William Shakespeare

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Knowing aforehand: Audience Preparation and the Comedies of Shakespeare

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Knowing aforehand": Audience Preparation and the Comedies of Shakespeare

Ejner J. Jensen, University of Michigan

Some years ago at Ontario's Stratford Festival, I attended a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. At the close of the performance, two spectators seated a row or two behind me rose from their seats still applauding and, moved by the play's comic energy, launched into a celebration of the skills of its author. At a pause in this chorus of praise, one suddenl y asked the other, "When did Shakespeare live?"

Her friend replied, "In the fourteenth century, I think."

"No," said the first, "I think it was the fifteenth." After a series of such assertions, queries, and guesses, the initial poser of the question brought such irrelevancies to an end by cutting through to the key matter. "Well," she said, "it doesn't matter; he's still as funny as he always was."

On that matter, my fellow spectator was, I think, on target. Shakespeare is still as funny as he always was. Sometimes, though, twentieth-century critics have asked him to bear a larger share of our burdens of anxiety than is quite fair and have made his comedies, even the most joyous among them, no laughing matter.1 But this is a familiar story, and most of us recognize the impulses that have led critics to render nearly all of the comedies problematic and (more or less) dark. Less familiar is the curious phenomenon that results from the encounter between stage-centered criticism and the comedies of Shakespeare.

The emergence and nearly universal acceptance of stagecentered criticism has generated a wide variety of effects. One of the more common and, on the surface, more trivial of these has been the ubiquity of the phrase, "but in the theatre." We all know what follows the phrase: an assertion about how some matter that seems to be less than well managed comes to theatrical life with no trace of a problem, or a contention that some glaring inconsistency simply disappears in the sweep and excitement of performance, or a confident claim about the wondrous magic that a skilled actor can effect with even the most stubbornly knotty role.

Ordinarily the assumption behind these arguments is available to us and even clearly stated. Those who believe that Shakespeare was, above all else, a writer for the stage want us to see thata reading of the plays attentive to their theatrical qualities will clarify difficulties, cause apparent inconsistency to disappear, and bring the plays to new and robust life. Such a reading, in other words, will restore to us what Shakespeare intended.

When critics turn their attention to the comedies, however, the assumption seems to undergo a shift that is subtle enough to go unattended. Skillful actors, the argument goes, can bring the comedies to life. If Love's Labor's Lost has passed beyond retrieval for today's readers, a sprightly performance can bring new vigor to the play on stage, giving point to its witty exchanges and a stylish energy to its turns of plot. But somehow the process being described is not a matter of the restoration of the Shakespearean score to its rightful performance platform; rather, it is a matter of inventive actors supplying something no longer available to a modern audience in the Shakespearean text. What we have, to put a rather crude gloss on it, it is not so much a resuscitation as a transplant.

My argument in this essay, therefore, is both straightfor-ward and narrowly focused. I look to a few comic texts in an effort to show how Shakespeare himself guarantees the continuing life of his plays. He does so, I believe, by creating within the plays the very conditions of our response. As we read any of the great comedies, we may see how key scenes again and again satisfy us and achieve their comic triumphs by playing off expectations created earlier in the play's unfolding. In many ways this experience has elements in common with stand-up comedy and with our experience of familiar comic figures in our popular culture. The...

(The entire section is 5,017 words.)