Archive for Comedy

The Tragic, Comic, and Historic King Henry IV

Posted in King Henry IV Part I with tags , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2009 by Saera

King Henry IV is like its counterpart King Henry V in that it incorporates elements of all three genres of Shakespeare’s drama: tragedy, comedy, and history.  This is done by working plotting, characters and scene arrangements.

The characters are both humorous and serious. King Henry, his court, and the men surrounding Hotspur are very serious. Northumberland, Worcester, and Glyndwr are the serious, authoritative figures of the rebels while King Henry, Blunt, and Lancaster are serious and authoritative figures of court.

In contrast, Falstaff and Hal are humorous characrers who provide comic relief throughout the play. The other tavern-buddies are also humorous, but Falstaff is the main comedian. Hotspur and Hal can both be very serious (as can Falstaff) but they can also be highly comical. Many characters are historical, but several are fictitiously added to the story.

Plotting is important to this play’s combination of tragedy, comedy, ad history as well because through the various added events of the play that did nothappen historically, the audience is shown a more realistic picture of what happened. Instead of focusing on the purely historical perspective (because everyone would have known what happened), Shakespeare adds the whole “tavern” element, and embellishes the characters of Falstaff, Glyndwr, and Prince Harry and Hotspur. The whole incident of the double robbery serves as a very comic element of the play (as well as a rather symbolic foreshadowing of what Hal would do in the future), and the added strife between Hal and King Henry serves at first as a tragedy, then as a more comical element in their reconciliation at the end.

By including the fighting scenes, Shakespeare successfully incorporates historically accurate and embellished events which certainly seem tragic to the one sympathetic character of Hotspur and comic for the other sympathetic character Prince Henry. The fight between the two is charged with emotion and the audience is torn between who they will sympathize with the most. By giving equal development to Hotspur and Hal, Shakespeare gives the audience that tension: it knows someone will be the loser, but both Hal and Hotspur are now sympathetic to them. So when Hotspur dies, it is tragic, because we liked him. On the other hand, we rejoice when Hal wins because we liked him also. Both men are portrayed well; they are shown in their familiar surroundings and their comic natures make them endearing. So by using plotting to successfully develop these two most important characters, Shakespeare incorporates comedy, tragedy, and the historic elements of the story.

Some arrangement is also used to make elements of comedy, tragedy, and history combine. The battle scene, by being placed at the end of the play, makes this tragic because the finality of Hotspur’s death is emphasized. Audiences had earlier seen him joke with his wife, brag about his strength, attempt to compile a rebellion army, and then, after following his pursuits so closely, they see him die in the last act. Although, as previously mentioned, the “comedy” of Hal’s victory is also felt, it is marred significantly by the finality of Hotspur’s death. His death is the more tragice because it follows after the scene in which he learns that his reinforcement help (with his father and others) have basically deserted him and left him on his own. With Hal, his assumption of the “royal” role almost seems tragic as well. he turns his back on Falstaff and abandons his drinking parties at the tavern to become the serious prince and fighter his father desired him to be.  While this change in morality seems positive, it also is rather tragic because we have seen the fun times, the tavern has become familiar to us, so by turning his back on it, Hal seems to die to a certain aspect that we liked about him and with which we were well acquainted.

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Three for One – Shakespeare’s Best Offer

Posted in King Henry V with tags , , , , , on April 1, 2009 by Saera

In Henry V, Shakespeare combines elements of comedy, history, and tragedy through various means. Because of this masterful combination of everything – deep themes, philosophical musings, comic characters, tragic characters, historical plot, wit, humor, romance, tragedy -I believe this play is one of my favorites, and one of Shakespeare’s best works.henry20v20dvd20review20criterion20olivier20pdvd_011-01

Shakespeare relies mainly on the various nationalities and speaking accents of the play’s characters to give comedy to the play. The English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish captains all speak with pronouncedly differing accents that are highly comical, especially since they each tend to either misunderstand one another or make fun of each other because of these accents. Then there is Catherine, and the way she often butchers the English language with her French ways. Although Alice tries not to correct her, she often is forced to step in and correct the princess’  mispronunciations. However, Alice herself often goofs up the English she is trying to teach Catherine! This is not pointed out by any character, but obvious to the English-speaking audience and remarkably funny. Also, the play’s seemingly happy ending makes this play like a comedy.

There is also irony that can be both funny and tragic. When King Harry disguises himself as a common soldier, Williams mistakes him as such ad the irony of Harry’s speech to Williams and Bates is at first comical because we as the audience are let in on the “joke,” but later when Williams brings up the subject of the divine right of kings, or their responsibility for soldiers’ deaths, it becomes almost tragic because we understand the extent of the burden that Kind Harry bears.

But there is also tragedy in the piece as seen in the main battle scenes and their aftermath. There is also tragedy in the deaths of the traitors to King Harry, as well as the death of Falstaff. The character of Pistol further seems to add tragedy because he is so rude, ruthless, and selfish that he constantly proves a danger  or annoyance to the “good guys.” Finally, in the end of the play, the epilogue foreshadows what will happen soon to King Harry and the kingdom he has worked so valiantly to establish and enlarge. His death seems so imminent; although he has won the battle, he cannot enjoy his success long.  As actual history says, he will soon die, causing his country to become embroiled in a severe civil war.

Historical elements are present in Henry V as well, and come mainly from the storyline of the play. Shakespeare follows Harry’s battle successes and his conquests for the French throne, as it really happened. Shakespeare was making use of the fact that most of his audience would have been familiar with the famous English hero, King Harry, and his history, so he stays fairly true to the historical part  and uses the audience’s knowledge of this history to form the tragic element of King Harry’s soon-present demise, as just mentioned.

All three elements of history, comedy, and tragedy are seamlessly woven together. Harry experiences loss, but eventually gets his girl in the end (but we know he won’t last much longer), and he does (in the play) what he did in real life, at least as far as warfare is concerned. So the characters are the main source of comedy, the plot/storyline is that for tragedy, as is our knowledge of Harry’s history, and the plot is also the basis for the element of history in the play.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Posted in Twelfth Night with tags , , , on March 26, 2009 by Saera

12night2       Twelfth Night is not one of my favorite plays. I guess it just doesn’t really catch my interest, and I think that it has very dark undercurrents for a comedy. I cannot reconcile what Maria and her companions, especially Feste end up doing to Malvolio.

While in the Shakespeare for Teachers course, I read through Rex Gibson’s  Teaching Shakespeare,  by Cambridge University Press. It has many helpful tips to understanding and teaching Shakespeare’s works, but one that I found especially helpful was his separation of what he calls the “Four Common Themes” of Shakespeare: conflict, appearance and reality, order and disorder, and change.  These can be applied to almost any Shakespeare play, but I found them to be quite relevant to this one.

In Twelfth Night, the main conflict is between Malvolio and the servants/Sir Toby/Sir Andrew/ and company. This conflict is between seriousness and fun, and some see it as between good and evil. For my part, I have a hard time believing Sir Toby to be a likeable character (he seems to be just as full of himself as Malvolio is), so I cannot see him representing “good” (is fun always “good?”), and although Malvolio certainly has his faults, I cannot see him as a villain. There is also conflict between Orsino’s will and Olivia’s will.

Appearance versus reality is one of the central concerns of the play. Most of the play’s conflict does seem to come from this theme, actually. There is the appearance of love (Orsino’s constant complaints, outward shows of love, etc.) vs. its reality (Orsino ends up loving Viola instead of Olivia, and Viola proves that loveinvolves more than its appearance?), Viola’s outward appearance as a man vs. her true identity, Malvolio’s act as his appearance contrasts sharply with reality of Olivia’s sorrow, Sir Andrew’s appearance of being a knight, but in reality being only a wealthy fop who bought the title, and Malvolio’s appearance of insanity vs. his true saneness.

Order and disorder is also present. The order of the court is upset by the twins’ arrival – Viola’s disguise matching Sebastian causes much confusion and disorder, Malvolio’s attempt to order the lives of Sir Toby and his companions and their overthrow of him and resulting disorder.

Change is also a prominent theme of the play. Viola’s change is perhaps most apparent, her initial change into the appearance of a young man, then her reversal back to her old self. But Orsino’s change is also prominent. He appears to love Olivia very passionately at the play’s opening, but his heart changes, and he becomes enamored with Viola. Olivia also changes, and loves Sebastian rather than Cesario. Malvolio also changes from his drab Puritan garb into the gay costume that he believes Olivia will like.  However, one character who contrasts all these changing ones, a character remaining constant, is Antonio. He never abandons Sebastian, even when Viola (whom he mistakes for Sebastian) spurns him and denies ever knowing him.

Tragic Comedy or Comic Tragedy?

Posted in A Midsummer Night's Dream with tags , , , , on March 12, 2009 by Saera

productions_amsnd_bigDuring my Shakespeare for Teachers course last semester, my instructor mentioned that Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dreamare similar in some ways and that Shakespeare had actually been working on both plays around the same time. I never would have thought these two plays were anything alike – wasn’t the one about love gone terribly wrong, while the other was about love gone wonderfully right? One was sad, the other was happy. how could they be alike?

After my instructor proceeded to explain some key shared elements of the two works, I began to realize that they were similar. but not until I recently was mulling the problem over in my mind, did I realize how alike they actually are.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as we know it, is a comedy, but what would it be without its  sudden “flip” ending that restores order and happiness to the characters? It would be a tragedy, would it not? Lovers jilted, Hermia or Lysander potentially killed, Helena doomed to rejection, and either Demetrius or Lysander denied Hermia’s love – this sounds more like a tragedy. Simultaneously, without its sudden “flip” ending, Romeo and Juliet would be a comedy. Lovers who reconciled their families and overcame all odds to be happily married is the stuff of comedies.  Without its tragic ending, Romeo and Juliet is very similar to a comedy in that it has humor (often crude), romance, and conflict. And Midsummer Night’s Dreamis very similar to a tragedy in that it has seemingly irreconcilable conflicts and a good deal of pain, sorrow, and mental torment among its characters.

Both plays have romantic love as their central theme, and not only romantic love, but impossible romantic love. Romeo and Juliet are from feuding families; Hermia and Lysander love each other, but Demetrius and Hermia’s father oppose the match, and Helena loves Demetrius, but he does not at all return her love. Both plays main characters have parents who try to prevent them from loving whom they wish to love.  Then there is the realm of control that becomes a prominent factor in both plays. Powers outside of the humans’ control combine to produce either joyful or tragic endings to these plays. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is the fairy world mainly consisting of Oberon, Puck,  and Titania. If it were not for the fairies, the lovers never would have been happily restored to their right minds, and events would not have worked out for their love to succeed. In spite of the humans’ actions, they cannot right their plights by themselves, neither can they change what the fairies did.

And while the controlling powers in Romeo and Julietare definitely not fairies, they are certainly not human.  Fate seems to be the overarching destiny in this play. No matter what the (human) characters do, they cannot change their fate. The terrible ending of this play is like a fluke –  a product of fate over which the humans had no control. They tried to take action to better their circumstances (both Romeo and Juliet, the priest, and Romeo’s comrade) but all their plans went unexpectedly awry and failed completely.  Just like the unexpected happy ending in Midsummer Night’s Dream was almost a fluke (that is, it was entirely independent of the characters’ actions and the logical probability of the way events would conclude), the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet was unexpected.

There are other ways these plays are similar as well.  Plot lines seem somewhat the same. The young lovers attempted to go behind their parents’ backs and marry (Romeo and Juliet actually did marry, while Hermia and Lysander merely attempted eloping) in both.  Secrecy and dependence on friendships and loyalties are present in both plays. And thematically, the subject of love is very prominent in both, they probe and explore the various ways that love manifests itself, what love does to people, what love really is, and how love is shown.

One other similarity between Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet is that in both plays, there are strong central female characters. Juliet is arguably a stronger character than Romeo is, and more constant, while Hermia and Helena (not to mention Titania) are both stronger and more constant in their love than their male counterparts are.