Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays: An Essay in Historical Criticism

By Ernest William Talbert | Go to book overview

II

Aspects of the Comic

CERTAINLY A ROLE for the principal comic actor was expected and, indeed, demanded by an Elizabethan audience and an Elizabethan acting company; and in spite of Hamlet's advice to the players, one cannot assume that a playwright found the role distasteful, at least when it was controlled. In any play, such a part was meant to capture an audience's attention, regardless of whether the character turned a table on others, furthered his master's desires, reinforced or commented upon situations and upon other characters, or filled up a moment on the stage by appearing indecorously with a king or by answering a lady and talking bawdry. 1 Of course, English critics of the sixteenth century, like Continental opponents of tragicomedy or of the romance, were predisposed usually in favor of what they considered classical practice. A gentlemanly snobbishness or puritanic censoriousness, mixed with zeal for an apparently ancient book of rules, would criticize much comedy as indecorous or meaninglessly episodic; and the popularity of the public theater, with some carelessly executed plays, undoubtedly could supply material to substantiate this critical predisposition. In this respect, the modern may be closer to the theater-goer of the age than was the literary critic who repeated dogma about decorum or who, like Jonson's Mitis, condemned scenes for violating rules that the author never intended to follow. 2

Actually a clown's conversation with a king or his bawdry with a lady may be controlled by a structural purpose. That is a matter to be determined by analyses of individual plays. Analyses would also determine whether the role for the chief comic was dominantly akin to what at least one modern critic, relying in the main upon the Tractatus Coislinianus, believes to be the basic comic types: the alazon (the imposter, boaster, or hypocrite), the eiron (the one who deprecates himself and thereby deflates or exposes the alazon), the bomolochus (the buffoon, the character who amuses by his mannerisms or power of rhetoric), the agroikos (the rustic and the gull). 3 From the point of

-7-

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Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays: An Essay in Historical Criticism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents *
  • I - Some General Considerations 3
  • II - Aspects of the Comic 7
  • III - Aspects of Structure and Serious Character-Types 61
  • IV - Titus and the Earliest Comedies 132
  • V - The Henry VI Trilogy and Richard III 161
  • VI - Love's Labour's Lost and a Midsummer Night's Dream 235
  • VII - King John, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II 262
  • VIII - Conclusion 323
  • Notes 327
  • Index 401
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