When people use their deep, reverential voice to identify Shakespeare as the greatest writer of all time, they are usually thinking of his tragedies – perhaps of their summer’s experience with a wrenching “King Lear,” or maybe just their ninth grade forced march through “Romeo and Juliet.”
Shakespeare did have a deep understanding of those experiences we call tragic.
And this summer I did in fact see an excellent “King Lear,” a play that would make any father or child peer open-eyed at the ceiling in the dark of night wondering how such cruelty and stupidity can live, while knowing that it does.
But Shakespeare is also a superb writer of comedy, in every sense of that word. His verbal jokes are a total hoot, the situations he invents are throat-achingly funny, and his visions of comic resolution bring tears even to tough old codgers like me.
Shakespeare often introduces comedy into seemingly unlikely places: into conversations around funerals and into scenes of both death and of love-making.
People often identify these moments as “comic relief,” probably the literary critical term most commonly used by people who might not even know that they’re doing literary criticism when they use it (One hears terms like “anagnoresis” less often).
I, however, don’t like the term “comic relief,” as I’ve said many a time before – my Shakespeare students might over the years have appreciated some comic relief from my seriously repetitive insistence that the term misrepresents the role of the comic.
First of all, a reminder that you have a rare chance to see Shakespeare’s hilariously comic “Much Ado About Nothing” this week and next. It’s a very approachable play, and any college student – whether they’ve ever seen or studied it before – will be swept along by the play’s suspenseful story, engaging dialogue and memorable characters. The “merry war” between the central characters Beatrice and Benedick is lover’s quarrelling at the most sharp, even in this brisk seventy-five minute version:
Benedick: “What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?”
Beatrice: “Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick?”
As you see the play, think also about the “comic relief” offered by the buffoonish Dogberry, the leader of a seemingly inept crew of law enforcement officers. Dogberry is first of all funny because he most preposterously misuses words: “O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”
As that malapropism might suggest, Dogberry is driven by his pomposity. He sputters so much about being called an ass by one of their prisoners that he ends up calling himself an ass, and in the process proves himself to be one: “Oh that he were here to write me down an ass!”
But one of Dogberry’s funniest moments is when he explains his theory of law-enforcement to his officers. His basic message is that they should ignore crimes. When he is asked how his men should react if they tell a man to stop and he refuses, Dogberry answers, “Why then take no note of him, but let him go, and presently call the rest of the watch together, and thank God you are rid of a knave.”
Given that the play is at this point getting serious, with a bridegroom using his wedding ceremony as an opportunity to accuse his fiance of promiscuity, Dogberry’s outrageous advice might seem like the essence of comic diversion. And yet as the plot develops, we realize two things:
The play’s most respectable, honorable characters would have been wiser to have followed Dogberry’s theory of punishment than their own rigid, self-righteous code of immediate punishment.
Dogberry’s seemingly inept officers are actually the ones who uncover the play’s central crime.
The Dogberry material might therefore be better called “comic intensification” than “comic relief.” Rather than giving us a temporary respite from the play’s serious action, our laughter actually helps us to more fully understand the play’s central vision.
“Much Ado About Nothing” deals with love and war, with male bonding and heterosexual love, with honor, sexual purity and the nature of marriage. It is also very funny. And its humor is what actually make us understand those serious issues to their fullest.