Written March 31, 2002
In a farce, it's not a problem. The Coyote's latest scheme to capture the Road Runner backfires. The Coyote plunges to the bottom of the canyon. We laugh at him.
But a comedy is a different matter. The characters are more "real," and we empathize with them to a certain extent. The antagonist is not a two-dimensional villain but a person like us. When he falls into a canyon, it may be what he deserves, but it seems cruel for us to make fun of his fate.
If the playwright clearly expects a laugh in such a situation, we in the audience feel uncomfortable. We feel as though the unfortunate miscreants are turning to us to ask, "How can you be so uncaring? We may have faults, but so do you. Are we not also human beings? If you prick us, do we not bleed? Have pity on your fellow creatures." So if we do oblige the playwright with a laugh, it is a hesitant one, tinged with embarrassment.
Let me give three examples.
In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Malvolio is the self-important steward to the countess Olivia. Other characters have reason to dislike him. So they trick him into thinking that the countess is secretly in love with him and that she wants him to dress and act in a certain bizarre fashion. When he enters wearing the yellow stockings that he thinks she likes, we laugh. But when he persists in his odd behavior, he's thrown into the loony bin, where the fool Feste torments him by pretending to be a priest.
In the play's final scene, Malvolio is released from his captivity. He demands poignantly:
He learns that it was all a practical joke. But that's no excuse. "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," he mutters as he leaves.
Shakespeare may have realized that the audience is siding with Malvolio, who "hath been most notoriously abused." To correct this drift away from the lighthearted comedy that he intended, Shakespeare tries to point out the humor in the prank that went too far. He has the character Fabian remind us:
Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Yeomen of the Guard, though written in the 19th century, is set in the 16th. The romantic lead is one Colonel Fairfax, while the comic lead is a Shakespearean fool named Jack Point. This jester works a traveling show with a young woman named Elsie Maynard, but he loses her to the colonel. At the end, poor Jack Point is sadly left alone as Elsie and Fairfax are married.
I have tapes of two BBC productions of Yeomen. One from about 1974 features Derek Hammond-Stroud as the fool; the other from 1982 has Joel Gray in that role. I much prefer the latter.
Hammond-Stroud plays Jack Point with a cocky self-assurance. When he loses the love of his life, we don't have a lot of sympathy for him. He'll probably replace her with another love of his life tomorrow. In the final scene, according to the stage directions, "Fairfax embraces Elsie, as Point falls insensible at their feet." Our reaction is, "Oh, Jack Point, it isn't the end of the world. Get up off the floor! Stop being so melodramatic!"
But Joel Grey portrays the character as a meek young man, lacking in self-confidence, who has nevertheless decided to make his living by making jokes. He's not very good at his trade, but he keeps trying, and we empathize with him. Thus when Fairfax takes away his beloved Elsie, we rejoice for them but feel the forlorn Jack Point's pain. The ending is bittersweet.
Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is usually thought of as Shylock's tragic story. Actually, it's supposed to be a comedy about Portia and her marriage.
Shylock was originally conceived as a stereotypical Jewish lender, conniving to steal good Christians' money. Today he might be a loan shark in a mobster film, or he might be a hard-hearted banker like Mr. Potter of Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life. When a loan is not repaid in time, Shylock demands the penalty that was promised to him. Reasonable characters try to talk the scheming villain out of it, but all attempts fail. Finally, the heroine Portia comically disguises herself as a male doctor of jurisprudence and comes up with a legal loophole. Foiled by a mere woman, the villain is thoroughly defeated; he's even forced to renounce his religion and convert to Christianity.
But when Shakespeare put words into Shylock's mouth, what emerged was not a two-dimensional caricature of an evil loan shark but a three-dimensional character, a "real" person with a straying daughter, with feelings and convictions and a sense of justice.
And when, in the last century, the anti-Semitism expressed by some of the characters in this play grew into Nazism and the Holocaust, we who are not Jews felt guilt. We identified with those who are. No longer can we laugh at Shylock and "his tribe," nor should we.
Shylock, defeated in Act Four, does not appear in the final act. We feel somewhat uneasy about his fate, but as Portia's comedy works its way to a happy ending, we forget about the Jew and move on.
To modern sensibilities, this is a problem. A 2001 Masterpiece Theatre television version of The Merchant of Venice resolves it in a very effective way.
The production is set in the early 1930s. The Duke who presides over Shylock's court proceedings, outwardly reasonable but contemptuous of the Jew before him, reminds us of a Nazi official. Thus, the story of the Holocaust is always lurking in the background.
In the final scene, Portia's last lines are ones that Shakespeare had originally placed elsewhere:
She hopefully adds another line from near the end:
Just then, there is a loud rumble of thunder, like the sound of distant artillery, and the play comes to an end.
The Jew of Venice may have been sent to his ruin, but the story is not over, for hatred still seeks other Jews and will not rest until the whole world is at war.