Beyond a Common Joy: An Introduction to Shakespearean Comedy

Beyond a Common Joy: An Introduction to Shakespearean Comedy

Beyond a Common Joy: An Introduction to Shakespearean Comedy

Beyond a Common Joy: An Introduction to Shakespearean Comedy

Synopsis

"Soul of the age!" Ben Jonson eulogized Shakespeare, and in the next breath, "He was not of an age but for all time." That he was both "of the age" and "for all time" is, this book suggests, the key to Shakespeare's comic genius. In this engaging introduction to the First Folio comedies, Paul A. Olson gives a persuasive and thoroughly engrossing account of the playwright's comic transcendence, showing how Shakespeare, by taking on the great themes of his time, elevated comedy from a mere mid-level literary form to its own form of greatness- on par with epic and tragedy.
Like the best tragic or epic writers, Shakespeare in his comedies goes beyond private and domestic matters in order to draw on the whole of the commonwealth. He examines how a ruler's or a court's community at the household and local levels shapes the politics of empire- existing or nascent empires such as England, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Venice, and the Ottoman Empire or part empires such as Rome and Athens- where all their suffering and silliness play into how they govern. In Olson's work we also see how Shakespeare's appropriation of his age's ideas about classical myth and biblical scriptures bring to his comic action a sort of sacral profundity in keeping with notions of poetry as "inspired" and comic endings as more than merely happy but as, in fact, uncommonly joyful.

Excerpt

In his comedies, Shakespeare moves comic form into “grander realms.” He moves it from the TV sitcom level, where most of the comedy of his day operated, to a level where it rivaled tragedy and epic. To see this, one has to learn how to read Shakespeare with an eye for the kind of meanings and generic weights available in his time.

This book arises from my uneasiness with the many performances and readings of Shakespeare's comedies that are merely frivolous. I recall the first performance I ever saw as a teenager—a high school production of As You Like It, where I really could not understand the lines or the settings at all but where I could see that the lovers were silly and laughable. That was about all there was. For the most part the diet of performances I saw throughout college and during a year in London in the early 1950s fed that perception, as did my readings in that time of the romantic critics, especially Hazlitt and Coleridge. These critics offer much talk of the comedies as dreams in which the conscious powers are suspended and the nonrational takes over and writes the play. There was relatively superficial talk of magic and the empathic annihilation of the self in the displaying of characters. In more recent criticism I found talk of magic and Shakespeare's invention of love and of carnival and festival.

Lately, as producers have created a weightier comedic Shakespeare, they have fed the notion that Shakespeare was a contemporary . . .

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