A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
As You Like It,
As Modern Criticism Likes It
If these are generally preferred lines for criticism in general, they are almost de rigeur as soon as the subject in any way touches on comedy or on humor in particular. Everyone, after all is entitled to his or her own sense of humor and his or her reason for thinking something funny. Comedy is one of those empty ideas, equally at home in sit coms on television, stand-up comedians doing comedy routines, comedy clubs, and just about anything else that can be somewhat identified with laughter. Having any definite thesis about either comedy or humor seems oxymoronic. And the holder of any such thesis is simply a killjoy.
Recognizing all these certainties behind modern critical style, we nevertheless intend in this volume to write essays on Shakespeare’s comedies, all of which essays hereafter have theses. The major thesis for all of them is that comedy, formal comedy if you will, is not an empty concept; that Shakespeare had an intuitively fine sense of the comedic (i.e., pertaining to comedy); and that it deepens our understanding of his artistic genius to approach his comedic works from a clear comedic understanding.
Within that major thesis, we also argue that humor is typically the pyrotechnic, spectacular element in comedic writing. It is not comedic writing per se, but it is the great power tool for giving comedies their high attractiveness in general and a good deal of their particular “feel,” “tone,” or “texture” in particular. While inevitably humor resides ultimately in the beholder, starting from objective critical and empirical observation, much can be said about the use of humor in individual comedies to achieve important effects beyond simply eliciting a laughter response.
It is often fashionable in our times to write literary or practical criticism without a thesis.
Having a thesis seems so rigid, so limited, and so limiting to the reader. The critic with a thesis actually has the audacity to suggest that some reading is better than others, more worthy of consideration, more compelling to an intelligent audience. Far more sophisticated, far more open-minded to write without a thesis, to suggest, but not to say, to indicate but not to pursue.
We begin our discussion then with As You Like It.
It is generally bad modern form to think very deeply about As You Like It as a comedy. Much better to write without a thesis, to explore psychological complexities, nuanced stances of the author on favorite issues dear to the Elizabethan heart, and the like with frequent reference to fantasy, satire, and wit and without serious attention to the idea that As You Like It might actually turn out to be a comedy after all, or perhaps even most of all.
Essays without theses normally end up feeling that transitions are something of an embarrassment, something to teach in English 101 and to be assiduously avoided at the professional level. The lesser route of trying to have a thesis really forces one to look for something like a step-by-step presentation, boringly simplistic in itself and made worse by all those heavy transitioning elements which sometimes stretch for whole sentences.
If our major thesis is that we need to approach Shakespeare's comedies with a clear understanding of formal comedy, we’d probably do well to define formal comedy, much as definitions are also not very chic in modern literary style.
We probably would. But rather, let us doff our hats to modern critical style. Let us digress from the banality of starting with any definition at all, and let us move right into the improprieties involved in considering the comedic nature of As You Like It.
Approaching our topic from this angle allows us to organize a great deal almost without meaning to. This happy result comes from the simple fact that considering As You Like It as a comedy is almost inevitably to point out the poor—even incredibly poor—quality of Shakespeare’s work.
For instance, if we assume for the moment that comedy is a dramatic genre in which everything works out well in the end with the “happy ever after” ending of Cinderella children’s stories, then, of course, As You Like It is a comedy. But it is also obviously a comedy much inferior to Cinderella and most fairy tales.
In Cinderella, we have a clear sense that Cinderella has motivation for going to the ball, that her sisters have motivation for keeping her from it, that the prince has motivation for falling in love with Cinderella, and that Cinderella has motivation for accepting him after the fitting of the glass slipper.
Even the mice have reason to be on Cinderella’s side, and Cinderella’s fairy godmother at least has family obligations to uphold.
In As You Like It, the motivation of almost everything is rather arbitrary. Oliver’s hatred for his brother and mean keeping of him, for example, has to be taken on faith to have real motivation. His decision to essentially assassinate his brother is maniacal rather than motivated. Similarly, Duke Fredrick’s exiling Rosalind lacks any believable motivation at the time of the decision.
Duke Senior’s ready acceptance of exile in the Forest of Arden is a given of the play, not a reasonable motivation. And the decision of so many young noblemen to join a duke in exile who has nothing but good to say about that exile seems utterly gratuitous. Nobles go into exile in order to come back to power, not to write nature poetry.
Rosalind becomes Ganymede in order to get away to the forest. Once in the forest, she forgets why she became Ganymede and continues therein. Celia and Oliver fall in love for no reason in the world, which is par for the course since Rosalind and Orlando have already done so along with Touchstone and Audrey. Just as arbitrarily, Phoebe has scorned William and fallen for Ganymede.
All of which complications happily allow Rosalind to make promises that no one needs to respect and to fulfill those promises in sudden quadruple marriages. Duke Fredrick sets out to destroy his brother, for which motivation seems minimal to non-existent, only to be converted (without dramatic preparation or psychological motivation) by a hermit monk whose existence itself seems entirely unmotivated but is nevertheless announced by Orlando’s other brother, whose existence in the forest is equally or more unmotivated and unprepared.
And, of course, on Frederick’s conversion, Duke Senior—who so much appreciated being in exile—necessarily resumes his rightful role of duke, again entirely a matter of motivation manqué.
Were anyone to seriously propose considering the comedy of As You Like It in this vein, the only conclusion possible would be that Shakespeare wrote a comedy beneath the contempt of second graders.
So let us begin again. Comedy is not happy-ever-after-ism. Comedy, as in stand-up comedy, as in sit-com comedy, is all about the laughs. The more laughs per minute, the better the comedy.
Under this definition, As You Like It is certainly a comedy. Shakespeare’s creation of Touchstone and Jacques guarantees it a place in comic achievement. There’s real genius here.
Unfortunately, the genius is obscured by most of the play. Celia and Rosalind are great wits, but it is an entirely atypical modern audience that doesn’t feel worn out with their words, even with or especially with LeBeau’s included. It is hard to think that an Elizabethan audience would not have been somewhat wearied.
And if these early witticisms cause strain, the joke of a boy playing a girl (Rosalind) playing a boy (Ganymede) playing a girl (Rosalind) is typically Shakespearean in seeing how far it can carry a joke. But ultimately it goes on much too long for real modern taste and probably would be trying even to Elizabethans. The wit with which Rosalind as Ganymede instructs Orlando is much too contrived for modern tastes and questionable as viable in itself for Elizabethan taste.
And if all this can be explained away, we have not started to explain the many serious digressions from the humorous in As You Like It—the serious nature of Orlando’s deprivations by his brother, the serious maniacal hatreds of Duke Frederick, the cold-blooded killer instinct of Charles, the philosophical proclivities of Duke Senior, and even the maundering philsophicality or philosophical maundering of Jacques—written for an audience which appreciated and luxuriated in philosophical melancholy.
Perhaps there is some theory of “serious relief” here to match comic relief in Hamlet and Macbeth. If so, the argument is very under-represented in Shakespearean criticism generally and would be very difficult to make with any credibility for As You Like It in particular.
We may then wish to start over with a new idea of comedy as basically festivity on stage or at least wenching or marriages, drinking and feasting at the culminating moment of the play, a definition of comedy, in short forged as some compromise between Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” in Il trovatore and “Brindisi” in La traviata.
Of our three attempts, Shakespeare probably fairs best here. Touchstone and Audrey have been providing a lusty impetus for an act or two before the final quadruple marriage. The Duke has been feasting with his nobles in the forest more or less throughout, admittedly with philosophical moments of pity for the deer they are eating—rather unfortunate for the comedic effect and thus perhaps a blunder of seriousness on Shakespeare’s part. Ganymede and Orlando have been talking love for several acts, and Orlando has populated the forest with tree poems on the same subject. Even Italian opera is hard pressed to culminate in more than four marriages, however improbable.
The problem with such a comedic interpretation is not so much that Shakespeare has failed in it as that, granting him to succeed in it admirably, what would be worth commenting on in criticism? Wine, women, and song—and food—finally don’t add up to much more than just that: wine women, song, and food. Given all the spectacular elements of opera, the thinness of such material may be inconsequential. On Shakespeare’s minimal stage at the Globe, it would be difficult to imagine the thinness of material not dominating. If comedy and comedic form are no more than such festivities of plot, serious criticism for the most part will be entirely justified in skipping comedic analysis entirely.
There are additionally some definitions of comedy by which Shakespeare would be more defensible. Notable among these are definitions that equate comedy with a certain form of humor. In this line, we might equate comedy with satiric laughs. Following Marjorie Garber’s suggestion that “hour” and “whore” were pronounced similarly in Elizabethan English, (448) we might then commend the comedy inherent in Touchstone’s
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour to hour we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale. (2, 7. 26-28).
The problem is that having commended the satire, wit, comedy or whatever we want to call this, there is little to connect the satiric (or whatever) thrust with the play at any higher level worthy of critical attention.
If we are at all to follow this line of defense, much better to equate comedy with word play. Shakespeare’s theatre and Shakespeare himself were addicted to word play. Intense word play is easy to find beginning with our introduction to Rosalind and Celia in Act I, scene 2, and Rosalind is still strongly characterized by word play in the Epilogue. There is, of course, very little in the way of any consistent critical tradition to equate comedy either with a single kind of humor or with word play in particular, except as examples of comedy-as-laugh-provoking theories in general. And once we have returned to that main line, we are again face to face with the problem that Shakespeare uses so much serious relief amidst his obvious attachment to word play.
And all of this failing to make anything substantial of the comedy of As You Like It, we may conclude with yet one more comedic theory, that comedy is pure froth, that it is much ado about nothing or even a tale told by an idiot and signifying nothing. This is a favorite of those Shakespeare scholars who much prefer the “meaty” tragedies and even the history plays. For them, the comedies are simply Shakespeare warm-ups for the greater works.
If As You Like It is a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, or much ado about nothing, then the less said by us or by anyone else the better. Ditto, if the comedies are simply mental gymnastics preparing Shakespeare for his real work. It is admittedly an oddity that professional repertoire Shakespeare companies in America today—the Great River Shakespeare Festival (www.GRSF.org) in Winona, Minnesota, for example—are likely to produce something like three of the warm-up comedies for every one of the meaty tragedies. If we are to save As You Like It for serious applause starting from a “frothy” theory of comedy, we may as well skip comedic analysis entirely and get immediately to the meaty parts, what we have referred to as possible serious relief.
Yet another line of thought, proceeding from the idea that comedy is pure froth is that comedy is simply rollicking action. As You Like It would come off particularly badly as this kind of comedy, a play that is often accused of excessive wordiness, that goes easily with Ben Jonson’s dictum that drama ought to be pure thought, and a play which, as already alluded to, cares so little about action that almost all of the action that exists in the play is surprising in its lack of motivation or even preparation.
So reliance on any of these various approaches to comedy leaves us either to feel that Shakespeare was a first-class tyro of bad comedic construction or perhaps a first-class purveyor of word play or a second-class purveyor of satire and froth, a first-class bore of wordy substitution for rollicking action, or else yet another wine, women, and song spectacularist.
All of these conclusions are easily compatible with a basic attitude that comedy, after all, is the genre for lesser, even trivial minds. This meta-theory is constantly alluded to in suggestions that the comedic in Shakespeare is a sop to the “peanut gallery,” the groundling apprentices who could stand at the foot of the Globe stage for an admission price of a penny (about what they could make in a day). What none of these theories of comedy is compatible with is any serious respect for comedy as a dramatic genre, any serious attempt to see serious artistic intent and possible merit in the use of comedic form.
We can castigate Shakespeare for how much time he wasted writing trivial comedy and playing to the peanut gallery. And if we are honest in that approach, Shakespeare doesn’t come off very well, or else he comes off as a master of combining elements that are “throw away” with other, basically incompatible elements that are worth critical attention. So criticism is likely to throw away the comedy and concentrate on the symbolic, the psychological, or any other elements that do not share comedy’s inherent triviality.
Too bad then that Shakespeare wasted so much of his greatness on the ignobly trivial. Too bad then that modern paying audiences and modern repertoire theatres wishing to stay in business pander so consistently to this ignoble triviality at the expense of Shakespeare’s undisputed intellectual and poetic preeminence in the tragedies.
There is, however, another possibility. We can begin from assumptions that Shakespeare saw something important in comedy worthy of his best efforts as a dramatic and poetic genius; that comedy, formal comedy, is one of the great genres of drama, and perennially more popular as a dramatic form than its sister genre, tragedy; that its popularity is not so much based in its ability to make us laugh as in its ability, like tragedy, to handle basic life questions.
These are, in fact, the assumptions that have always guided us in our study of comedy and later the study of humor within comedy. And they will be the assumptions we will be at pains to maintain throughout the essays that follow. Comedy is a serious genre and an immensely successful genre from ancient times to the present. Believing that some quick, unthoughtful, and unstudied definition of comedy is all we need in understanding Shakespeare’s comedic art will simply make a hash of criticism and a hash of Shakespeare’s marvelous comedic achievements.
Only with a thoughtful definition of comedy can we start to understand the inter-relationship between comedic practice and its use of humor. And only then can we appreciate Shakespeare as both the master humorist and the profound comedian that he in fact was.
What are the marks of a thoughtful theory of comedy worth pursuing in Shakespeare? First, a thoughtful theory will cover a large percentage of all the plays that have been called comedy since Aristotle’s initial critical exploration.
Second, like any good definition, it will be contrastive, so that when it has to exclude from comedy some of the things that have been called comedy, it has an intelligent and useful ability to make such distinctions, just as the definition of “dog” should be of the sort that can get rid of an occasional stray cat in an intelligent way.
Third, a good theory will be fruitful. It will be useful in saying perceptively good things about many comedies—and it won’t be very easy to use in saying stupid or perverse things about many comedies (perverse things like “Shakespeare’s comedies are merely warm-ups for his tragedies”). All the better if the theory can say intelligent and revealing things about the “stray-cat” non-comedies that have been otherwise confused with comedy.
Fourth, a thoughtful definition or theory of comedy will be promising; that is, it will hold out promise to new generations of scholars to pursue interesting thoughts to sound conclusions, sound conclusions that will illuminate Shakespeare’s art.
And fifth, it will not run into itself; it will not be self-contradictory or useful to prove opposite ideas in the same breath. It will not be a theory, for example, that both celebrates Shakespeare’s comedic genius at the same time that it defines comedy as a tale told by an idiot or much ado about nothing.
It is well to mention a sixth criterion of a good theory, one that can never be established at the moment the definition or theory is proposed. A good theory or a good definition will stand the test of time. As time goes on, there will be an ever greater corpus that is profitably analyzed with that definition or with that theory. And perhaps equally importantly, the direction of comedic practice after the statement of such a definition or theory will not successfully work to undermine the theory, at least not until the theory has proven its substantial value even if later undercut.
We believe we have a theory of comedy and definition of comedy that meet the first five of these criteria. For the last four decades, we have been writing to show the fruitfulness of such definitions in the consideration of comedies representing something like 31 centuries and 15 national cultures. Recently, in Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle, we believe we have presented a fruitful understanding of humor’s place within comedic art, and we hope in this volume to do the same, not now for American film comedy but for Shakespearean comedy.
Making such claims is not, however, tantamount to claiming that we have the answer for comedy or for all comedy and humor. There can be multiple definitions of comedy that fulfill the first five of the criteria we have mentioned for thoughtful theory.
In fact, we are aware of critical work that we would commend precisely as alternate to our own approaches to comedic questions. One of these is the work of V. Ulea, A Concept of Dramatic Genre and the Comedy of a New Type. Chess, Literature, and Film. Ulea starts by establishing three phases of three contrastive genres which might be called tragedy, drame, and comedy. As defined and as discussed by Ulea, all of these phases and genres are “super” phases and genres; that is, they are not confined to drama but are in fact extensively illustrated in pre-modern novels. Ulea’s theory has already produced fruitful insight into a wide variety of works which she has herself analyzed, and her theory will not be easily used to contradict itself or to come to ridiculous conclusions. While it is a quite recent theory, each year enlarges the corpus of literature which can be profitably addressed from her theoretical platform.
It is also useful to consider here, however briefly, the classic study of Albert Cook, The Dark Voyage and the Golden Mean. As his title implies, Cook’s basic comedic theory is contrastive: comedy is the anti-tragedic genre. As the title also suggests, Cook is masterful in his approach to poetic and symbolic differences characteristic of most tragedy and most comedy.
If Cook’s book has a fundamental flaw, it is likely to be that it is undercut by comedic experimentation, in the 20th century often covered under the rubric “dark comedy” or as Paul wrote about it, “sombre comedy” in 1971 in Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood, and later, Comedy in a New Mood. Comedic practice in the 20th century was often most en avant in writing comedy with contrastive overtones which Cook would associate with tragedy, Waiting for Godot, Iceman Cometh, and Uncle Vanya all being prominent exemplars.
Moreover, in comedy theory, the work of modern dark comedians was presaged by medieval literary criticism which pondered whether the Gospel narrative was best described as the greatest tragedy ever written, the greatest comedy ever rehearsed, or some mediated tragic-comedy in need of formal definition. Such quibbles aside, Cook’s book fully deserves its classic status as fine, insightful criticism, and that criticism certainly amounts to a different theory of comedy from our own.
The 20th century also produced the very unusual work of a whole school of critics whose work taken together amounts to a theory of comedy. Paul alluded to this theory as early as 1971 (140ff) as the work of “the Christian Critics.” As a school, critics like Christopher Fry, Nelvin Vos, and Nathan Scott, Jr. asserted that comedy is essentially a theological-philosophical stance, an ultimate understanding of at least human life and maybe of the entire created universe as a stupendous gift of a loving Creator.
As Christopher Fry put it, comedy was the faith that on the last page, everything would turn out for the best (15). Like Cook’s definition, the Christian-critic definition suggests some fundamental duality between comedy and tragedy, as, of course, did Aristotle’s discussion in the Poetics 23 centuries ago. The Christian Critic definition has already been fruitful and promising. There is little reason to think that it will not have future successes.
The Christian Critic position is hardly Pollyannaish. It is, instead, at its strongest when most centrally grappling with the presence of suffering, failure, sin, and death within a comedic vision. As such, the Christian Critic definition is extraordinarily useful in exploring the dark comedic experimental initiatives of the 20th century and probably of the 21st as well. And the Christian Critical stance is very much at home in the darkened landscape of so much of the Shakespeare comedic canon.
Closely related to the Christian Critic definition of comedy is Harold H. Watts and his Regain theory of comedy. Our own work, notably Robin’s, is repeatedly indebted to Watts’ short but seminal essay, "The Sense of Regain: A Theory of Comedy." His position is easily mediated with the insights of Cook’s tragic-antithesis theory and with Northrop Frye’s “Mythos of Spring.”
And as we have repeatedly emphasized over the last forty years, the reference to Northrop Frye certainly reminds us of his very serious treatment of comedy in Anatomy of Criticism. About the same time, Suzanne Langer’s Feeling and Form should have revolutionized the study of comedy, emphasizing as it does the seriousness of comedy and particularly the artistic, aesthetic seriousness of comedy in using form to create feeling.
Were Watts, Langer, and Frye to stand alone as proponents of a serious criticism of comedy, the 20th century would stand as the pivotal moment in literary criticism when critics got off their silly high horses and finally decided to give comedy a small share of her serious due.
All of these thoughtful theories have wonderful insights to offer Shakespearean comedy. All share the same fundamental problem: they are thoughtful; they take time to digest, to understand, and to appreciate; and, therefore, they typically aren’t used as starting points for the criticism of Shakespeare comedies. They are all caught between a Scylla of those who prefer to think that there are simplistic answers to comedy that every five-year-old should know and which essentially trivialize all attention to comedy and a Charybdis of those who feel that if a theory is at all complicated or thoughtful, it can’t have any value since comedy is all froth and airy nonsense anyway.
Our own definition of comedy has been around for four decades now. It began with Paul’s attempt to define dark or somber comedy, and thus necessarily started with an attempt to define comedy in general. Our definition, like the definitions mentioned above cannot hope to cover absolutely everything that anyone has called comedy. Notably, it doesn’t have a real place for Greek Old Comedy. Evidently the Greeks saw the point of such a distinction themselves by recognizing Middle and New Comedy as distinct.
In more recent periods, our definition necessarily excludes works which are only interested in the generation of laughter, essentially stand-up comedy made into dramatic skit, possibly with some happy ending that is supposed to qualify as comedy. These works designed simply for the evocation of laughter are sometimes known as “farce,” a word which has other more complex and better technical fish to fry. Thus, to cover that part of the comic spectrum interested only in generating laughter, we have invented a new lexical item —“comickedy.” A good deal of comickedy is high-talent art and is deserving of its own study. Most of what we may say hereafter about humor texture in comedy has some direct applicability in comickedy as well.
Like the other definitions just cited, our definition treats comedy seriously and assumes that great artists with great messages will often use the comedic form. Our definition is originally a dramatic definition. But like the Ulean definition, and really like most of the formal definitions we have mentioned or even all of them, that originally dramatic definition easily becomes a “super-generic” definition at home in the novel as much as on the stage and, in fact, quite at ease in the short story or even in the cinematic cartoon.
Well, it has been a good run for this chapter.
It can be hoped that logical transitions have been held to such a minimum as to seem entirely absent. If we had an overall thesis, we suppose it is that practical criticism of Shakespeare’s comedies as comedies is in need of remedy. Happily quite a bit of the material covered certainly denies that it is at all obviously related to that or any other thesis. And notably, we have entirely avoided the banality of starting with a definition of comedy or even of giving a definition of comedy grudgingly at some later point.
There is little use in spoiling that fine record of sophisticated discussion this late in a chapter. As a result, little of positive value has been said about As You Like It, which was ostensibly the subject of this chapter. We haven’t said anything at all about humor texture, but there is always hope that the next chapter will get around to it. Perhaps indefinitely delayed hope for insight is in fact at the heart of the modern critical style we have been emulating.
We have said one important thing about As You Like It and the way Shakespeare constructed it. And that one important point fits very well into the definition of comedy which we will formally present in the next chapter. It is impossible to read As You Like It intelligently without noticing that motivation for what action exists in the play is overwhelmingly lacking. This lack of motivation is not limited to Rosalind, nor to Rosalind and Orlando, nor to Rosalind, Orlando and their blood relatives. Lack of motivation is epidemic throughout As You Like It. If lack of motivation is an automatic sign of bad writing or of bad dramatic construction, then there is no getting around As You Like It being bad writing or a badly-written drama. Happily, the definition we are about to present allows us to be more open-minded and to consider that such an obviously conscious artistic choice by such an obviously superlative authorial genius is not a fault, but is rather a key to the comedic masterpiece of which it is so prominent a part.