Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Hazlitt on Comedy, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Olives

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Hazlitt on Comedy, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Olives

Article excerpt

Most work on Hazlitt deals with his contributions to culture as an essayist, theatre reviewer, and cultural commentator. This essay focuses especially on Hazlitt's first two "Lectures on the Comic Writers," to consider his relation to comedy in general and to its early modern representations in the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. In his essay "On Wit and Humour" Hazlitt deals especially with satire and comic effect wherein he at times anticipates the modern comic theories of such figures as Bergson and Bakhtin. In "On Shakspeare and Ben Jonson," he relates his sensitivity to comic incident as a feature of his own great romantic appreciation of Shakespeare, but his grasp of satire in terms of detail, rhetoric, and effect makes him more of a Jonsonian than he might readily admit. Throughout, Hazlitt goes beyond reportage in terms of character, romance, and social class to engage in the ironies of comedy itself. As a result, Hazlitt's sense of comedy constantly reaches out from romantic perceptions to grasp satirical truths. Overall, Hazlitt exercises even as he expresses a critical vision of comedy in relation to Shakespeare and Jonson.

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Most readers of Hazlitt recognize his significance as originator of the familiar essay, as early cultural commentator, theatre critic, hack journalist, or exponent of the familiar style. But few commentators consider the way that his "style" also morphs into his technique. This process manifests itself especially in his consideration of comic writers. Here, Hazlitt's critical voice merges with comic perception to deliver multi-voiced information to share, consider, delight, and inform. Anyone who reflects on society, especially a critical thinker such as Hazlitt, will inevitably reflect on the ridiculousness of society, its platitudes, its estimations, its idealizations. Severe youthful tendentiousness (often in the form of radical allegiance, romanticized sexuality, or asexualized romance) commonly yields to the benign neglect of maturity (often in the form of retirement savings, scorn, or satire). Excruciating at first, romance eventually flattens its perceptions of difference to encompass satirical sameness after the fact. As a writer on English comedy, Hazlitt follows a similar trajectory from comedy generally, to Shakespeare in a romantic register, and on to Jonson in a more self-consciously satirical mode.

From the outset, Hazlitt gets very familiar in his considerations of comedy. Such familiarity itself represents a channel for comic delivery within which Hazlitt feels at once disquieted and involved. Somewhat like a comic performer himself, Hazlitt feels anything but comfortable with his timing and his delivery. He would rather admire romance from afar, from the culturally safe space of Shakespearean appreciation--which he helps to create--than engage with the disorienting minutiae and ludicrous complications of satirical comic interaction as promulgated and broadcast by Jonson. And yet Hazlitt cannot help himself. As will be seen, he may publicly discredit Jonson with the same aplomb as he disavows a taste for olives, but his taste for Jonson's satire exposes and reinforces itself even through its repeated disavowal. But this is not to psychoanalyze Hazlitt's deep denial or deconstruct the terms of his scholarly discourse. Instead, I will argue that Hazlitt's grasp of comedy reaches out from romantic perceptions to grasp satirical truths.

From the first sentence of his introductory essay "On Wit and Humour," Hazlitt overleaps Aristotle's dictum of man as laughing animal to land on the other side of comic perception: "he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be" (Wu, 5:3, Howe, VI:5). Hazlitt balances sympathy with lack of sympathy to reach the true binary of absurdist human experience in the following exclamation: "To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded of these two! …

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