A Time for Digression
On Sunday came the terrible news of an old friends agonizing death.
But life goes on, doesnt it? On Monday I had to get back to my deadlines, my column, and a book, and just as I was wondering what it might take to knock Don Imus and Al Sharpton off the front pages, I found out the hard way.
If youre like me, maybe youre not in the mood for more commentary on mass murder, and maybe you could even use a bit of comedy. Just before I got the news from Virginia Tech, I had a hearty laugh at Charlie Chaplin boxing in City Lights, and then life stopped being funny until further notice.
So pardon me if I do what I think I do best: digress. Change the subject. And today I digress about one of the happiest subjects I know, Shakespearean comedy.
Ancient Greece and Rome boasted playwrights who wrote great tragedies Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca and others who wrote great comedies Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence but none who wrote both. The two genres didnt seem to mix. You dont go to Sophocles for laughs, and Aeschylus, with all due respect, rarely hits the old funny bone. Some guys just cant tell a joke.
Enter, a couple of thousand years later, William Shakespeare, the first dramatist ever to write immortal comedies as well as tragedies. Not only that, he defied the rules by refusing to keep them apart. His wittiest comedies are not without grief, and his tragedies offer plenty of good laughs. In this respect he was indeed a happy imitator of nature.
One of Shakespeares best commentators, Dr. Samuel Johnson, said that his natural bent was for comedy, but that his tragedies tended to be forced and bombastic. Its also a little startling to realize that one of the first celebrations of our pleasant Willy, in Edmund Spensers Tears of the Muses (1591), singles out his genius for comedy, not tragedy. Willy is one whom Nature self had made To mock her self, and Truth to imitate and that same gentle Spirit, from whose pen Large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow. Nearly all early tributes to Shakespeare hit the same notes: honey, nature, sweet, gentle. Spenser also contrasts him with base-born men.
Willy, Shakespeare, was actually Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, known for his fickle head and tendency to clown at court, much praised (by Spenser, among others, as most dear to the Muses) for his poetry and plays and in 1598 cited by Francis Meres among the best for comedy.
Most of the Bards charming comedies have dark streaks in them, including death and its threat: Think of Shylock and his pound of flesh, the slandered women in Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, and The Winters Tale, the sexual blackmail of Measure for Measure.
His mature tragedies are unthinkable without his rich humor: Hamlets brilliant sarcasm and bantering, King Lears cruelly funny Fool, Romeos bawdy pal Mercutio, Cleopatras feminine wiles. And does Troilus and Cressida belong among the tragedies or the problem comedies, with Alls Well That Ends Well?
And where do we put the Bards supreme comic character, Sir John Falstaff? He is the life of both Henry IV plays, is banished by his old pal Prince Hal at the end of the second one, then dies of a broken heart In Henry V.
Falstaff illustrates how Shakespeare loves his secondary characters so much that he sometimes lets one kidnap the play. The brilliantly caustic Bastard takes over King John. Falstaff does this (twice, in fact); so does Shylock; Mercutio nearly does it.
A Midsummer Nights Dream belongs to the hilarious clown Nick Bottom. Mark Antonys speech at Caesars funeral is the greatest piece of extended sarcasm in all literature. Ill have to save some of my favorites, Hotspur, Enobarbus, and Imogen, for another day, along with the dueling comic lovers: Kate and Petruchio, Rosalind and Berowne, Beatrice and Benedick, the other Rosalind and Orlando.
Othello is driven by Iagos wickedness, but he is far from humorless. Such monsters as Richard III and the bastard Edmund in King Lear make us laugh at better men, but they are delightful anyway.
I hope Ive taken your mind off the grim news for a moment. Let Dr. Johnson have the last word: He that has read Shakespeare with attention will perhaps find little new in the crowded world.
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