of shame that was associated with a man who had failed to secure a woman of constancy and sobriety (in the sense of sexual abstinence), and who was consequently made a cuckold. To add to this, its worth noting that contemporary unofficial punishments for unfaithful women, such as the noisy street procession known as the charivari, was aimed at the humiliation of both the transgressive wife and the cuckolded husband. Claudios reaction to the apparent infidelity of Hero reflects a situation in which the societal norms of male honour and dominance are severely threatened. The disorder of this initial marriage ceremony is only resolved in the final scene by what appears to be a renegotiation of patriarchal and aristocratic authority. Claudios agreement to marry Leonatos apparent niece (who is of course Hero herself) is not based upon any idealised notion of romantic love. Rather it is a way of serving and maintaining this patriarchal and aristocratic authority: Leonato has otherwise threatened revenge upon Claudio for bringing about the supposed death of Hero. When asked about his willingness to marry this unknown woman, Claudios assertion that Ill hold my mind were she an Ethiope (Act 5 Scene 4, line 38) perhaps suggests that his anxiety is not about a marriage to a woman who is fair but is rather to do with securing a deal between himself, a Florentine lord, and Leonato, the Governor of Messina, though it should be noted that this is not Claudios sole motivation: he does, after all, undertake to do penance (Act 5 Scene 1, line 263) for his part in Heros death. Nonetheless, Elizabethan anxieties about the stability of the existing social order, in a world that was changing rapidly from a feudal, i.e. aristocracy-led, society to one that was capitalist, appear, to some extent, to underpin the kind of resolution we see here. The marriage of Beatrice and Benedick seems at first to offer a different view of what constitutes social order in the world of the play. The verbal sparring and rivalry that has characterised their relationship in so much of what has gone before continues in the final scene: indeed, Beatrice remains playfully combative to the extent that, when Benedick suggests that he will marry her for pity, Beatrice responds that she will marry partly to save your life, for I was told y ou were in a consumption (Act 5 Scene 4, lines 92-5). Benedick appears to embrace this rather egalitarian union, asserting that, following his marriage, a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour (Act 5 Scene 4, lines 98-99). If we look at this in its contemporary context, it appears odd that social order is signalled through the marriage of a seemingly acquiescent husband and a female character who doesnt submit to patriarchal authority, because, as with unfaithful wives, unruly and outspoken wives also often faced punishment: in this case it was with a scolds bridle, a kind of gag. Moreover, contemporary conduct-books pertaining to marriage made it clear that matrimony, as a spiritual and economic institution, should reflect a situation in which a wife has no real separate identity (and thus no independent voice) from that of her husband. Bullingers Christian State of Matrimony (1541), for example, suggests that though a wife should be set alongside her husband, yet was she not made of the head (i.e. able or allowed to think or speak for herself). There is at least one possible way of resolving the apparent oddity of the Beatrice-Benedick pairing. Just before Benedick expresses his pleasure at the marriage, he appears to assert control over Beatrices banter with Peace, I will stop your mouth (Act 5 Scene 4, line 96). The stage direction in many editions of the play suggest that this line is accompanied by a kiss but, amourousness aside, it is arguably troubling that Benedick should want to stop her from the very thing that Shakespeare has employed as a means of presenting her vitality. This is not quite the scolds bridle, perhaps, but it does seem to point to an Elizabethan attitude about the problematic nature of outspoken women. Even if, as in some editions of the play (which follow the Quarto of 1600), Benedicts line is assigned to Leonato, the basic idea

stands: as her guardian, and as a patriarch, Shakespeare employs him to reassert male dominance, and thus the existing social order is maintained. Questions of Gender In Twelfth Night, with its central deployment of mistaken identity and cross-dressing, Shakespeare is more concerned with broader questions of gender than with specific ideas about proper roles for men and women within marriage. In the case of Orsino and Viola, the wistful nature of Orsinos language towards his newly-acquired male servant perhaps suggests something more than Cesarios appropiateness for wooing Olivia on his behalf: Dianas lip Is not more smooth and rubious. Thy small pipe Is as the maidens organ, shrill and sound, And all is semblative a womans part. (Act 1 Scene 4, lines 30-33). The potentially homoerotic quality of this speech is added to by the fact that an Elizabethan audience would have heard these words addressed to a boy actor playing the part of a young woman dressed as a young man. Moreover, Orsinos regard for Viola retains the sense of a male-male relationship virtually until the end of the play: following the revelation that Cesario is in fact Viola, Orsino still addresses her as Boy (Act 5 Scene 1, line 260), and a little later he refers to her as Your masters mistress (Act 5 Scene 1, line 314), a paradox that plays upon the idea of Viola as both an object of love and as a woman with power over him. Through the relationship of Orsino and Cesario/Viola, the play suggests a kind of social order via marriage, but it might well have been a rather unsettling one for Shakespeares audience given that, at the time, homosexual relations between men were punishable by death. In terms of contemporary social attitudes towards male-male relationships, the surviving evidence is very difficult to interpret, as Stephen Greenblatt (1997) has suggested. In addition, the extreme tone of a legal statute of 1553, which sp oke of the detestable and abominable vice of buggery, might reflect either a common view of male homosexuality or, conversely, a case of defensiveness that reveals widespread sexual practices. More openly homoerotic, if we take the meaning of love in the play to mean more than affection or spiritual connection, is the language of Antonio in relation to Sebastian. In the middle of the play, he speaks of why he has remained with Sebastian in Illyria, telling him that My desire/ More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth, and moments later, he offers Sebastian his willing love (Act 3 Scene 3, lines 4-11). This is significant in terms of the resolution of the play because this love is not expressed in a final union between the two characters. At the end of the play Antonio remains on stage to see the union of Sebastian and Olivia, a woman the twin barely knows suggesting perhaps a specific rejection of male-male relationships here, but one that is not without its poignancy. In this sense, Shakespeare is arguably ambivalent about the kind of order that marriage brings, in away that seems more explicit than the ambiguities that exist in the marriages in Much Ado About Nothing. Finally, its worth bearing in mind that the title of the play would have put E lizabethan audiences in mind of the final night of traditional Christmas revels, the Feast of the Epiphany, in which the accepted social order of everyday life was ritually inverted. If Twelfth Night was seen as a kind of staging of these inversions, then there is a sense in which its ambiguities of gender and male-male relationships may have been put at arms length, as if the world were turned upside down for one night only. Of course, its impossible to recover with any real precision the original recept ion of either of these plays, but by thinking about Elizabethan contexts, we as twenty-first century readers and audiences can begin to unlock some of their complexities, and so enrich our responses to them. Jacob Lund is a teacher at Central Sussex College, Crawley. References Greenblatt, S. (Ed.) (1997) The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. McEachern (Ed.) (2006) Much Ado About Nothing. London: The Arden Shakespeare. This article first appeared online for emagplus 57, September 2012.


READING 5 A Holiday Humour Shakespeares comedies and Bakhtins carnival George Norton shows how this key concept of comedy illuminates Shakespeares plays. The idea of carnival is a key element in the work of the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. He refers to it in his early work, written in the 1920s and 30s, but develops it most fully in his study of the sixteenth-century French writer Rabelais, Rabelais and his World. Published in Russia in 1965, it didnt reach the West until the early 1980s, since when it has been hugely influential in literary and cultural studies. Life Turned Inside Out Life in the early Renaissance, Bakhtin explains, was characterised by two competing traditions. On the one hand, we have the Catholic Church: strict hierarchies, intense moral seriousness and dogmatic rules; its worldview was spiritual, inflexible, joyless and grey. On the other, there were ritualised, festive events which, Bakhtin says: bring together [] the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid. Such festivities Bakhtin calls carnival. Carnival was important because it provided an antidote to overbearing, ecclesiastical solemnity. Where normal life, dominated by the Church, was monotonous and dull, in carnival there was rejoicing and laughter. The pleasures of the body were celebrated, eccentric and taboo behaviour was encouraged, hierarchies dismantled, authority mocked, and profanity and subversion permitted. Bakhtin says, carn ivalistic life is life drawn out of its usual rut, it is life turned inside out, the reverse side of the world. Living as he did in Stalins Ru ssia and punished with exile to Kazakhstan for political unreliability, its not hard to see why such an ide a might have been appealing to Bakhtin. When Normal Rules Dont Apply Carnival is a social practice in which you participate every time you go to a party or on holiday. The weekend can be understood as a carnival time when the rules of the rest of the wee k dont apply and you are no longer subject to the expectations of an educational institution. However, its theory can be applied to textual representations of carnival activity, and texts themselves can be considered as carnivalesque. For example, parodies often mock the texts they imitate, while the classical realist narrative model of equilibrium/disequilibrium/closure equates to the order/carnival disorder/return to order that Bakhtin describes. I want to offer you four aspects of Bakhtins theory which might be useful in exploring Shakespeares comedies, many of which draw on the same folk traditions that Bakhtin identified in Rabelais. Instability and Liminality In carnival, Bakhtin explains, all distance between people is suspended; there is free a nd familiar contact among people, and

eccentricity [] permits in concretely sensuous form the latent sides of human nature to reveal and express themselves. This element of carnival is seen most obviously in plays where apparently diverse social groups are brought together in liminal spaces away from the rules of everyday life. In A Midsummer Nights Dream, the Queen of the Fairies goes to bed with a working man transformed into a donkey. In Measure for Measure, a duke disguised as a friar, a pimp, a brothel-owner and a nun cross paths in a prison. Disguised as a man, a dukes daughter in As You Like It can disregard the traditional position of women and declare her feelings to her object of desire while intervening in a shepherds romance. Such plays rejoice in a protean instability, challenge the rigidity of fixed categories, and ridicule absolute values, patriarchal power, and stultifying officialdom. Subversion in Twelfth Night Twelfth Night offers a rather more ambivalent exploration of these subversive aspects of carnival. Apparently a carnivalesque figure, the dissolute Sir Toby Belch seems to personify the celebration of the body and, in Bakhtins words, its fertility, growth and overabundance. Hes a sybaritic sensualist with a taste for cake s, ale and servingwomen. However, Sir Toby, as an aristocrat, dislikes the challenge posed to his authority by Malvolio, no more than a steward. The trick is intended to put Malvolio in his place; far from dissolving differences, Sir Toby aims to restor e hierarchical privilege. Paradoxically, it is Malvolio who, though insistent on order and suspicious of pleasure, wants to transcend his social status and marry a countess. It is he who appears in ludicrous clothes and behaves in a way his mistress describes as very midsummer madness. In the end, Sir Toby wins: Malvolio is humiliated and driven half mad, while Sir Toby marries Maria, the architect of Malvolios downfall. Im never sure whether the play applauds this denouement but few contemporary productions fail to treat Malvolio with sympathy in the final scene, however arrogant, self-obsessed and censorious he has been earlier in the play. The Borderline between Life and Art Carnival belongs to the borderline between life and art, Bakhtin tells us: Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Of all the oppositions dissolved in Shakespeares comedies, perhaps the life/art binary is the most significant. The recurring motifs of disguise (Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, The Winters Tale), of mistaken identity (The Comedy of Errors), and of magic (The Tempest, A Midsummer Nights Dream) make us ask questions about the nature of our own identities and of reality. Waking up after his extraordinary night, Bottom tries to work out what has happened: Methought I was there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. Likewise, in Twelfth Night, Olivias attentions make a bewildered Sebastian ready to distrust mine eyes And wrangle with my reason that persuades me To any other trust but that I am mad. The plays-within-plays whether formal (The Tempest, A Midsummer Nights Dream, The Taming of the Shrew) or improvised (the role-play in As You Like It, the bed trick in Measure for Measure, the dark room scene in Twelfth Night) draw attention, in an almost Brechtian way, to the constructed nature of theatre. If members of the audience realise that the theatrical representation is constructed, they may see the same in their reality. If reality is constructed, it too is subject to change, and the possibility of change is key to carnival. Joyful Relativity the Fool

Carnival, Bakhtin argues: absolutises nothing, but rather proclaims the joyful relativity of everything. And a key means of proclaiming the relativity of everything in Shakespeares comedies is the figure of the fool. Bottom in A Midsummer Nights Dream knows that man is but a patched fool and calls his amazing dream Bottoms dream [...] because it hath no bottom it defies definitive explanation or absolute meaning. To Feste in Twelfth Night, everything, even the death of a brother, is relative. He is completely independent, for all waters: present at both Olivia and Orsinos houses. He argues with Malvolio but is absent when the trick is played; although a disguised participant in the dark room cruelty, he is also the stewards means of escape. Sir Toby may claim that care is an enemy to life but, as Graham Holderness argues, Feste knows that, in fact, care is a condition of life. Death is never far away in Festes songs and is the only absolute; as he tells Orsino, pleasure will be paid, one time or another. Likewise Jacques seven ages of man speech in As You Like It serves to remind his listeners, both on stage and off, that life ends in death: mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. A Temporary Liberation? And thus, Feste tells Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night, the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Carnival recognises that time alone (and not people in authority) is all powerful. Carnival time is limited, Bakhtin insists: [it] celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions [my italics] It is interesting, as Barbara Everett points out, that Festes word whirligig, usually glossed as a childs spinning top, could also refer to an instrument of punishment and torture, a cage spun on a pivot so as to induce extreme sickness and vertigo in its captive. Perhaps Feste is suggesting that we will be censured for our carnival extravagances as everything returns to normal. Often the ends of Shakespeares comedies are marked by a physical return, or a promised return, to the ordinary (from the wood near Athens, from the Forest of Arden, from Prosperos enchanted island, from the pastoral idyll of Bohemia in The Winters Tale) and with marriage, the formalising of the conventional heterosexual couple, with wife subordinate to husband. Politically Subversive or Conservative? The transience of carnival is pivotal to debates about the degree to which it can be truly considered politically subversive. Angela Carter notes dryly in her short story In Pantoland, that carnival is here today and gone tomorrow, a release of tension not a reconstitution of order, a refresh ment [] after which everything can go on again exactly as if nothing had happened. We are granted some carnival time to make us more pliant and submissive in ordinary life, to give us the illusion that society does not always impose control when it fact it does. But is Carter right to say that after carnival everything can go on again exactly as if nothing had happened? Yes, carnival can be dismissed as merely a utopian time and space where the realities of everyday life can be conveniently forgotten and the interests of the ruling class served, but surely we can also argue that carnivalesque experiences, albeit limited, liberate us, giving us the possibility of change, a more plural and democratic perspective on the real world, and, as Duke Senior in As You Like It puts it, good in everything. Recently I heard the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate say this about Shakespeares comedies: In terms of thinking about what it is to be human, what it is to live in society, and above all what its like to liv e in personal relationships, the comedies are the place where Shakespeare really works that out in a profound way.

If, as Bakhtin tells us, carnival allows expression to the latent sides of human nature and the liberation of our ideal selves then this can enhance the way we live in the real world and deal with each other. This, Id like to think, is the optimistic message of Shakespeares comedies. George Norton is Head of English, Languages and Drama at Paston VI Form College in Norfolk. This article was first published in emagazine 58, December 2012.

READING 6 Excellent foppery comedy in Shakespeares tragedies Daniel Stanley investigates the subtle and powerful role humour plays both structurally and dramatically in Shakespeares tragedies. He looks in particular at Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Othello. Gravediggers humour A musician had given orders that when he died, his flute was to be buried with him. The undertaker asked the widow, What do you think, madam? Well, she replied, I thought it a blessing he didnt play the piano. This kind of humour, illustrative of the close relationship between comedy and tragedy, would have been appreciated by Shakespeare. The notion of a poignant moment tinged with relief but then diminished by practical, earthly considerations seems inappropriate but inescapably amusing. Indeed, Hamlets graveyard clowns seem to understand that despair and laughter are twin responses to tragedy. Charged with the job of burying the poor drowned Ophelia, their scene quickly turns into black comedy as one clown asks another a riddle: Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright or a carpenter? The solution, like something from a Christmas cracker, soon follows: a gravemaker the houses he makes last till Doomsday. All their discussions and mock-philosophical banter about drowning seem to provide a little light relief, albeit still concerned with the subject of death. And yet, like other humorous moments in Shakespeares tragedies, their p lacement within the play is loaded with structural and dramatic significance. Here, in the final act, Hamlets beleaguered sweetheart has just drowned herself and it will only be a few lines before Hamlet himself lifts up the skull of the Kings former jes ter and delivers his famous Alas, poor Yorick speech. The readiness is all

Structurally, a scene of dark comedy can also be seen to prepare the tragic hero, and audience, for the acceptance of truth. Hamlet passes through the graveyard scene and reaches greater insight about the idea of mortality when he later says: The readiness is all. Since no man knows of aught he leaves, what ist to leave betimes? In this sense, the graveyard scene anticipates events that will lead to Hamlets end. Hamlet states t hat man is no more likely than a sparrow to comprehend what comes after death. And the audience, too, senses that the duel with Laertes that follows will bring bleak finality. Verbal duelling In Romeo and Juliet it is a duel, too, that brings about a change in mood and a realisation on the part of the hero of his own weaknesses. Romeos fatal brawl with Tybalt is foreshadowed by comedic verbal duelling with his friend Mercutio in Act 2, Scene 4. Complaining that Romeo abandoned his friends at the Capulet ball, Mercutio says: You gave us the counterfeit last night and when Romeo fails to comprehend he is told: The slip, sir, the slip. Can you not conceive? This begins an exchange filled by Shakespeare with riddles, puns and wordplay. The idea of a counterfeit coin suggests the double meanings of language that will be explored in order to demonstrate their relationship to truth. Mercutio is complaining about Romeos lack of honesty towards his friends, but also towards himself. Here, a swift exchange of short lines and word duelling begins: MERCUTIO: such a case as yours constrains a man to bow in the hams. ROMEO Meaning, to curtsy. MERCUTIO Thou hast most kindly hit it. ROMEO A most courteous exposition. MERCUTIO: Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy. ROMEO Pink for flower. MERCUTIO Right. ROMEO Why, then is my pump well flowered. MERCUTIO Sure wit, follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that, when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing, sole singular. ROMEO O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness. MERCUTIO Come between us, good Benvolio! My wits faint. Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 4, 51-69 Romeo is accused of being singularly one-track minded but Mercutios jest is that behind the slip of words, courtesy to curtsy, pink of flower to flowery pumps (shoes), sole to soul, is a singular truth. Once worn out, Romeo will be le ft with nothing to stand on and the joke will be on him. For his part, Romeo evades this, simply seeing the jest as single-

soled, like the thin sole of a shoe. The slip, then, refers to the slippery nature of the meanings behind language that reflect Romeos own evasiveness. The verbal duel continues, with Romeo seeming to have the upper hand. But with the friendship reaffirmed by witty banter, Mercutio has the last word, saying: Now art thou Romeo. Now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature. Here, however, the double side of art as in are and as in artifice, the opposite of natural, contin ues to make the question of what Romeo really is a slippery one to pin down. Romeo himself comes closest to answering it in Act 3, Scene 1 when, having been involved with Mercutios death and losing himself to an impulsive revenge upon Tybalt, he moans, I am fortunes fool! Clowns, fools and jesters So far we have seen how comedy prepares the way for truths to be revealed to both audience and hero. Clowns and jesters, then, play an important dramatic and structural role within Shakespeares tragedies. I ndeed, the audience feels the sudden change in mood brought by Mercutios final lines. He jokes as he lies dying, ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. And yet, what stands out is not his wit, but the fear invoked by his repeated curse: A plague aboth your houses. His last words, Your houses toll the death knell of comedy and romance and mark the onset of tragedy. Taken off stage, his words remain, haunting the lovers and their families to the very end. Licensed fools Another joker whose disappearance marks a shift towards tragedy is King Lears Fool. Shakespeares comedies, such as Twelfth Night, contain instances of clowns and fools who play an important role in the confusion and errors of identity that make up the core humour of the drama. Sometimes simple minded, the conventional fool is the object of much mirth but he often also states truths and has the licence to say things that others cant. Fools in Shakespeare often use wit and clever wordplay for satirical ends, drawing attention to the flaws in their rulers or society, or the darker side of their world. This kind of satirical wit can act as a comic mirroring of the events of the plays. In Lears tragedy, however, we meet a fool whose ability to speak wisdom and truths is demonstrated in a play where questions about nature and reality versus illusion or artifice reign. In a dramatic sphere where truth is contested, rendered murky by disguise, intrigue and insincerity, it is the heros metaphorical blindness that arguably leads to his downfall. The Fools privileged position and the lowness of his social origins give him license to speak with honesty and truth. In King Lear, however, part of the tragedy lies in the fact that Lear consults his Fool too late; by Act 1, Scene 4 the seeds of tragedy have already been sown. The timing of the arrival of the Fool seems inopportune and his advice to Lear flippant in the light of the king already having given his kingdom away to his two scheming daughters, Goneril and Regan. Furthermore, he has disowned his most loving and faithful daughter Cordelia and banished the loyal Earl of Kent. And yet, Lears relationship with his Fool is warm and full of trust. Unlike in the case of Kent, Lear listens to the Fools criticisms, which Shakespeare fills with more riddles and wordplay. But behind the Fools words lies the truth, and part of his function is to open Lears eyes to it: FOOL: Nuncle, give me an egg and Ill give thee two crowns. KING LEAR : What two crowns shall they be? FOOL: Why, after I have cut the egg i the middle, and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou lovest thy crown i the middle, and gavst away both parts, thou borst thy ass on thy back oer the dirt thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavst thy golden one away [Sings.] Fools had neer less grace in a year, For wise men are grown foppish, They know not how their wits to wear, Their manners are so apish. To begin with, the Fool puns on crowns as in money as well as the halves of Lears kingdom he has given up. He takes this further with the metaphor of the egg, out of which he creates two crowns and an image of a golden yoke

representing his daughter, whose true value and love Lear had failed to recognise. In a third meaning of crown, Lears head is held up for examination, dramatically significant given the madness that will shortly take hold of him. Lear is further ridiculed by the image of him carrying his own donkey, an inversion of natural order that the Fool compounds with the statement that wise men have become fools, so that the jesters own job seems seriously redundant. Lears folly The essence of the Fools joke is that Lear must have emptied his head of wits and good sense, strongly suggesting that the real fool here is Lear himself. His apish decisions suddenly seem absurd to the audience, who are put in the position of deciding whether, as a tragic hero, he deserves our sympathy at all. This may be why Shakespeare has Lear continue to be blind to the truth and our pity for him is suspended until he undergoes great suffering and madness. Nonetheless, the Fool scenes are worthy of further study not only in the way their humour defuses the tension of the play, but in the part the character plays in helping Lear realise his mistakes. By that time, however, it is too late; the Fool is gone and Lear can only lament while holding the body of Cordelia in his arms: and my poor fool is hanged. Iago: a malevolent wit The Fools perceptive jests are enjoyable but his removal from action, like that of Mercutios, signifies a dramatic step towards tragedy. The skull representing a kings dead jester, Yorick, also represents the death of laughter. As Hamlet himself asks: Where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? In Othello, laughter also quickly dies. Iago is another trusted companion of the leader, who in a comedy might use his cleverness to quip and joke satirically about his world but in Iago that humour has gone sour and his clever wordplay performs an entirely different function. Iago has the Fools position of trusted servant and confidant; however, his sharp wit is used for deceit and discord rather than the service of truth. I am not what I am, we are warned by Honest Iago in the first scene of Othello. His openness is disarming, as are his light-hearted riddles and drinking songs, so that when Othello requires guidance, Iagos words are valued. In fact, Othello requires Iago to be true to himself when seeking to validate his insecurities about his wife, Desdemona: Give thy worst of thoughts the worst of words he requests. Skilfully holding back, Iago eventually counsels Othello, it is in my natures plague to spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy shapes faults that are not. Iagos genius cunning is in using his honesty veiled by modesty to manipulate his master so that he may be trained to see for himself the proofs of infidelity between Desdemona and Cassio he looks for: if you please to hold him off a while You shall by that perceive him [] Note if your lady strain his entertainment much will be seen in that. Having set him up, all Iago needs to do is to plant the proof, Desdemonas handkerchief, in Cassios chamber and the trap is set. Thus credulous fools are caught boasts Iago, with Othello having suffered a total breakdown: and many worthy and chaste dames even thus/all guiltless, meet reproach. A complex conclusion There is little mirth to be found in Othello. In the other tragedies what comedy there is serves briefly, but only briefly, to make us laugh. It is a dark kind of comedy which uses language to point up harsh realities about characters, the world or the truth of human experience. In the end it reinforces the impact of the tragedy, and the pity we feel, as the protagonists tumble into insanity, indignity or death. Daniel Stanley teaches A Level English at Seaton Burn College.

This article first published in emagazine 48 (April 2010)



Comic Devices in The Importance of Being Earnest Actor Simon Bubb recently played Jack in Wildes play. Here he reveals the secrets behind the playwrights humour and how they became clear to him as he prepared for the part. I have just had the great pleasure of performing in one of the funniest plays ever written, The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Everybody knows Oscar Wildes reputation for dazzling wit and intellectual wordplay, but I had forgotten just how delightfully, ludicrously silly his masterpiece is too. Analysing humour, said the novelist E.B. White, is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it. Nevertheless, I would like to look at the way in which Wilde balances the very clever and the very silly in achieving his comic purposes. The Comedy of Manners The Importance of Being Earnest has often been identified as a comedy of manners. A useful definition of this literary form is one which exploits for comic effect the distance between societys excessive concern with [] communal respectability, on the one hand, and, on the other, the self-interested motives that drive individuals actions. The secret to creating a good comedy of manners thus lies firstly in setting it in a social milieu which publicly operates a very strict and restrictive code of conduct. Late Victorian society is a perfect example of this. To be an accepted member of what Lady Bracknell calls good society at this time required in theory at least an adherence to an incredibly detailed set of rules and expectations. In rehearsal we had two etiquette guides from the time, Manners For Men and Manners For Women, by the formidable-sounding Mrs Humphrey. Of course, its important to remember that the conduct books, etiquette guides and so on present an image of how one should behave. We should not see them as a reflection of how people did behave although in some circles they may have been found wanting when they didnt live up to these standards. (Think for example of the gap between the way most people in our times live their lives and the guidance we are bombarded with on a daily basis on what to eat, how to bring up children or conduct a relationship.) What these books do reveal, however, is that every aspect of life for the upper classes was codified so as to establish what was acceptable or otherwise, from the use of cutlery to the wearing of hats (and of course there was always a Mrs Humphrey ready to catch you out). While the reality may have been somewhat different, this was a world in which, in theory at least, single men and women were not allowed to be alone together for more than the briefest of moments. Only once they were engaged could they be alone or display physical affection. A certain degree of physical experience was considered acceptable in men, but women were expected to be entirely pure. And there could be real consequences from this a womans reputation and future changes of marriage could be ruined b y a broken engagement, for example. A man who submitted a woman to such indignities by breaking off an engagement thus risked losing his standing as a decent gentleman in society. Wildes Playfulness Jack

Here then was a world bound up in manners and social obligations, and the more rigid such formalities are, the more fun it is to watch people getting tangled up trying to stick to them, or to evade them, on stage. Wilde also clearly enjoys playing with these exaggerated versions of acceptable behaviour, in the full knowledge that young people are constantly finding their own ways of subverting the expectations of their elders. I was keen to read Manners For Men, because Jack, the character I played, is, outwardly at least, very concerned with doing the right thing. In his first scene with Algy, Jack makes a great show of being concerned with propriety, accusing his friend of being ungentlemanly and vulgar, and lecturing him on correct behaviour: I dont propose to discuss modern culture. It isnt the sort of thing one should talk of in private. At this stage, Jack is the plays chief proponent of the importance of decorum and respectability. However, we find that Wilde is cleverly at work making him look ridiculous. This is most obviously achieved through physical comedy. Jacks words may be sophisticated, but what is he actually doing? He Follows Algernon around the room, trying desperately to get his cigarette case back. He is made to look like a child in the playground, and in our production I was directed to trip over a pile of books and chase Algy around a table to make me look even sillier. In addition to this, Wilde uses the absurd, as the logic of Jacks argument collapses like a pack of cards, and the ludicrousness of his explanation quickly and hilariously becomes clear. First he claims that he doesnt know anyone of the name of Cecily, but Algys revelation that Jacks cigarette case is a present from someone of the name of Cecily soon reveals this to be a lie. Instead of admitting the truth, Jack tries to shore up his position with another lie (that Cecily is his aunt), the absurdity of which Algy immediately exposes: why an aunt [] should call her own nephew her uncle, I cant quite make out. Jack is finally forced to confess that, far from being a perfect gentleman, he has been leading a double life, and that he has invented a younger brother in order to get up to town in other words, to have fun. There is great comic value in seeing someone who presents a highly respectable front being revealed as quite the reverse. Another example of this is in Twelfth Night, where, like Wilde, Shakespeare uses physical comedy (the cross-gartered yellow stockings), and verbal wit (the fustian riddle) to make Malvolio look absurd and thus undermine his pomposity. Take another look at our earlier definition of a comedy of manners, and you can see that the episode with Jack and his small aunt Cecily fits perfectly. Jack, suffocating under the excessively boring respectability of his life in the country, has gone to extraordinary lengths to get out of it. When Algy then divulges that he has also invented an alter ego (Bunbury which, as Jack points out, is an absurd name) in order to escape the responsibilities of his life in London, we might wonder what is wrong with a society in which young men feel compelled to adopt such tactics just to have a little fun. Paradox Upside Down and the Wrong Way Round Wilde declared that the philosophy behind his play is: that we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things with sincere and studied triviality. This is exactly the sort of comment we find littered throughout Earnest and this may also be seen as a microcosm of the play itself. On the one hand it is a paradox, self-contradictory and mischievously nonsensical. However, it is also a serious point implying a criticism of society as having got its priorities wrong. The play is full of remarks which seem to have things the wrong way round, such as The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous or In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing. These lines have a dual purpose. On the simplest level, they are there to make us laugh. Their paradoxical nature is funny because it relies on incongruity, which is one of the key techniques in comedy. We tend to laugh when we see an idea, person, or thing that is clearly incongruous, i.e. out of place or unexpected. We delight in these Wildean paradoxes because they are so obviously the wrong way round that we cannot take them seriously.

Their other function, however, is to destabilise our understanding of what makes sense and what doesnt. After two hours in the theatre, the cumulative effect of this barrage of nonsense is that the whole world starts to turn upside down, and we may begin to lose our grip on which values are important after all. The same may be said of the more absurd elements of the plot. It is very silly indeed to think that Miss Prism would have left Jack in a handbag in the first place, let alone that she would miraculously end up as his wards governess. To criticise the play for this, though, would be to miss the point. We are meant to find it ridiculous Wilde even has Lady Bracknell point out that strange coincidences are not supposed to occur and we laugh all the more because of it. Look carefully, however, and you find that Wilde has smuggled a rather devastating critique of Victorian hypocrisy into all the madness. Thinking that Miss Prism is his mother, and that she had him out of wedlock, Jack declares that she should be forgiven, asking rhetorically: Why should there be one law for men, and another for women? The implication is that in late Victorian society, women would be treated much more harshly for having an illegitimate child than men would. When you stop to think about that attitude, Wilde may be saying, isnt it just as absurd as all the other nonsense we have just witnessed? Epigrams and Hyperbole As well as paradoxes, The Importance of Being Earnest is also full of epigrams short, witty, statements which seem to convey a great truth. These are the sorts of lines that are often taken in isolation and quoted in lists of Wildes witty sayings: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. Thats his. By having his characters speak in this way, Wilde is creating an atmosphere of rarefied, elegant sophistication. As befitting a comedy of manners, this forms the impression of polite society which can then be ridiculed. It sets up the comic juxtaposition of supposedly refined people actually doing very silly things, a contrast shown most pointedly in Act 2 when Gwendolen and Cecily squabble viciously over sugar lumps and cake, after which Jack and Algy almost come to blows while arguing about muffins. Another comic device used by Wilde is hyperbole, or deliberate exaggeration. This is most evident in the character of Lady Bracknell. She is the plays strongest representation of her cultures ob session with propriety. Wilde satirises this preoccupation by having Lady Bracknell hold opinions that are so extreme as to be ludicrous, most famously when she tells Jack that to lose both parents (that is, to be orphaned) looks like carelessness. Her r esponse to the discovery that Jack was found in a handbag is that it reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. She presents herself as a guardian of proper conduct, but by being so unreasonable she makes a mockery of her own values. The irony is that her determination to uphold an acceptable standard of good manners leads her to be quite breathtakingly rude. A Delicate Bubble of Fancy In our production, the actress playing Lady Bracknell, had just finished being the wicked stepmother in Cinderella at the same theatre, which seemed highly appropriate: Lady Bracknell is so absurdly cantankerous as to be almost a pantomime villain. The advantage of this is that we naturally take the other characters side against her. While it may be true that we are encouraged to laugh at Jacks pomposity or Algys perversity, we still find ourselves feeling sympathetic towards them. We see how ridiculous they are, but we do not sneer at them. The play may be satirical, but it is not harsh or cynical in tone. It is primarily, in Wildes own words, exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy. The enduring popularity of The Importance of Being Earnest lies not so much in the fact that it critiques its society, as that it does so with such a perfect balance of wit and silliness. Having just spent two months working on it, I can say that it is, above all else, a great deal of fun. Simon Bubb is an actor currently touring with the Old Vics production of Noises Off.

This article first appeared in emagazine 60, April 2013.


READING 8 A double life: Oscar Wildes The Importance of Being Earnest Anna Sarchet argues that in his witty and self-conscious drama, Wilde is also subversive, exploring serious and controversial issues through his nonsensical play. Realism is only a background; it cannot form an artistic motive for a play that is to be a work of art. ( Oscar Wilde 1895) It seems fitting to begin an article on Oscar Wide, that most quotable of writers, with a quotation. Wilde was, and remains, a controversial figure. He is famous as much for his personal life as he is for his writing and is immortalised by his frequently quoted witticisms: I have nothing to declare except my genius; Work is the curse of the drinking classes and The truth is rarely pure, and never simple are perhaps three of the best known. If this is all you know about Wilde, you might be forgiven for regarding him as a rather frivolous person with a complicated love life. A first reading of Wildes 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest might lead you to a similar conclusion. It appears to be a well-constructed yet essentially empty play, full of vacuous characters and ridiculously unrealistic dialogue. You wouldnt be the first to come to this conclusion: a first night reviewer in 1895 commented that the play, represents nothing, means nothing, is nothing. Wilde himself noted that the play is quite nonsensical and has no serious interest, yet he also subtitled the play A Trivial Comedy for Serious People and a closer look at it reveals a subtly subversive play exploring class and money and covering the controversial social issue of illegitimate birth. It is Wildes epigrammatic, witty dialogue that might lead us to believe that the play is superficial and constructed wholly for laughs. An analysis of a short extract from the play demonstrates that though Wilde valued style, it was not at the expense of substance. In fact, it is because of the epigrammatic exchanges and witty repartee that Wilde creates the space to be subversive. The section of Act 3 in which Jacks true origins are revealed is a rich extract to analyse. This section (beginning with Lady Bracknell: (In a severe, judicial voice) Prism! up to Jack: (after a pause) Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but could you kindly inform me who I am?), is the denouement of the play, the moment at which Jacks true origins are revealed. The topic of conversation, the disappearance of a baby, is potentially painful and emotional. Yet the characters are curiously emotionless, much more preoccupied with surface detail than with feelings, and this detachment is funny. Lady Bracknell rather clinically describes the perambulator that contained a baby of the male sex (not a little baby boy or my dear nephew). When reunited with her handbag, Miss Prism notes the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus and the stain on the lining before dec laring, after a relatively long and detailed speech concerning only the handbag, I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years. There is no mention at all of the lost baby! The preoccupation with appearance is presented throughout the play, particularly through the character of Lady Bracknell. In this section, she remarks to Chasuble, I need hardly tell you that in families of high position strange coincidences are not supposed to occur. They are hardly considered the thing. A little later, Jack mistakenly identifies Miss Prism as his mother. Her response concerns her own reputation rather than his feelings: Miss Prism: (Recoiling in indignant astonishment) Mr Worthing. I am unmarried! These characters obsession with how things appear to others (certain others at least the desirable sections of society) is funny we are entertained by these characters foolishness. But it is also critique of the values (held by many in Victorian society) which lead to, in Wildes words:

their entire preoccupation with the gross materialistic side of life, and their ridiculous estimate of themselves and their importance. De Profundis Wilde Throughout the play, Wilde writes the dialogue using simple syntax. The dialogue seems very planned it is not spontaneous and conversational but constructed to appear as if it has been deliberately constructed. This is a play, a work of art, and we are not meant to forget it. In this section, Gwendole ns lines in particular demonstrate this. If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life. and The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. These witty epigram s are there for comic effect, but they also contribute to the sense that we cannot take anything anyone says seriously. It is this, I believe, that enables Wilde to drop in controversial statements without a huge fanfare. Buried in all the silliness and artifice is the line Why should there be one law for men, and another for women? We could dismiss this as another bit of nonsense from characters that are full of nonsense or, if we are one of the serious people Wilde refers to in his subtitle perhaps, we notice this is a serious comment camouflaged in the atmosphere of triviality. In English Stage Comedy 1490-1990, Alexander Leggatt describes The Importance of Being Earnest as having a double life. He says: It can be taken as charming entertainment, a relaxing escape from reality; in this light it belongs, like Jack, in respectable society. But in its inversions of value, its trivializing of the serious, its questioning of the whole notion of importance, in the sheer absoluteness of its detachment, there is a subversiveness all the more potent for being so painless. In this section of the play, the pace is quick, the action farcical and there are moments almost of pantomime. The stage directions following Lady Bracknells line Prism! Where is that baby? state that Algernon and Jack pretend to be anxious to shield Cecily and Gwendolen from hearing the details of a terrible public scandal. This is a comic moment farcical, silly we envisage the actors playing Algernon and Jack making exaggerated gestures and facial expressions to communicate their mock horror. And yet, doesnt this also invite us to consider the habit of those in respectable society who pretend to be shocked and horrified by scandal and gossip but who are really fascinated by it? It is significant that the stage direction says Algernon and Jack pretend to be anxious once again the characters are preoccupied by appearance. This is the double life Leggatt refers to; comic and ridiculous yet serious and insightful. The Importance of Being Earnest is many things but it is not nothing, as that reviewer on the opening night suggested. I interpret the play as a multilayered work, Wilde masking his subversive ideas with a veneer of triviality. You may disagree and Wilde would probably love it if you did. As we began the article with his words, it seems fitting to end it with them: Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. (Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray 1891) He always liked to have the last word. Anna Sarchet was a Head of English and a teacher of A Level Language. She now works at the English and Media Centre. Recommended reading The Importance of Being Earnest By Oscar Wilde Cambridge Literature ed. John Lancaster CUP 1999. The notes and activities are very useful. Chapter 1 Getting Control in English Stage Comedy 1490-1990 by Alexander Leggatt Routledge 1998 This article first appeared online for emagplus 56, April 2012.