why is a midsummer night's dream a comedy
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of his most popular and enduring comedic plays. As do most Elizabethan comedies, this play is a light-hearted romp through many types of humor, all ending happily in the final scene. Also common to this era, comedy is centered on marriage and relationships, and a happy ending means uniting the courting couples. High Comedy can also be called situational comedy, in which the source of humor is the situation of mistaken identity or miscommunication. Low Comedy involves silliness, inappropriateness, and sometimes references that can be taken as vulgar or sexual. Slapstick is physical humor - action rather than dialogue. Shakespearean Comedy is the fast-paced, witty banter we see in all of Shakespeare's comedic plays: clever dialogue and play-on-words, often delivered in a dramatic manner. There are four sets of characters in the play, representing four specific and recognizable types. First, the authorities begin the action of the play: Theseus and Hippolyta, accompanied by Egeus. Their ruling about Hermia's choice of man sets the plot in motion. Then we have the fairy world, represented by King Oberon and Queen Titania, the mischievous Puck, and Titania's attendants. The fairy world represents the place separated from reality, where any strange and magical thing might occur. Yet we soon discover that magical spells can even work on the inhabitants of the fairy world when Titania falls in love with Bottom. The would-be lovers, Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius, retreat into the forest to escape Hermia's sentence to marry Demetrius or be banished from Athens. Hermia wants Lysander, and Helena is pursuing Demetrius. This type of
high comedy was very popular in Shakespeare's time: the humor of troublesome situations and how to talk one's way out of them.
The fast-paced, witty banter, especially between the sexes, along with double meanings and puns, are generally what we think of as Shakespearean comedy. If it seems familiar to you, just think of the plots of modern TV half-hour comedies like The Big Bang Theory, where the humor often comes from clever conversation and a situation that gets out of control. Finally, the fourth set of characters are the Rude Mechanicals, six rough and uneducated tradesmen who have decided to put on a performance in honor of the royal wedding. The entire thing is something of a farce: the play is Pyramus and Thisby, a sad tale of ill-fated lovers ending in tragedy. Completely inappropriate for a wedding dinner, it is also acted in a ridiculous and exaggerated manner by the six buffoonish ruffians. Their rehearsal provides the low comedy of the play. The story actually begins in a serious way, with Egeus bringing his rebellious daughter before the Athenian Court. The humor really begins when the fairies get involved. Oberon wants Puck to straighten out the dilemma of the four lovers with love juice, but Puck enchants the wrong man. Now the tension is higher than ever among the two couples, even descending into a girl fight between Hermia and Helena. Here is our example of slapstick physical comedy. High comedy is the part of the plot involving the four Athenian youths. Once Puck magically creates new love interests for Lysander and Demetrius (they both then love the formerly rejected Helena), the comedic situation becomes clear. The situation itself is the source of humor. The Shakespearean part of the comedy is all of the witty dialogue and play-on-words.
For example, when Helena and Hermia argue, they insult each other in clever ways: Fine, i' faith! Have you no modesty, no maiden shame, No touch of bashfulness? What! will you tear Impatient answers from my gentle tongue? Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet you! Puppet! why, so: ay, that way goes the game. And with her personage, her tall personage, Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail'd with him. And are you grown so high in his esteem, Because I am so dwarfish and so low? How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak; How low am I? I am not yet so low One classic way to create comedy is through irony. Irony takes place when words, actions, or plot development contradict what is intended or expected to happen. Shakespeare uses many instances of both dramatic and situational irony in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dramatic irony occurs when a reader or viewer knows more about a character's current situation than the character does. Situational irony occurs when what happens in a plot or situation is actually the opposite of what the reader/audience would expect. Often situational irony occurs due to accidents or reversals of circumstances. Both dramatic and situational irony actually overlap each other in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dramatic irony especially relates to how the audience perceives the four lovers' circumstances. Both Demetrius and Lysander suddenly leave off being in love with Hermia and fall in love with Helena, and they do not know why, even though the viewer does know. Likewise, another instance of dramatic irony is seen when Helena's response is to believe that both men are playing a huge joke on her and that Hermia is in on the joke.
We see her reach the conclusion that Lysander is scorning her when she says, "Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born / When at your hands did I deserve this scorn? " (II. ii. 125-126). We further see that she believes that even Demetrius is making fun of her when she says, "O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent / To set against me for your merriment" (III. ii. 147-148). Finally, we see that Helena believes that even Hermia is in on the joke when Helena proclaims, "Lo, she is one of this confederacy! " (195). While Demetrius and Lysander do not know that they have both fallen for Helena due to a love potion, the audience does know; likewise, while Helena does not know that Demetrius and Lysander are actually being sincere due to the fact that they have been enchanted, the audience does know, showing us that both of these instances are perfect examples of dramatic irony. The characters' confusion certainly helps create the comedy in the play, especially because their confusion creates arguments amongst the four of them with many amusing lines. Puck describes it best when he says, "Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be! (115-116). However, these instances of dramatic irony overlap with situational irony because it is purely by accident that both men leave off pursuing Hermia and begin pursuing Helena instead. Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, making Lysander fall in love with Helena because she comes into view just as Lysander wakes up. Then, Oberon places the love potion on Demetrius's eyes, just as he had intended to do, making both men pursue Helena. The situational irony created by Puck's mistake also leads to arguments amongst the characters and humorous lines.
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