Comedy is variable. Shakespeare understood this
Shakespeare and Comedy Part I….The Overview, Preface, Introduction, Foreword and Lamentable Observations
It is written, said, etc the Clowns, Fools in Shakespeare’s plays etc are there to provide:
(A) Risible and socially incisive commentary in the Comedies while all the characters of higher social standing run about the place talking excessively and showing as much common sense as witnessed on a Facebook political page.
(B) Emotional release for the audiences during the intensity of the Tragedies.
At least this is what we have been told by learn(ed) scholars, critics, etc. So it must be right, yeah? (Bearing in mind that everyone has to make a living somehow).
There again, whereas agony, tragedy, love, revenge, pomposity, nobility and ‘other stuff’ are universal and timeless in their depictions and subsequent appreciations, Humour is prone to all sorts of human fluctuations. Therefore if you had not been warned in advanced by learn(ed) scholars, critics, etc and you were looking at some fellow standing there ‘on the boards’ spouting away you might be wonder just what he was contributing to the play.
Let us just examining a few of these classic purveyors of chuckles, side-splitters and general guffawing:
Feste: (Twelfth Night)
Apparently a witty fool. Also one of a group of what we would these days call slackers. The others being Sir Toby Belch (well he must be comic-right?) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a name which was probably replete with hysterically funny undertones in the Tudor England era). These three dredges on society being complicit in playing a ‘trick’ upon a loyal and efficient household steward Malvolio and nearly driving the fellow to the brink of insanity, in a the style of which the fearful O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would have approved of.
Feste also sings. In fact you can’t shut the damn fellow up. To prove how witty and funny he is he comes up with jolly ditties with uplifting words such as
Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
These days he would have a cult following amongst Goth fans, be selling albums by the truck load and getting away with all sorts of burble in interviews as being profound and deep.
Everyone assumes he is incisively hilarious because he is recorded as saying Better a witty fool than a foolish wit. Which truth be known is not the least bit funny, he has only shifted words around. At any social gathering if you can find a witty fool let me know; they are normally loudmouths (with or without alcohol) and anyone who is a wit knows when to keep their mouth shut and when to deliver the punch line. The whole line is flummery, like folk who try to pretend they know anything about the dark business of war by saying Military Intelligence is an Oxymoron- they too know ‘jack’.
It is my opinion the depection of this character relied on the skill of the actors in giving him a squeaky voice, a peculiar walk, and a whole lot of eye-rolling funny faces, so the groundlings and those at the back who couldn’t hear him would have been too busy laughing at ‘business’ rather than the lines. Shakespeare meanwhile having studied the ‘Mystery Plays’ of yore would have realised some stuff does not travel down the ages and reckoned in later centuries actors and directors would be able to turn Feste into a truly tragic character and forget trying to play him for laughs.
Launcelot Gobbo (Merchant of Venice)
Well of course with a name like that he has to be funny right? He’s also the son of Old Gobbo and if that doesn’t have you rolling in the isles, he is the servant of Shylock (A Jew-it Tudor times…must be a villan. Not that anyone in Tudor England had seen anyone jewish. But that didn’t matter- Christopher Marlowe had already slandered the entire race in his own play, the Church was displaying its traditional idocy on the subject and the common folk weren’t renowned for intelligence ), so by the standards of the day he will comically trick his master (Ha-ha-ha, the audience all said). Actually he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince his father who he is and telling the world, in case they missed the point early on that his master is Jewish. He has a few stabs at humour these being:
‘It would seem then, that Dobbins tale grows backward: I am sure he had more hair of his tail….’
‘Sola sola! wo ha, ho! sola sola!‘ (this one would no doubt rely on actions and the actor’s sense of timing of the words to get a few laughs )
As there is little else one can say without delving into the whole of the play, we best leave Gobbo (The Younger) to his making noises with a terrible Italian accent, telling everyone who his employer is and talking to Gobbo (The Elder).
The Fool (King Lear)
We know he is a fool because Lear keeps on bawling out ‘where’s my fool’ when stuck for a line. A character much belov(ed) by scholars, critics etc for what he says, when he says it and possibly why he says it. Actually none of it is the least bit funny, he is being the traditional court fool who because everyone thinks he is simple minded gets away with being rude to everyone.
Regrettably for him the main villains Edmund (a bastard- you get a few folk born out of wedlock in Shakespeare- they usually have chips on their shoulders, and considering the antics of their fathers, with good cause ) Regan and Goneril (Lear’s two eldest and ungrateful daughters, even though they are well past adolescence) and Cornwall, Regan’s hubby are all folk with no appreciation of the performing arts thus The Fool gets hung; off stage so he doesn’t even get a witty parting shot.
At one important juncture in the play, having previously been very visible, he just vanishes. It may be that Shakespeare had realised this character was going nowhere in the general mayhem arising, planning that in later centuries scholars, critics, etc would be wondering just why this, The Fool vanished.
However, if I am to be taken seriously in this project I must not speak any further ill of The Fool in King Lear. It’s as ruinous to a writing career as saying something unpleasant about Tiny Tim in Dickens ‘Christmas Carol’. And anyway actors have tremendous fun with the character and can get away with more ‘business’ than would normally be allowed in a tragedy.
Puck and Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
A pair who do not deserve separate items, simply because they are irritating, maladjusted misfits who in other circumstances folk would cross a busy multi-lane road to avoid.
The former is the go’fer for the Oberon; Kings of the Faeries, Pixies (not the band) etc. Puck aside from making a boastful nuisance of himself amongst ordinary folk, keeps hitting on the lady faeries, pixies etc of the Queen Titania. He is given one simple, albeit malicious task by Oberon which he screws up yet some how gets away with it. If he says anything funny it’s probably missed because the actor is required to rattle off the lines with the speed of a machine gun. The big challenge for the actor is that he is the only one left on stage at the end of the play and has to talk to the audience unsupported. Puck remain immortal though, because his name can sound like….. (tee-hee-how-naughty)
The latter is one of the those loudmouths. His first alleged comedy turn is by trying to do all the parts for the play he and the other rude mechanicals are putting on, we can only admire the patience of Peter Quince who has to deal with this braggart. Later on he stomps around a forest bawling out some incomprehensible song, then tries to make jokes about the rustic names of the faeries, pixies etc who soon are wishing Puck would turn up and instead of the earth put a girdle around this guy’s big mouth. Of course he has earthily humorous name. (and they put an Ass’s head on him, and we all know Ass sounds like… or in the USA somebody can be an …hole….hoh-hoh-chortle-gasp)
Actually nothing about this play is funny. It is however a fine example of Shakespeare’s forward thinking genius as I shall explain in a later post.
Falstaff (Henry IV & Merry Wives of Windsor)
Everyone has heard of Falstaff. Everyone loves the jolly corpulent old rogue.
Or so we are told.
This sponging, overweight, womanising, lying, cheating, front-line dodging (remind you of anyone?) phoney trundles through far too much of Henry IV (both parts) convincing common folk he is the real deal and being pals and drinking buddy with ‘Hal’ (Prince of Wales, son of Henry IV etc) Just as he has strained his ill-deserved luck to breaking point he finds out ‘Hal’ ie Prince of Wales is now Henry the V and up the old sot gets gleeful that being part of Henry V’s entourage he can now use the whole kingdom as his play ground.
Happily for those of us with any sense of moral compass ‘Hal’, Prince of Wales, etc now Henry V has been shrewdly growing up all through the two plays and being is king is not putting up with any spongers on his crew. Thus Falstaff gets his comeuppance in one of Shakespeare’s best speeches. This delivered coldly by Henry V:
‘I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester,’.…and there’s lot more of that put down in the speech….
And down he goes!….Pow! A joy to behold. I would suggest Shakespeare had seen and suffered from a few of these operators on his way up and wanted to put one in just for those lines.
Regrettably for The Bard, Falstaff was so popular, Queen Elizabeth (the I) sort of let a heavy hint drop she would like another play with the old drunk in and thus was born the extremely tedious ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ a piece which truly tests the skills of actors to make funny, or even watchable.
Having dealt with the well-known ones it is worthwhile to consider some lesser known folk who are seen as comic, or may even be comic.
Citizen ( a cobbler) (Julius Caeser)
This guy is actually quite funny and leads two stiff necked senators of Rome a merry dance with a play on words of his trade ie a mender of men’s soles/souls etc. The funny part is the two stuffed togas just don’t get it and go off in a huff vandalising scarfs draped on statues. Pity he’s not around to heckle Brutus or Mark Anthony when they are politicising over Caeser’s corpse.
King Duncan has been horribly slain by MacBeth and two loyal guards are going to be framed. So what do we need at this point in a play from involving more murders and infanticide? Why of course we need a drunken comic fellow who takes an age to get to a castle door. Apparently it stands to reason and most certainly does not break up the narrative, no indeed it does not, every critic, scholar and commentator worth their monthly salary will tell you so. This deadbeat takes so long about it and is about as witty as Feste it could be argued the next character on scene provides tragic relief. It is more likely Shakespeare was being kind to an old actor currently down on his luck who had been helpful to a younger Shakespeare. Hence the old showbiz saying ‘Be nice on the way up. You never know who you’ll meet on the way down’
Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing)
Actually he is the best thing in this otherwise questionable and ‘problem’ play. How can you fail with a small-town, stuffed up and stupid law officer? I mean that sort of character is a gem. He’d raise a laugh in Titus Andronicus. But more about him in the post dealing with this very mis-understood play of Shakespeare’s – it’s right up there with ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream’
Yep! Believe it or not, there is one. Several productions wisely leave him out. He turns up as a servant when Othello and Desdemona are trying to get some shut-eye and a band of strolling players starts up an impromptu concert right underneath their bedroom window. So down goes the guy, finds out they are playing wind instruments….oh…yeah…wawwwait fot it…Fart jokes!
If he had stayed around any longer no doubt main villain Iago would have justifiably stabbed him to death then as part of his plans implied Othello had killed the man in a fit of Moorish rage over burnt toast, or lumpy gravy.
Humour changes. Shakespeare’s genius was such he perceived this and thus wrote in ways which enabled many roles to be reversed. This will be examined in later posts.