I picked up this guide because I recently finished reading through a superset of Shakespearean comedies. By a superset I mean all the plays that are unambiguously classed as comedies (e.g. “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Merry Wives of Winsor,” etc.,) but also the ones called “problem plays” (i.e. “Troilus and Cressida,” “Measure for Measure,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”) and some late plays that are sometimes called “romances” (e.g. “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.”) Having read 18 plays [in some cases] called Shakespeare’s comedies, I had questions that I hoped the book would help to answer.
The first such question is “what’s a comedy?” I was somewhat familiar with various literary definitions, but still plays like “Measure for Measure,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and even [in ways] “The Merchant of Venice” seem a bit dark – regardless of how things worked out for the lead character in the end. I was pleased to learn that I’m not the only one befuddled by this question. It turns out there is a great deal of debate among scholars on the topic. This topic is discussed in the introduction, in an epilogue, and at various points in between. The epilogue looks at one variation on the question, which is “When did Shakespeare stop writing comedies?” The reason is that his latter plays that are classed as comedies (on folios, playbills, and by scholars) tend be much more mixtures of tragedy and comedy.
The book is organized into five chapters, each of which takes on a different characteristic of the plays. I liked this arrangement as it allowed the author to compare and contrast Shakespeare’s work with his contemporaries on crucial aspects of a play. A recurring theme throughout the book is to consider what the norm was for comedies during that period and then to look at how Shakespeare followed, bent, or blew up the rules.
Though I liked the organization, I found some of the chapters more intriguing than others. The first, entitled “World,” explores setting. One major distinction between Shakespeare’s comedies and those of his peers is discussed in depth. While it was common to set comedies in urban environs, Shakespeare wrote a lot of forest scenes, and while he employed even more urban settings, van Es argues that the urban settings are forest-like in terms of expansiveness.
Chapter two examines wit in the works of Shakespeare. In doing so, it differentiates humor and wit and suggests the latter was more Shakespeare’s forte. The author also considers where Shakespeare’s wit is most clever and where it is ham-handed or even out-done by his contemporaries. One thing that I wish there was more of would have been elucidation of peculiarities of humor and wit of the day. There is some of this, and I did learn some new things. Still, when one is reading Shakespeare, no matter how much one is engaged by the story, there are references that one doesn’t know what to make of because while they must have made perfect sense in the lexicon of the time, they are meaningless (or divergently meaning) in today’s language. Some of these can readily be Googled, but not all. I have seen books that systematically explain such terms and phrases, but this one only offers a few examples.
Chapter three is about the theme of love. There is a lot that seems strange to modern sensibilities in Shakespeare’s work as pertains to love and relationships. Take “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Helena can have anything she wants from the King of France (who she cured of a fistula) but she insists on marrying Bertram — a man who despises her, resents her for what he views as having tricked her, thinks he is vastly better than her, and (worst of all) is not. How tricking a disgruntled jerk – Count or no – into moving back to live with one is considered a happy ending is hard to fathom. This was another area in which I was reassured to find that I’m not the only one who found some of the relationship matters bizarre.
Chapter four is about the element of time. During Shakespeare’s era it was normal for a comedy to take place over the course of a day – i.e. a short period. A couple of Shakespeare’s early comedies comply with this norm, but that is less and less the case as his works progress. “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale” both see infants grow into marriageable age (granted that was like 12 in back in those days, but still) over the course of a play. [Granted, not everyone would class those works as comedies.]
Chapter five was by far the most interesting to me. It discusses the idea of characters, and it does so largely by employing E.M. Forester’s conception of flat versus round characters. Comedies of the day relied heavily – if not exclusively – on flat characters. Characters that were like caricatures, having simple motivations and little of the depth that might make them relatable or sympathetic. The author argues that Shakespeare increasingly wrote characters that were – to a person — round. Shakespeare was often able to gain comedic effect by making characters seem flat at times for which it was called. However, it’s also considered that this need for roundness might explain why Shakespeare’s late “comedic” plays are far less clearly comedic than one might expect.
The book has graphics, references, and a further reading section.
Chapter five and the epilogue really improved my view of this guide. I was not displeased with it prior to that point, but didn’t think it offered any great value-added to my understanding of the topic. However, in the end I found the book highly informative and useful. If you’re looking for a concise, no-nonsense guide to Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s worth having a look.