AP Senior English
March 3, 2013
For thousands of years, comedy has been used to bring people together, to make people forget their troubles, but most importantly, to entertain. While comedy’s main objective is to get a rise out of the audience, writers utilize the absurdity of satirical situations to subtly bring light to contemporary societal problems and provoke change within a culture. While many people are resistant to change, if the impetus comes in the form of a comedic play or novel, they are indirectly willing themselves to assess the faults of their society. Using wit as a weapon, writers have been entertaining and reforming society for generations. Individual comedic style and the subjects of satire are all distinctive and reflective of the society in which they were written.
William Shakespeare was first and foremost an entertainer. He produced a miraculous thirty-seven plays in his lifetime, all with the intention of entertaining. As remarked by the literary critic Susan Bionodo-Hench, Shakespeare came to the conclusion that “[he] play[s] to an audience that craves comedy” (Biondo-Hench 42). However, on his quest to bring enjoyment he did not only have to satisfy the wealthy lords and ladies of the time but he also had to please the less educated masses. Like the Globe theatre itself, Shakespeare had to fill his plays with comedy on two levels: the raunchy, often sexual, low humor and the play on words or witty high humor. Low humor was directed at pleasing the peasants who stood on the floor at the Globe. This type of humor was often straightforward, so even the most uneducated person could understand it. Many times, low humor appears in the acting rather than the text, such as a drunk stumbling across the stage. Low humor can also pertain to humorous developments in the plot line, such as in Twelfth Night when Duke Orsino declares, “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,/ A natural perspective, that is and is not!” Hearing this, the audience clearly understands Viola is not the same person as her brother (5.1.206-207). Many children also attended the plays and for that reason much of the sexual humor appeared in innuendoes such as “An thou let part so, Sir Andrew, would thou mightiest never/ draw sword again” (1.3.54-55). This lighthearted, raunchy joke about how Sir Andrew and his inability to ever again draw his “sword,” was sure to draw a few chuckles from the more rowdy audience members. Low humor goes for the easy laugh that left the peasants in stitches and coming back time and again for more.
Just as the queens, kings, lords, and ladies sat high above the peasants in the galleries of the theatre, they were also endowed with a different kind of more erudite “high” humor. High comedy refers to humor that is focused primarily on dialogue, often using tools such as clever wordplay and wit. Only the educated people who were truly focusing on the content of the play would catch such humor. Raunchy jokes such as “By my life, this is my lady's hand/ these be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes/ she her great P's. It is, in contempt of question, her hand” in which the spelling CUT refers to an Elizabethan slang term for vagina, could only be detected by a trained and focused ear (2.5.77-79). The Fool in Twelfth Night often appears to be the most educated character in the entire play. His tricky play on words continually allows him to insult his superiors right to their faces, such as when he says to Olivia, “Wit, an't be thy will, put me into good fooling!/ Those wits, that think they have thee, do very oft/ prove fools; and I, that am sure I lack thee, may/ pass for a wise man: for what says Quinapalus?/ 'Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit'” (1.5.28-32). In Twelfth Night Shakespeare’s goal was to make everyone from the dirty beggars to the polished nobles laugh and enjoy the play, but comedy in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night also