What kinds of comedies are Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like it?
Shakespeare’s As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were famously classified as “festive comedies” by C. L. Barber in his highly influential book Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972). What, however, does the term “festive comedy” mean precisely? What are some distinguishing traits of festive comedies? In the introductory chapter of his book, Barber outlines some of the special traits of “festive” comedies and explains why he thinks many of Shakespeare’s early comedies exhibit those traits. Among the traits he mentions are the following:
- their tone is “merry” (3)
- they exhibit a “happy comic art” (3)
- they resemble the comedies of the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes (3)
- the exhibit a basic movement “through release to clarification” (4)
- they were influenced by “the social form of Elizabethan holidays” (4)
- they were influenced by the English theatrical tradition of the clown and Vice figure (5)
- they were influenced by “the cult of fools and folly” (5)
- they were influenced by the custom of “seasonal feasts” (5)
- they emphasize “beneficent natural impulses” (7)
- they depict “ritual abuse of hostile spirits” (7)
- they emphasize “liberty,” “mirth,” and “wanton vitality” (7)
- in these comedies, “inhibition is freed for celebration” (7)
- they emphasize “a heightened awareness of the relationship between man and nature” (8)
- they “present a mockery of what is unnatural” (8)
- they also present “a complementary mockery of what is merely natural” (8)
- the characters mocked in these plays seem unnatural because they are “killjoys” (8)
- however, the satire in these plays is only incidental; it is not the main purpose of these plays to be satirical (8)
Barber then proceeds to devote individual chapters to particular comedies by Shakespeare that display these “festive” traits. The plays he discusses as “festive comedies” include As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most analysts would agree with Barber that these plays exhibit many of the traits itemized above.
In any case, these are definitely happy plays, with happy conclusions. They are not biting or satirical in the ways that some of Jonson’s comedies (for instance) are. They emphasize romantic love between attractive (if somewhat foolish) young people, and the opposition those young people face to their love is rather easily overcome. Both plays involve a movement away from somewhat unattractive courts into a beautiful rural landscape. Shakespeare’s purpose in these plays seems to have been to celebrate the joys of life, to make mild fun of its follies, and to show how genuine love can be the basis of the establishment (or reestablishment) of a happy, charitable, and content society.