Thursday, July 31, 2008

Funny Shakespeare ?

Geek is asking hard questions again – basically, “What is funny about the Shakespeare Comedies?”

Well, having just ‘done’ his first two plays – both of which (if Wells is right) were comedies, I suppose I ought to have something to say about it.

The first thing I notice when thinking about both Two Gentlemen and The Shrew is that they are marriage linked – and so too are all of the ‘comedies’ (hesitant, just a little, about that statement).

The comedies seem to be about union, about coming together and communal success – they ‘celebrate’ successful unions which are expected to be fruitful and, if not uneventful, at least lasting.

This pairing is more than an individual event – it is public and accepted as important for the common-weal – for the good of the community.

This in itself is not belly laugh material – but it is celebratory – it is inductive of happiness.

[This fits in with what is thought to have been the origin of the word comedy – which translates to something like song of the village – as opposed to tragedy which is goat song (don’t ask).]

The happy ending is rarely presented in Shakespeare as an ending though – After Two Gentlemen we feel a rough ride coming up … but don’t doubt an eventual satisfaction; The Shrew ends with a more conclusive union for the primary protagonists – but only a fool would imagine that these two madcaps have burnt out – that is going to be a hot marriage (and goodness knows what fun the children will bring!).

You do sometimes read that the comedy title given by the Elizabethans really just meant happy ending – which is basically a way of saying it isn’t a tragedy or a history.

There might be a reason for this – earlier than Shakespeare and into his career as a writer, the professional theatre was new, and only just defining itself. The idea of genre itself was not a comfortable thing for the actors – a play was something to be adapted to fit the audience – if it was one type of scholastic audience, pump up the poetic; lower-life pub crowds would need less poetry and more prat-fall.

With Two Gentlemen we have more of the former, The Shrew, more of the later … but both plays are sometimes regarded as ‘incomplete’ – the first has been called a touring script; the second has the irritating A Shrew rumbling away in the background – could that be the pub version?

Interesting at this point is the Hamlet instruction to actors – there are two points relevant here:

1. Hamlet and the actors both expect to be able to mess around with the story – to adapt it to suit a particular audience and to fit in contemporary material and thus make the play more relevant;

2. Hamlet specifies a type of acting – he wants this ‘aristocratic’ type of acting for this play with this audience – and he specifies, cut the comedy.

Too often this speech is assumed to be Shakespeare’s thoughts on how to act – it isn’t – it, like everything else in the plays, is from the mouth of a character and indicative of that character: But it is very revealing about the adaptability of all types of plays and also the way comedy and tragedy were more techniques than genres.

(Thanks also to The Bard Blog for reminding me to have a rant about the Hamlet instructions.)

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