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Exploring the Nature of Shakespearean Comedy

From The System of Shakespeare's Dramas. by Denton Jaques Snider. St. Louis: G. T. Jones and Company.

Thought and Structure of Comedy

The Tragic and the Comic fade into each other by almost insensible gradations, and the greatest beauty of a poetical work often consists in the harmonious blending of these two elements. Not only in the same drama may both exist in perfect unison, but even in the same character. Great actors generally have a similar quality, and frequently it is hard to tell whether their impersonations be more humorous or more pathetic. This happy transfusion and interchange of tragic and comic coloring is one of the characteristics of supreme art; it brings the relief along with the pain; it furnishes the reconciliation along with the conflict.

Shakespeare seems to have taken a special delight in its employment. No principle of his procedure is better known or more fully appreciated. His tragedies never fail of having their comic interludes; his comedies have, in nearly every case, a serious thread, and sometimes a background with a tragic outlook. Life is not all gloom or all delight; the cloud will obscure the sun, but the sun will illumine the cloud — at least around the edges.

Still, the Comic is not the Tragic, however subtle may be their intertwining, and however rapid their interaction. They rest upon diverse, and in some respects opposite, principles. Criticism must seek to explain the difference between them for the understanding, and must not rest content with a vague appeal to the feeling of beauty. Tragic earnestness springs from the deep ethical principle which animates the individual. He, however, assails another ethical principle, and thereby falls into guilt. The tragic character, moreover, must have such strength and intensity of will that it can never surrender its purpose.

A reconciliation is impossible; death alone can solve the conflict. In Comedy also there is a collision with some ethical principle on the part of the individual; he intends a violation, but does not realize his intention; he is foiled through external deception, or breaks down through internal weakness; to him is wanting that complete absorption in some great purpose which is the peculiar quality of the tragic hero. The common realm of Tragedy and Comedy, therefore, is the ethical world and its collision. Their essential difference lies in the different relation of the leading characters to this ethical world.

Here we are brought face to face with the first point which must be settled — what constitutes the Comic Individual? But a single person does not make a comedy; it requires several who are in action and counter-action; hence the second part of the subject will be the Comic Action; thirdly, a termination must be made which springs necessarily from the preceding elements; this gives the Comic Solution. Each division will be taken up in its natural order.

1. The Comic Individual — He is, in one form or another, the victim of deception. He fights a shadow of his own mind, or pursues an external appearance; his end is a nullity, his plan an absurdity; he is always deceived; he really is not doing that which he seems to be doing. His object may be a reasonable one, his purpose may be a lofty one, but he is inadequate to its fulfillment; the delusion is that he believes in his own ability to accomplish what he wills. His object also may be an absurd one; he pursues it, however, with the same resolution. It may be called a foible, a folly, a frailty — still the essential characteristic is that the individual is pursuing an appearance, and thus is the victim of deception, though he may even be conscious of the absurd and delusive nature of his end.

The two limitations of this sphere are to be carefully noticed. The Comic Individual must not succeed in violating the ethical principles which he conflicts with; these are the highest, the most serious, interests of man, and cannot even be endangered without exciting an apprehension, which destroys every comic tendency. Successful seduction, adultery, treason — in fine, the violations of State and Family — are not comic; nor is villainy, which attains its purpose. Such an intention of wrong-doing may exist, but it must never come to realization; it must not only be thwarted, but also punished. The delusion, therefore, ought not to go so far as to produce a violation of ethical principles.

Nor, on the other hand, ought it to transgress the limits of sanity — a madman is not a comic character. Reason must be present in the individual, though his end be absurd. A rational man acting irrationally is the incongruity which calls forth the laugh — is the contradiction upon which Comedy reposes. There must be, in the end, a restoration from delusion, and often a punishment, both of which are precluded by the notion of insanity. Many readers feel that Don Quixote is too much of a lunatic. In general, therefore, the Comic Individual must not be a criminal, nor must he be a madman.

We are now to take a glance at the instrumentalities of Comedy — at the means which renders the Individual comic. His deceptions can arise from two sources — from the senses and from the mind. It thus may have an external cause, namely, the situation in which he is placed; or it may have an internal origin, namely, his caprice, his imagination, his understanding. Here we have the two essential kinds of Comedy — that of Situation and that of Character. The former seeks its instrumentalities outside of the individual; he is determined by them externally; hence freedom almost disappears in this form of the drama. But, in Comedy of Character, the Individual is self-determined; his situation, in its essential points, is the consequence of his own action — of his own folly or weakness; he is not plunged into it from without, by fate or by accident. In this sphere the Individual will find a realm of freedom.

In Comedy of Situation, therefore, a person is placed in circumstances over which he has little or no control, and is made to pursue absurd and nugatory objects without any direct fault of his own. His deception is brought about through the senses; his mistakes arise from false appearances which hover around him — in general, that which is phantom seems reality. He now follows up his delusions as ends; he meets and collides with others who have similar ends, or with others who have rational ends. The result is an infinite complication of mistakes and deceptions, which is the peculiar nature of Comedy of Situation, or, as is more commonly called from its intricacy, Comedy of Intrigue.

The special forms of this sensuous deception ought also to be classified. In the first place, things may be disguised. The natural and artificial objects which ordinarily surround a man may be so changed that he imagines himself a different person, or in a strange world; sudden transition into a new country, or into a new condition of life, may be made to appear actual, though wholly unreal. Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker, who, being suddenly surrounded by the luxury of a palace, comes to consider himself a lord, is an example. But this phase is quite subsidiary — it is a mere setting for other and greater effects.

The second, and chief, instrumentality of Comedy of Situation is the mistake in personality, or, as it is sometimes called. Mistaken Identity. One person is taken for another; thus two persons lose their relations to the society around them, and this society loses its relation to them. The effect is wonderful. The whole world seems to be converted into a dream — into fairyland; the natural order of things is turned upside down; the ordinary mediations of life are perverted or destroyed. A man with a strong head, it is true, may preserve his equilibrium in the confusion; such an one, however, is not a comic character.

You go upon the street; you are taken for somebody else; are familiarly addressed by persons whom you have never before seen, and about matters of which you have never before heard; presents are given you; payment is demanded of you for unknown articles; you are met by a woman who calls herself your wife, and, when you indignantly repudiate, her the law is invoked; you are dragged before a court of justice, where her claim is successfully established by many witnesses, and, finally, you are in danger of being lynched by an angry populace. The other person for whom you are taken has also corresponding difficulties; his relations in life are thrown into serious confusion; his business is crossed; his dear wife seems to have gone astray; still, the disturbing influence is to him a total mystery. Society, too, is drawn into the same whirl of delusion. Law, Family, State — the highest institutions of man — become the wild sport of accident. Such a condition of things cannot last long, but, while it does last, there is fun for those who are in the secret. What is the matter? Mistaken Identity, which, however, the parties caught in the complication must not think of, else the spell is broken.

The mistakes of identity are produced mainly in two ways — by Natural Resemblance and by Disguise. The first is an accident, and lies outside of the knowledge of the individuals who happen to be like one another. They are, therefore, the unconscious victims of an external influence; they are involved in a confusion of which nobody knows the origin. But Disguise is intentional — at least on the part of one person, namely, he who has disguised himself. All the other characters of the play may be victimized by the mask, and take the appearance for the reality; or a part of them may be in the secret, and enjoy the sport with the audience.

One individual, however, is not deceived — is free; has a conscious purpose of his own, which he is realizing. Disguise has a thousand shapes; it is the most common artifice, not merely of Comedy, but of the Drama generally. It may run through a whole play and constitute the main point of interest, or it may be employed for a subordinate object in a single scene. Its manifold forms show the originality of the writer of Comedy. Here is his province — the creation of novel disguises and situations. They all, however, have the one common characteristic — deception through a false appearance.

But Disguise has its limits, which will be manifested often beneath the most adroit concealment. The person in mask is usually supposed to be the master of the complications which he weaves around himself, and so he is ordinarily portrayed. But an unsuspected resemblance may come in and disturb his plans. Thus Viola, in Twelfth Night, notwithstanding her disguise, is lost in the comic labyrinth by the appearance of her brother, whom she supposed to be drowned. But the true dissolution of Disguise is manifest when character reveals itself beneath the mask, and the internal nature of man shows itself stronger than any external covering. Then the Disguise becomes nothing — it quite disappears. Rosalind, in As You Like It, betrays herself when she faints at the story of the bloody handkerchief; both her sex and her love shine out beneath her doublet and hose. The disguised mother at a masquerade will be apt to manifest some peculiar interest in her daughter, and thus reveal both herself and the daughter. The same may be said of many other relations of life. This has a supreme comic effect; it is the climax of Comedy of Situation, and, at the same time, the transition into a deeper principle. The external Disguise has melted away before the internal Character.

It will thus be seen that Comedy of Situation is logically incomplete, and is inadequate to express the more profound comic elements of human nature. Moreover, it is wanting in freedom. That man should be represented as placed in a world of deception and appearance, which cajoles him and leads him astray without any fault on his part, does not satisfy reason or true Aesthetic feeling. Mistakes through sensuous delusion may be very laughable, but they lack the highest comic principle.

We all think that a person ought not to be responsible for that which is external and accidental. Such is sometimes the reality, however, though by no means the deepest and truest reality of human existence. Man must be reached by his own act; he must himself be the cause of his own difficulties. Thus he is moved from within, is self-determined, and is to blame for his follies. Anything short of freedom will not completely satisfy us; it conflicts too strongly with our rational nature.

From these observations it will easily be inferred that, in Comedy of Situation, there can be but little portraiture of character. A person may be caught in a train of ludicrous circumstances, be his disposition what it may. A man's hat blows off on a windy day; is followed by his wig; he runs to pick them out of the mud. He is, no doubt, a laughable object to the by-standers, but such an occurrence is not determined by his character, nor designates it in any way. His behavior under the trying ordeal may reveal certain traits; still, this is not inherent in the situation, but points beyond, namely, to the inner nature of the man.

Thus we arrive at the necessity of the second grand division of Comedy, as manifested in the Individual. From its essential principle it will be best named Comedy of Character. Now, the Individual has truly an absurd end; his deed is internal in its origin; it springs from himself, and cannot be laid to his surroundings. His purpose is still a delusive appearance, which, however, is the product of his own brain. He may even be aware of its insubstantial nature, and yet pursue it; or, he may not be aware of that fact. Here rise up at once before us the two leading phases of Comedy and Character — the Involuntary and the Voluntary.

In the first of these spheres the Individual loses sight of his true relations to the external world, to other individuals, to society. This delusion is not brought about through any disguise of what is real, but through his own folly or infatuation; it does not result from any external deception, but from self-deception. The objects and persons around him have not been changed; the disguise has now gone into his mind — has become internal, and casts its shadow upon his judgment. The mistake, therefore, is not of the senses, but rather of the understanding. This phase of comic development is thus seen to be quite different from Comedy of Situation, though the latter ultimately may reach the judgment through sensuous deception. A servant, forgetting his place, falls in love with his mistress of noble blood — like Malvolio; a stupid clown seeks the hand of a beautiful and wealthy heiress — like Aguecheek.

The ethereal, poetic Titania, Queen of fairyland, becomes infatuated with the gross, prosaic Bottom, fool of fools. All these persons have lost their true relation in the world, and are in pursuit of their own subjective delusions, which, after making them dupes, vanish into nothing. Their purposes break to pieces in the very act of realization. Here are to be reckoned the comic effects of love requited and unrequited, the characters absorbed by a single passion — as avarice or jealousy — odd people, whimsical people, monomaniacs — indeed, most of the delineations of Comic Literature. Still, the limitation before mentioned must not be forgotten, which is liable to be transgressed just at this point. The individual must not be portrayed as devoid of sanity, even in his wildest delusions; otherwise, responsibility ceases — we think his acts are not his own; pity takes the place of merriment. The contradiction which excites the laugh is that the deed be irrational, but the doer rational; both elements must be present.

These absurd ends are pursued in earnest; the character is not usually conscious of their nature. Still, he ought to know better; his conduct deserves to be punished with shouts of laughter. But he may be quite aware of the ridiculousness of what he is doing, and nevertheless do it, and do it seriously. It is possible to be indifferent to the jeers of the world; or, a man may be driven by a passion which is stronger than the fear of ridicule. In this case, however, the result is almost the same as if the comic quality of the act were not known to him. In fact, there is almost every shade from a naive unconsciousness to complete consciousness. With the latter stage a new realm begins to make its appearance.

It is manifest that, in the phase just considered, the Comic Individual has not yet attained perfect freedom — he is still ignorant of a certain element of the nature of his deed; or, he is forced to do what he knows to be ridiculous in order to accomplish his deeper purpose. There is a chasm between his will and his action which is not yet bridged over. Now comes the last and highest development of Comedy — the Comic Individual is not only conscious, but voluntary. He pursues his delusion, knowing that it is a delusion, and because it is a delusion. His purpose is absurd; he intends it to be absurd, and enjoys its ubsurdity. His delight is in his own tricks and follies; he makes a comedy for his own amusement.

The tinge of seriousness in the character now disappears; the earnest pursuit of a false appearance or delusion has been left behind forever. He performs his own play and is his own audience at the same time; he knows and wills himself to be deceived, and then he steps back, as it were, and laughs at himself, as a spectator would do. Who can assail him? He is complete, for he takes into himself all sides ; he is free, for he realizes everything which lies in his intention, and his deed has nothing in it which is alien to what he purposes. Here is the climax of Comic Art; only the greatest geniuses have been able to reach such an elevation. The nicest balance must be maintained; the least swerving to the right or to the left causes a rapid descent into lower regions.

But the highest point is the termination; Comedy can go no further. Its very excellence pushes it beyond its limits, and into dissolution. When the Individual becomes conscious that his action is absurd and contradictory, every effort of the mind is usually directed to getting rid of the contradiction. That rational man can be consciously and purposely irrational, is the supreme absurdity, and, hence, this is just the absurdity upon which the supreme comic character reposes. But the logical process cannot stop at such a fine point of transition. When a person has sense enough to find out that he has no sense, he is already quite sensible.

A famous sage of antiquity may be cited. The great saving of Socrates was that, while previous philosophers thought they knew something, but did not know anything, he knew that he knew nothing. This he justly considered to be quite an advance upon former wisdom. To be conscious of our ignorance is much better than to be simply ignorant; such a consciousness already goes far towards lifting us beyond the assault of folly. At this point, therefore, the comic form begins to dissolve; men will no longer pursue a delusive purpose when they become aware of its true nature.

Let us now recapitulate the various principles which have been elaborated. Comedy exhibits the external or internal deception of the Individual, who, however, must not proceed in his delusion to a serious ethical violation, nor transgress the limits of sanity. To bring about his deception there are two instrumentalities — Situation and Character. The first lies in the senses, the second in the mind. Furthermore, Situation has two elements — the relation of the Comic Individual to the physical world on the one hand, and his relation to the persons therein on the other hand; both these relations become false appearances through Natural Resemblance and Intentional Disguise. Comedy of Character has also two main forms — the Involuntary and the Voluntary; the former exhibits man as the unwilling, and for the most part unconscious, victim of some whim, delusion, contradiction; while the latter shows a similar conduct as proceeding from conscious volition.

The relation of the Comic Individual to his audience is also worthy of mention. In the pure Comedy of Situation the audience is always presupposed, and must fully comprehend the nature and cause of the deception; it thus stands entirely above the persons in the play, to whom the matter is of the most serious import. The laugh belongs to the man who is not caught in the dilemma. There is thus between the hearer and actor a chasm which gradually becomes smaller, as we approach Comedy of Character, till, finally, it is wholly filled up and smoothed away in the highest form of the latter. For the Voluntary Comic Individual knows and laughs at his own absurdities — he is both actor and spectator. He has reached the serene height of the happy gods, which can be disturbed by nothing from without. Here is seen the true plastic element of Comedy, as far as such a term can be applied to this realm of art.

2. The Comic Action — This has the essential elements of every dramatic action, which may be analyzed into the Thread, the Movement, the Collision. The Comic Individual is driven to act by his delusion; he has an end which he is seeking to realize. He does not usually stand alone, but is surrounded by his instruments, his friends, his enemies, as in real life; there are connected with him a number of persons who have to perform for him certain mediations. This constitutes the Thread. There is, generally, the one central figure around which the others gather, and which is the bearer of the leading principle; the rest may aid, or also may thwart, the main purpose. Often characters pass from one Thread to another in the course of the play. Shakespeare has never less than two of these Threads, often three, and, sometimes, a nice analysis might find more. But there is a proper limit which ought not to be exceeded. There must be neither too few nor too many Threads, and there must be neither too few nor too many characters in a Thread. The genuine dramatic instinct will avoid dearth on the one hand, and undue complexity on the other.

These Threads — or groups, as they may also be called — stand in mutual relation; they run alongside of one another; they also have some common principle of harmony, of contrast, of opposition. They move together through one phase of the action — this is called a Movement of the play. Then there follows a transition into a new stage, which must be directly evolved from that which goes before. These transitions are the great joints of the work, and are to be carefully noted. Such is the Movement — binding together all the Threads, and sweeping forward into a new phase of the play. The comparison may be made with a river which rolls onward as a whole, with all its parallel currents, eddies, and counter-currents, while it passes from one country into another. Of these Movements every drama written by Shakespeare has two or three, but hardly more. The critic may here be reminded of his duty. He should state in a general form the essential principle of each Movement, point out its limits, and show the ground for the transition into the next Movement.

But the Individual must not merely act, he must also collide. Thus arises the third and principal element of the dramatic action, namely, the Collision, A quiet, unopposed development is not life — is not the drama — and would be very tame in representation. A person who undertakes to carry out his purpose must fall into struggle with those who maintain an opposite purpose. The Comic Individual pursues his delusion, and thus he may become involved in a conflict with the institutions of the world — as Family, State, Church; or may disregard the moral elements of society — as Honesty, Truthfulness, temperate Gratification of the senses. The latter are, however, subjective traits of character rather than real ethical principles, which are always the basis of institutions, and from which the genuine dramatic collision springs.

The Family is, perhaps, the most common sphere of the comic conflict, particularly on the side of sexual love. The maiden has a suitor to whom the father objects; the old man must be tricked by some disguise or deception, and the happy lovers are united at the end of the play. This is, perhaps, Shakespeare's favorite theme — the right of choice against the will of the parent. But Law, Religion, Business — all the social relations of life, may become entangled in the delusion of Comedy. A complete classification of the possible dramatic collisions cannot be given here; it belongs to the Introduction, where there is also a fuller discussion of Threads and Movements.

3. The Solution — This means that the appearance be dissolved and the reality be restored. That which has caused the delusion in the Comic Individual must vanish, because it is not actual — is untruth. Since the action rests upon some deception, internal or external, this deception must be discovered and brought home to each character; thus the source of the mistakes and complications becomes known. The Solution, however, will vary according to the instrumentality employed. In the case of Natural Resemblance, the persons who are alike are at last brought together, and the similarity which has caused so much trouble is detected. Everybody then can account for the mysterious occurrences which have just transpired. In the case of Disguise, since the whole entanglement rests in the mask, this is torn off and the plotter is caught, or, at least, is revealed. Here, too, a touch of retribution may enter for the deception practiced by the contriver. It is satisfactory to see that disguises are not without danger.

But in the case of Comedy of Character the retributive nature of the Solution becomes more prominent, since responsibility for the deed can now be assumed. The subjective delusions and absurdities of a rational man must be brought home to him; his act must come back with a logical rigor, and the drama should show just this return upon the doer. He must be forced to see the folly of his end; he must be made to behold his plan breaking to pieces, as it were, in his very hands, and its consequence visited upon himself.

Still, he ought not to lay his whole being in his purpose, for thus he becomes tragic; nor must he be too serious in the execution of his design, else its failure makes him wretched and not comic. He ought to be able to give a free, jovial look, or even laugh, at the disappearing phantom of his brain. The Solution, therefore, for the unconscious, involuntary comic character is to be made conscious of its folly through the consequences thereof; while for the voluntary comic character there is really no solution, since it carries its solution within itself all the time. Conscious of its own absurdity, and the results thereof, from the beginning, how can it be made more conscious?

But Comedy inflicts not punishments merely; it has also a system of rewards. For instance, in the sphere of the Family, true love usually finds its recompense, and reciprocal love must inevitably unite its votaries after the struggle. Note the requited affection in a play; against it rises the conflict, but it is always successful in the end. This constitutes the happy conclusion so necessary to a comedy. The like recompense must be shown in the other departments of human action. The same general principle lies at the basis of both reward and punishment — the deed must return upon the doer. To this end, full time is to be given for the natural and complete development, both of the Situation and the Character; hence the Solution cannot be precipitated at any moment, but only when it is forced by the logical necessity of the action, and cannot longer be withheld.

The Comic Solution, therefore, ends in the destruction, not of the Individual, but of his deception. He is restored to his senses, and the world is freed of its contradiction; thus all is as it was before. The comic character cannot perish, for it violates no substantial principle, no ethical institution. Herein it differs from the tragic hero on the one hand, and from the villain on the other. The former is both a violator and supporter of the right in the same deed. Guilt results and is followed by death, yet he is not without justification.

But the villain is purely a violator without logical motive; his fate cannot properly be dignified with the name of Tragedy; nor is he a comic character, since Comedy will not allow any ethical element to be destroyed. In fact, the mere villain, without relief, approaches the realm of the Ugly, and begins to transcend the limits of art. In this sense of the word it may be questioned whether any such character is to be found in the works of Shakespeare. The outcome of Comedy, therefore, is mainly the dissolution of the whims, absurdities, and delusions of the rational individual.


How to cite this article:
Denton, Jaques Snider. The System of Shakespeare's Dramas. St. Louis: G. T. Jones and Company, 1877. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < >.

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