As I look back over my near seventy years one of my regrets is that I did not spend more time on Shakespeare. All those plays; some thirty and eight…ie those we have on record, and we have the sonnets (except they don’t attract me, which says more about me than the quality of the sonnets). All those books about the plays, all those plays about the plays, and so on. So on retiring in 2013 I resolved to cram a lot into my remaining years upon this particular world….and that would be an ideal cue for a soliloquy of my own, but that would be just self-indulgent, something I leave up to Hamlet.
Now in these recent years I have discovered the plays are quite formally divided up into
History Plays (English Kings, exclusively. In these there are good solid reasons for their behaviours, flaws etc…All the foreigners who are kings etc are naturally comic or irrationally tragic).
Tragedies (Exclusively about foreigners- see above. In those days Scots were foreigners; in fact in those days, if you lived in the South of England those in the North of England were foreigners)
Romances (Which he wrote in his latter years 1607-1613, indicating some thought he had been getting sentimental in his old age)
Comedies (I contend some jokes and situations do not travel very well down the ages. And more importantly Shakespeare had other and secret agendas ).
Now before we go any further, to be fair to THE BARD, I would argue he did not have filing cabinets with those categories engraved there upon and into which he dutifully filed notes and completed plays. True often in cases he gave the game away with such titles as ‘The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus’ or ‘THE TRAGEDY OF King Richard the third or ‘A PLEASANT Conceited Comedie CALLED, Lou(that’s a ‘v’ to us) es labors lost.’ However it was only after he died was the whole body of work categorised into quartos. This was so every Person of Letters could have tremendous fun in years later arguing over which play should really be where. This is a complex business. So much so that some learn(ed) folk who study these things have thrown up their hands in exasperation and have quite rightly called some plays ‘problems’ ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’ being a classic example, to which I would, personally, add ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.(Never mind how many ‘Hey-Nonni-Nonnies’ might be fitted into a production).
Thus the itemising of Shakespeare’s plays into one category or another is one which should be approached with caution. In particular The Comedies. For if someone who is quite new to a Shakespearean comedy were to sit down expecting an evening of jolly harmless laughs or witty incisive humour at every turn then they will be disappointed, puzzled or left looking to some work of reference to make sure they have turned up at the right play.
Now whereas when visiting say such as Titus Andronicus if the person has been properly warned by a kindly and experienced friend they will be ready for something in which there will be no humour. If they do think they have found it, they should stop at once and treat themselves to a diet of rom-coms until the unhealthy notion goes away. For this is a play where everyone (with the exception of Lavinia – Titus’s daughter and victim of everyone’s spite, malice and cruelty ) goes out of their way to be vicious and only too ready to misunderstand or suspect everyone else. Most careen about the place with all the ill-humour of a room full of folk recovering from a night of too much drinking, looking to avenge even the slightest sideways look, never mind what happens when there is worse.
There is a character titled ‘Clown’ although being given such lines as
‘Alas sir, I know not Jupiter; I never drank with him in all my life’
‘ ‘Tis he. God and Saint Stephen give you a good den.’
It is not surprising, to the relief of the audience that he is hung by the emperor Saturninus who up until then has been seen to be very evil, but at this juncture might well gain some measure of approval from the said audience.
To give THE BARD his due he was simply writing in a genre of the day The Revenge Play. A piece of entertainment which if did not produce, at least two ghastly, stalking villains (of another religion being preferred); betrayals at every scene; a double figure of deaths (the more horrid the better), several insanities and a hero who ends up being both mad and dead (in either order) then the audience would feel cheated out of the coin they had paid and demand recompense.
Thus having demonstrated the obvious opposite let us return to the matter of The Comedies
From my intense (in terms of time allocated, not feverish style of reading) study of these particular plays in comparison with The Tragedies I have to assert Shakespeare’s genius was such he was actually mixing and melding the two genre’s. This would not be unusual in playwriting (though in some cases it is inadvertent), however Shakespeare did take this several steps further, challenging perceptions and, yea, even having the wit and foresight to write one way for his times realising how this would be viewed in another era. In consequence it will be necessary to examine and compare examples of each.
Thus in subsequent posts certain traditional views will be jettisoned.
In this venture I must once more pay tribute to the following writers:
Jerome K Jerome: Author of Three Men In A Boat, for his general powers of observation on the human condition.
Richards Armour: One of great American humourists of the mid 20th Century for his invaluable works on literature:
In subsequent posts matters will be looked at in more depths of the plays, the characters the types of characters, the cultural atmosphere of the time, and so forth.