ENGL 339: Shakespeare
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Shakespeare's Plays:

Because of his humanist education, Shakespeare was familiar with classical (Greek and Latin) comedy. Greek "old comedy" (e.g. Aristophanes, ca.448-380 B.C.) was generally satirical and frequently political in nature. Greek "new comedy" (e.g. Menander, ca. 343-291 B.C.) involved sex and seduction and often showed youth outwitting old age. Although Menander's plays have survived only in fragments, Shakespeare would have known his work through the Latin adaptations of the Roman poet Terence (ca. 190-159 B.C.). The Latin comedies of Terence and another Roman poet, Plautus (ca. 258?-184 B.C.), were much studied in Elizabethan schools. (From his humanist grammar school education, Shakespeare also learned about characters such as Theseus and Hippolyta or Pyramus and Thisbe, whose story is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses). From Terence and Plautus, Shakespeare learned how to organize a plot in a way modern editors may represent as a five-act structure. Loosely speaking, it moves from:

  1. A situation with tensions or implicit conflict (Exposition)
  2. Implicit conflict is developed (Rising Action)
  3. Conflict reaches height; frequently an impasse (Turning Point)
  4. Things begin to clear up (Falling Action)
  5. Problem is resolved, knots untied (Conclusion)
Thus, the action of a comedy traces a movement from conflict to the resolution of conflict, from some sort of (generally figurative) bondage to freedom, despite obstacles, complications, reversals, and discoveries. It ends with celebration and unity. This stage often includes the expulsion or elimination of characters so lost or misguided that they cannot be accommodated or restored to society (e.g. Shylock, Malvolio). Hence a touch of sadness or reality may impinge on the final celebration.

This structure differentiates Shakespeare's comedies from earlier works that presented the seemingly random adventures of a hero in a relatively formless way (e.g. a series of episodes of courtship and adultery). A non-dramatic model for this sort of story is found in the playwright Thomas Nash's prose romance, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). The episodic structure of early Renaissance comedy also recalls medieval Mystery cycles (series of plays on sacred history, from Creation to the Last Judgment).

From the works of Plautus and Terence, Shakespeare learned to use certain stock characters, e.g. the prodigal youth and his female love interest; "blocking figures" who provide the obstacle to be overcome, such as the senex (Latin for "old man," cf. "senile"), a parent or guardian of the hero or heroine (who may be in love with her himself). Other stock characters include the shrewish wife, the pedant, the braggart soldier, the parasite, clowns, outlaws, clever servants, female confidantes. In classical and Shakespearean comedies, the hero and heroine may have socially inferior helpers. The hero and heroine's supporters are frequently led by a jester, fool or buffoon (e.g. Touchstone, Feste). Pompous sour types (doctors, lawyers, clergymen, police -- and sometimes professors!) uphold the dignity of the institutions they represent and are frequently mocked for their self-importance. Shakespeare's youthful works make extensive use of stock characters; they also appear (less extensively) in the works of his dramatic maturity.

The Conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy

Conventions assist us in understanding literary works belonging to a particular genre; they help to categorize them and illuminate their common features. Genres set up certain expectations because of their shared characteristics. For example, you know to expect specific features when reading or viewing a western (good guys and bad guys; shoot-outs or duels), a detective thriller (false clues that lead in the wrong direction; ingenious solution to a mystery), science fiction (humans and aliens; futuristic technology; special effects). One's judgment of a given work is affected in part by how it meets or fails to meet generic expectations. An artist may deliberately manipulate or play with conventions, parodying or transcending the limits of a literary genre: Monty Python's Holy Grail parodies Arthurian romances; Blazing Saddles parodies Westerns; the Pyramus and Thisbe play in A Midsummer Night's Dream parodies Shakespeare's own Romeo and Juliet. The Purple Rose of Cairo transcends sentimental romance by raising questions about the boundaries of art, reality and fantasy; Hamlet transcends previous Renaissance revenge tragedy.

The major conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy are:

  1. The main action is about love.
  2. The would-be lovers must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being united in harmonious union. The ending frequently involves a parade of couples to the altar and a festive mood or actual celebration (expressed in dance, song, feast, etc.) A Midsummer Night's Dream has four such couples (not counting Pyramus and Thisbe!); As You Like It has four; Twelfth Night has three; etc.
  3. Frequently (but not always), it contains elements of the improbable, the fantastic, the supernatural, or the miraculous, e.g. unbelievable coincidences, improbable scenes of recognition/lack of recognition, willful disregard of the social order (nobles marrying commoners, beggars changed to lords), instantaneous conversions (the wicked repent), enchanted or idealized settings, supernatural beings (witches, fairies, Gods and Goddesses). The happy ending may be brought about through supernatural or divine intervention (comparable to the deus ex machina in classical comedy, where a God appears to resolve the conflict) or may merely involve improbable turns of events.
  4. In the best of the mature comedies, there is frequently a philosophical aspect involving weightier issues and themes: personal identity; the importance of love in human existence; the power of language to help or hinder communication; the transforming power of poetry and art; the disjunction between appearance and reality; the power of dreams and illusions).
Click here for A Midsummer Night's Dream Study Guide

Click here for A Midsummer Night's Dream Video Questions

Click here for As You Like It Study Guide

Contents of this and all linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1996-2002 

Return to ENGL 339 Home Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Home Page
Send me mail!