Shakespeares Humor, Irony, and Language Play by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen 1 Humor in Shakespeares Comedies As an example of a Shakespearean comedy consider A Midsummer Nights Dream. It is a comedy of humors with many eccentric characters, but the magic in the play makes the characters even
funnier. Bottom, for example, ends up with the head of an ass. His name is Bottom, and in English, ones bottom is ones ass. 2 Humor in Shakespeares Romances The women in Shakespeares romances can be uppity until the last act, when everybody gets married and the natural order is restored (with the man in charge) so they can live happily ever after. This is true in Much Ado about Nothing, and it is also true in The Taming of the Shrew, where in the last act the shrew gets tamed. Romeo and Juliet is a romance that begins as a comedy and ends as a tragedy.
Mercutio is a mercurial or comic figure. When Romeo asks how badly he is wounded, he says, Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but tis enough, twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man. 3 Humor in Shakespeares Histories Mark Antonys speech in Julius Caesar is dripping with irony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones.
The noble Brutus hath told yo Caesar was ambitious; If it were so, it was a grievous fault. I thrice presented him a kinglyl crown, Which he did thrice refuse; was this ambition? 4 Humor in Shakespeares Tragedies The humor in Shakespeares tragedies is more important than is that in his comedies. When the tragedy becomes unbearable, Shakespears inserts humor not only for comic relief, but also to contrast with the stark tragedy that came before and will surely follow afterward. Here are some examples: The drunken porter scene in Macbeth
The fool-is-smarter-than-the-king dialogue in King Lear The Polonius in the wings speech in Hamlet And the grave diggers scene in Hamlet: Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horation; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning. 5 Comedy of Errors (1592) Alleen and I will discuss the humor, irony, and language play of Shakespearean plays going from 1592 to 1606. In the
process, we will contrast the humor of Shakespearean comedies with that in his tragedies, and well also contrast the humor of Shakespeares male characters vs. that of his female characters. Comedy of Errors (1592) is a knockabout farce, but a knockabout farce with a difference, because the characters in the play and the issues being presented are serious ones love, fidelity, and personal honor (Bryant 25). 6 The Taming of the Shrew (1593) The bawdiness of Petruchios and Katherines punning is illustrated in the following dialogue:
PETRUCHIO: come sit on me. KATHERINE: Asses are made to bear, and so are you. PETRUCHIO: Women are made to bear, and so are you. KATHERINE: No such jade as you, if me you mean. 7 As the dialogue continues, the punning becomes even stronger and more sexual: KATHERINE: If I be waspish, best beware of my sting. PETRUCHIO: My remedy is then to pluck it out. KATHERINE: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies. PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail. KATHERINE: In his tongue. PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?
KATHERINE: Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell. PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman--. (Colby 156) 8 In Act II, Scene I of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchios ironic speech overshadows Kates ironic speech which appears at the end of the play. Petruchio says, PETRUCHIO: Say that she rail, why then Ill tell her plain She sing as sweetly as a nightingale; Say that she frown, Ill say she looks as clear As morning roses newly washd with dew; Say she be mute, and will not speak a word, Then Ill commend her volubility.
9 Contrast Petruchios speech above with Katherines speech at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. Kate shows a last bit of defiance by saying that the sun is not the moon although Petruchio claims it to be. But she relents and through ironic exaggeration knows it is the moon (Evans 121, Bamber 35). KATHERINE: Forward, I pray, since we have come so far, And be it moon, or sun, or what you please; An if you please to call it a rush candle, Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me. PETRUCHIO: I say it is the moon. KATHERINE: I know it is the moon.
10 Thus Kate is tamed and Petruchio wins his wager; but Kate nevertheless retains her independence. By the end of the play, Katherine is more dominant than ever because she has learned how to phrase her attacks so irresistibly by humbly recognizing her own limitations and disarming resistance (Richmond 91). Kate uses her wit and intelligence and her undefiled spirit to show her equality to men, and teach the other women the rules by which to govern their marriages if they are to be independent as well (Madden 7-8). By the way, Petruchios name comes from the Greek word petros meaning stone or rock, thus demonstrating Petruchios strong, consistent, and willful nature.
At the end of the play, Petruchio proves that he has tamed Katherine by saying Why theres a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. (Levith 70) Thus providing the name for the musical comedy which is to follow. 11 Romeo and Juliet (1595) Romeo and Juliet has an ironically humorous death scene that not only advances the plot. It changes the genre of the play from a Romantic Comedy to a Tragedy. Mercurtio (a mercurial figure) has been portrayed in this play as a likeable and easy-going fellow, but in Act III, Scene i, Mercutio, who has been mortally wounded, reacts in his usual humorous fashion: MERCUTIO: No, tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a churchdoor, but tis enough; twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you
shall find me a grave man. I am pepperd, I warrant, for this world. (Evans 99) 12 A Midsummer Nights Dream (1594) In A Midsummer Nights Dream, a group of men are planning a performance to celebrate the wedding of Duke Theseus to Queen Hippolyta. In Act I, Scene ii, Nick Bottom, the vainest member of the group, tells the other characters that he would like to run the entire show. Bottom has already been given the role of Pyramus, but he also wants to play Thisby and the Lion as well. In fact, Bottom wants to enact all of the parts in this play within a play.
Let me play the lion too. I will roar, that I will do any mans heart good to hear me. I will roar, and I will make the Duke say, let him roar again; let him roar again. (Evans 73) 13 Bottom continues by saying, let me play Thisby too. Ill speak in a monstrous little voice. Let me play the lion too. I will roar that I will do any mans heart good to hear me. (Evans 226). Bottom attempts to add drama and suspense to the play by prolonging the death scene of his character, but in the process, he mixes up his lines and ends with a comical adlib: Thus die I, thus, thus, thus. Now am I dead. Now am I fled. Tongue lose thy light, Moon take thy flight, Now die, die, die, die, die (Evans 245).
Tom Snout is probably the most amusing character in this play within a play, for he must assume the role of a wall. He dons stones and mortar as a costume, and during the play, he spreads his fingers to symbolize a hole in the wall through which Pyramus and Thisby must kiss (Woodford 3-4). Here, Shakespeare is mocking himself and the theatrical profession by parodying his company and the relationships among the playwrights, the directors, and the actors (Homan 941). 14 In Act III, Scene I, Puck decides to have a bit of fun with Bottom. Puck replaces Bottoms head with the head of an ass, and because the Love in Idleness potion has already been placed in the
eyes of Titania, the queen of the fairies, she immediately falls in love with Bottom, bearing an asss head, as soon as she sees him. This example of someone named Bottom becoming an Ass is one example of the sexual punning that Shakespeare does in A Midsummer Nights Dream. 15 Another example is Snug the Joiner, since a joiner is a person who fits things together as people do in sex. Flute and Snout are English slang words for penis. Quince is a play on the word quointes, which was
the Middle English spelling for cunt. Quince is a carpenter, and works with wood, which rhymes with wode (madness), and which is also slang for a penis An erection in England is often called a woody. (Brewer 148). 16 The Merchant of Venice (1596) In The Merchant of Venice Shylocks daughter, Jessica, is forbidden by her father to marry a gentile, so she elopes with a Christian and steals her fathers money. Shylocks reaction to this is comicalhe doesnt know
which he values more, his money or his daughter. My daughter! O my Ducats!O my Daughter! Fled with a Christian!O my Christian ducats! (Act II, Scene viii). 17 Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is a character of contradictions. He is both unjustly sinner, and sinned against. Shylock appears in the midst of much pageantry, singing, dancing, and lovemaking, but he is seen as an intruder, oftentimes vicious usually devious, sometimes almost admirable, and occasionally pitiable (Bryant 83). As the play progresses, Antonio loses his ships at sea and is
therefore late in paying back the debt. The court is reluctantly forced to uphold Shylocks legal but immoral right to kill him. The court pleads with Shylock to have mercy, but Shylock refuses, even though he is offered three times the price of the debt. 18 The pound of flesh which I demand of him / is dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it: / If you deny me fie upon your law! (Act IV, Scene i) Then Portia comes into the courtroom disguised as a judge. She outwits Skylock by saying, Tarry a little; there is something else.-- / This bond doth give thee
here no jot of blood; / The words expressly are a pound of flesh; / Take then thy bond / But, in the cutting, if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate (Act IV, Scene ii). 19 Much Ado about Nothing (1598) It should be noted (pun intended) that the title of Much Ado about Nothing contains a pun. In Elizabethan English, nothing was pronounced very much like noting. This play in fact dramatizes the much ado which the characters make in their interpretation and
understanding of the world, and each other. The sophisticated gentlemen of Much Ado about Nothing tend to take noting in the sense of interpreting, resulting in a comedy of misunderstandings (Tuverson 1-2). 20 Much Ado about Nothing has three plots, and it is basically humor that holds these three plots together in a single play. The main plot is about Claudio and Hero, and the two subplots feature the witty arguments of Beatrice and Benedick on the one hand, and the comic fumbling of Dogberry and his friends on the other hand. The wit that is shown by Beatrice and Benedick in arguing their cases ranges from puns to conceptual wit, in which the characters use
allusive understatement and sophisticated logic (McCollom 73). When Dogberry gets excited his words get especially confused, Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover they have spoken untruths; secondarily,they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and to conclude, they are lying knaves (Evans 358). 21 In Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick dont so much disdain each other as they enjoy the enactment of disdain. Benedick shows his affection for Beatrice in an ironic way at the ball, when Beatrice has insulted him and he then asks Don Pedro for any excuse to leave the party. The fact is that he could have
left at any time on his own accord, but he says, Will your Grace command me any service to the worlds end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on; I will fetch you a toothpicker now from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester Johns foot, fetch you a hair off the great Champs berare, do you an embassage to the Pygmies, rather than hold three words conference with this harpy (Act II, Scene i). 22 But Benedick actually loves Beatrice, and he tries to write her a love poem. When he has difficulty, he is forced to ask Margaret for help
in the writing of his courtly love poetry: Marry, I cannot show it in rhyme; I have tried. I can find out no rhyme to lady but baby, an innocent rhyme; for scorn, horn, a hard rhyme; for school, fool, a babbling rhyme: very ominous endings. No, I was not born under a rhyming planet. 23 Dogberrys outrageous malapropisms and utter stupidity, such as They are condemnd into everlasting redemption (Act IV, Scene ii) in general provide occasion for some of the memorable merriment in this play (Bryant 142). Dinesh Biswas considers Dogberry to play a major part in the action of
Much Ado about Nothing, which is not normally the case for clowns. It is Dogberry who discovers and delays the exposure of the scene that provides the major tension of the play. It is his blunders that make the plays most suspenseful moments possible. By giving this critical role to a minor character, Shakespeare shows that much ado has been made about a matter that really was nothing (Biswas 189-190). 24 As You Like It (1599) Carrie Morene says that much of the humor, satire and irony of As You Like It resides in the words and actions of Rosalind, Jaques, and Touchstone.
Rosalind and Touchstone are whimsical yea-saying skeptics who affirm the values they seem to mock (Ornstein 141). Rosalind adopts the role of a saucy lacky, and in this guise she assures Orlando that he cant be Rosalinds true lover because he lacks the marks of a lover: a lean cheeka blue eye and sunkenan unquestionable spirita bear neglected hose ungartteredbonnet unbandedsleeve unbuttonedshoe untiedand everything about [him] demonstrating a careless desolution. At the end of this speech Rosalind (as Ganymede) says that Orlandos being well-groomed is suggestive of his loving himself [more] than seeming the lover of any other. 25 In As You Like It, Touchstone has the role of a
Court Jester, but he also contributes to the action of the play. One of his monologues is very similar to Cyrano de Bergeracs monologue about his nose, as he attempts to quarrel by the book. He describes the different degrees of argument as the Retort Courteous, the Quip modest, the Reply Churlish, the Reproof Valient, and so on. (Evans 399). 26 When Touchstone hears the romantic love poems which Orlando has written for Rosalind, Touchstone
taunts Rosalind by creating some parody verse of his own: Sweetest not hath sourest rind, / Such a nut is Rosalind (Evans 109-110). One of the most often quoted lines in all of Shakespeare appears in Act II of As You Like It: All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts. 27 Twelfth Night (1599) In sixteenth century England there were the twelve days of Christmas which
was followed by twelfth night, the title of one of Shakespeares plays. On the twelfth night, Christ was supposedly revealed to the Magi, who represented the Gentile world. The Twelfth Night was, therefore, the night of the Epiphany. It also became celebrated as a festive day of misrule. Servants took their masters places for a day and the lower orders were allowed impertinence against their betters that would have been heavily fined any other time of the year. The festivity generally celebrated the age of grace that Christ ushered in, the age in which it was revealed that human sins were already cleansed in the blood of Gods Son (Grawe 110-111). 28 In Twelfth Night, everyone is a fool except for the fool. Viola fools
others by dressing up as a man. Sir Toby fools Malvolio. The lovers fool themselves by pursuing characters who are not interested in them. Feste, on the other hand, knows them all for the fools that they are (Draper 211-212). Feste is perhaps the shrewdest character in Twelfth Night. He is an excellent manipulator and can quickly adapt his talents and wit to serve him in any situation. The tools of music, speech, and action are always in close reach of his clever mind. He confounds Sir Andrew with nonsense, and outwits his mistress with logical paradoxes. He wisely ascertains that he cannot entertain Malvolio at all and so he entertains himself at Malvolios expense (Draper 204). 29
Feste, the fool in Twelfth Night is a character reminiscent of the character of Vice in the Tudor morality plays. Vice was a crude character who taunted the Devil with a wooden dagger and rode off the stage on the Devils back (Hotson 84). Fest leaves the stage in the same way: I am gone, sir, / And anon, sir, / Ill be with you again, / In a trice, / Like to the old vice, / Your need to sustain; / Who, with dagger of lath, / In his rage and his wrath, / Cries, ah, ha! To the devil: / Like a mad lad, / Pare thy nails, dad; / Adieu, goodman devil (Evans 132). 30
Hamlet (1600) There is much irony in Hamlet. The most famous pun in Hamlet occurs after Hamlet decides to obey the ghost. Horatios question, To what issue will this come? is a play on that which issues from an arse, i.e. a fart, and Marcellus answers that Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Claudius, of course, is the state of Denmark, and it is Claudius which is rotten (Rubinstein 186). 31 When Horatio mentions that the funeral of
Hamlets father and the marriage of Hamlets mother come very close together, Hamlet ironically replies, Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral bakd meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. Hamlet gives this ridiculous explanation of his mothers hasty wedding ironically, in order to intensify his revulsion at the lust which he and Horatio both recognize as the real explanation (Booth, 177). 32 Much of the humor in the conversation between the two gravediggers in
Hamlet comes not from the words themselves, but rather from the contrast between the language of the men and their occupation (LEstrange 255): HAMLET: Whose Graves this, sirrah? CLOWN/GRAVEDIGGER: Mine, sir. HAMLET: What man dost thou dig it for? CLOWN: For no man, sir. HAMLET: What woman then? CLOWN: For none neither. HAMLET: Who is to be buried int? CLOWN: One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, shes dead. HAMLET: How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us. (Act 5, Scene i) 33
Hamlets soliloquy as he talks to poor Yoricks skull in this same scene seems less concerned that the life is gone than that the laughter is gone. It begins, Alas, Poor Yorick. I knew him well. And it continues, He hath borne me on his back a thousand times. And now how abhorred to my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissd I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the tables on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfalln? Now get you to my ladys chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that. (Act V, Scene i) Hamlet considered Yorick to be a fellow if infinite jest, of most
excellent fancy. 34 King Lear (1605) Northrup Frye says that in King Lear, Shakespeare is ironically parodying a tragic situation. Many of Shakespeares play contain a fool, a clown, a jester, or a madman, but the fool in King Lear is not so much of a fool as the king is. In fact, at one point in the play, the fool says, Nuncle! Would I had two coxcombs and two daughers? Lear asks, Why, my boy? and the fool responds, If I gave them all my living, Ill keep the coxcombs myself. Theres mine; beg another of thy daughters (Muir 39). The fool is here saying that he would give something to his daughters if he had daughters, but he would still keep the cap so that he could make a living. He is further telling Lear that he has given everything to his daughters, and this means that he must now beg his
daughters for a living (Lin 8). When the King says, Dost thou call me a fool, boy? the fool replies, All the other titles thou has given away; that thou wast born with (Evans 441). 35 Macbeth (1606) There is very dark humor and irony in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth taunts her husband by equating his desires to kill the king with his sexual promises. She links his twin deeds of assassination and lovemaking (Homan 940). The play Macbeth also contains the famous drunken porter scene of Act 2, Scene iii. This scene comes between the murder of King Duncan and the discovery of his body, and is therefore the most tense moment of the play.
The audience is in an extreme state of arousal, as the drunken porter, before answering the loud knocking at the castle gate, decides to play the role of the gate keeper in Hell. In his fantasy, he opens the gates of Hell to admit a failed farmer, an equivocator, and an English tailor, before he, in reality, actually opens the castle gate and admits the messenger. 36 The drunken porter scene is comic relief, and occurs at a time in the play when the audience needs comic relief. But the comic relief of the drunker porter scene also adds to the tragedy of the play in two ways:
First, it allows the audience to take a breath and prepare themselves for more tragedy. And second, it provides a comic foil against which the tragedy becomes even more tragic (Derks 52). 37 38 Conclusion # 1: Shakespeares Tragedies vs. Shakespeares Comedies Shakespearean tragedy is engaging, while Shakespearean comedy is transcending. But they are different in another way as well.
Northrup Frye says, just as comedy often sets up an arbitrary law and then organizes the action to break or evade it, so tragedy presents the reverse theme of narrowing a comparatively free life into a process of causation. (166) This process of causation happens in Macbeth when he accepts the logic of usurpation, to Hamlet when he accepts the logic of revenge, to Lear when he accepts the logic of abdication (Frye 212). 39 Frye says that in comedy there tends to be a tricky slave (dolosus servus) that is an eiron figure who acts from a pure love of mischief, and is able to set the comic action
going (212). Some of these tricky slaves or vices can be as lighthearted as Puck in A Midsumer Nights Dream, or as malevolent as Don John in Much Ado about Nothing (Frye 137). Shakespeares comedies also have a buffoon character, which Frye describes as an entertainer. He is jovial and loquacious and both Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch are examples (Frye 175). 40 Conclusion # 2: Women in Shakespeares Comedies Carol Neely suggests that in Shakespeares comedies there are four women whose
skills at logic, wit, and language play make them as strong as the strongest of Shakespeares men. These women are Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Rosalind in As You Like It. Katharine ends up subjecting herself to marriage, but is able to keep her independence in the end. Portia, the most intellectual of the women, takes on the disguise of a male lawyer in order to prove her superior intellect to the men of Venice. 41 Beatrice uses her charming intellect to match wits with Benedick, thus proving her equality.
And Rosalind disguises herself as a man, in which guise she befriends her own lover and takes control of all the events around her, making sure that everything comes to a happy conclusion. These plays all begin in a mans world, but the women come in and take over, and by their intelligence and wit, they transform the men from foolish lovers intowe hopesensible husbands (Neely 215). In her Shakespearean Comedy, Chintamani Desai notes that whenever Shakespeare has a battle of wits between a man and a woman the woman is bound to win. Much of Shakespearean Comedy is the result of the clash between the male and female intelligences. They hinge on the conflict between their wits. And in this conflict, man is the loser. For wit is womans special quality as well as weapon (Desai 45). 42
William Shakespeares Humor: William Shakespeares Humor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare 43
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