A dark stage. Candles casting an ominous glow on faux-stone walls. A dejected actor in outdated clothing with a skull in one hand. This is Shakespeare.
While that’s true, in part, it remains a sad reality that our exposure to Shakespeare fixates on his tragedies and an occasional history. This is ironic, given that falling in love captivates most high school and college students. Shakespeare’s tragedies demonstrate some of his most impressive and captivating creations. And yet, focusing only on the tragic distorts our picture of the sheer breadth of Shakespeare’s genius, as displayed in his capacity to convey a wide spectrum of experiences. T.S. Eliot once made the provocative comment that the world is divided between Dante and Shakespeare, and that there is no third. Eliot underscores Shakespeare’s skill in that while Dante expresses the very lowest lows and highest heights of human experience, it is Shakespeare that gives to us its breadth.
And so, in the interest of forming a more complete idea of Shakespeare’s contribution to Western culture, we turn to his commentaries on a more lighthearted side of living: the absurdities of falling in love as depicted in his comedies.
When you’re approaching Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s helpful to keep a few things in mind:
1. Genre: Comedy is about falling in love. You can be almost certain that if you’re reading a comedy, you’re going to run into at least one wedding. Shakespeare seems to enjoy taking us along a path where the wonder of falling in love is imperiled, only to resurrect the beauty of reunion and the hope of consummation.
2. Character: Some characters are there just to make you laugh, so laugh! Noted Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt argues that in the comedies, the main characters in the plot often speak in a loftier, aristocratic tone, but that there are also characters whose sole purpose is to serve as comic relief.
3. Mood: Don’t be surprised when there are darker elements. While the comedies are generally characterized by their lightheartedness, Shakespeare demonstrates his genius by intertwining darker elements. Shakespeare gives us a painfully realistic picture of the pitfalls lovers face and the ardor with which these obstacles are overcome.
4. Setting: Sometimes you have to leave the city to fall in love. A striking feature of the comedies is that many involve a sort of escape from social norms, and that often involves leaving the normativity of “civilized” city life for more rural settings. Hearkening back to the Greco-Roman genre of pastoral, these changes in scenery carry with them a change of disposition: people tend to become softer, more relaxed, more charitable. In short, the atmosphere is conducive for falling in love.
5. Appearance versus Reality: Things are not always as they seem, but that can be a good thing. The comedies give us a variety of situations of mistaken identity, costuming, secret admirers, etc. Shakespeare constructs his comedies to give us both the positive and negative aspects of the disparity between what seems to be and what actually is. The miracle of the comedies is that while such confusion can so easily result in disaster (as in the gut-wrenching scene of Malvolio’s humiliation in Twelfth Night), there is still a chance for it to result in happiness (see: As You Like It).
The comedies capture the experience of having indescribable joy in an often non-ideal world. While it is true that as Shakespeare’s life and career progressed, his themes took on a darker tone—it was the time in which he wrote some of his greatest tragedies—it nevertheless serves us as readers to be reminded of his lighthearted moments. In everything from farce to courtly romance, Shakespearepours his talent into demonstrating that even though the world can be a dark, sad, cruel place, a playful lightheartedness and consummate love is possible. There is still great cause for hope.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
As You Like It
Much Ado About Nothing
Twelfth Night, or What you Will