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Shakespeare and the Genre of Comedy

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   1 Introduction Traditionally in the field of aesthetics the genres of comedy and tragedy have been depicted in opposition to one another. Within the resulting hierarchy of dramatic forms comedy had been relegated to an inferior position, the reason for this being a  paternalistic preoccupation with the identification and validation of particular objects considered suitable for intellectual scrutiny. If tragedy is regarded as the  philosophically superior of the two genres, and an implicitly masculine form in this dialectic, then comedy, because of its ‘popular’ historical identification with social mores, is relegated to an inferior position. This thesis seeks to reconsider the place of comedy as an object of serious intellectual enquiry, and will argue that its historical importance traces a dialectical movement that informs both the aesthetic form itself, and the passage of history. Indeed, the dialectic of desire that informs comedy, and that always poses a threat to the existing order, may be said to resemble the dialectical movement of history itself as a process whereby existing social tensions are identified and negotiated. It will be argued that Shakespeare’s comedies represent these conflicts in particular ways, and that the conclusions that they reach leave a residue of unresolved tensions that remain to threaten even the revisionary order that the plays  posit. The dialectic of comedy that this thesis identifies exposes the inherent tension that is present in all antitheses, and the argument proceeds by making the contradictions inherent in the form explicit. Comedy is concerned primarily with the categories of the explicitly sexual and the implicitly political, and in the case of Shakespeare, the interest is in patriarchal law: the patriarchal law sanctioned by the state, but also what is presumed to be natural law. Thus although the substance of   2 comedy may be said to emphasise the libidinal energies that seek to challenge that law, its manner of dealing with this potentially disruptive force is anything but irrational or inconsequential since it attempts to resolve tensions and dilemmas through forms of rational   discussion. In fact, it will be argued that the initial hypotheses of Shakespearean comedy lead directly to the exposure of contradictions that mount challenges to their claims to represent the source of truth. These hypotheses, often involving the assertions of patriarchal law, function as obstacles that require resolution. But that resolution involves more than simply a capitulation to the extant power; indeed, what we might call the idiom of patriarchy requires to be expanded and transformed in order to accommodate those energies that it seeks initially to neutralise. To this extent comedy is frequently involved in a process of cross-examination, deploying as it does a Socratic method whose momentum simulates that of the progress of a law - suit. In its inclusivity, comedy resembles   the   Hegelian dialectic   insofar as it is concerned ultimately with epistemological questions that inform the business of living in society. Some recourse to a Hegelian historicism will be an important component of the following arguments because it indicates that all human societies, and, indeed, human activity generally, are defined by their histories, to the point where their essences can only be understood through history as the operation of a temporal dialectic. The relationship between Shakespearean comedy and the canonical law of literary genre will be explored within this context. But close scrutiny will reveal that far from resolving   contradiction, the diacritical method that the following arguments identify disclose, often involuntarily, an ontological undecidability that offers momentary glimpses of other possibilities. In this way Shakespeare’s comic art   3 interrogates both the existing order, and the commonplace by occasionally (and temporarily) propelling its audiences towards visions of alternative futures. The social specificity of comedy acts as a counter to any claims to universalism. Humour and laughter, the phenomenological effects of comedy, are notoriously poor travellers as indicated by the nature of regional and geographically specific jokes. The same might be said of the temporal dimension of comedy since topicality is a constant trigger for humour. Moreover, the appearance of jokes and comic interludes immediately following traumatic events, validate the process as a means of ameliorating, if not purging, social anxiety. Elizabethan and Jacobean culture and the comedies that they produced are of particular interest precisely  because of the traumatic and often perplexing paradigm shifts that were taking place at the time. The anxieties that these shifts produced are recorded in historical documents, but they are also theatrically represented in stage-plays, that, as historical artefacts themselves encode at a domestic level these intense social concerns. In Chapter 1 the choice of genre will be introduced as a source of historical evaluation: that is to say, initial emphasis will be placed upon the dramatist’s conscious endeavour to represent aesthetically intense socio-political upheaval from within a particular frame of consciousness. A dramatist may enter into a form of contract with an audience by declaring that a play belongs to one particular genre, but the conventions of generic nomenclature are rarely as stable as this suggests, as evidenced in the titular changes in the Comedies themselves. For example, the interchangeability of the genres of ‘comedy’ and ‘history’ during the Elizabethan  period require some degree of articulation since both forms represent renewals of social harmony that follow on from the disorder of a diseased body politic. In focussing on the awareness that comedy is a kind of festive form of history, it is   4 necessary to trace initially the outline of Renaissance definitions of comedy that emphasise the festive nature of the theatre as an institution. C.L.Barber’s definition of comedy as “a kind of history” 1  privileges an historicist methodology that asserts an understanding of the srcinal context of reception. Barber’s view of comic history as “the kind that frames the mind to mirth” 2  recalls Hayden White’s identification of comedy as an historical mode of ‘emplotment’ that uses the trope of synecdoche to integrate parts into a larger historical whole where “struggle, strife, and conflict are dissolved in the realisation of  perfect harmony.” 3  Although the following arguments make little explicit use of Barber’s Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy  (1959) they do owe a debt of gratitude to his study of the historical nature of Shakespearean comedy. His description of the fusing together of Classical, Medieval and Renaissance theatrical traditions with early modern forms of holiday festivity points towards the significance of ritual as “a  paradoxical human need, problem and resource.” 4  Barber’s work has subsequently  been taken up and developed by scholars such as Francois Laroque, and Naomi Conn Liebler, 5  but he does not elaborate on the politics of race and gender that contemporary criticism now recognises as an important element in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy. The politics of comedy can be viewed with greater clarity as a result of the  juxtaposing of law and low culture, the sacred and the profane, or indeed the tragic and comic elements of everyday experience. This is theorised and applied in Chapter 1  C.L.Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy , (Princeton, 1959), p.12 2    Ibid. 3  Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in CulturalCriticism , (Baltimore and London, 1985),  pp.67-8 4   Op.cit. , p.15 5  Francois Laroque, Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the  Professional Stage , (Cambridge, 1991), and Naomi Conn Liebler, Shakespeare’s Festive Tragedy: The  Ritual Foundations of Genre , (New York and London,1995).
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