Types of Comedy in Literature
Table of Contents
It is not that a dramatist sets out to write a particular types of comedy. In fact a number of elements go to make a comedy what it is. Hard and fast border lines of types are not always discernible in comic plays. And yet certain dominant types have emerged in the field of comic plays and there are distinctions which can usefully be made.
That is why a reference to the broad categories or types of comic plays is useful and desirable.
The romantic comedy or the comedy of romance and humour is often used to describe the type of comedy which Shakespeare used. This is the type of play which imaginatively creates an idyllic world replete with young lovers, stern but ultimately understanding parents, a pleasant natural setting (often a forest, usually in spring or early summer) and imaginative language.’ Young lovers, freshness of youth, settings in the heart of exotic forests, action and speech that are basically not realistic, glamour of courts, magnificence and all this sometimes spiced with supernatural elements these are the standard elements that go to make a romantic comedy.
Such is Shakespeare’s As you Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night. The elements of the romantic comedy can be seen clearly in The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay by Robert Greene who, in his days, tried to run down Shakespeare out of professional jealousy. This play which appeared in 1594 set the pattern of farcical scenes in prose and love and romance scenes in blank verse. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay provide farce and tomfoolery in the play while the Prince of Wales and Lord Lacy supply the love interest through their rivalry for Marguerite of Fressingfield.
Shakespeare streamlined this type of comedy and brought it to a level of sophisticated perfection using kindly and good natured fun, romantic love of young lovers, sometime purely farcical characters (Bottom and others) and scenes, supernatural creatures like fairies behaving just like human beings and of course the triangular love conflict with everything ending with marriage bells. Enchanting songs and sometimes masques and dances add to the entertainment value of such comedies
The romantic comedy takes us in the world of dreams where nothing is impossible; the fanciful and the real may barely be separated and our senses are dulled under the spell of ‘charmed magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in fairly lands forlorn.’ Shakespeare, with the instinctive artistic taste, has made, as Allardyce Nicoll puts it
“I ally the spiritual home of his comic characters.”
This device opens the door for music sunshine, colour, enchantment of old forgotten far off things and places, and a harmonious bleeding of imagination, wonder and reality. The romantic comedy borrows ecstatic abandonment of Aristophanes, hilarious merriment of Plautus, sophisticated sentimentalism of Terence and crude humour of the medieval farce. Here the objective and the subjective unite artistically, intellectual laughter laughs at itself, clowns speak wisely and wise men act like fools.
“We scoff at ridiculous absurdities in these plays and discover that we are mocking ourselves in superior manner we look down on the Dogberries and find that they alone hold the true secrets in their clumsy hands. Over all breathes an atmosphere of natural beauty where in the common flowers of the fields have implications and the hedgerows are invested with a strange unwonted grace.”
And there is the pastoral atmosphere in a number of comedies In As You Like It we have shepherds and aristocrats beguiling time in the forest of Arden, under the greenwood trees. Here is God’s plenty: here, at least in Shakespeare’s plays, is the basic eternal human nature caught in the eternal romantic texture of drama, Touchstone’s motley is no longer in fashion but his thoughts belong to all times. As Nicoll puts it,
“Claudios and Dogberries, Lysanders and Bottoms, are as common today, and everywhere as they were in Shakespeare’s time.”
The romantic comedy has to show an exquisite balance between the reality and the ideal -in characters, in speech, in action. Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries knew this art of tight rope-walking very well.
Comedy of Humours
Critics have a tendency to latch on to philosophical, medical or psychological theories to justify their points of view in relation to literary values. Coleridge brought in a lot of metaphysical speculation to bear upon literary activities and even in modern times philosophy and psychology play an important role in certain literary theories.
Such is the situation in the case of the Comedy of Humours. (Note the laurel form). The medieval theory of humours was already out of date in the days of Ben Jonson. But Jonson was quite happy to press into service this defunct theory.
The original meaning of the word ‘humour’ is liquid. According to the old Greek and Latin medical theory the human body possessed four humours or liquids-phlegm, blood, choler and melancholy. The predominance of any one of these four humours in the body decided the temperament of the person concerned. Thus the preponderance of phlegm would mean calm temperament, and sanguine would mean ardent temperament; choleric people are easily angered and melancholy would imply depressive temperament. In the latter part of the 16th century, humour had come to mean a man’s characteristic disposition or obsession or mania. In the comedy of humours, the character is completely dominated by a single obsession.
Jonson believed that he could get maximum humour and satire out of a situation if he showed human beings dominated by humours or obsessions or rolling passions or dominant traits of character. Jonson initiated this in the introduction to his play, Every Man Out of His Humour.
Thus basing his conception of humours on old Greek and Latin medical theories and traditional psychology, Jonson explained a temperament as the product of the prevalent humour. According to Jongen the ruling passion or humour distorts human nature by egotism and self-regarding appetites like greed etc. In this way the comedy of humours becomes a timeless satire on human nature. But it is also a social satire because personal foibles are fed by social tendencies. In The Alchemist we find unbounded lust (Sir Epicure Mammon), unlimited credulity in the foolish Fitzlottrel is found in The Devil is an Ass; in Volpone we find the cunning Volpone and Mosca over reaching themselves in their contempt for their victims In other words Jonson’s characters are stock characters, which are, in fact, not uncommon in the comic plays of those days. The boastful soldier, the greedy merchant, the hard-headed swindler, the gullible fool, -all these were not exactly new. Some such characters can be found in the plays of Plautus also.
Thus the world of Jonson is filled with people having ruling passions and obsessions, people who are either adventurers or who are victims of such sharks. This mode of humours was first established by Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humour.
Since the use of such characters is not a new thing, what exactly did Jonson invent? He gave this practice a name the comedy of humours which was a new thing. Also equally new was his insistence on realism in comedy. The following lines from the Prologue to Every Man in His Humour (1958) underscore Jonson’s views more clearly
“But deeds and language as men do use,
And persons such as Comedy would choose,
When she would show an image of the times
And sports with human follies, not with crimes”
Jonson was the one person who stood stalwartly against romanticism in the first decades of the seventeenth century. We find certain elements of it in Barrie.
“Barrie’s sentimentalism was of an entirely different sort: it was conscious, deliberate, an attitude indulged in, not because of a surface skimming over the darker sides of life, but because of a sad contemplation of man’s follies and errors.”
The comedy of humours actually does not depend upon humour. It uses satire also to create its effect. Thus the absence of pure humour in this so-called comedy of humours is one of the anomalies of literary nomenclature. It could, in reality, better be called the comedy of realism or the comedy of satire.
Comedy of Manners (Comedy of Wit)
Comedy of manners is a commonly used phrase in literary criticism but its meaning is not always clear.
After Puritanic upsurge of austerity, Charles II came to throne of England and he brought French manners, French courtiers and French morals along with him. In his court witty remarks and flippancy passed for cultured sophistication and fashions of dress and manners were considered all-important in the aristocratic gay carefree, immoral upper class society.
The plays of those days reflect the aspirations and manners of that society. This term particularly applies to Restoration comedies written by Congreve (1670-1729), Wycherley (1640-1716), Etherege (1634 ?1691 ?), and others. Comedies of Sheridan (1751-1816), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) are also comedies of manners.
The comedy of manners is usually set in a highly sophisticated society and the main characters are usually very witty and lax in moral tone. The situations are very often farcial and vulgar and its humour is mainly verbal.
Coming in the wake of staunch Puritanic morals, the comedy of manners went to the other extreme in its reaction against conventional morality. True, we find a group of brilliant writers of comic plays in this period; in fact the greatest glory of the literary field of this period is the comedy of manners. The Restoration comedy, better known as the comedy of manners, deals with the extreme side of life and fashions of that society.
The characters are people of fashion; the theme is usually love, intrigue and the dialogue, mainly on superficial topics, is brilliantly witty. So much were the writers obsessed with the idea of witty laughter, that they never worried about the theme that gave rise to such laughter. Wit at any cost was their motto, and they did not hesitate to bring in indecent ideas and situations to that end. They palmed off vulgar jokes as intellectual elegance.
Emphasis on fashion, latest cut of dress and manners had its offshoot in jokes at the expense of country gulls who, on the strength of their wealth, tried to mix in the foppish society. Such jokes at boorish manners and lack of wit form the staple food for laughter in the comedy of manners. In actuality, manners, conventions and even follies belong to an artificial society which prided on its so-called refined culture. It has also the artificiality of personality and theme.
The scene of the comedies of manners written during the Restoration period is always London it never leaves the bounds of London. Satire and witty remarks keep the audience roaring with laughter. Life in such plays consists of parties, evening walks and love intrigue. To be virtuous is to be considered an utter fool. Characters are all people of leisure whose sole aim in life is to pass as witty gentlemen and ladies. Feeling and morality have no place in them.
These comedies hinge on intrigue and deception and tricks. A gallant uses tricks to marry an heiress or to fool a husband. These are followed by counter tricks and their success or failure sums up the plot of the play.
“Along with this pleasure in trickery, however, goes amusement in the absurdities of certain persons, the country booby, the amorous old lady, the city fop, the Puritan clergyman, the avaricious alderman. Acts two, three, and four elaborate these plots and counterplots, deceptions and mistakes, varying the confusion by the antic of the eccentrics. Act five reveals certain tricksters successful and others defeated. But there is no success without a trick.”
There arises a question of morality in such comedies. It was this occasional indecency and permissiveness of the Restoration comedy which led Jeremy Collier (1650-1726) to write a scathing pamphlet Short View of Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. To our twentieth century theatre-goers this indecency may be simply harmless but in the seventeenth century, Collier’s denunciation against the immorality of the comedies of his days went home to the public. It appeared as if the comedy of manners had the monopoly of immorality in those days.
To our modern mind it appears as if too much fuss has been made by the critics about the immorality of these plays. First, there is no need to take these plays seriously. They are just the light moments of pleasurable distraction. They also have some social interest in the sense that they paint a particular section of that society. The authors have pictured affectations of such society which are held up to ridicule. The comic poet was the mouthpiece of this society and his plays contained the indecent and coarse jokes of that society.
Charles Lamb has gallantly defended this immorality on the ground that it takes us to an artificial, imaginary world where everyday morals do not exist, but nineteenth century moralists have usually been very stern in their condemnation. Perhaps the most telling indictment is to be found in Leslie Stephen’s charge of “a perpetual gush of cynical sentiment.” This might be defended as a part of the conventions of Restoration comedy, as a sort of pose, a pretence that must be kept up as an accompaniment of the display of affection and follies.
On the credit side of this comedy we can say that it is intellectual; it appeals to our head and not to our emotions. It has brilliant dialogue in which the best possibilities of English language have been fully explored. It is witty, ingenuous and refined.
The most noteworthy writers of the comedy of manners are William Wycherley and Congreve. Congerve’s The Way of the World is as famous as Wycherley’s The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer.
The Sentimental Comedy
The Sentimental Comedy represents a reaction against the loose morals and general cynicism of the Restoration Comedy. Of course, during the last decades of the seventeenth century, so popular were the comedies of manners and their imitations that there was no room for new types of plays in the existing theatres in England.
But gradually as we enter the eighteenth century the tide turns and a tendency towards sentiment is manifest. The comedy of sentiment emerged as a serious rival of the comedy of manners. Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) is one of the creators of the sentimental comedy.
The sentimental comedy was an attempt to prove that virtue and innocence also could be entertainingly attractive on stage and vulgarity and wit are not necessarily the only sources of stage laughter. Steele attempted to make comedy respectable again. In actuality, the sentimental comedy became the least humorous of dramatic forms. Its main ingredients were domestic situations and thwarted innocent love. It aimed at exciting the gentle emotions in the audience and proving the triumph of sheer goodness. Yet this type of comedy became popular for the time being because the desire for a less immoral theatre was indeed widespread. The Conscious Lovers of Steele is such a comedy underlining the devotion to morality and a virtuous view of love.
Old conventional themes gave place to new comic topics. “The under-taker and his man exposing in their talk the tricks of the trade, the lawyer and his clerk, the soldiers, the widow and her lady visitors. The widow again at a toilet ‘talking with Tattleaid her mouth full of pins’ all these provide dialogue that is diverting and fresh. The essentials of this type of comedy are decency in language, praise of virtuous love and marriage, attack on social abuse and an emotional appeal to compassion What Thorndike says of The Conscious Lovers applies to the entire type of the sentimental comedy:
“But neither Steele, subsequent dramatists nor the general public could stop half-way, and this play was to have many successors which reveal virtue in act one and ask for it our incessant sympathy during the excitements of an improbable story, which present problems and attack on evils of society with moral earnestness, which excite us to morality by both preaching and weeping, and which have little room left for fun or wit.”
Unfortunately an over dose of virtue cannot be long sustained by the theatre audiences and this so-called sentimental comedy. A number of parodies by more skillful comic writers like Sheridan and others came out.
The sentimental comedy ceased to exercise any influence for some two centuries but in the twentieth century the sentimental comedy has made its appearance again in a new garb. There have always been critics who feel that the stage must have some morally uplifting influence. The drama of social consciousness and the drama of commitment are some of the terms applied to this new rebirth of the sentimental comedy. For example the comedies of Shaw have purpose. Brecht ushered in the drama concern with political and social problems-a sort of drama commitment. This type of approach (propaganda or commitment) is not actually healthy for pure comedy.
The Dark Comedy or Black Comedy
There are a number of plays which are called comedies and yet they do not come under any of the well-known types of comedy. Plays like Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale or Measure for Measure or T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party can be called comedies but they were called comedies because any other apt nomenclature did not fit them. Such plays ended happily but were more tragic than comic: the general tone of the play lacked the spontaneous laughter and had a mixture of tears and laughter.
Hence the critics came out with labels like tragi-comedy or comic tragedy. Prof. J. L. Styan has used the name the dark comedy for such plays and that phrase has become now quite popular to label the type of plays like Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida etc. You do not have much of laughter in them. They are at times anti-heroic and anti-romantic and these elements lend some humour to them.
These plays contain at times serious discussions of problems and the playwrights like John Osborne (Look Back in Anger) or Moliere (Tariffe) or Ibsen (An Enemy of the People) or Shaw (Mrs. Warren’s Profession) also contain this dark side of the comedy.
Other Minor Types
Criticism on the types of comedy uses a number of terms one of which is the Italian commedia dell’arte. We rarely come across this type in its pure form, it was at its best in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
This type usually based on some existing story or situation was improvised by actors themselves. It abounded in the usual stock characters whose very entry would create laughter-Arlecchino representing a countrified clown, Pantalone representing the old and doddering fool in love with some young girl and others. The best known writer of such comedies is Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) whose plays The Servant of Two Masters, The Landlady, The Lively Widow are quite amusing. We do not come across this type of comedy in its pure form in English literature. The English Punch and Judy puppet shows can trace their ancestry to the commedia dell’arte.
In Farce, we may not get the best type of humour, nor does it appeal to refined audiences. It is rough, crude almost elemental in its desire to evoke laughter. In farce laughter is mainly evoked by physical action, absurd situations and poor plot-construction. The situations in a farce are exaggerated and very often impossible (a husband perusing his wife’s chastity while her lover is hiding under the bed). We find rude and coarse incongruity and characterization is deliberately sacrificed to situation, sheer horseplay causes laughter.
Bottom’s antics and the episode of Pryamus and Thisbe in A Mid Summer Night’s Dream are farcial. But an element of force can be found even in a number of better comedies, Restoration comedies and even in the comedies of Shaw.
Comedy of Intrigue
Comedy of intrigue or situation comedy is a term sometimes used by critics to define play in which humour depends mainly upon intricate plotting, hairbreadth escapes and rapidly changing situations. Of course, most of the types of comedies have all these characteristics and it is difficult to find a pure comedy of intrigue. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer have quite a few traits of the comedy of intrigue along with the traits of the comedy of manners. Fletcher’s plays have preponderance of the element of intrigue or situations in them. Such comedies have little humour, no wit or satire; they depend upon external sources of laughter.