January 2014:A Short Guide to Shakespearean Comedy

As the late autumn of November turns into the deep winter of December and the days shorten seemingly unceasingly I find I need something to brighten the long evenings. It is to television that I turn and it is fortunate for the continued existence of my brain cells that amongst the unrealistic dramas (Atlantis and Waterloo Road, for example) and comedy repeats (I think I’ve seen every episode of Not Going Out at least three times) the autumn brings a new series of University Challenge. In the Handscombe household we play against the teams, racing to shout out answers before the buzzers sound and we find that the questions range from the impossibly obscure (there are a lot of nineteenth century philosophers of whom I’ve never heard) to the trivial (I’m sure some of the Maths questions are on the GCSE syllabus). The most annoying questions are those that I should know, but don’t. One such set of questions was related to the plays of Shakespeare and I realised how little I knew. I therefore resolved to remedy this deficiency. The entire Shakespearean canon being rather long, I have focused on some of the earliest comedies. What are they about? Who is in them? Where are they set? And are any of them actually funny?

The first comedy that Shakespeare wrote was “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (some time between 1589 and 1592, towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign).  The two gentlemen are called Proteus (broadly speaking a nasty piece of work – at one point he threatens to rape one of the heroines) and his friend, Valentine (the “good guy” although he rather spoils things by offering his girlfriend to Proteus minutes after rescuing her). It is set as a journey from Verona (in northern Italy) to Milan (160km to the west – by motorway you could do it in two hours nowadays). There are, in addition to the two gentlemen, two women: Silvia and Julia. Silvia ends up with Valentine and Julia with Proteus but there is a lot of confusion on the way. The comedy arises from two sources: a couple of clownish servants (one of whom has a dog – the bit with the dog is probably the best part of the play) and a bit of cross-dressing (Julia disguises herself as a man called Sebastian and works, undetected, as Proteus’ page boy for a while). The consensus seems to be that this isn’t a very good play.

Next on the list is “The Taming of the Shrew”. The Two Gentlemen may have strayed occasionally into misogyny but the Shrew is un-politically correct from start to finish. The play is set in Padua (Northern Italy again, 90km east of Verona) and the plot, again, revolves around two romances. Lucentio loves the beautiful Bianca (so do a number of other male characters, but her father has sworn that she will not marry before her elder sister Katherine). Petruchio has decided that he wants to get married and allows himself to be talked into marrying Katherine so that Bianca will become available. Katherine is the “shrew” of the title: the expectation is that women will be obedient to their fathers and then to their husbands and her refusal to be submissive gains her this reputation. Petruchio sets out to tame her by mentally abusing her and withholding food and clothing until she does exactly as he asks (even when this involves agreeing with him that the sun is the moon). There isn’t even a bit with a dog.

Shakespeare’s shortest comedy is “The Comedy of Errors” which is built around the premise of two pairs of identical twins with the same names in the same city. The city is Ephesus (near what is now Selҫuk in Turkey, 2500km and 25 hours by road from Verona – you can do it quicker by air with changes in Istanbul and Rome) and the twins are called Antipholus (one from Ephesus and one from Syracuse) and their servants Dromio. The twins were separated in a shipwreck early in their lives and the action takes place many years later when Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse come to do business in Ephesus. The comedy is quite unsubtle: mistaken identity, slapstick and puns. Interestingly this play (unlike most of Shakespeare’s) obeys something called the “classical unities” which were laid down by Aristotle who asserted that plays should have unity of action (no confusing subplots), unity of place (no changes of scene) and unity of time (the piece should cover no more than 24 hours of time). The Comedy of Errors has a simple plot and is set on a single day in Ephesus. A more modern example of a piece that obeys these unities is the film “Die Hard”, a fact that gives rise to the delightful sentence “Like the Bruce Willis masterpiece ‘Die Hard’, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors obeys Aristotle’s classical unities.”

Love’s Labour Lost was written in 1595 or 1596 and is set in the Kingdom of Navarre (in Spain, about 1500km from Verona: the quickest route takes you on the A10 along the south coast of France past Monaco, Nice and Cannes). The plot revolves around a vow made by the King of Navarre and three of his companions to devote three years to study and fasting, shunning the company of women. Unfortunately they all fall in love with women from the visiting court of Aquitaine. The traditional description of a Shakespearean comedy is a play at the end of which everyone gets married but this is not the case here: at the end the King of Aquitaine dies and the women leave to pay their respects leaving their suitors unsatisfied. This ending has combined with the title “Love’s Labour’s Won” appearing on contemporary lists of Shakespeare’s comedies to suggest that he wrote a sequel to this play which has since been lost. The humour is based on sophisticated wordplay (you are invited to make sense of the character Costard’s pronouncement “O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon”) and political comment which can be difficult to follow unless you happen to be a scholar of late sixteenth century Spanish politics.

The final play on my list, also written around 1595 is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is acknowledged to be one of his finest comedies, and one that raises questions of the nature of love, human beauty and perception. The plot concerns two pairs of lovers: Hermia and Lysander; and Helena and Demetrius. At the beginning both young men are in love with Hermia but later both fall for Helena before reaching the final settlement (the women, meanwhile, remain faithful to their original desires). The setting is ancient Athens (1650km, a ferry ride and about 2000 years from the Verona of the two gentlemen) and the action takes place in a forest where, in addition to the four lovers we find the fairy court of Oberon and Titania. Humour (and, done well, this play is actually very funny) is provided by the rude mechanicals (a group of labourers who are practising a play to put on at the wedding of King Theseus and Queen Hippolyta) and by Puck, a mischievous fairy and Oberon’s court jester. The key plot device is a magical love potion that, when dripped on the eyelids of a sleeping person causes them to fall madly in love with the next person they see. This creates havoc amongst the lovers and even causes Titania to fall in love with one of the mechanicals (Bottom, who, at the time, is enchanted to have the head of a donkey). The play contains some memorable lines including “The course of true love never did run smooth” (Lysander, talking to Hermia); “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (Puck, talking about the confused lovers); and “My Oberon, what visions have I seen! Methough I was enamoured of an ass.” (Titania).

So, in summary, five plays in five lines:

  1. Two Gentlemen of Verona. Two couples, a bit with a dog and they all get married at the end.
  2. The Taming of the Shrew. Two couples, domestic abuse and wives submit to their husbands.
  3. The Comedy of Errors. Two pairs of twins, Aristotelian unity and lots of slapstick.
  4. Love’s Labour’s Lost. The King rejects women, politics of the 1500s and nobody gets married.
  5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lovers, fairies, mechanicals, and they all get married at the end.