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