Plays, Poems & New Writing Story

For the love of laughter

Is Shakespeare funny? This April Fool’s Day, we explore the comic conventions in his plays

4 minute read

Does Shakespeare’s comedy tickle our funny bone as much today as four hundred years ago?

My favourite one-liner in Shakespeare occurs in The Merry Wives of Windsor, staged summer 2019 at the Globe (directed by Elle While).

In the play Doctor Caius is a pompous French physician with – to borrow from Monty Python – an ‘outrageous accent’. Sir Hugh Evans is a Welsh parson who also ‘makes fritters of English’.

Mistress Page, one of the wives of the title, invites Sir Hugh to go bird watching. He accepts by saying, ‘If there is one, I shall make two in the company.’ Not wanting to be left out, Caius adds, ‘If dere be one or two, I shall make-a de turd.’

French doesn’t have the th sound so ‘third’ becomes ‘turd’, get it? Maybe I have a thing for the French. Or poo jokes. But each time I watch Merry Wives it’s like I’m hearing it for the first (turd!) time. Sorry.

Three actors on a stage

Richard Katz as the pompous French physician Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2019. Photographer: Helen Murray.

The (slightly) serious point I want to make is that scatology and slapstick – then and now – are guaranteed laugh-generators, the snorts-and-guffaws, laughing-crying-emoji kind.

Shakespeare, high-brow tragedian, was not above writing a bit of farce, stand-up, or pie-in-the-face physical comedy. He also knew that pets on stage are comedy gold.

To wit – in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Lance (who was likely played by the acting company’s resident clown) is the beleaguered owner of an incontinent dog named Crab. Without knowing anything else, you can probably guess that their shtick is a perennial crowd-pleaser.

But aside from slapstick, comedy can be quite ephemeral. It makes light of current events or local life, which is why modern audiences can find Tudor humour less than rollicking good fun.

Actor on stage with a wooden spoon on their mouth

Roger Allam as everyone’s favourite witty knight Falstaff in Henry VI Part 1, 2010. Photographer: John Haynes.

So much of comedy depends on performance, the skill of the director or actor to sense a comic opportunity where none is written – a look, gesture, or intonation. All these things can generate laughs even if they’re not scripted by the playwright.

Certain scholars maintain that Shakespeare’s comedies are no great shakes (ba-dum-chah!). Certainly not as funny as the satires of his contemporary, Ben Jonson. (Every Man in His Humour? Anyone, anyone?)

But then there’s Falstaff, arguably one of the greatest characters – funny or otherwise – in all English drama. Unquestionably a comic masterpiece, Falstaff is at his witty, riotous, hypocritical, and sherry-loving best not in a comedy but two history plays: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

It’s also worth noting that some of Shakespeare’s most popular clowns appear in his greatest tragedies – King Lear’s fool, the Porter in Macbeth, the gravediggers in Hamlet. They all point to Shakespeare’s gift for merging the ‘tragical-comical-historical-pastoral’, to borrow from Hamlet’s Polonius.

Actor sitting on the stage with a party hat on

Molly Logan as the darkly humorous Porter in Macbeth, 2020. Photographer: Ellie Kurttz.

An actor crouching at the bottom of the stage looking up

Loren O’Dair as the ironic Fool in King Lear, 2017. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

Two actors sitting together facing one another

Colin Hurley as the Gravedigger with Michelle Terry as Hamlet in Hamlet, 2019. Photographer: Tristram Kenton.

In the 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, known as the First Folio, fourteen plays are listed as ‘Comedies’. These include favourites such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It. But they also include Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, which some people might be hard pressed to find funny at all.

In Shakespeare’s day comedy was not necessarily ‘comical’. First and foremost it was a dramatic form, distinguished from history and tragedy. The long-standing definition of comedies is that they end in marriage, while tragedies end in divorce death. This is why the First Folio classifies The Taming of the Shrew as a comedy, although despite the jokes modern audiences may find Kate’s treatment more loathsome than light-hearted.

An index page from the works of Shakespeare

The classification of Shakespeare’s plays in the First Folio. Photographer: Pete Le May.

Indeed, Shakespeare’s comedy often drifts dangerously close to the shores of tragedy. Twelfth Night ends with the much-abused servant Malvolio warning his tormentors, ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.’ Love’s Labour’s Lost ends with news of a father’s death, which defers the marriage of several couples.

Two actors on the stage one is hiding in a storage container

Alex Mugnaioni as Mavolio locked in jail with Katie Elin-Salt as Feste in Twelfth Night, 2016. Photographer: Ellie Kurttz.

Scholars like to point out that Elizabethan sensibilities were not as politically refined as ours today. If something seems cruel or cringey, it just means we’re imposing our own values on a different time. But I think there’s also a deliberate blurring of genres going on here.

Think of it this way. Part of Shakespeare’s genius is that his characters are neither entirely bad nor entirely good. This nuanced mingling is the order of the day in his plays, too. If his tragedies contain plenty of mordant laughter, his comedies present a rounded picture of the human condition as well – and that includes some hard knocks.

That reminds me.

Knock, Knock.
Who’s there?
The Earl of Oxford.
The Earl of Oxford who?