Sunday, 12 July 2020

Romeo and Juliet, are you having a laugh?

At the Team English conference, I talked about audience identification in Shakespeare’s plays and how important it is when exploring the plays. You can see the full talk here. One of the things that’s caught my interest is the use of comedy. And, in particular, Commedia dell’arte in Shakespeare’s plays.

Currently, I am rewriting my schemes of work and I have change my Year 9 scheme to address comedy in Shakespeare’s plays and more importantly the theatre form of Commedia dell’arte. Below is a small summary I have drafted for students. Note I have simplified and reduced some elements.

Commedia dell’arte

An improvised comedic theatre form that flourished in Italy in the 1500s. Comedy tends to include elements of this form of theatre. Characters have a clear type and behaviour or actions (lazzi) in a story. There are three types of character – servants / masters / lovers. The comedy stems from the situation or how a character behaves in a situation. The comedy was also physical and characters carried a slapstick to hit people with. 

Arlecchino – a witty joker and prankster. He is often a servant who uses agility and acrobatics to get out of a situation.
Brighella – a coarse and scheming merchant. He steals and is often violent – especially to characters with a lower status than him.
Columbina – a female servant character who is employed  by the inamorati to persuade their parents that they should marry each other. Sometimes she is romantically linked to Arlecchino.
Il Capitano – (The Captain) An arrogant and boastful man who likes to think he is braver than he actual is
Il Dottore – (The Doctor) A pompous neighbour who likes to think he is really educated but knows nothing. Jealous of Pantalone’s success.  Sometimes he is the father of the lovers.
Inamorati – (The Young Lovers) They are often the sons / daughters of the vecchi. They are the dilemma of the play. Do they follow their hearts or listen to their parents?
Pantalone – (The Master) Old and wealthy man who attempts to control his daughter and protect his money.
Pulcinella – is a ridiculous character and often makes fun of a servant or worker like a baker. 
Vecchi – master characters or noblemen
Zanni – servant characters

At university, I was obsessed with Shakespeare’s history plays and at school I dwelled on the tragedies, but as I age, I am finding the comedies even more interesting. I have only been teaching for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for a few years but I am starting to appreciate the complexity of it. Yes, the use of sonnet is clever and so on, but I am more interested in the structuring of it and how that structure appeals to the Elizabethan audience or audiences in general.

For years, I have always struggled with the tragedy of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or should that be ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Romeo and Juliet’. Yes, we are told it is a tragedy, but as an audience member I have never really felt it, and boy have I tried. I even tried watching it whilst peeling onions. Nothing. Not even a tear. I have tried stabbing my leg with a pin. Nothing. Not even a slight eye dribble. For me, it is a comedy that just is missing an end scene undoing the chaos of the previous acts. Look at Much Ado About Nothing. Visit a tomb and then you can fix things.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a gag a line and the number of jokes a scene gives some of Shakespeare’s official comedies a run for its money. Oh and it is filthy humour too. Over the years, I think the play has shifted towards the tragedy rather than comedy. Admittedly, that’s the beauty of Shakespeare: a play can straddle two genres. I am not alone in thinking that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is more comedy than tragedy, even though the source material is clearly a tragedy.

Shakespeare was interested in Italy and Italian theatre. When you look at ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Shakespeare’s other plays through the Commedia dell’arte , you see lots of comic tropes that Shakespeare employs in his stories.  Below are my ideas and I have seen others try to define the characters into stock types. Some the agree with me and some don’t. All down to interpretation.

We have the inamorati in the form of Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, Shakespeare tends to have two sets of inamorati in his comedies. In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ we have Beatrice/Benedict and Hero/Claudio. This doubles the complexity of the play and double the dilemma and chaos of the story.

Then we have Pantalone who is clearly Capulet. A controlling father which is a running theme in Shakespeare’s plays. Like Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, we have a father controlling who a daughter should love or marry. However, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ melds the Pantalone with Brighella, possibly highlighting the divided nature of the play and the presentation of Shylock. We can empathise with a father, but we cannot empathise with a greedy merchant.

The nurse is Columbina. Originally, the character was a largely silent role, but over time the character became quite buxom and a talker. She was largely an earthy character whose main role was to carry messages and support the plight of the inamorati. The tradition goes that Columbina loves Arlecchino, which makes the Act 2 Scene 4 interesting as in theory the nurse and Mercutio are flirting.          

Arlecchino is possibly Mercutio.  A character that does not stop talking. Unlike the tradition of having Arlecchino as a servant we have Mercutio as vecchi and not zanni. The character was a reactive character rather than a proactive character which is largely what we see in the play. He was know for carrying a stick around with him. Doesn’t take much to transform that stick into a sword. Plus, characters are associated with animal and Arlecchino’s animal is a cat or monkey. It can be disputed that Capitano is better match for Mercutio because of his male bravado and boastful nature.

Il Dottore could be viewed as Friar John. A figure that seems to be knowledgeable and experienced. He is figure that tries to get people to take potions and spends much of the action trying to cure people.

Commedia dell’arte is a physical style of theatre. Each character has a set movement, style, costume, mask, action and way of speaking. They are meant to be instantly recognisable. Not a naturalistic style of theatre but a pantomime style of theatre with clear roles and idea about class, relationships between parents and child and so on.  Easily identifiable and recognisable tropes for the audience. Stock characters are used to create humour through improvised scenarios. But, interestingly, in Commedia dell’arte each character has a particular relationship with the audience.

Commedia dell’arte
Relationship with the audience*
Romeo and Juliet
seek sympathy for their plight
Romeo and Juliet
unaware of the audience
strong relationship with the audience – confidential and might flirt
The Nurse
asides to the audience and aware of the audience
the whole world is the audience
Il Dottore
no real relationship unless there is a context for doing so – a speech
Friar John

The relationship a character has with an audience is incredibly important. Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s weaknesses help me, as an audience member, to empathise with them. I have weaknesses too. My problem with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is that they seek sympathy for their plight and that’s what rankles me. It is their plight rather than their characters that we are to empathise with.

Romeo and Juliet is a tale of two halves. The play is loosely Commedia dell’arte for the first three acts and then a tragedy for the last two acts – the weakest of the two. Yes, I am a making sound like the play is one of those ‘cut-and-shut’ jobs. Now, I am not suggesting that Shakespeare has written a dud. Far from it. Take a chill pill. We know Shakespeare played around and parodied stories.  ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe’ is a classic example of this. Would it be too obvious to turn a well-know tragedy into a tragedy? Has Shakespeare done something different with a tragedy? A play where the comedy disappears as a result of one event. Mercutio’s death. Comedy dies too. The tragedy that had been hiding in the shadows steps out and takes over. This is largely structurally different with tragedy as comedy is usually a thread in the story. Even in the dark moments, there’s an opportunity. Italian tragedy hangs on one event.

For years, I have seen people go on about teaching the conventions of tragedy. In fact, I bet there is a teacher out there who probably have the conventions tattooed on their arm as a sleeve. I think we need to start looking at comedy more. Tragedy sounds good but doesn’t really get us far. Oh, tragedy! Oh, tragic flaw! Oh, hamartia! Bit tragic, isn’t it? Let’s look at humour. Shakespeare uses humour in such an interesting way. For a start, it gets us to connect to and with characters. Why is it I find Mercutio’s death more effective than Romeo’s demise? It's because of the humour and the way we interact with the character. Look at how Shakespeare uses humour with 'Hamlet'. We identify with Hamlet and not just because he is flawed but because he shares jokes with us. We are in on the joke. 

Killing Mercutio makes the play a double tragedy. Tragedy 1: the death of Mercutio - a character the audience identifies with and likes. He certainly does light up the stage. Tragedy 2: the death of Romeo and Juliet - the lovers. For the first tragedy to take place, we need the comedy. 

Let's get thinking more about the comedy in Shakespeare. 

Thanks for reading,



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  1. That's so interesting. Also, I know that it's meant to be tragic that Romeo ends up killing Paris by mistake, but surely there's comic irony in there as well. If he'd managed that in Act One, it could have saved everyone a huge amount of angst.

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