Festive Comedy

by   |  10.13.09  |  221-Early Modern

    Most students come to college with some familiarity with the plays of William Shakespeare, but often these previous experiences were with tragedies. What many of these students find surprising then is that the immortal Bard, the Sweet Swan of Avon, could also tell a joke. As a young playwright, Will was actually quite fond of them, writing almost as many comedies as tragedies and histories combined. He enjoyed laughing at the madness of love, puncturing self-conceit, and wordplay, lots of wordplay. Shakespeare's early comedies like A Comedy of Errors and Midsummer Night's Dream are light, airy confections dependent upon puns and mistaken identity; later in his career William began to develop more complicated, layered forms of comedy that balanced festivity with solemnity, young love with menace, light with shadow, but more on that later. For now, take a few minutes to read Susan Snyder's introduction to The Genres of Shakespeare's Plays (labeled “Session 1”) and then return to this assignment to complete the exercise below.

    Shakespeare's Genres – Session 1

Genre in the Video Store Exercise

    Even if you've never used the word “genre” outside of an English class, you've no doubt had passionate debates on the subject while standing in the aisles of a video store. You can't walk into a Blockbuster without overhearing the couple next to you discussing which movie they'll rent: he wants something with a car chase and she wants something sweet but not too sad. Questions of genre are a familiar part of video-store culture, influencing every part of the ritual down to the organization of the store itself.

    Before class, list as many broad types of movie as you can, starting with the basic categories and then dividing this list into subgenres if possible. These categories are always just behind our first response to a new movie. When someone says they liked or didn't like the new Julia Roberts movie, they are silently comparing it to other films she has starred in or other favorite romantic comedies. To adapt Susan Snyder's observation,

      In recognizing such habits as [improbable plots and witty dialogue in a romantic comedy] . . . we construct a notion of a [film's] modus operandi that in turn conditions our reactions as dialogue and action unfold. A sense of the norms of genre guides us through that unfolding: prompting sympathy or detachment, highlighting the significance of what we witness, and raising expectations about what is to come. The [screenwriter/director] may also at times invoke generic codes in order to play against them, refusing to fulfill the expectations he has aroused and thus pointing us in a marked new direction. (“Session 1” )

    List 2 or 3 examples of recent films that raise expectations based on genre only to fulfill them or play against them. Then in 2-3 sentences, explain how the audience's understanding of these norms is used or manipulated. We'll return to this conversation in class.

Comic Genres Review

    The term Shakespearean Comedy is deceptively singular. No single definition or narrowly-defined genre can contain the 14 plays listed as comedies in the 1623 First Folio, including plays as diverse as Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Neither did Shakespeare draw on a single tradition or set of models, varying his methods as often as his material.

    Return to Susan Snyder's The Genres of Shakespeare's Plays web-seminar and read “Session 4.” Pay special attention to descriptions of the festive (or festival) roots of English Comedy. You might list festive characteristics you can reflect on as you finish reading the play.

    Shakespeare's Genres – Session 4

    Reread Feste's clowning scene with Sir Andrew and Sir Toby from Act 2, scene 3 (1096-1100). Then watch the following clip from a 1996 film adaptation. You probably noticed the similarities between Feste's lyrics and the carpe diem tradition. If the enemy of love in carpe diem poetry is time, in Twelfth Night what are the enemies of comedy or the festive spirit? If specific characters come to mind, what values or ideas do they represent?

    Present Mirth clip