Midsummer Night/ ShakespeareAfter reading the document about Comedy and especially Shakespearean Comedy, reflect on your own personal theories about the comic: humor is a very complex human phenomenon and most people have very individual reactions and ideas; on the other hand, our culture, just like Shakespeare’s, has cultural ideas about the comic as well. Secondly, reflect on the unique characteristics of Shakespearean comedy: which strike you as the most unusual and/or most challenging aspects of the comic mode? 300 words
Midsummer Night/ Shakespeare After reading the document about Comedy and especially Shakespearean Comedy, reflect on your own personal theories about the comic: humor is a very complex human phenomeno
Notes: A Midsummer Night’s Dream The play was written in 1595 or 1596, shortly after Shakespeare joined, as a full shareholder, with fellow actors to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the early summer of 1594. Scholars group it as one of the so-called “Lyrical” plays, along with Richard II, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Romeo and Juliet, all written in 1594-96; they are called this because of their attention to poetic language and a new level of character detail and they represent a significant “forward leap” in Shakespeare’s abilities over the earlier comedies and histories of 1588-1592. There is no record of performance during his lifetime, but there is a tradition that it was written to be performed at an aristocratic wedding feast, perhaps with Queen Elizabeth in attendance. Most scholars today dismiss this because there is no contemporary evidence and also because it was not normal practice to do so. The play was first published in 1600 in Quarto Form (Q1), set from Shakespeare’s own “foul papers” or an actual manuscript copy – this is a very good quarto text. A second Quarto (Q2) was published in 1619 as part of William Jaggard’s bootlegged “False Folio,” which was largely a reprint of Q1. The First Folio of 1623 has a text mostly derived from Q2 with corrections from manuscript or playbook. The play has 2,165 lines (not a long play – only about half the length of Hamlet, the longest play. It is mostly in poetry (80%!), with a high incidence of rhyme. The characters are fairly balanced, with all the main speaking parts having a similar percentage of lines: Bottom, 12%; Theseus, 11%; Helena, 11%; Puck (Robin Goodfellow), 10%; Oberon, 10%; Lysander and Hermia 8% each; and Titania, 7%. Sources: The play has no direct source; rather it is an amalgam of many antecedents, primarily from Classical Greek and Roman legends/history about Theseus; Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apulius’ The Golden Ass. Shakespeare conflates these myths with English folk tales and country legends about fairies and about Robin Goodfellow, the trickster Puck. The “tone” or “feel” of the play evokes the old, no longer existent English festivals of May Day and Midsummer Eve (considered pagan and Catholic by the Protestant authorities). Shakespearean comedy revolves around themes of personal and social disruption which are ultimately resolved: social cohesion is restored, which is always symbolized by marriage(s). Shakespeare typically gives this various ironic twists: in this play, Demetrius only loves Helena because the spell has not been lifted from his eyes, and Theseus has defeated Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, in battle and thus forced her into marriage. The comedy revels in dynamic opposites: The city of Athens (seat of Western culture, law, and Reason) and the wild forests enchanted with fairies (home of the irrational, the elemental, the bestial). Others include: the line between day and night (reason vs. emotion, conscious vs. the unconscious) and the power of Dreams. This also allows free rein to Shakespeare’s penchant for doubling. He doubles everything in the play: there are two sets of thwarted lovers there are two royal courts (Theseus’ Dukedom and Oberon and Titania’s Fairie Kingdom), and so on. There is also comedy about theater and playing, as in the rehearsals and the performance of the play within a play, “Pyramus & Thisby.” Question: is theater a form of collective dreaming where the audience participates in flights of the imagination? Theater is also about Transformation, or metamorphosis, which is symbolized by Bottom’s transfiguration into an Ass. Bottom is a bad actor because he cannot lose himself in the part, but when he is “translated” literally into the part of the Ass, he finally loses himself to…wait for it…ultimately find himself. Some thoughts on social and historical issues: The rites of summer, images of Queen Elizabeth as Virgin Queen and Warrior queen, myth and the supernatural are directly related to the struggles between the old Catholic England and the emerging, rational Protestant England. Some thoughts on Characters: Titania and Hippolyta are female leaders, Bottom is a comic vitalist (and a precursor or sketch of Falstaff), the lovers can be contrasted with Romeo and Juliet (written at the same time), Puck as the Trickster (and thus as an image of the human unconscious). Theseus’ speech about Lovers, Madmen, and Poets at the beginning of V.1 is really the philosophical key to the play. The speech connects together the power of the imagination with the life forces of sex, desire, and love, and yet offers the Shakespearean twist – the dark point of irrationality and madness that also animates both! As we move through the semester, we will encounter larger and larger versions of these lovers, madmen, and poets (and their dark opposites), in characters like Prince Hal, Hotspur, Falstaff, Hamlet, Ophelia, Prospero, and Caliban. Both Bottom and Robin Goodfellow represent the disruptive comic spirit of theatre. They invite chaos and high (and low) humor into the human drama and lend full humanity even through their errors and fumbling. Robin is also just a little bit dangerous as well The fairie kingdom and its denizens and rulers are a fascinating Shakespearean construction that has nothing to do with the staid Classical mythology of the rest of the play. They can represent the unconscious, but also reveal layers of older social strata, the tension between the modern and the medieval (and older) worlds and so on. They also have the power to disrupt and confound the human world. Shakespeare’s comedies always contain at least a crystal of darkness and doubt about the whole joyousness of the conclusion. His audience would have been well aware, when Oberon blesses the issue of the marriage bed that the child of Theseus and Hippolyta, the boy Hippolytus, would NOT have a happy or fortunate life! Theseus would abandon Hippolyta for Phaedra, Hippolytus would fall in love with Phaedra and be banished by his father and would die being thrown from his horse as he fled The fragility and dreamlike states induced by the play tell us that the comic mode is only an interlude in human affairs: for a short while the structures, rules, and hierarchy of society are upended, but the next morning the spell wears off, the transformation regresses, and everyone returns to work. Theatre, however, and perhaps art in general, keeps the party going. In the dream world on stage, there is always the endless play of human imagination that suspends the pain and mundanity of quotidian life. As one critic put it, this is a “play of simultaneous innocence and experience…it unleashes us into a world of desire that cuts to the core of our adult humanity.”
Midsummer Night/ Shakespeare After reading the document about Comedy and especially Shakespearean Comedy, reflect on your own personal theories about the comic: humor is a very complex human phenomeno
Shakespeare: Comedies/Histories| ENG 2750| Professor Mitchell| Comedy| Page 6 Shakespearean Comedy: Theory and Characteristics One of the funny things about comedy is that if you have to explain WHY something is funny, it ceases to BE funny! Thus, it might seem strange that in order to approach one of Shakespeare’s comedies, in this case, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we first need to lay out some theories of comedy and then discuss the specific thematic obsessions and methods of Shakespearean (and Elizabethan) comedy itself. Let’s start with a paradox about the comic mode, or genre: (genre is the French word used to describe types of literature, so, for example, comedy and tragedy are both genres of drama (it is related to the Latin word, Genus, used in biology to describe related groups of organisms). The paradox is that comedy can be both universal and really specific. That is, some things are generally always funny to us as humans while other things are or were only funny in specific cultural contexts. Universal comedy: The broader (or cruder) the comedy is, the more universally it operates as funny. Slapstick and Farce have almost universal appeal. Someone slips on a banana peel, someone gets a pie in the face, etc. and everyone will laugh. Not surprisingly, all cultures and historical times enjoy(ed) humor related to bodily functions, others falling or running into things, people doing dumb things, and especially sexually-charged humor. I have more to say about WHY we find these kinds of things funny below. Specific and Time-Sensitive comedy: On the other hand, a lot of humor is very topical, local, and has a short expiration date, after which it is no longer funny. Satire, sarcasm, intellectual humor, imitation, etc. all depend on specific knowledge for them to be funny. If someone does an impression of a politician or a celebrity, it is only funny IF the audience knows who is being mocked. This is why, say, watching an old episode of Saturday Night Live from the late 1970s, where Chevy Chase does an imitation of President Ford is only funny if you were alive back then and remembered how that President was. Now think about the implications for reading one of Shakespeare’s comedies. There will be some things in it that are universally funny; that is, still funny after all these years. However, there will be a lot of things that are “lost in translation” so to speak; that is, specific plays on words, references, old customs, etc. that would have been very funny to an Elizabethan audience, but which we will not catch and thus not recognize as funny (now, a footnote will help explain WHY it was funny back then, but it won’t necessarily make us laugh out loud [remember how the joke isn’t funny if you have to have it explained to you]). Keep this in mind as you read and see the play… Theories of Comedy: Philosophers often try to develop systems of thought that try to explain many human phenomena. Aristotle wrote a treatise on Tragedy, for example, where he developed a detailed theory about why tragedy exists and why we respond to it, say, while watching it enacted on stage. (we will discuss Aristotelian tragedy when we get to Hamlet). Unfortunately, if Aristotle had written a similar book on comedy, it has been lost (see the excellent novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, for a story about just such a book having existed). However, many other thinkers, especially psychologists, have devoted time and thought to theorizing about how and why we find things to be funny. Freud thought that the comic was connected to our darker urges (big surprise): for him, laughter was a deeply primal emotional activity that had survival value. You laughed because the tiger got someone else, not you! This actually goes a long way toward explaining the almost universal existence of what we call the “sick joke”: within hours, sometimes, of something bad happening, sick jokes about it are already circulating (these days mostly on twitter and Facebook). Related theories (also laid out originally by Freud) point to the almost universal nature of comedy being attached to anything that humans find too personal, embarrassing, or taboo. We joke about exactly those things – sex, bodily functions, and death – that make us the most uncomfortable. This reveals comedy to be a kind of coping mechanism, if you think about it. For many theorists, comedy necessarily has an element of cruelty to it. Unfortunately, we laugh at others’ expense. Think about how often this happens. This is why we love TV shows where people trip or get hit in sensitive body parts by blunt objects. This could say a lot about where we come from as a species OR it could also tell us more about the coping mechanism of comedy: life is unfair, we often seem at the mercy of countless forces beyond our control, and ultimately death is coming for us – so, finding comedy in the absurdity of our situation helps us deal with our lack of control. As we say, sometimes all you can do is…laugh Now, these theories (and I have only scratched the surface of them) help us think about literature and other art forms in an historical context. The ancient Greeks were certainly not the first humans to develop drama as an art form (indeed, it is probably as old as human culture and language are) but they were the first to articulate it and perform in ways that have been preserved for us to look back on today. I have always found it very interesting that the Greeks (and after them the Romans) had essentially two genres of drama: comedy and tragedy. Both, if you think about it, offer a way for humans to respond to the unfairness and twists of fate that life throw at us. The tragic provides a way for us to endure the impending thought of death (more on this with Hamlet) but so does the comic! The comic mode is a kind of carpe diem approach: death is coming, but I will make the most of life while I can. This is why comedy is always associated with the life giving aspects of human existence (which we might call Vitalism): comedy is all about sex, love, marriage, youth, happiness, excess, having fun, defying social roles and responsibilities. The comic figures are always figures of disruption, temptation, and vice; however, they are also beloved figures. We love them, from the “class clown” to the famous stand-up comedian. Comedy thus comes in many different styles or kinds (we might call them sub genres): These can range from the simplest, “lowest-common-denominator” types of comedy: farce, slapstick, “dirty” jokes, etc. to the higher, more sophisticated forms like satire, intricate word play, obscure references that not everyone gets and so on. Shakespeare, as usual, takes things to a higher level entirely, by building comedies which are blends or combinations of many different styles of both “high” and “low” comedy. So A Midsummer Night’s Dream will have both sophisticated referent humor that requires the audience to understand ancient Greek mythology in order to get a joke; AND it will also have bawdy, sexually explicit jokes that would appeal to the lower sensibilities (although the sex jokes often fly right past modern readers because we don’t know the slang and double entendres being employed. Historical background: Shakespeare’s comedies developed out of a rich background of dramatic comedy that already existed: First, there were the Greek and Roman comic models that had been recently rediscovered during the Renaissance. Shakespeare would have drawn on a wide range of translated Greek comedies and he and his colleagues were especially influenced by the Roman comedian, Plautus, who wrote frantically slapstick farces in which various stock figures like the bragging soldier, the “dumb blonde,” the overprotective father, and so on would make the audience laugh. (Incidentally, many of these stock comic characters still exist today! Think about any sitcom on TV and you will find them: the wacky neighbor, the dumb blonde, the foolish father, etc. Second, there was a medieval theatrical tradition that had, unintentionally, created a comic vein. In the middle ages, there were popular plays called Morality Plays. They were, on the surface, very simple morality stories designed to teach the audience a moral or ethical lesson about being a good person, avoiding sin and temptation, etc. As usual, they backfired! Most of them featured a character called “Vice” (most Morality Plays had characters who lacked personal names [and real personalities], who were stock or type characters…for example, a character might be called “Everyman”). The role of Vice was to tempt Everyman to do something evil. Now, as all actors know, it is always more fun and more rewarding to play an evil part…so very soon, the best actors started to play the Vice characters. They then imbued that character with more personality and more zest than they were meant to have. Very soon, the Vice characters were taking over the plays! They were becoming the stars of the show, so to speak and they thus ushered in the Figure of the Comedian, the Fool, the Clown and all the variations on this character that are familiar to us today, There is a direct line of ancestry from these medieval, anonymous Vice characters to today’s celebrity comedians and comic actors! Of course, Shakespeare took the stock Vice character and expanded and developed it into a wide ranging array of more psychologically real comic characters (the greatest of whom is Falstaff, who we will meet in Henry IV, Part One). The Comic genre is more than just jokes, double entendres, puns, hysterical situations, and so on. That is, for Shakespeare, the comic was about more than simply making his audience roar with laughter. The comic was a philosophical approach, a way of viewing life and our stumbling attempts to live it. As a result, we can pinpoint a number of characteristics of Shakespearean comedy (many of which were also common to all Elizabethan comedy): The Disruption of the Social Order: this is the key starting point for most Shakespearean comedies. They begin with some aspect of the structure of society being “out of whack” (the “time is out of joint” as Hamlet says). As the play progresses the disruption increases, but eventually in the end society is restored to its “proper” order. Today, we still operate with this comic trope or method, which is often called the comedy in which there is “some sort of misunderstanding.” Since many of his comedies are romantic in nature, the disruption very often takes the form of young lovers who must face a variety of obstacles to consummate (both literally and figuratively) their passion for each other. Even Romeo and Juliet operates in this comic mode…the two lovers belong to warring families and therefore cannot be together. Often, the “correct” social roles are overturned in a comedy…the servants outmaneuver the masters, for example. Related to this is the Fluidity of Identity: Comedies featured a wide range of opportunities for characters to slip into disguise. Masks are very frequently employed. Characters conceal their real identities by changing costumes, by pretending to be of a different social class, and even by switching genders. This was always an ongoing, inside joke for Shakespeare because his female characters were always played by boy actors (given the prohibition of women on Elizabethan stages). In a disrupted social world, one’s identity is also disrupted. The comic mode allows the freedom for characters to act uncharacteristically! Lovers face Obstacles to Love: This was briefly touched on above, but it actually counts as a separate characteristic since Shakespeare employs it in almost every comedy. Some of it is just proper dramatic planning (that is, you can’t really HAVE a play or a plot at all if the characters get everything they want right away!), but it is also about ratcheting up the comic tension. The lovers are young and by definition they are mad for each other. They can’t wait, in other words, to “be alone together” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) so, of course, Shakespeare has to keep them apart! Usually an obstructive parent will be one of the obstacles (like Egeus is with Hermia and Lysander in our play). Society’s rigid rules and regulations are also an obstacle. The lovers often face internal questions about their loyalty to each other, the sincerity of their feelings, and so forth. Comedies are about Sex: At the root, if the comic is about Vitality or Vitalism (the life force), we need to be honest that their subject is sex and sexual attraction. It was (and mostly still is) a mystery to most people. Why are we attracted to some and not others? The myth of Cupid was most often invoked (notice how often Cupid figures in Midsummer) and it is important to remember that Cupid is always both a baby (lacking higher reasoning powers) and blind! The mystery and essentially comic idea of “love at first sight” was something that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were also fascinated with. They also were well aware of the more ironic aspects of all this; that is, how passion and sexual lust, especially once consummated, so quickly turned to indifference and loathing…the comedies also often explore the darker sides of human sexuality as well, often focusing on adultery, infidelity, and so on, especially in the figure of the cuckold (that is, the man who is cheated on by his wife being with another man). All of Shakespeare comedies End with a marriage, or more often several marriages: this trope has many effects. 1.) it knits up the social disruption that began the play. 2.) it ends the need for any characters to stay in disguise; it is often just before the wedding that all the masks and disguises are removed and all the characters confess and reveal their true identities. 3.) It obviously removes all of the obstacles that the young lovers faced, and 4.) it very obviously consummated the theme of sex! Of course, in the Christian context in which Shakespeare wrote, it also provided the correct societal observation of sex AND implied the duty and purpose of sex in the Christian context, which was procreation of children (“the world must be peopled!” shrugs Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing when he decided to marry Beatrice). For Shakespeare, there is always an underlying irony in the joy and bliss of the wedding(s) at the end of his comedies, for hidden within them is the implication that this is the happiest the characters will ever be. The comedies rarely (and never positively) portray already married couples…meditate on that awhile! In fact, Shakespeare’s most intimate and positive portrait of an already married couple is…Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth his bloodiest and most disturbing tragedy! Shakespeare comedies almost always evoke a separate, sometimes magical realm or place outside of the normal bounds of society, which scholars call The Green World: The Green World takes many forms in his plays. It is always a place where Nature is the operating power rather than human civilization. Very often it is a Forest, an Island, or even just a rural setting outside of the city or the town. In Midsummer it takes on a more mystical, magical form…the enchanted Forest outside of Athens which is the home and kingdom of the Fairies (more on them in the coming weeks as we investigate the play more fully). In other plays, the Green World is not necessarily a magical or supernatural place, but just a place where human society isn’t operating in full force. The Green World is important for the characters to experience, so that they can discover things that they need to know and experience; however, the Green World is almost always perilous and human characters are never meant to stay permanently within it. Thus, in Midsummer the two pairs of lovers (and Bottom) can spend a magical night in the Fairie Forest, but they must return, in the morning, to Athens, to human society and culture. Shakespeare’s comedies are often focused on the Human unconscious or subconscious and the realm of emotion rather than reason: In Midsummer, of course, this focus takes the form of the emphasis on dreams, which are the language and imagery of the subconscious mind. Love, sex, and romance of course are often assigned to these parts of our lives, as opposed to the cold calculations of reason. The comic usually celebrates the power and joy of emotional life (whereas tragedy will emphasize its dangers: madness, confusion, etc.) The focus on youth in Shakespeare’s comedies help with this too. Being young and in love is its own justification. In a world where death is ever present, if the characters can squeeze a little joy and passion out of existence, it is a very good thing! Nothing is ever simple in Shakespeare’s world and therefore his comedies always contain, as well, a Dark Thread: this is his tacit reminder that the comic never exists in a vacuum; it is never a pure mode of human experience (conversely, of course, the tragic is not pure either, so we will discover that his tragedies contain many comic elements as well). I already mentioned how the second thoughts about marriage contain this cautionary element that happiness in love may be fleeting, but Shakespeare uses other methods in his comedies to remind as well. For example, he usually leaves one character alone at the end of the play; that is, a character who doesn’t enjoy the benefits of marriage or who is left outside of the restored structure of society.

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