The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

Mortality

To note that many of Shakespeare’s characters live with awareness of the inevitability of death is to say little. After all, most individuals, whether in life or art, are conscious that one day they will die. What is of considerable interest, however, is which figures in Shakespeare’s plays face this reality head-on, under what circumstances they do so, and with what attitude they proceed.

Shakespeare’s comedies would seem to be an unlikely place to encounter such emotions. Yet a major reason why his lighter works have such depth is that the characters remain aware of all sorts of serious issues. Indeed, one way in which we may distinguish comedy from farce is that in farce characters generally feel nothing beyond physical sensation. They do not stop to reflect on the signficance of what they experience, nor on issues outside their immediate scope, and because the characters feel so little, the audience also remains detached. For instance, when watching a farce by a master of that form, such as the nineteenth-century Frenchman Feydeau, or a contemporary version, such as a television sitcom, we may laugh at characters scrambling in and out of bedclothes and bedrooms, but rarely do we think or care about the subtleties of their emotions. In comedy, on the other hand, even as we laugh, we reflect. When experiencing Molière’s The Misanthrope, for example, we wonder about the nature of human vanity, loneliness, hypocrisy, and love. Thus in a discussion of any comic art, one crucial question to consider is whether the work belongs to the world of farce or comedy.

When dealing with Shakespeare’s works, we encounter the highest form of comedy. To be sure, many of his comedies have farcical elements, including plot confusions, slapstick, and other physical fun, as well as bawdy humor. All these plays, however, have serious overtones that may bring our laughter up short.

In The Comedy of Errors, for example, Luciana complains to her sister, Adriana, about the apparent fickleness of Antipholus, the twin that both

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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction xi
  • Acting 1
  • Appearance versus Reality 9
  • Clerics 23
  • Commoners 35
  • Cynicism 45
  • Divine Right 53
  • Fate 63
  • Fathers and Daughters 71
  • Fidelity 81
  • Fools 89
  • Forgiveness 99
  • Gender 107
  • Generations 117
  • Honor 127
  • Innocence 135
  • Intoxication 143
  • Justice 151
  • Language 161
  • Love and Romance 171
  • Machiavels 187
  • Madness 199
  • Male Friendship 211
  • Marriage 219
  • Money 229
  • Mortality 237
  • Nationalistic Pride and Prejudice 245
  • Nature 255
  • Order 263
  • Politics 273
  • Power 285
  • Reason versus Passion 295
  • Revenge 305
  • Supernatural Phenomena 315
  • The Tragic Flaw 325
  • War 335
  • Conclusion 345
  • Further Reading 347
  • Index 349
  • About the Author 362
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