- Shakespeare's Practical Jokes: An Introduction to the Comic in His Works
Studies of Renaissance comedy have long been constrained by applications of such domineering models as the anthropological-genre study of Northrop Frye, the festive-carnivalesque mode of C. L. Barber and Mikhail Bakhtin, the New Historicists' subversion-containment paradigm, the psychological theory of Freud, and the sociological approach of Bergson. Anyone who has worked extensively with comedy recognizes the limitations of these universalizing theories and the need for thoughtful new work challenging them. David Ellis has written such a book, one that begins to recover the richness, flexibility, and nuance of Renaissance comedy.
Eschewing the "trail of 'essence'" (23) leading to that "mirage of perfect definition" (109) of the comic (i.e., humorous), Ellis offers new means for appreciating the depth and variety in Shakespearean drama by closely examining prevalent practical jokes. He thus analyzes the gender and status of Shakespearean practical jokers and their victims (chapters 1 and 2), Falstaff's role as both comic butt and escape artist (chapter 3), the ideal victim (chapter 4), the joke gone too far (Malvolio, chapter 5), the triumph of the butt Parolles over shame (chapter 6), and villainous practices (chapter 7). While attending to performative aspects throughout, Ellis employs several other strategies, notably, comparing the jokers and victims of Italian beffe (cruel literary practical jokes, as in Boccaccio) to those in Shakespeare, a comparison that underscores heightened sympathy in the latter. Contrasting Shakespearean and Jonsonian practical jokers and victims, as well as the roles of Shakespearean comic actors Will Kemp (for example, Bottom and Falstaff) and Robert Armin ("artificial fools" like Feste), likewise proves illuminating. Also productive, if familiar to experts, is Ellis's illustration of how often scholars have conflated comedy, a classical genre with a happy ending, with the commonplace meaning of comic ("'what makes us laugh'" ). The comic emerges here instead as something not merely laugh-inducing but rather as capable of eliciting a range of emotions and thought. Ellis demonstrates, for instance, that longstanding theories —for example, the classical-Hobbesian-Bergsonian lack of sympathy —fall short when assessing Shakespeare's comic deceptions, in which sympathies and power shift from jokers to victims and laughter is not always the final result.
Ellis expresses skepticism for apologists that explain away what is discomfiting by an "appeal to the difference between the Elizabethan period and our own" (77, 149). Yet, if lazy historicism speciously constructs the past —particularly what Elizabethans laughed at —as simply alien to us, Ellis himself employs overstated cultural oppositions, as when he raises the question of "whether certain jokes played by authority on social inferiors in Shakespeare fail to strike us as funny because the gap between our political culture" and his "is in fact so great" (71–72). Whereas his own analysis "discredits the idea that [Shakespeare] either catered to, [End Page 1041] or shared in, some supposedly common Elizabethan disinclination to allow comedy to be compromised by human suffering" (151), Ellis occasionally invokes the well-worn assumption that "Elizabethan society was far more cruel, brutal, and coarse than ours" (78).
An engaging but digressive style sometimes leads down blind alleys when Ellis reviews criticism at length without integrating it meaningfully into his own discussion. At such times, his argument can prove dismissive of recent theoretical approaches (feminist and New Historical), even as his examples of various critical excesses are well-chosen. He especially laments what he calls "'radical' critics" who "present themselves as an embattled minority when they do in fact constitute a powerful and dominating presence in the academic and publishing establishment," to the extent of "conjuring up a benighted opposition of straw men and women" (133). One senses that, perhaps having suffered the effects of dogmatic critical orthodoxy that too often excludes the kind of work in which he engages, he cannot resist the temptation to settle old scores. Some such jousting is constructive, but Ellis risks diverting our attention when some necessary question of...