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Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy

Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy

J.A. Bryant
Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 280
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    Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy
    Book Description:

    In Shakespeare's hand the comic mode became an instrument for exploring the broad territory of the human situation, including much that had normally been reserved for tragedy. Once the reader recognizes that justification for such an assumption is presented repeatedly in the earlier comedies -- fromThe Comedy of ErrorstoTwelfth Night-- he has less difficulty in dispensing with the currently fashionable classifications of the later comedies as problem plays and romances or tragicomedies and thus in seeing them all as manifestations of a single impulse.

    Bryant shows how Shakespeare, early and late, dutifully concerned himself with the production of laughter, the presentation of young people in love, and the exploitation of theatrical conventions that might provide a guaranteed response. Yet these matters were incidental to his main business in writing comedy: to examine the implications of an action in which human involvement in the process of living provides the kind of enlightenment that leads to renewal and the continuity of life.

    With rare foresight, Shakespeare presented a world in which women were as capable of enlightenment as the men who wooed them, and Bryant shows how the female characters frequently preceded their mates in perceiving the way of the world. In most of his comedies Shakespeare also managed to suggest the role of death in life's process; and in some -- even in plays as diverse asA Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It,andThe Tempest-- he gave hints of a larger process, one without beginning or end, that may well comprehend all our visions -- of comedy, tragedy, and history -- in a single movement.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6148-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Shakespeare’s Exploration of the Human Comedy
    (pp. 1-13)

    The subject of this book is Shakespeare’s exploration of the human situation through the mode of dramatic comedy. It is a book with many predecessors and almost as many creditors, most of whom will be acknowledged as their contributions appear. Several comprehensive works have proved valuable throughout, however, and deserve to be acknowledged at the outset. These include the volumes of E.K. Chambers on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan dramatists, still vastly useful after more than half a century, the source studies of Geoffrey Bullough, Muriel C. Bradbrook’sThe Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy,Leo Salingar’sShakespeare and the Traditions...

  5. 2 The Comedy of Errors
    (pp. 14-26)

    Most students ofThe Comedy of Errorsagree in calling the play an early one—some say Shakespeare’s earliest play, or at least his earliest comedy. Clearly the basic plot comes from Plautus’sMenaechmi,a play that Shakespeare may well have read not long before, at the Stratford Grammar School; and to this he added a frame story from the popular tale of Apollonius of Tyre. Older criticism of the play, however, often soured on the fact that Shakespeare, whether young or not, developed it mainly from farce and kept it farcical. Schlegel, more generous than most, called it “the...

  6. 3 The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    (pp. 27-39)

    The Two Gentlemen of Veronamay well represent another kind of first excursion into the field of comedy.The Comedy of Errorsis, after all, something that Shakespeare might have produced largely out of his academic experience at the Stratford Grammar School, where Terence and possibly Plautus would have been staple fare, acted as well as read.²The Two Gentlemen,with its abundant echoes of the currently popular Lylyean mode and its affinities with the Italiancommedia dell’arte,is the sort of play he could have written only after some contact with the manifestations of urban sophistication.² Nevertheless,The Two...

  7. 4 Love’s Labor’s Lost
    (pp. 40-56)

    SuperficiallyLove’s Labor’s Lostprovides less reassurance than eitherThe Comedy of ErrorsorThe Two Gentlemen of Verona. The play abounds in lovers, but none of them at the end has found a mate. No society in it finds renewal; and the death of thesenex,or parent (here the King of France), offstage, removes from the proceedings the most determined and forthright advocate of mating that the plot has to offer. Thus, instead of providing a release, the removal by death of the Princess’s father brings everything to an indefinite halt. “Our wooing doth not end like an...

  8. 5 A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    (pp. 57-80)

    A Midsummer Night’s Dream,Shakespeare’s fourth comedy, marks the end of his early period of experimentation. Most scholars agree that the play came into being as a private entertainment devised for the wedding of some aristocratic couple.¹ Moreover, the marks of its occasional nature are such as to invite comparison with the court masque, though the masque in 1595 was still relatively amorphous.² Nevertheless, marks of the public playhouse also appear on all extant versions of the play—the first quarto of 1600, the Roberts quarto of 1619, and the Folio text—and some have speculated that the fifth act...

  9. 6 The Merchant of Venice
    (pp. 81-97)

    No one who has ever read Plato’sSymposiumis likely to forget that haunting picture near the end, of Socrates still drinking and still clear-headed, talking on past cock-crow of such things as the relation between tragedy and comedy, and insisting to his befuddled listeners that the writer of tragedy ought to be a writer of comedy also. In a sense we are all still very much Socrates’ befuddled listeners, but we can at least recognize that no piece of work in any literature more brilliantly exemplifies the consequences of a playwright’s following that suggestion of his than Shakespeare’s does....

  10. 7 The Taming of the Shrew
    (pp. 98-113)

    For many students the really interesting questions aboutThe Taming of the Shrewhave to do with the circumstances of its composition. No one knows for certain when Shakespeare wrote the play or, indeed, whether he wrote it once or twice. Since Francis Meres makes no mention of it in thePalladis Tamiaof 1598, scholars in the past have sometimes given it a date as late as 1602; but in recent years most have tended to follow E. K. Chambers in assigning the play to 1594, thus grouping it with the earliest comedies,A Comedy of Errors, The Two...

  11. 8 The Merry Wives of Windsor
    (pp. 114-124)

    It is regrettable thatThe Merry Wives of Windsorhas for many years remained an anomaly in the Shakespeare canon; yet several characteristics almost automatically set it apart from the other comedies. For one thing, more than any other the play declares openly by plot-line and device its derivation from both Italianate comedy and the classical tradition behind that, notably Plautus’sMiles Gloriosus.¹ For another, it is the only comedy with an announced English setting, the consequence perhaps of the requirement, royally imposed, that Shakespeare write it about the Falstaff character from the Henry IV plays.² That link with Shakespeare’s...

  12. 9 Much Ado about Nothing
    (pp. 125-145)

    It is customary to say thatMuch Ado about Nothingmarks Shakespeare’s advent into mature comedy, or joyous comedy, as some call it. But Shakespeare’s recipe for his new play was approximately the same as the one he had used forThe Taming of the Shrew,which, as noted earlier in this study, may well be a play that he had reworked from an older one,The Taming of a Shrew;and this, too, he may have had a hand in writing. WhetherMuch Ado about Nothingcan properly be called joyous is a question best deferred until later in...

  13. 10 As You Like It
    (pp. 146-164)

    As readers may know, Thomas Lodge, “university wit” and a playwright more by necessity than by choice, repeatedly reached for a kind of fame that he thought the theater could never give him. His most successful effort was theRosalyndeof 1590, a prose romance based uponThe Tale of Gamelyn,then still being attributed to Chaucer, and executed in a style occasionally reminiscent of John Lyly’sEuphues.¹The popularity ofRosalyndeoutlasted Lodge himself, who died in 1625, and by 1634 the work had gone through eleven editions. Lodge’s permanent fame, however, such as it is, probably rests upon...

  14. 11 Twelfth Night
    (pp. 165-178)

    Ever since the time of the Romantics, high praise forTwelfth Nighthas been one of the commonplaces of Shakespeare criticism. In our own time Leo Salingar has called it the “crowning achievement in one branch of his art”;¹ and J. Dover Wilson, implicitly replying to Samuel Johnson, who complained that the latter half of the play “exhibits no just picture of life,”² has gone even farther: “That gem of his comic art, that condensation of life and (for those who know how to taste it rightly) elixir of life,” were Wilson’s superlatives; then he added, “He could never better...

  15. 12 Troilus and Cressida
    (pp. 179-202)

    Some years ago R.A. Foakes wrote, “There are almost as many opinions about the nature of Shakespeare’sTroilus and Cressidaas there are critics; and each critic can fortify his argument by referring to the inability of the play’s first editors to see eye to eye about it.”¹ The printers of the quarto (1609) had referred to it in their epistle to the reader as “passing full of the palm comical,” yet the editors of the Folio placed it among the tragedies and called it, as had the quarto, a “History.” This smacks of indifference more than bewilderment. The play...

  16. 13 All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure
    (pp. 203-220)

    The previous chapter referred toTroilus and Cressidaas an anomalous play. The term is a useful one for all three of the comedies that Shakespeare wrote between 1602 and 1604—Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well,andMeasure for Measure—if only because it has the advantage of being noncommittal. From time to time critics have given these plays such epithets as “dark comedies,” “problem comedies,” “problem plays,” and even “tragicomedies”; but such terms tend to obscure more than they reveal. Whatever one calls Shakespeare’s middle plays, they address themselves to the basic function of comedy, which...

  17. 14 Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale
    (pp. 221-232)

    Chronological lists of Shakespeare’s plays frequently show four plays after 1607 as comedies:Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale,andThe Tempest.Of these,Periclesdid not appear in the First Folio, andCymbelinewas listed there among the tragedies.The Winter’s TaleandThe Tempest,however, were included among the comedies. Modern editors sometimes call all four plays “romances,” and the popular newRiverside Shakespeareso classifies them. Strictly speaking, of course, onlyPericles,a dramatization of two versions of the tale of Apollonius of Tyre, which was derived ultimately from a Greek novel or romance, qualifies for that designation;...

  18. 15 The Tempest
    (pp. 233-252)

    Until the beginning of this century much of the criticism ofThe Tempestfocused on the character of Prospero, a surrogate for Shakespeare, it was alleged, who at the end of the play abandoned book and pen and made his farewell to the world. Other important matters thus tended to remain in a hazy limbo of fantasy, and even today there is no clear consensus about some of them. Several of these neglected matters are of sufficient importance to this study to warrant preliminary consideration. One of these is the geographical situation of the island, a subject about which there...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 253-265)
  20. Index
    (pp. 266-270)