Comedy in A Midsummer Night's Dream: High, Low, Slapstick & Shakespearean

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  • 0:00 'A Midsummer Night's…
  • 0:55 The Characters
  • 2:48 Examples of Humor
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Shakespeare's comedies all share a set of characteristics. This lesson will look at 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and the elements of high and low comedy, slapstick, and what we might call 'Shakespearean' comedy.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Comedy

Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of his most popular and enduring comedic plays. As with most Elizabethan comedies, this play is a light-hearted romp through many types of humor, all ending happily in the final scene. Also common to this era, comedy is centered on marriage and relationships, and a happy ending means uniting the courting couples.

High comedy can also be called situational comedy, in which the source of humor is the situation of mistaken identity or miscommunication. Low comedy involves silliness, inappropriateness, and sometimes references that can be taken as vulgar or sexual. Slapstick is physical humor: action rather than dialogue. Shakespearean comedy is the fast-paced, witty banter we see in all of Shakespeare's comedic plays: clever dialogue and play-on-words, often delivered in a dramatic manner.

The Characters

There are four sets of characters in the play, representing four specific and recognizable types. First, the authorities begin the action of the play: Theseus and Hippolyta, accompanied by Egeus. Their ruling about Hermia's choice of man sets the plot in motion.

Then we have the fairy world, represented by King Oberon and Queen Titania, the mischievous Puck, and Titania's attendants. The fairy world represents the place separated from reality, where any strange and magical thing might occur. Yet we soon discover that magical spells can even work on the inhabitants of the fairy world when Titania falls in love with Bottom.

The would-be lovers, Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius, retreat into the forest to escape Hermia's sentence to marry Demetrius or be banished from Athens. Hermia wants Lysander, and Helena is pursuing Demetrius. This type of high comedy was very popular in Shakespeare's time: the humor of troublesome situations and how to talk one's way out of them. The fast-paced, witty banter, especially between the sexes, along with double meanings and puns, are generally what we think of as Shakespearean comedy. If it seems familiar to you, just think of the plots of modern TV half-hour comedies like The Big Bang Theory, where the humor often comes from clever conversation and a situation that gets out of control.

Finally, the fourth set of characters are the Rude Mechanicals, six rough and uneducated tradesmen who have decided to put on a performance in honor of the royal wedding. The entire thing is something of a farce: the play is Pyramus and Thisby, a sad tale of ill-fated lovers ending in tragedy. Completely inappropriate for a wedding dinner, it is also acted in a ridiculous and exaggerated manner by the six buffoonish ruffians. Their rehearsal provides the low comedy of the play.

Examples of Humor

The story actually begins in a serious way, with Egeus bringing his rebellious daughter before the Athenian Court. The humor really begins when the fairies get involved. Oberon wants Puck to straighten out the dilemma of the four lovers with ''love juice,'' but Puck enchants the wrong man. Now the tension is higher than ever among the two couples, even descending into a girl fight between Hermia and Helena. Here is our example of slapstick physical comedy.

High comedy is the part of the plot involving the four Athenian youths. Once Puck magically creates new love interests for Lysander and Demetrius (they both then love the formerly rejected Helena), the comedic situation becomes clear. The situation itself is the source of the humor.

The Shakespearean part of the comedy is all of the witty dialogue and play-on-words. For example, when Helena and Hermia argue, they insult each other in clever ways in this scene from Act 3, Scene 2`:

HELENA

Fine, i' faith!

Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,

No touch of bashfulness? What! will you tear

Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?

Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet you!

HERMIA

Puppet! why, so: ay, that way goes the game.

Now I perceive that she hath made compare

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Additional Activities

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Further Exploration

Questions to Consider

1. This lesson teaches about the distinct types of humor often used by Shakespeare in his famous comedies. Read another of the comedies and see if you can pinpoint instances of the four types of comedy. Are all four types present? If not, which type is left out? Considering the plot presented in your chosen play, why might Shakespeare have chosen not to use a certain type of humor?

2. Read about how theaters were set up in the period of history in which Shakespeare's plays were first enjoyed by audiences. Consider how the stage may have been set and decorated for some of the key comedic scenes discussed in the lesson. Especially in the main scene with the Rude Mechanicals in rehearsal, how might the actors have portrayed the slapstick type of comedy to bring out the humor effectively?

3. Part of the comedy based on a situation in this play relies on instances of mistaken identity resulting from the mischief created by Puck. Many times in modern television situation comedies, mistaken identity provides a source of humor. See if you can think of an episode or single scene from a recent or current television program that depends on a case of mistaken identity. How does the time period in which Shakespeare's plays were created affect how the scenes are organized and portrayed?

4. This play has been made into a film multiple times. In addition, modern stage directors often stage this play in other time periods and locations than the original. Watch one of the film versions or an example of a contemporary staging. How are the four types of humor presented? Do you think the humor "works" when presented this way? Why or why not?

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