16 July 2006

British theater had its heyday between 1580-1630, when Marlow, Shakespeare, and Johnson were all writing for the stage. While the plays Dr. Faustus, Henry IV, and Volpone are all serious, they each incorporate comedy as a means to their desired ends.

Marlow brought major innovations to the stage by resurrecting tragedy and introducing blank verse, yet Dr. Faustus can be read as a basic morality play. The plot is simple: Faustus gives his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of unlimited power. The tragedy is Faustus' struggle with accepting damnation; the moral is a warning against pride and the lust for power. The rest of the play is composed of humorous scenes. Many seem like filler; the low comedy of Robin, Dick, and their adventures adds little to the plot. They are, however, significant. Act I.iv is the most important of these. This scene parodies the action of Faustus. Wagner, imitating his master, uses magic to acquire his own slave. Having agreed, under pressure from the devils Wagner calls forth, the clown says, 'I will, sir. But hark you, master, will you teach me this conjuring occupation?' 'Aye, sirrah, I'll teach thee to turn thyself to a dog, or a cat, or a mouse, or a rat, or anything.' 'A dog, or a cat, or a mouse, or a rat! O brave Wagner!' (ll.37û43) Their dialogue shows the absurdity of using magic, and foreshadows the sophomoronic pranks Faustus later plays on the pope, Robin, and Dick. This approach to a morality play is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Marlow not only shows us the torment Faustus suffers from his choice, but uses these scenes to show us how little he really gains from it. For all his power and all his suffering, Faustus acts like a fool.

Shakespeare's Falstaff is also a fool, but Shakespeare is using comedy to show character development. Act I.ii shows both Falstaff and Hal in fine form, exchanging wordplay and making jokes about Hal's future. In wondering what kind of reign Hal will have, Falstaff says, Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief. No, thou shalt. Shall I? O rare! By the Lord, I'll be a brave judge. Thou judgest false already; I mean thou shalt have the hanging of thieves and thus become a rare hangman.(ll.50û55) Falstaff takes this, too, out of context, turning it into a job for himself, instead of a projected fate. At the end of the scene, however, Hal decides to take his role as prince seriously, and the rest of his humor is spent in an elaborate joke on Falstaff. When the joke is played out, he returns to Henry IV and reforms. Falstaff, on the other hand, continues his heavy drinking and refuses to take anything, including his own death in V.iv, seriously. This provides a foil for Hal, letting us see how much he has changed. When Falstaff, in the battle scene V.iii, tries to engage Hal in the kind of wordplay they had enjoyed earlier, he is cut off with, 'What is it a time to jest and dally now?'(l.51) Hal does retain traces of his wit, finishing Hotspur's dying words with 'For worms.'(V.iv l.87), but unlike Falstaff, who jokes about playing dead and killing Hotspur, his mind is now on other things. Like all of Shakespeare's work, the play is also liberally spiced with puns, like 'herein I will imitate the sun(son of a king),' I.ii l.164. These do not really add to the story, but make the text engaging and thought-provoking.

Johnson's goal in Volpone is quite different: he uses an acidic wit to satirize social trends. Satire relies on comedy to hold an audience which might not otherwise want to hear itself criticized. Volpone might, because of its message about greed, be construed as another morality play, but unlike Dr. Faustus, where comedy provides a second line of argument, in this case comedy is the vehicle itself. Volpone is a wealthy man who gets money from people (Vulture, Kite,/ Raven, and Crow)(I.ii ll.87-88) trying to buy their way into his will. He 'glory[s]/ More in the cunning purchase of [his] wealth/ Than in the glad possession'(I.i ll.30-32), a comment on ill-gotten gains, and lives frivolously, keeping a eunuch, a dwarf, and a hermaphrodite. Yet this play is not funny if one accepts the fictional premises. If we do not see something very wrong about Volpone's lifestyle, it is actually tragic. He dies. If one does, however, keep an idea of how the world ought to work in mind, the situation is hilariously wrong. One particularly bitter incident involves Volpone and Celia, the wife of a gold-digger. When Volpone hears of her beauty, he dresses as a street-hawker and goes to her house for a look(II.ii). She throws down a kerchief full of coins for his potion and her husband flies into a jealous rage. Yet when, in II.vi, he hears that Volpone wants her to nurse him, he is anxious to prostitute her so he can gain favor. Johnson relies on ironies like this to build the play, giving him a base of subtle humor. He is more direct in dialogue: Volpone is mercilessly funny in describing his suitors as carrion eaters in I.ii; Lady and Sir Politic Would-Be continually spout embarrassingly silly lines, and the judges in acts IV and V sound like stupid old fools, repeating each other and asking what the laws are, instead of trying to discover truth. When they finally do pass judgment, in V.xii, it is only after Volpone has made such a fool of himself trying to regain his fortune, and Mosca a fool of himself trying to keep it, that guilt must show through their conflicting statements.

So it is that each of these great playwrights uses humor differently, yet effectively, in achieving their dramatic purpose. This may be a tribute to their genius, or perhaps it is due to the versatility of the comic device. If the former, we must simply stand in awe; the latter gives us some hope for the future of literature, as well.


Post a Comment

<< Home