Introduction: Shakespearean Comedy — follow nature or else.
How can you tell that a Shakespearean play is a comedy rather than a tragedy? His comedies are set in bucolic, pastoral environments, i.e. “Twelfth Night,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” etc, whereas the tragedies, like “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet” tend to be set in cities. Tragedies don’t end with a marriage and/or a dance, whereas this is the signature ending of a comedy.
In “Much Ado About Nothing” (MAAN) an argument could be made that Nature is both the protagonist and the driving force of the play/film. We follow two parallel plotlines: choose door number one — Don John and his cohorts — and go against nature, i.e. try to break apart lovers, ruin festivities, go against brotherly and familial ties, refuse to be merry, and all will end badly. Choose door number two — Hero and Claudio — in other words, get with the program from the get-go: pursue marriage, celebrate the season, participate in carnivalesque festivities, and all will end well.
Then there is door number three — Benedick and Beatrice — in other words: resist the program. Hold off the concepts of marriage, love, even physical love; in fact, actively deride all the things everyone else holds so dear.
Ultimately, what makes this comedy so funny is the great distance between Benedick and Beatrice’s avowed initial stance in the face of love and where they ultimately end up: completely humbled and humiliated by their friends, who have brought them so far down that they end up being the poster children for all the values they have derided and railed against.
1. Fertility and the Elan Vital: Cornford, Bergson and Langer.
Stott, when talking about Cornford’s conception of comedy notes that, “Comedy now had well defined structural components: the agon, in which the hero-protagonist struggles with an adversary and wins; the enjoyment of the victory, celebrated by feast and sacrifice, and a final victory procession, the komios, followed by marriage or some kind of resurrection”
This quote is interesting to think about in terms of MAAN because we have almost all of those things including a wedding and a resurrection.
In the first scene we have such a celebration of life, the characters are so enmeshed in life. Rather than starting from a problem situation that we want to seek a solution to, we start from the solution: this is how life should be lived. This is a tip of the hand from Branagh, that this is going to be a comedy: buckle your seat belts, ’cause we’re going to celebrate us some life!
Stott also makes reference to Henri Bergson’s idea that comedy is in itself a manifestation of vitality, saying that “humor is born in moments when the life force is momentarily usurped or eclipsed by an involuntary manifestation of automatism or reduction of the body to a lifeless machine”
We see this literally in Hero’s “death,” but also in the change in her and Claudio’s relationship as Don John seeks to turn them against one another.
The celebratory atmosphere at the beginning of the film is a perfect example of what Susanne Langer uses to define comedy: “Comedy is an art form that arises naturally wherever people are gathered to celebrate life, in spring festivals, triumphs, birthdays, weddings or initiations. For it expresses the elementary strains and resolutions of animate nature, the animal drives that persist even in human nature, the delight man takes in his special mental gifts that make him the lord of creation; it is an image of human vitality holding its own in the world amid surprises and unplanned coincidence.”
This quote taken with the Cornford quote gives us a good depiction of the comedy that runs through this film, because we have the disruption of the idyllic status quo, followed by the titillation of the potential for tragedy, arriving finally at the triumph of love and nature (including human nature).
2. Springtime and Festival: Frye and Barber.
Frye gives us a literal discussion of the change of season (which we see in the film), but we also have the idea that this cyclical movement (moods) is present in all forms of life: “summer for romance, autumn for tragedy, winter for irony and satire, and spring for comedy” (29).
In spite of the fact that the action of the film takes place over the span of a mere week, we still have the metaphorical cycle of the four seasons, the arc of a full year, which in turn reminds of the of the cycle of life, where the crops are planted, grow, die and are reborn.
Northrop Frye also tells us of the “Green-world” conception of Shakespeare, of the almost idealized and wish-fulfilling rural (sometimes magical) areas where most of his comedies happen. Also how in these places the “normal business of the town is suspended and the pleasurable pastimes of holiday prevail.”
Note: We never, ever see anyone do a lick of work in this film. The estate is so highly manicured and if we think about it, it clearly requires a huge amount of work and a large number of workers to keep such a large farm and garden looking as it does. But it is right that we don’t see the work, because this is a comedy and seeing the work would distract us and confuse us. That is not important in this context. This is a world entirely devoted to leisure.
Question for the class: Do we get comedy from the results of the dark business of the city (Don John’s treachery) attempting to invade this “Green-world”, and the eventual triumph of not only love and life, but of the “green-world” itself?
Also of note in the section in our reading on springtime, is the quote that “In order to solve the problems of the town, represented by a ‘blocking agent’, (both Don John and Benedick/Beatrice are blocking agents, albeit of different sorts) usually a father figure or envoy of the older generation whose blind insistence on his authority forbids the success of relationships founded on love, society must be divested of its fundamental suppositions, such as the nature of law, or the relationships between the sexes, in order that those suppositions may be reconstructed in the form of a happy ending.
Question: “Does the triumph over Don Jon also equal a triumph over Winter (death)? Is there something “wintery” about Don Jon himself?
We should also talk about Barber’s conception of the Saturnalian comedy as being a ‘release and clarification’. Stott says, in reference to the Barber concept, that “Comedy thereby has the dual function of celebrating human relationships and merrymaking, while mocking what it considers ‘unnatural’, bating killjoys and miserly characters who fail to observe the feast or show some perverse aversion to happiness.”
3. Carnival and the Marketplace: Bakhtin and New Historicism.
In this section of our reading we are given Bakhtin’s theory that two world views existed in the medieval period: there were the “official culture and the “marketplace culture.”
The inherent difference between the two hinges on the fact the Market Place Culture (the more “base” of the two) operates with its own “comic logic, one that runs parallel to official, serious, improving culture, laughing at it, and sometimes violently humiliating it.”
The carnival can be seen as the vehicle for mobilizing the Market Place voices to answer the ruling class. We see this idea of Carnival, its changing of social rules and inversion of roles throughout the film. Perhaps we have almost literally an example of this in the masquerade scene where Don Pedro woos Hero for Claudio.
The beginning of the film is also an example of the conflict between sin and virtue: the carnivalesque atmosphere of the beginning and the serious, reposed, almost Lenten atmosphere of the middle, and again the celebratory atmosphere at the end. These different “moods” serve to illuminate the contrast between the moment in which it is appropriate to indulge in one’s hedonism and desire to sin, and the time when instead one should abstain and restrain the baser instincts.
This fits in well with the cyclical nature of Cornford’s conception of seasons and comedy.