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 A Time for Digression 

April 19, 2007 
Shakespeare's comediesOn Sunday came the terrible news of an old friend’s agonizing death.

Today's column is "A Time for Digression" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Shakespeare's comediesBut life goes on, doesn’t 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.

Shakespeare's comediesIf you’re like me, maybe you’re 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.

Shakespeare's comediesSo 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.

comediesAncient 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 didn’t seem to mix. You don’t go to Sophocles for laughs, and Aeschylus, with all due respect, rarely hits the old funny bone. Some guys just can’t tell a joke.

comediesEnter, 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.”

Shakespeare's comediesOne of Shakespeare’s best commentators, Dr. Samuel Johnson, said that his natural bent was for comedy, but that his tragedies tended to be forced and bombastic. It’s also a little startling to realize that one of the first celebrations of “our pleasant Willy,” in Edmund Spenser’s 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.”

comedies“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.”

comediesMost of the Bard’s 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 Winter’s Tale, the sexual blackmail of Measure for Measure.

[Breaker quote for A Time for Digression: Comedy's master]Shakespeare's comediesHis mature tragedies are unthinkable without his rich humor: Hamlet’s brilliant sarcasm and bantering, King Lear’s cruelly funny Fool, Romeo’s bawdy pal Mercutio, Cleopatra’s feminine wiles. And does Troilus and Cressida belong among the tragedies or the “problem comedies,” with All’s Well That Ends Well?

Shakespeare's comediesAnd where do we put the Bard’s 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.

comediesFalstaff 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.

comediesA Midsummer Night’s Dream belongs to the hilarious clown Nick Bottom. Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral is the greatest piece of extended sarcasm in all literature. I’ll 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.

comediesOthello is driven by Iago’s 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.

Shakespeare's comediesI hope I’ve 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.”

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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