What is the difference between Shakespearean and Jonsonian comedy?

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kc4u | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Shakespearean comedy curiously combines romance and realism as in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, and primarily aimed at fun, it is only covertly and delightfully satirical,  while Jonsonian comedy is more overtly realistic and purported to be moralistic and satirical. Shakespearean comedy combines elements of love, adventure, music and fairy-tale motifs of sorts with the jealousies, conspiracies and intriguing commotions of the real world so that the trajectory of romance is paralleled and critiqued by the trajectory of realism. The main story of Duke Orsino's love at first sight for Countess Olivia, and Olivia's loyal admiration for Orsino in Twelfth Night is paralleled, contrasted, and critiqued by the subplot with the gulling of Olivia's steward Malvolio at its centre, and Sir Andrew's foolish passion to marry Olivia as a piece of mocking travesty of Orsino's passion for the Countess.

While the comedies of Shakespeare are not strictly located in specifically and realistically identified temporal and spatial settings, Ben Jonson's comedies are all set in contemporary urban locations in and around London. Illyria in Twelfth Night, Forest of Arden in As You Like It, even the Venice in The Merchant of Venice is a place which seems more symbolic and extra-geographical rather than a real place in real time. Prosper's island in  The Tempest would be another pertinent example.

Jonsonian comedy was modelled on the theory of "humours". Characters used to bear names signifying their dominant traits, and these characters were social types having obsessive behaviour patterns of their own. In Shakespeare's comedies we find men and women more universally composed since these plays were not aimed to be topical or moralistic.

Perhaps the most obvious distinctive element of Shakesperean comedy was the wonderful presence of the Fool like Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night. Making a great display of their verbal wit and professional expertise, Shakespeare's Fools added a marvelously unique dimension to the genre of comic drama, the kind of which was out of Jonson's temper and genius.


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