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Beyond a Common Joy

An Introduction to Shakespearean Comedy

Paul A. Olson

Publication Year: 2008

“Soul of the age!” Ben Jonson eulogized Shakespeare, and in the next breath, “He was not of an age but for all time.” That he was both “of the age” and “for all time” is, this book suggests, the key to Shakespeare’s comic genius. In this engaging introduction to the First Folio comedies, Paul A. Olson gives a persuasive and thoroughly engrossing account of the playwright’s comic transcendence, showing how Shakespeare, by taking on the great themes of his time, elevated comedy from a mere mid-level literary form to its own form of greatness—on par with epic and tragedy.

Like the best tragic or epic writers, Shakespeare in his comedies goes beyond private and domestic matters in order to draw on the whole of the commonwealth. He examines how a ruler’s or a court’s community at the household and local levels shapes the politics of empire—existing or nascent empires such as England, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Venice, and the Ottoman Empire or part empires such as Rome and Athens—where all their suffering and silliness play into how they govern. In Olson’s work we also see how Shakespeare’s appropriation of his age’s ideas about classical myth and biblical scriptures bring to his comic action a sort of sacral profundity in keeping with notions of poetry as “inspired” and comic endings as more than merely happy but as, in fact, uncommonly joyful.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. vii


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pp. viii

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pp. ix-xiv

In his comedies, Shakespeare moves comic form into "grander realms." He moves it from the tv sitcom level, where most of the comedy of his day operated, to a level where it rivaled tragedy and epic. To see...

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1. On Historical Understandings of Shakespeare's Works

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pp. 1-25

When Hamlet wishes to mock Polonius as a timeserving old fool, he asks Polonius to look up at the clouds and see things: hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel? polonius:...

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2. Shakespeare and the Invention of Grand Comic Form

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pp. 27-66

When Ben Jonson writes his introductory poem for the First Folio, he casually mentions Shakespeare's outshining his contemporaries in tragedy and his parity with the ancients, Aeschylus, Euripides, and...

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3. Shakespearean Comedic Myths

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pp. 67-118

James Shapiro speculates about whether Spenser refers to Shakespeare in "Colin Clout's Come Home Again" and whether Shakespeare was referring to Spenser in Midsummer Night's Dream. He concludes that...

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4. Biblical Story and Festival Enter Shakespearean Comedy

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pp. 119-182

The ultimate prophetic or vatic book for Shakespeare's contemporaries was the Bible - both the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and the New Testament. The Bible was the center of the prophetic visions...

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5. Empire and Conquest in the Comedies

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pp. 183-227

Shakespeare's public theater after early 1599 was the Globe. Here his company laid its claim to being able to talk about the entire globe. When Prospero speaks of the world's (or globe's) dissolving...

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6. Measure for Measure as Form, Myth, and Scripture

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pp. 229-261

Throughout his comedies Shakespeare presents us with a New Comedy world reordered so that the comedy includes a model of the whole of society, and in no play is this more apparent than in Measure for Measure. Oscar Campbell...

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And in Conclusion

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pp. 263-269

We began with an examination of the lines in Ben Jonson's Folio tribute to Shakespeare praising his comedies as surpassing those of Plautus and Terence, on the one hand, and those of Aristophanes, on...


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pp. 271-328

Resources for Placing the Comedies in an Early Modern Frame

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pp. 329-332


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pp. 333-347

E-ISBN-13: 9780803219472
E-ISBN-10: 0803219474

Page Count: 555
Illustrations: 16 b/w illus., 1 figure, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2008