The Backgrounds of Shakespeare's Plays

By Karl J. Holzknecht | Go to book overview

11
SHAKESPEAREAN COMEDY

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? -- Twelfth Night, II, iii, 123-4.

Frame your mind to mirth and merriment, Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life. -- The Taming of the Shrew, Induction, ii, 137-8.

HORACE WALPOLE'S WELL-KNOWN SOPHISTRY THAT "life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel" has enjoyed the currency of most epigrammatic half-truths. A remark such as this implies that comedy, in Meredith's phrase, is "the fountain of sound sense," and a critical thing of the intellect, applying the corrective of laughter to the foibles of men. This is no doubt true of some forms of comedy-that of Greece and Rome, of Molière in France, of the Restoration in England, and much modern comedy as well. But the theory does not apply to Elizabethan comedy, as a whole, and few writers in Shakespeare's day, except Ben Jonson, would have understood it. "What a piece of work is a man!" exclaims the serious creature of feeling. "How infinite in faculty! . . . How like an angel! How like a god!" But the cynic echoes: "What a piece of work indeed! The gods are laughing on Olympus! For all his immortal longings, Man is finite; a beast, no more. He tumbles in the dust, he loses his hair, he grows fat and scant of breath." So the comedian jests at scars as though he never felt a wound, but, life being what it is, the poet knows that

Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught, Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Hence, English comedy, as a whole, has seldom tried to exclude serious emotions. It is too hard to know where thinking begins and feeling ends.

-268-

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The Backgrounds of Shakespeare's Plays
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Preface iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Illustrations vii
  • 1 - Shakespeare's Life in Fact and Tradition 1
  • Suggested References 32
  • 2 - Shakespeare's England 33
  • Suggested References 61
  • 3 - The Drama Before Shakespeare 63
  • Suggested References 89
  • 4 - Elizabethan Theatrical Companies 92
  • Suggested References 114
  • 5 - The Elizabethan Public Playhouse 115
  • Suggested References 144
  • 6 - The Influence of Theatrical Conditions on Shakespeare 146
  • Suggested References 166
  • 7 - Shakespeare's Audience 167
  • Suggested References 185
  • 8 - Shakespeare's English 186
  • Suggested References 219
  • 9 - The Sources of Shakespeare's Play 220
  • Suggested References 245
  • 10 - Some General Aspects Of Shakespeare's Dramatic Art 247
  • Suggested References 265
  • 11 - Shakespearean Comedy 268
  • Suggested References 291
  • 12 - Shakespeare's History Plays 293
  • Suggested References 320
  • 13 - Shakespearean Tragedy 322
  • Suggested References 341
  • 14 - Shakespeare in Print 343
  • Suggested References 371
  • 15 - Shakespeare's Reputation 374
  • Suggested References 404
  • 16 - Shakespeare on the Stage 407
  • Suggested References 437
  • 17 - Shakespearean Scenes and Characters 439
  • Index 471
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