There is no debating the fact that studying Shakespeare is more central to any Western English course today than it has ever been before. Yet when observing reactions to his comedies, seldom does one glimpse a smile or hear a cackle from those reading the text or observing the performance. This raises several questions: does placing such a large emphasis on reading Shakespeare in the curriculum prevent him from amusing today’s audiences? Or is it the isolation of the text from the realm of performance? Or should the blame be placed on the ‘comedies’ themselves, that fail to invoke contemporary humour in today’s context? And does all this undermine the appeal of these texts to a 21st Century society, or is there room for revitalisation?
I believe the answer to the final question is yes, and that there are means by which Shakespearean comedy can tickle even the palette of today’s humour, due to the nature of the text itself and the encouragement of live performance.
Right now proving this seems a stupendous challenge, as memories of glossing over ‘funny’ scenes in A-level English classes spring to mind, faced with the prospect of analysing why the Jacobeans found syphilis so entertaining. Our sense of humour clearly does evolve, and is shaped by cultural differences in perspective. A quick glance at Youtube will show the bizarre differences between Japanese entertainment and our own. Yet even Western taste is diverse in its own right, as the British satirical sarcasm of popular shows such as Mock the Week or black, dry comedy of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels contrast starkly with the slapstick romantic comedy that is so popular in the United States.
Acknowledging this cultural diversity makes it even more important to find living humour in comedies written for an audience that existed over four centuries ago. If as a consequence we accept the fact there are no objective yardsticks that determine what is entertaining and what is not, then humour is as transient as fashion is, and Shakespeare is seriously outdated (scrunchies to Carrie Bradshaw).
How then, can we overcome this and give Shakespearean comedy its deserved spirit of popular revival? My experience of watching the thoroughly entertaining A Comedy of Errors at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre seems a good place to start. By adding modern accents to the performance the producers fashioned a bridge between Elizabethan and contemporary understandings of certain emotions. These came in the form of providing the two anxious Dromios with inhalers, as well as dressing the Syracusian tourists in Ray Bans. These iconic props proved effective due to the timeless and universally accessible quality of the experience of being frustrated, or being a stranger in an unfamiliar place.
Yet, on deeper inspection it becomes apparent that the performance’s effectiveness was also a result of the two aspects suggested before: the nature of Shakespearean comedy itself and the sophisticated level of acting provided by the cast. Dromio’s hilarious description of Nell, whom he falsely believes to be his wife thanks to a classic case of mistaken identity (Act 3 Scene 2), was a product of splendid acting, effective casting and clever prose. Such an excellent put-down as ‘spherical, like a globe. I could find countries in her’, is a line that almost delivers itself.
And so Shakespeare can be humorous; the proof is the amused audience. We need not claim that humour carries an intrinsic value, Rather, we can acknowledge that Shakespeare himself could mould lines so witty and raw as to draw laughter from even a desensitised twenty-first century crowd of Brits. Shakespeare’s comedic scenes are a far cry from prudish Jane Austen-esque shock at the legs of a piano on display: with sophisticated casting and acting, bringing Shakespearean comedy to life is clearly possible.
After all, Shakespeare’s comedies are plays written to be performed, not novels to be read silently in the drawing room. So a performer’s appreciation of the text and an audience’s willingness to participate are the only ingredients required for Shakespearean comedy truly to be comedy.