Comedy is a game played to throw reflections upon social life.
When we talk about "comedy" in a drama course, we are not simply referring to plays that make us laugh. Although laughter often is a product of comedy, our use of the phrase in here will usually be in reference to a dramatic form, a structure. Using Shakespeare as our touchstone, then, we might describe the standard comedy this way: there is some family tension; that tension is complicated almost to the point of catastrophe; the tension is resolved, almost always with marriage(s) and, often, with other kinds of familial reconciliation. At the conclusion of these plays, marriage is celebrated, as is the family as a whole, not just as a "personal" event, but as a social occasion. In other words, marriage, in these typically complicated plots, is often entangled in social or moral considerations affecting society as a whole. Put briefly, we might say that comedy traces the movement from distress to happiness, from "bad" to "good." Shakespeare critic Leo Salingar calls it a "celebration of high spirits and a primitive desire for life-renewal" (Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy 2).
And yet, this "definition" presupposes that each of us will react in the same way to a comedy--that we will all find the good good and the bad bad. The definition seems to point to a play that is static, unequivocal. Yet, as you will hear me say again and again over the course of the term, Renaissance drama--especially Shakespearean drama--is never unequivocal, it never gives us one single answer to any problem. So, having "defined" comedy for you, I want to now complicate things by asking a much more productive, though less definitive, question: what does comedy do for us? The answers--there are many and not one is definitive--have a great deal to do with who we are and when we are living, but there are ways of generalizing a bit that will be helpful to our own speculations on comedy. In what follows, I want to take you through three different ways that critics have answered that question.
1. The Happy Ending Approach
This is the most straightforward of the approaches I'll outline and the one with which you will probably be the most familiar and comfortable. Comfort, as you'll quickly realize, is never the aim of our questions in this course, however, and so I present the happy-ending thesis only for your information--we will spend most of our time in here questioning its assumptions. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The happy ending approach to the comedies fully embraces the notion of complete resolution. A critic taking this approach would say that the tension of any given comedy is fully, harmoniously, unequivocally resolved by the reconciliations of the concluding act. Not surprisingly, this critical approach was most popular prior to the 1950's: in the midst and aftermath of two catastrophic wars, there was perhaps an urgent need to believe in uncomplicated happy endings. In many ways, this approach is the product of powerful (and important--I don't want to trivialize the social motivation behind this approach) wish-fulfilment fantasies focusing on love: we want love to be fulfilling, families to be "functional," kids to find their own happiness. This version of comedy sees individuals fully reconciled both to themselves and to society/social institutions.
2. The Anthropological Approach
This approach to comedy--and particularly Shakespearean comedy--became popular with the work of two very important critics: C. L. Barber, and particularly his book called Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, and Northrop Frye, whose book The Anatomy of Criticism had an enormous impact on literary criticism. This approach--or approaches, as there are many variations on the anthropological approach--begins to complicate many of the pat assumptions of the happy ending thesis.
The anthropological approach begins to historicize comedy and not see it simply as a coherent vision of happiness. Critics who read the plays this way take as their most basic assumption the understanding that comedy is a socially produced mode of literature, an enactment of society's most profound myths and rituals. It is, if you wish, a macro view of comedy.
The work of Barber and Frye is highly dependent on what both critics identify as universal patterns of ritual in human life. Barber's work, for instance, talks about ritualistic patterns of festive social behavior that are played out in the form of, especially, Shakespearean comedy:
. . . I have been led into an exploration of the way the social form of Elizabethan holidays contributed to the dramatic form of festive comedy. To relate this drama to holiday has proved to be the most effective way to describe its character. And this historical interplay between social and artistic form has an interest of its own: we can see here, with more clarity of outline and detail than is usually possible, how art develops underlying configurations in the social life of a culture. (Shakespeare's Festive Comedy 4-5)
Frye invokes what he sees as a universal pattern of ritual to describe comic form: "The ritual pattern behind the catharsis of comedy is the resurrection that follows the death, the epiphany or manifestation of the risen hero" ("The Argument of Comedy" 64). Both Barber and Frye, despite their reliance on what they see as constant patterns of ritual, are willing to entertain the possibility that the ending of a comedy may be ironic, a notion considered anathema by the critics in the "happy ending" camp.
More recently, critics taking an anthropological approach to Renaissance comedy have moved away from the universalist models of, especially, Frye and paid more attention to the specific social rituals of early-modern England. An excellent example of this much more "historicized," more political, approach is represented in the article you have been asked to read by the prominent Renaissance critic Louis Montrose, "The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology." This is an approach that is of great interest to me, and you'll find me drawing on its assumptions from time to time throughout the course.
3. The "Skeptical" Approach
I will spend the most time talking about this approach, both because it is less easy to summarize than the other two and because it is the approach that will most inform the work we do in this course. This is an approach that some of you, especially those of you who have taken English 86, will recognize as being more broadly "theoretical"--post-structural, to be specific--than the two above. You do not, however, need to have English 86 in order to understand, and ask for yourselves, the kinds of questions that this more theoretical approach will ask of the comedies. In fact, I want you not to be so concerned with what we might "call" this approach and more with the general set of assumptions that informs it.
Let's start with what often is presented as a straightforward, dramatic formulation, even a "fact," involving Terror and Joy: Terror = Tragedy; Joy = Comedy. Seems simple enough. Until we realize--perhaps by reading a play, perhaps from our own experience--that terror and joy are incredibly complex experiences. One person's joy is another person's terror; involved in one person's joy or terror are an infinite number of variables, many of them social, that simply cannot be generalized or universalized. The person willing to concede these circumstances--the person willing to disturb, for instance, the "happy ending thesis" of, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream, by foregrounding the dark images in the play's epilogue, or by wondering about the tyrannical social institutions that began the play and that have certainly not disappeared--is the person who we might identify as "skeptical critic." The critic taking this approach is willing to investigate the darker "pedal-tone" of comedy, the various competing forces inside the plays and the ways in which those operate on us differently. The critic taking this approach is not looking for simple resolution to those competing forces, but concedes, instead, that the circumstances represented in the plays are far too complicated to be resolved in any pat conclusion. The skeptical critic sees the comedies as open-ended, leaving questions unanswered, or unanswerable.
In this course, my own skepticism about these plays we call comedies will take the form of certain issues that we will investigate in each of the plays. My questions will be informed by an understanding of the comedies as places where ideology is produced. By ideology I mean the set of values that characterize a society and that are imposed/enforced by its ruling class. Ideology is what the ruling class--not just the government, but those in other positions of power as well--encourages a society to believe in, it is the picture most members of a society carry around in their heads of what they are supposed to be. Built in to any ideological position is the belief that it is "natural," that it is "right," that it is the only right way. The definition of ideology that I have provided, however, reveals those positions to be constructed, not god-given, and usually constructed in the interests of the ruling class.
Taking this now to the comedies, one of the issues that will concern us in this course involves the complications and transgressions of love and how, in particular, no act of love in the plays is ever without social implication. All of the playwrights seem aware of the precariousness of the institutions--mainly marriage--by which desire is socialized and the ways in which those institutions serve the ruling class. This reading of the plays is not so skeptical that it discounts the possibility of love; it does, however, cast a very skeptical eye on the ways in which our culture authorizes and legitimates love.
One of the ways comedy in particular encourages us to ask such skeptical questions is by drawing attention to its own artifice. So often, as we will see, the plays refer to themselves as plays; we are rarely allowed to forget that what we are watching is just a bunch of guys acting. Leo Salingar explains it this way:
...a comedy can be read, as it is instinctively received by an audience, on two planes at once. It is a representation of life outside the theatre, partly by way of explicit comment, mainly by way of an imitation of speech and action, more or less literal, more or less figurative. At the same time, it is the text for a performance which is to exist, for the time being, as an end in itself. It provides for a series of gestures, physical and verbal. On this plane, a comedy may approximate to ritual or to pastime, celebration or entertainment; but it draws its meaning from its occasion, as a performance by actors before an audience, and ultimately from the general tradition of similar occasions, rather than from the particular story, the imaginary life-situation, of the characters the performers are impersonating. (Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy 7)
This distancing from real life which at the same time imitates real life has the effect of leading us to question the authenticity of that so-called real life: perhaps the point of this kind of playing around is to point out the very artificiality of our own lives. Perhaps that artificiality also leads us to question the authority that decrees the final reconciliation in a play: "perhaps that final reconciliation is also more artificial, or the imposition of some sort of artificial authoritarian power?" These are among the skeptical questions we will be asking again and again in the course.
The most skeptical of the questions we will ask in here, however, goes right to the heart of the happy ending thesis and wonders whether the plays are really happy at all. With plays like Twelfth Night we are forced to deal with "anti-romantic" characters, characters like Malvolio or Sir Andrew who suffer the most demeaning kinds of humiliation. Thinking about the ways in which these characters function in the plays leads us again to larger social questions. The Shakespeare critic Richard Levin explains it this way:
According to the festive-romantic account, the celebration at the end of the comedies commemorates the emergence of an ideal society. The alternative I am suggesting is that the plot of the comedies traces the struggles for inclusion into society and that the celebration merely establishes the identity of the winners. In this interpretation, success depends on such considerations as birth, wealth, good looks, intelligence, cunning, and on occasion the willingness to forsake ideals--to adhere to them.
This interpretation relates to certain changes that have taken place in the understanding of Renaissance England. A few decades back, literary scholars presented the Elizabethan age as a conservative one in which Tudor orthodoxies won wide acceptance.... [In fact] No secure status quo put to rest questions about economic or social or political or religious matters; balancing optimistic endorsements of Tudor life are contrary tendencies, expressed, for example, in harsh strains of satire, in philosophical scepticism, and in a tendency to contrast sharply the ideals people espouse with the reality that they live. (Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy 21)