Laughing with Shakespeare
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Language is always going to be a problem when it comes to getting Shakespeare's jokes. I defy most people to say that they fully understand what is being said on stage. Dedicated academics and theatrical directors who have committed a lifetime to the plays have a distinct advantage. But, if you don’t know the story, haven’t see the Kenneth Brannagh version on the big screen, didn’t study it at school, then enjoying a play, especially when it is supposed to be funny, can be hard.
The history plays, which contain all the politics, national and international incidents, wars in many cases, and all the other tough subjects to grapple with are not very entertaining. They're not meant to be fun, of course. But, similar things are happening now, and these plays have relevance today, so something comes across.
The tragedies are much more dramatic and full of impact in a visual sense, and as such are probably easier to understand. On stage violence, aggression, anger, swordplay, poisoning, torture, murder, suicide. All kinds of hostility and depravity. Then there’s the mood. A sense of despair, awfulness, inevitability, all too apparent and irreversible.
Julius Caesar - demonstrably cut up about events on stage
Photo via Stratford-upon-Avon-theatre.blogspot.com
For me, the real problem plays are the comedies. I want to be able to laugh when I go to a comedy gig. I expect the same from a piece of comic theatricality. I want to be rolling in the aisles. Well, not really. But to be amused, at least. The big question with the comedy plays is ‘how do you tell when something is funny in Shakespeare’s world?’ War and murder are still the same, but jokes have moved on since then, surely?
Shakespeare photo via PoetryFoundation.org
Where do we start? It’s not all about language, of course. There is always some element of visual comedy. Slapstick, even, at times. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream we see Nick Bottom appearing with the head of a donkey. Silly ass. Then Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, falls in love with Bottom. Even sillier ass. And then we have the ludicrous scene between Pyramus and Thisbe, where Snout represents ‘Wall’ and forms a chink through which the classical lovers must kiss.
Judy Dench (right) as Titania, falling in love with an Ass in 1968
Photo via alwaysiambic.tumblr.com
Dame Judy Dench reprising her role in A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2010
Photo via The Daily Telegraph
Shakespeare’s comedies often draw heavily on the theme of mistaken identity or mistaken gender. This is usually deliberate, with deceit considered by the characters to be fair game, or at least an acceptable means to an end. Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night both pretend that they are men, with all the comic possibilities that affords. In Shakespeare's day, in these roles, he had men pretending to be women pretending to be men. The casting is more sensible now, though perhaps less fun.
Imogen Stubbs as Viola disguised as Cesario in Twelfth Night
Alternatively, much comic action is exhibited by fools, either madmen or those who should know better but have simply lost the plot. It’s not always obvious who is talking sensibly, though some speak some profound lines. Jaques (As You Like), Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing) and Malvolio (Twelfth Night) make varying degrees of sense.
Shakespeare’s comedies are frequently about things that are strange but not necessarily funny. They rely on a lot of clever arguments which can be a bit drawn out in order to fill stage time. Many of these arguments are between men and women, and involve romance and marriage. Often multiple marriages, with pairings that have been switched around at some point in the play, and sometimes back again. OK, some aspects of that are funny, I grant you.
L-R Olivia, Viola/Cesario, & Orsino in a typical comic love triangle, in Twelfth Night
Quite a lot of this, in fact, can be amusing. But all of this only gets us so far. Shakespeare rarely seems to want to go the whole hog with his humour, and invariably seems to have a serious point to put across. His comedies are never just about slapstick, stupid things to say, and the love games between men and women. The dialogue that contains this seriousness can sometimes obscure the comic elements, and we are entitled to ask ‘is the play really that funny after all?’
In a fantastic BBC spoof Shakespeare documentary, Cunk on Shakespeare, Philomena Cunk claims that Shakespeare’s plays are not very funny, but adds that jokes hadn’t been invented then.
“If you go to watch a Shakespeare comedy today you’ll hear the audience laughing as though there are jokes in it, even though there definitely aren’t. That’s how clever Shakespeare is”.
The Comedy of Errors or the error of comedies ?
Photo via Shakespearesglobe.com
I tend to agree with Philomena. It really does feel sometimes as if there aren’t any real jokes in the plays at all. None that are funny, anyway. All the more frustrating, then, when we see and hear the cast having a roisterous time on stage, frolicking around, cracking up at the slightest opportunity. They seem to be having a really good time. But do the cast really find their lines funny? Do they even understand what they are saying? I sometimes wonder. For some theatre companies, it seems, it's a bonus if the audience gets the point.
Still, one thing I am certain about is that you only really give yourself a chance to enjoy the humour if you go to see a play. Reading the text is simply not enough.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good one to start with. And maybe As You Like It next. The Taming of the Shrew is brilliant, too, but be careful what you’re laughing at – you might upset someone. And you can't go far wrong with Twelfth Night or What You Will. Mind you, I'd recommend steering clear of Measure for Measure, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Much Ado About Nothing. These plays really aren’t very funny. But then, I suspect that not many people share my sense of humour!
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
See As You Like It (Connected Cultures) for a review of a wonderful evening of theatrical entertainment in the open air
Watch Your Head - theatre company