Happy Birthday, Shakespeare! Today is all about remembering the timeless quality of the Bard’s craft–from his tragedies and histories to his comedies and poems. Personally, I love reading Shakespeare’s comedies. Not only are they playful and funny, but they are also timeless in their exploration of human emotions, social conflicts and gender fluidity.
You can identify a Shakespearean comedy by a few simple elements: misconceptions, mistaken identities, and marriage celebrations. Basically, Shakespeare’s comedies are like teen romances: in both, young lovers have to overcome all sorts of obstacles to reach the anticipated happy ending. Just that instead of parties and proms, we find the Early Modern equivalents of wooings and weddings (no wonder there are so many teen adaptations of his comedies).
If you haven’t read them already, here’re some of the comedies you shouldn’t miss out on:
The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play. It starts with a lord and his servants playing a trick on the drunken tinker Christopher Sly. They dress him up in fine clothes and make him believe that he is a rich nobleman. A group of players then performs a play, The Taming of the Shrew, for the ‘noble’ Sly.
The play revolves around two sisters: the shrewish and headstrong Kate and the beautiful and virtuous Bianca. While Bianca is wooed by three men at the same time, her sister is shunned because of her notorious temperament–but then Petruchio arrives and makes it his business to “tame the shrew.”
The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays. Some people find fault with Petruchio’s brutal taming methods, going as far as to label the play sexist and misogynous. But I doubt that this was Shakespeare’s intention. Considering his great heroines, such as Juliet, Viola, Portia, or Rosalind (the list goes on!), I find it hard to believe that he imagined a story of an outspoken woman muted by an oppressive misogynist. I think what many people tend to forget is that it’s a play within a play. It’s a farce. It explores how identity and gender roles are formed, challenged and developed. There’s, after all, a reason Kate has been turned into a feminist in the play’s most popular adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You.
Twelfth Night starts with a shipwreck: Viola and her twin brother Sebastian have been shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Believing that her brother had drowned, Viola disguises herself as a young man and, under the name of Cesario, gets a job as a servant for the Duke, Orsino. What she doesn’t know is that Sebastian has survived and is now mistaken for Cesario. Of course, lots of confusion follows.
Shakespeare is well-known for exploring the fluidity of gender and social roles, and in Twelfth Night he takes the idea of gender-bending to extremes. Notably, while the story is already confusing as such, it was more so when Shakespeare performed it live, for in Early modern theatres, female parts were played by boy actors. So on stage, the audience would have seen a man playing a woman pretending to be a man. Confusing right? Even though modern-day productions have female characters play the female lead as women have obviously gained more freedom since the early modern period, the conflict continues to take centre stage. It all boils down to the question: If a woman can authentically perform the male part, how stable are the boundaries separating the sexes?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Set in an enchanted forest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream centres around the tale of four lovers and a group of actors whose lives are influenced by forest fairies led by their king Oberon and his estranged wife Queen Tatania. Chaos ensures when Oberon’s head mischief-maker, Puck, runs loose with a flower which causes people to fall in love at first sight.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s more lighthearted and accessible comedies. It’s also his only comedy up to this point to use magic as a way of complicating and resolving the plot. In his depiction of the fairies, Shakespeare drew on contemporary folklore. In Elizabethan folk culture, fairies were believed to be larger-than-life beings with dangerous powers. Midsummer changed the image of these frightening beings into our modern view of them as benevolent, but sometimes mischievous, little tricksters. If you can suspend your disbelief, this will be your favourite comedy!
I could probably go on her, but for now, I’ll leave it at that. In the end, all of Shakespeare’s comedies are highly entertaining, thought-provoking and enchanting.
What’s your favourite Shakespearean comedy? Let me know in the comments below!