Classical and Renaissance Theories of Comedy

The following (with the exception of my ‘hilarious’ additions) is taken from David Galbraith’s Theories of Comedy, which forms the first chapter of Alexander Leggatt’s The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy (Cambridge University Press, 2002). They should be helpful when considering different views of comedy in your coursework essay on Much Ado About Nothing, and should be referenced using footnotes, as well as in a bibliography.

General Ideas

Would Shakespeare have known / cared about classical and Renaissance theories of comedy?

Shakespeare’s comedies in particular resist theoretic and generic pigeonholing. In fact, Shakespeare seems to take up the language of Renaissance genre theory only to parody it. Polonius catalogues the range of dramatic players […] Bottom is equally confident of his ability to make generic distinctions: “What is Pyramus?” He asks Peter Quince, “a lover or a tyant?” echoing the distinction between comic and tragic protagonists which the classical tradition had put into place and which is parodied in the generic confusion of Quince’s title, “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” (1.2.11-22)… Shakespeare’s parodies would make no sense if these ideas of the genre were not firmly in place. (pp. 3-4)

Classical Theories of Comedy: Aristotle, Plato and Euanthius

The most famous classical commonplace on the topic of laughter was Aristotle‘s claim, in The Parts of Animals, that ‘no animal but man ever laughs’ […] Not all later commentators, however, accepted the potential implication of this assertion, that laughter might even be constitutive of humanity. Many viewed laughter and the comic as potentially dangerous.’ (p. 5)

So laughing is what makes us human, but it’s also really dangerous. What? Why?

Plato. Not exactly a barrell of laughs…

In Book III of The Republic, Plato advised that the guardians of the people “must not be prone to laughter. For ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter his condition provokes a violent reaction.” Plato goes on to suggest that “if anyone represents men of worth as overpowered by laughter we must not accept it.” (p. 6)

Plato doesn’t sound much fun!

In Book X of The Republic, Plato worried that comedy led its spectators to accept what they would otherwise repudiate, arguing that “in comic representations, or for that matter in private talk, you take intense pleasure in buffooneries that you would blush to practise yourself, and do not detest them as base.” (The Republic, 831) (p. 6)

Can we get back to Aristotle please? He sounds a bit less uptight about it all.

In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to posit a “middle state” between the buffoon and the “ready-witted man.” The former “is the slave of his sense of humour, and spares neither himself or others if he can raise a laugh”; the latter displays the sense of tact and “jokes well by his saying what is not unbecoming to a well-bred man…” (Nichomachean Ethics, II, 1780).

That sounds a bit more reasonable.

Aristotle. A much better choice of dinner party guest.

Aristotle […] suggests a progression from the Old Comedy of Aristophanes to the New Comedy of which Menander would become the most important practitioner: “to the authors of the former, indecency of language was amusing, to those of the latter innuendo is more so” (On Drama, 42) (pp. 6, 9)

So Aristotle saw comedy as becoming increasingly sophisticated. And what about the Euanthius guy?

The classical grammarian Euanthius locates the origins of both tragedy and comedy “in religious ceremonies which the ancients held to give thanks for the good harvest” (On Drama, 41). The name comedy (comoedia in Latin) is derived, he suggests, from the Greek term “villages” (komai) and “song” (oide), and refers to the songs sung to Apollo, “the guardian of shepherds and villages” (On Drama, 41).

Apollo. The real reason behind it all. Maybe.
Apollo. The real reason behind it all. Maybe.

Fascinating. So comedy isn’t just ‘the opposite of tragedy’, then?

Of the many differences between tragedy and comedy, the foremost are these: in comedy the fortunes of men are middle-class, the dangers are slight and the ends of the action are happy; but in tragedy, everything is the opposite – the characters are great men, the fears are intense, and the ends disastrous. In comedy the beginning is troubled, the end tranquil; in tragedy events follow the reverse order. And in tragedy the kind of life is shown that is to be shunned; while in comedy the kind is shown that is to be sought after. Finally in comedy, the story is always fictitious; while tragedy often has a basis in historical truth. (Euanthius, On Drama, 45) (pp. 10-11)

Oh. So would Shakespeare have known about all these classical theories?

Renaissance Theories of Comedy: Erasmus, Robortello and Castelvetro

For Erasmus, comedy was particularly valuable for its techniques of characerisation. […] Although comedy tends to rely on comic types and conventional plots, the successful comic poet ought nonetheless to aim to impart “individual characteristics even within these general types.” (p. 11)

Erasmus of Rotterdam. Or anywhere...
Erasmus of Rotterdam. He was a Dutch Renaissance Humanist. Which is more than any of us can say…

To make them more realistic, presumably. What about Robortello?

Drawing on Aristotle’s account of the components of tragedy, Francesco Robortello attempts to formulate an analagous model of the parts of comedy in his essay on the genre: Since the imitation of Comedy is not only of low and trifling affairs, such as take place in the private actions of people, but also of disturbances, there should also be present that which is taken from the nature and custom of human actions, which always have in them something troublesome or distressing. (Of Comedy, 232) (p. 12)

Cool. And Castelvetro?

Castelvetro. Very brainy.
Castelvetro. Super brainy, but a bit shifty-looking.

Lodovico Castelvetro brings back whole classes of material which had been excluded from the stage in earlier accounts of comedy. […] There are, he argues, four classes of phenomena which provoke laughter:

  1. “everything that becomes ours after we have desired it long or ardently”;
  2. “deceptions, as when a person is made to say, do, or suffer what he would not say, do or suffer unless he were deceived”;
  3. “wickedness of the soul and physical deformities”;
  4. “all the things to do with carnal pleasure, like the privy parts, sexual intercourse, and the memories and representations of both”

(Castelvetro, On the Art of Poetry, 214-18) (p. 13)

Well Shakespeare uses all of those in Much Ado About Nothing! Are you saying that he was just following a standard set of generic rules for comedy-writing?

Shakespeare and Early Theories of Comedy

Dramatic practice in public theatres offered a very different viewpoint on comedy. In Every Man out of his Humour, [Ben] Jonson has Cordatus summarise the evolution of the genre in his argument that: “we should enjoy the same license, or free power, to illustrate or heighten our inuention, as they did; and not bee tyed to those strict and regular formes, which the nicenesse of a few (who are nothing but forme) would thrust vpon us.” (Ben Jonson, Every Man out of his Humour, I.i.266-70)

Oh. So they were free to break the rules…

Shakespeare’s comic practice provides a compelling illustration of this license. “[The mingling of kings and clowns” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the deux ex machina of Hymen at the end of As You Like It; the real threat of violent death in The Merchant of Venice […] each seems inconsistent with much of the comic theory I have described. […]

So Shakespeare couldn’t have cared less about all the theories of comedy?

"What's that you say? Theories of Comedy? I'll do As I Like (It), thank you very much!"
“What’s that you say? Theories of Comedy? I’ll do As I Like (It), thank you very much!”

[S]imply to dismiss the relevance of this theoretical tradition would be too hasty […] That we laugh “when a person is made to say, do or suffer what he would not say, do or suffer unless he were deceived” throws light on the gulling of Malvolio in Twelfth Night; that we are amused by “all the things to do with carnal pleasure” the bawdy repartee of Love’s Labour’s Lost Or Much Ado About Nothing.

Hmmm… So he was influenced by them, but not so much that he felt he had to stick to all the rules.

Shakespeare’s art is at the same time embedded in the traditions of the comic stage and engaged in a continual transformation and renewal of its sources. Any assessment of his relationship to early theories of comedy must come to terms with both aspects of this relationship. pp. 14-15)

Excellent. Thanks!


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