A BACKGROUND STUDY OF SHAKESPEAREAN COMEDY

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INTRODUCTION

As his contemporary Ben Johnson notes, William Shakespeare “was not a man for an age but for all time”. In terms of popularity, variety, and sublimity of themes, dexterity of plot, eloquent poetry, and scintillating characterisation, no playwright can be mentioned before him in post-classical period. As a result of his towering achievements, Shakespeare is now regarded as the icon of the Elizabethan era. In this direction, Downer (1950) posits that “Shakespeare is, of course, head and shoulders above his fellows, but he is also head and shoulders above all the playwrights of the post – classical world”. This unit examines Shakespearean comedy; but before this an overview of his biography is given.

Shakespeare’s Biography

William Shakespeare’s date of birth is not actually recorded. What is on record is that he was baptised on April 26, 1564, at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford – Upon Avon, the year in which -according to Schoenbaum (1972), “a plague gripped Stratford carrying off over 200 souls in six months”. As a destined child, Shakespeare was not destroyed by the plague. He survived the epidemic to be able to shine as star he was destined to be.

His father, John Shakespeare, was in council of Stratford when the child was born and so was able to give him good elementary education. Afterwards, William was put in a good grammar school but economic misfortune forced his father to withdraw him from the school in his upper class. Records were silent with respect to what the young William got involved in when he was withdrawn from school, and this had led to lots of speculation. However in 1582, he married Anne Hathway, a woman eight years older than him. They begot Sussana in 1583, and in 1585, their twins Hamnet and Judith arrived.

Again, records were silent between 1852 and 1592 when he made his debut in London both as an actor and playwright. Shakespeare’s quick success on stage attracted the dying Robert Greene’s venom. Troubled that William Shakespeare without university training was scaling the height of those of them that received training in the university in classical literature, Greene in his sickbed warned his fellow university wits against “those puppets… that spake from our mouths, those antics garnished in our colours”. He was particularly, exceedingly, bitter against Shakespeare whom he described as:

Upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart unwrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only shake – scene in a country.

The idea of Johannes fac totum, which means Johnny-do-everything, or simply jack of all trades, is very important in Greene’s criticism. It shows that Greene was simply jealous that Shakespeare was succeeding in different aspects of theatre practice. As a member and shareholder in the most popular theatre company of the time, in London, the Chamberlain – King’s Men, Shakespeare served the “troupe in triple capacity: as a playwright, actor, and business director”.

However, most of William Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw him differently. They held him in a high esteem. In an article entitled “The life of Shakespeare,” Schoenbaum (1972) summarises their perceptions of Shakespeare as follows:

Apart from Greene, none of his contemporaries seems to have uttered a malicious word about Shakespeare. Cheetle… praised his civil demeanor and uprightness of dealing. From others we hear of good will, sweat Shakespeare, friendly Shakespeare, so dear loved a neighbour. The actor Augustine Philips in 1605 remembered him in his will and bequeathed him thirty shilling pieces in gold. Praise did not easily come from Jonson, but in his Discoveries, when not under eulogistic obligations, he confessed that he loved the man and honoured his memory, on this side, idolatry. “He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions and gentle expressions.

The opinions of Shakespeare’s contemporaries suggest that Greene’s bitter criticism is driven by inferiority complex. He cannot understand why Shakespeare without university training should surpass those with such training in fame because he equates creativity with rank. But Shakespeare is a typical example that creativity does depend on possession of university degrees but on talent and hard work.

In Shakespeare at the Globe, Beckerman (1966) tells us that theatre work during the Elizabethan time was quite strenuous, more especially for people like Shakespeare who combined playwriting with acting. This overlapping job never allowed Shakespeare any opportunity at all to challenge Greene’s mere-verbal-quibble. In fact, as Munroe (2011) asserts, “when you succeed, you become more in demand and the more you are in demand the harder you have to work and study and discipline yourself”. That is exactly the case with William Shakespeare. He never spent his time on triviality.

Apart from theatre business, Shakespeare was a star in another dimension. He was a shrewd real – estate investor and agriculturalist. He had powerful estates in Stratford and London. All this made him to be exceedingly rich in his time. On dramaturgy, Shakespeare excelled in many genres of the drama. Although critics identified four genres, romantic comedy, chronicle, tragedy and tragicomedy, it is necessary to point out that the classification of Shakespeare’s plays into four categories is not exclusive. This is because his plays show overlapping tendencies. Shakespeare never obeyed the classical rules of the three unities and purity of genres.

His dramatic writings show indebtedness to past artistic endeavours and historical writings. There is sufficient evidence of his contact with Greaco – Roman literatures, Holinshed, and Plutarch. However, he gives penetrating analysis to borrowed ideas, turning every captured material into something of ineffable beauty. William Shakespeare died at the age of 52 years, leaving behind 37 stunning plays for humanity. The plays have continued to prove themselves as inexhaustible mines for criticism.

Shakespearean Comedy

Shakespeare wrote comedies unlike any other comedian. His comic plays- without lack of slapstick events show us the light and dark sides of life through the experience of love tangle garnished with wit-bantering, humours, puns and all kinds of disguise and mistaken identity. His comedies are not plays of complete lightheartedness for they do not always portray love, which is their major concern, as always rainbows and butterflies. This is because the universe of Shakespearean comedies is very unstable as usually we move constantly from light to darkness; from longing to despair; from the plain to the mysterious.

His comic view of life is ambiguous. In his comic world, we are thrown from unsafe territory to the world of absurd trivia, from the world of tumbling music to that of panic and anguish of the soul. In it, we encounter tornado of forces angling for unity. We encounter reality that is always shifting. All this tells us that we are not always what we claim to be and that situations are not usually what they seem to be.

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