Practical Jokes in Shakespeare?

I’m taking this one straight out of Emsworth’s blog because he basically called me out by name:

If the Shakespeare Geek were inviting his readers to rank their favorite practical joke scenes in Shakespeare, our favorite would be the trick Falstaff’s fellow villains played him on the highway near Gadshill. (Our second favorite is the hilarious scene in All’s Well in which the blindfolded Paroles all too readily betrays his comrades.)

Ok, people, whatcha got?  Do we count Puck’s translation of Bottom as a practical joke?  Does setting up Beatrice and Benedick count as a joke?  Should we make a list of what all the practical joke scenes *are*, before we discuss which is best?

10 thoughts on “Practical Jokes in Shakespeare?

  1. I really like the two practical jokes mentioned in the original post, but I think my favorite is one of the many practical jokes in Twelfth Night. Toby incites a sword fight between Andrew and Cesario, neither of whom really want to fight. He also convinces each of them that the other is a fierce and deadly opponent. Hilarity ensues.

    Of course, you make an excellent point about agreeing on what constitutes a practical joke before we vote. Otherwise, we might end up with something like this:

  2. Hands down, it's Edgar's joke on Gloucester, his blinded father! Oh, that had them rolling on the ground at the Globe!


  3. Whoops, I didn't mean to link to my list of favorite scenes. I meant to link to this. There should be a "9" on the end there.

    But looking at my list of scenes, I see a whole lot of questionable nominations. There is so much deception in Shakespeare, and for a range of reasons.

    Are the witches just screwing with Macbeth? Is the Duke in Measure for Measure just an incorrigible prankster? Is Shylock just messing around and plans to spare Angelo at the last minute? And how does Don John figure into all of this?

    Perhaps some criteria would be useful.

  4. I'm guessing the "statue" of Hermione in The Winter's Tale that turns out to be Hermione herself doesn't count? Or the "foil" that turns out to be both sharp _and_ poisoned in Hamlet? Ha! That Laertes–what a riot!

  5. Since a practical joke is "a trick or prank played upon some person usually in order to have a laugh at his expense" (Online OED). I would definitely categorize as a practical joke Puck's transformation of Bottom into an ass, though defining it as such risks oversimplifying the political purpose to which Oberon puts Bottom's transformation.

    Beatrice and Benedick's situation seems to be a very serious task in the guise of a practical joke.

    One more such example would be enough on which to base an argument that Shakespeare used the practical joke to disguise serious issues. Interesting?

  6. The scene Bill cites from Twelfth Night is definitely a worthy candidate, and as he says, there are others in this play. You wouldn't leave off such a list the remarkably elaborate practical joke trick Maria and all play on Malvolio — first convincing him that his mistress is in love with him, getting him to dress and grin foolishly at her, then baiting him while he's in a dark cellar. This would be one of my favorites, except that it's really quite cruel — too much so to enjoy without feeling a bit sadistic.

  7. Although, interestingly, the production I saw at Shakespeare & Company was directed in such a way that, for the first time, I felt that the joke played on Malvolio was not really that cruel. It made the play much funnier and enjoyable. The key was the way Malvolio played it. Instead of seeming tortured and overwrought, he underplayed it and, although he was fooled throughout, one got the sense that he always thought he was going to get out of the jam and would be discovered not to be really mad. It made it seem plausible at the end that he MIGHT be talked out of the severe retribution he had in mind for the pranksters.
    Just goes to show, no matter how many times you read a play, a good performance can always teach you something.

  8. "Just goes to show, no matter how many times you read a play, a good performance can always teach you something."

    Amen, brother!

  9. Very true. And what I take from a new performance is often not something different from what I expected from reading the play, but a meaning that I never suspected was there at all.

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