What Makes A Good Shakespearean Comedy?

I mean right now, to present day audiences.  What’s a good comedy, and why?  Is Shrew better than Much Ado?  Twelfth Night over As You Like it?  Say that you had opportunity to get all the comedies in front of a group of people who otherwise aren’t Shakespeare fans, and who were just looking to be entertained / get a laugh.  Which come out on top of the pile? Is it the slapstick?  Do people need to be falling over each other and wrestling in the mud? Or maybe it’s a “timeless issues” thing, like the battles between men and women, or everything that surrounds a “romantic comedy”?  People laugh at what they recognize to be true, so to speak.  I still contend that this is the primary reason for the popularity of Shrew. Does the writing and the dialogue count for much?  If you have one guy out on the stage saying witty things, will he carry the audience’s good favor and end up at the top of the pile?  Or most often does the witty dialogue go over people’s heads? I’m curious if we can get a discussion going on the subject.  Recently Alan was hyping the value of Shrew over in a different thread.  Having just seen AYLI for the first time, I can say that I thought a line like Rosalind’s “Don’t you know I am a woman?  When I am thinking, I must speak” (or however it was said) would have brought the house down, but it barely registered.  But the simple exchanges between Jaques and Orlando: “Rosalind is your love’s name?”
  “Yes, just.”
“I do not like her name.” and “I was seeking for a fool when I found you.”
   “He is drowned in the brook: look but in, and you shall see him.” Got a much better reaction.  The second in particular, Jaques didn’t even have to follow up with the “There I shall see mine own figure” to get the laugh, people understood it without that. 

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10 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Shakespearean Comedy?

  1. Oy, talk about a great big open-ended question! Brief answer: different people have different tastes. I am bored or annoyed by many modern comedies that are very popular.

    I love insight into people. Wit is fun, but humour, in the Shakespearean sense of character, is best for me. I think Midsummer Night’s Dream is gateway Shakespeare, with lovely language, wit, and buffoonery. Over and over I’ve seen first-time Shakespeare watchers caught up in watching the love sick couples, and the wonderfully bad acting of the rude mechanicals.

    My favorite is Twelfth Night which has all the varied ways of being funny, as well as a study in trust and jealousy with a happy ending. It is one of the few that doesn’t trigger my modern woman into argument.

  2. Just to be awkward (for a change) –

    What are you asking about – ‘the comedies’ or comedy in Shakespeare?
    Some of the ‘best’ comedy is not in the comedies (Falstaff some would say, others the Gatekeeper, yet others Jack Cade).

    Are you going to follow the Folio list of comedies or do the modern thing and slice off several of them and sub categorise them as ‘romances’?

    And what are including in the term ‘modern audience’ – does it include us Europeans with our varied cultures and incompatible humours or will we need to restrict to a certain ‘type’ of the USA?

    What I will say is the list of Comedies in the Folio contain such a variety that finding a common thread to unit them might be very revealing – I’d go for something like they all celebrate the triumph of the communal: Unity and reduction in perceived chaos emerges at the end.
    (The Tragedies are all about the individual and the Histories – well, a mix of the individual and the communal as played out in time.)

    A final point (at this point) I’ll make is the reliance our understanding of the Commedies has on performance – they are much less ‘literature’ than some of the Tragedies: And so dependent on the whims and interpretations of the people in the theatre.

    Taking The Shrew (I’ve just come to the end of my re-visit over on my own blog) as an example – cut the Induction, as many productions do, and you slice off all sorts of meaning – not least the role of rank/hierarchy (in a male-male example), the importance of what you are seeing in the Shrew as theatre rather than reality, and an example of extreme unsocial behaviour (drunkenness) being treated with ‘kindness’ in a sort of negative of the main show.
    Choose to have Petruccio hit Katherina (and the text is very clear he doesn’t) and you make it ‘funny’ – don’t we all love Tom and Jerry – but seriously change one fundamental of the Elizabethan play – and send generations of critics into ‘misogyny’ mode.

    qupfmz indeed!

  3. Interesting about the tragedies being more literary, Alan – I think that’s part of what I was trying to say in my Tragical/Comical thread earlier. But I like the way you said it better, the comedies relying more on performance.

    I’m not interested in official designations of the plays as romance or comedy, but rather how you’d explain it to an audience of first timers who ask, “What kind of play is this, is it a comedy?” They don’t want academic classification, they want to know if in general they’re going to find stuff to laugh about. One comic character inside a tragedy will normally not cut it.

    The modern audience can certainly include European, I’d be curious to explore the differences in what we find funny.

  4. I think few of Shakespeare’s plays would be considered comedies by modern standards, if I understand your meaning, Duane. Most of the comedies are just serious stories with happy endings. The ones that I think modern audiences would consider funny overall are MSND, Love’s Labors Lost, Merry Wives, Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew. Of course some of these have their serious elements, but so do modern comedies. I just think modern audeinces would have no problem identifying them as funny comedies. I don’t think any other of Shakespeare’s plays really fit the bill, although As You Like It is borderline (sort of similar to a drawing room comedy, with all its wit).

  5. Interesting that you would put, say, a Twelfth Night over As You Like It with regard to modern comedy. I thought in particular that the AYLI writing might have had the most modern sensibility I’d seen yet, what with all the “Oh my god he talked about me does that mean he likes me what did he say how was he standing when he said it what do you think that means oh my god oh my god oh my god!” stuff. That could be right out of Hannah Montannah.

  6. (His Awkwardness is back):

    Sorry, but not letting go of this one just yet –

    I’ve seen funny Hamlets (some intentionally so – one really good one with a female Hamlet) – they were comedy performances. The whole production took a comedy slant on the text – original words, and it worked – very insightful. It certainly made me think about the satirical intent of the writer.

    The comedy is made by the production – every one of Shakespeare’s plays can be given a comedy label if the production chooses to (and one of the funniest things I’ve seen was a really serious Macbeth).

    I could make each and every comedy funny – so the question of which play is funny is really none-sensical.

    ‘What does Shakespeare mean by giving the label Comedy to a play?’ is a different question – and the Folio division into three genres meant something to the writer – so what is it he means by comedy?
    This isn’t an empty academic question – it is fundamental to getting an understanding of what the plays mean and how they work.

    The culture issue is also major – executions were public entertainment at the time of writing and I bet people laughed … some parts of the world they still do!

    I spend hour after hour trying to get Eastern European business people to at least understand English humour (if not actually find it funny).

    By the way – the biggest intentional laugh I’ve had in the theatre came from a production of Twelfth Night.

  7. So are you saying, Alan, that the nature of comedy is in the direction and the delivery, and not so much in the source material? The comedy can’t be dead on the page, so to speak – it is in the translation to living performance? That would seem to mean that one couldn’t just read the source material and laugh about it (unless we argue that it’s only funny when you imagine someone acting it out). Although I do agree completely that someone can take a line that is funny on paper, and then kill it in delivery. The question then would be in how much inherent comedy it had to begin with, versus how much the actor is expected to bring to it.

    I’ve heard it said that humor always comes back to pain, in one form or another – and we laugh because it is not us. Whether it is Hermia and Helena falling in the mud, Kate throwing a vase at Petruchio, or Jaques inserting himself awkwardly into other people’s business (“I do not like her name”, I still love that line :)), there’s something to be said for the theory.

  8. Let me make clear I am working through this with you rather than having any previously planned attack – in the bath, a couple of minutes ago, I realised one of the things I am saying is that there is a difference between the business of being funny (comedy) and the genre of comedy … part of my first question is that – if we label a play a comedy are we saying the same thing as using comedy as a resource (sorry still a little muggy)?
    Comedy is used as a tool in many of Shakespeare’s plays (it is one of the early complaints against him – mixing the pure genres) – and some of the finest comedy characters are not in the comedies.
    Fool as I am, I certainly wouldn’t like to suggest reading some of the material won’t make you laugh – but if you are asking me about someone going to a production of any of the plays and telling them this is a comedy – well, I’d be very wary – there are parts that will make you laugh certainly, and there are some very serious issues too. It’ll depend what the production does with it …
    But then I think that is true of modern plays too – one of the funniest plays of the last century is Waiting for Godot – but most productions I’ve seen have failed to really put that over.
    If the nature of comedy is in the production and delivery – so too is the nature of tragedy: Othello has Iago, and one of the most powerful ways of treating him is as a bitter comedian …

  9. My initial question was motivated more from modern, popular opinion – which plays would be the most likely to “get the big laughs”, so to speak. And, if we could determine it, why? I laughed more at Shrew than at AYLI, so does that say more about the source material, the individual performance, or my own personal taste? I was wondering aloud whether one play (presumably a comedy) might stand out as the most likely to be a hit among the popular, casual crowd.

    I think we’ve seen how deep the issue really is. As you say, there’s some great comedy to be found “cross-genre”. Shakespeare must have known something about what his audience could take, and when they needed something a little lighter. I will sit through Lear. I plan to watch McKellen’s when it is available, and most likely Hopkins’ as well. But I don’t think I know another person who I would expect to sit through them with me.

    Comparatively, after my wife saw Much Ado About Nothing, she actively sought out the Brannagh movie and wanted to watch that as well. She tried watching Luhrman’s R+J with me, but fell asleep :). So I think there’s less inherent in the “Shakespeare is hard and boring” argument than in the range of human emotion to be found in the material itself.

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