A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
Shakespeare the Comedian
If ever a serious writer turned to comedy, Shakespeare was that writer. If ever a serious thinker turned to comedy, Shakespeare was that thinker. If ever a gentle, compassionate spirit turned to comedy, Shakespeare was that spirit.
And in all these ways, Shakespeare defied what most of us naively think about comedy and sophisticatedly cling to as primal faith.
Most of us are sure and have ever been sure that comedy is trivial matter produced by and for trivial minds. Didn’t Aristotle say as much?
And most of us are glad for comedy to be a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, as long as the telling produces a great many laughs. Isn’t that after all what most of us expect of stand-up comedians? And if it is good enough and more for stand-up comedians, should stage comedians be any different?
And most of us like a great deal of our humor raw-boned—and isn’t comedy just a pretext for humor?. Sexual allusions are riotous. Political slams are the height of wit—unless of course they are slams against our party or our candidate, in which case they become merely signs of imbecility. Excremental humor lasts—consider the excremental in Gulliver’s Travels, still alive and well for every new generation. The comedic playhouse is no place for the tender-hearted, the compassionate, the refined or, preeminently, the gentle, especially not in Shakespeare’s England with alternate entertainment of bear-baiting just down the block from Shakespeare’s Globe.
And in this sense, there is an over-abundance of comedic theory that essentially excludes Shakespeare from the genre he dominated.
Ignoring or excusing Shakespeare’s deviance from popular comedic theory only obscures what is actually going on in Shakespeare’s comedies. Only a comedic theory that clearly and easily includes Shakespeare can provide the foundation for sound investigation of his comedic form and humor.
In previous books and extensive papers, we have presented a theory of comedy which is admirably suited to account for Shakespeare’s success in comedy in Elizabethan and Jacobean England and which easily recognizes Shakespearean origins for a vast range of comedic stage and screen experiment since Anton Chekhov.
Absolutely central to that clarifying definition is the recognition that humor has no inherent role in the definition of comedy even though comedy through the ages has relied on humor for its moments of highest pyrotechnics and for steady popular appeal. And saying the same thing, such a definition of comedy that allows Shakespeare in and essentially allows Shakespeare a preeminent place in a rapidly developing modern genre does so at a certain expense, namely the expense of leaving Old Comedy, per se, out of the definition.
Old Comedy was old when Aristotle attempted a preliminary definition of comedy in the Poetics as a brief prologue to his serious attention to tragedy. Brevity was, however, not Aristotle’s problem. His definition was a fine starting point, but a starting point for understanding Old Comedy, which had flourished in the same period as the classical tragedies which he took as his main theme.
No, the problem was that Old Comedy was geriatric in Aristotle’s own generation. Within a few years of Aristotle, people confidently talked about a different kind of comedy which even later generations talked about as Middle Comedy. Our discussion of Middle Comedy is perforce brief because we have no extent complete examples of it. But Middle Comedy moved almost without hesitation to yet something else, a something else which we have abundantly demonstrated in the works of Plautus. And by Plautus’ time, such work was confidently called New Comedy, clearly marking it as generically different from both Old and Middle Comedy.
So if a definition of comedy that includes Shakespeare does without Old Comedy, the cost is finally small because even the ancients recognized that New Comedy and Old Comedy were different things, only stupidly lumped together in a single definition.
In short, we’ve needed a definition of formal comedy, a definition of comedy as a form of drama, a form which in more recent times stretches well beyond drama into prose and epic poetry. That definition is explicated at length in Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination (Nelson Hall, 1983) and is briefly summarized in the next chapter.
It isn’t well and good to everyone to leave humor out of the definition of comedy—far from it. And if our formal theory needed to define comedy and humor separately, that certainly left the glaring problem of explaining the true relationship between these etymologically contrastive but routinely confused concepts.
That need for a better understanding lead to a 17-year empirical research effort. And that effort resulted in a conception of humor texture that gives different comedies different feels at the same time that it adds at least a subliminal element to cognitive understanding of the specific comedic import of specific comedies.
Humor Texture became a critical issue in our Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle: Humor Texture in American Film Comedy (ITCHS 2009). In this present study, we review basic humor realities in the chapter after next and heavily employ humor-texture analysis in all later discussions of Shakespeare’s comedies.
In this volume then, we bring our formal definition of comedy and our empirically demonstrated concept of humor texture together in an exploration of comedic questions within the Shakespearean canon. Shakespeare was the first love that forced the comedic definition which we have been employing since Paul’s dissertation discussion of somber comedy in 1971. It is only right that the long indirection of empirical research aided by literally thousands of associates and respondents eventually leads us back to Shakespeare and to the directions of his enormous creative efforts which turned comedy into the highly inventive super-genre which is clearly thriving and evolving in the theatrical arts and fiction today.