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Fredonia Shakespeare Club studies humor in tragedies

Irene Strychalski presented her paper on “Humor in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.”

Mary Croxton, Fredonia Shakespeare Club president, welcomed 15 members to the fourth meeting of the club’s 2020-21 year.

Karin Seager Cockram provided a virtual tour of the Lake Shore Arts Alliance facility prior to start of the meeting. Dr. Irene Strychalski presented her paper on “Humor in Shakespeare’s Tragedies,” which is summarized as follows:

Shakespeare was the supreme product of a culture steeped in verbal expressiveness. His extraordinary imaginative and linguistic power left its mark on everything he wrote. Elizabethan audiences enjoyed verbal richness in discourse, jumping from directness to ambiguity, from reality to the supernatural, from comedy to tragedy. His comedies include tragedy, and his tragedies include comedy, especially dark comedy. His tragedies, even the direst of them, echo with strange laughter, especially during ghastly moments in a play.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s brilliant language elevates the time worn story to an immensely moving experience. Elizabethan audiences immensely enjoyed language games. Rhetorical acrobatics such as puns and paradoxes, rhyming games and tricks and double entendres were popular at the time. With his huge vocabulary, Shakespeare displayed his wit using the power of language.

The first half of the play is quite lighthearted. The young characters are involved in the usual teen age high jinks. There are familial and non-familial connections, i.e. Juliet and Tybault are related, as are Romeo and Benvolio. Mercutio is a friend of Romeo’s and the nurse is Juliet’s confidante. There is bandying about and dancing, parties, and gatherings.

The play opens with Samson and Gregory, retainers of the house of Capulet, looking for a fight. Says Gregory: “The quarrel (between the Montagues and the Capulets) is between our masters and us their men. Samson: “All the same, when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids – I will cut off their heads“. Gregory: “The heads of the maids?” Samson: “Ay, the heads of the maids – or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt“. They begin a fight with some bystanders, eventually including Benvolio and Tybalt. Enter some citizens and an officer, armed with clubs and spears. They are tired of the feud between the two families. The officer shouts:” Clubs, bills and spears! Strike! Beat them down. Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!”

The play continues in a comedic style until it derails into a tragedy, as in the end all plans to unite their families and agree with their union, fail with tragic consequences.

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most famous play. Hamlet includes all the elements enjoyed by audiences of the time: a secret crime (the murder of Hamlet’s father, the king), a ghost impatient for revenge (Hamlet’s father’s ghost), a hero tormented by uncertainty and self-reproach (Hamlet), the strategic feigning of a madness that seems close to disturbingly real (also Hamlet), a woman (Ophelia) who goes mad from grief and commits suicide, and a final slaughter that wipes out most of the royal family and court.

As Hamlet and Horatio enter the scene, a gravedigger tosses up a skull and then another. Hamlet catches it and muses about the people to whom they may have belonged. Hamlet remarks: “May not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities (subtle distinctions) now, his quibbles, his cases, his property titles, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this mad knave (the gravedigger) to knock him about the head with a dirty shovel, and will not complain of assault? This man may have been a great buyer of land, to now have his fine face full of fine sand.” The play then continues with one tragedy following another to its disastrous end.

The Tragedy of King Lear is a play filled with the extremes of physical and mental anguish. The dark humor in this tragedy occurs when the jester, the Fool, tries to counteract the horrifying decision King Lear makes to disinherit the only daughter who truly loves her father. She has vowed that she will only marry someone she loves, while Lear wishes her to marry a man he chooses for dynastic purposes. The Fool attempts to make the king aware of the folly of his decision. The Fool’s perceptive observations are filled with irony and satire. He is a ‘bitter fool’. The jester proclaims that professional fools have never been as witless since wise men have lately outdone them in idiocy.

King Lear slowly descends into madness, making one disastrous decision after another until he finally wanders raging on the heath during a wild night of thunder and rain.

Murder, mayhem, and insanity prevail in a tale of inordinate greed, as the Macbeths murder to achieve the crown and then try to remove anyone else in their way. Each killing is framed, preceded, or followed, by a passage of dark humor. Macbeth’s first encounter with the witches or ‘weyward sisters’ initiate his descent towards murder and tyranny. The witches’ scenes are among the most theatrically powerful in the play. It matters a great deal whether they are made up to look grotesque or stately, perversely comical, or terrifying. “What are you?” Macbeth asks them, as the play straddles the border between fantasy and reality. Each killing results in a marked mental deterioration of Macbeth and his wife.

Later, the three witches surround their cauldron:

“Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble. Round about the cauldron go;

In the poisoned entrails throw. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog; Wool of bat and tongue of dog.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf; Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing; adder’s fork and blind worm’s sting.

For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell broth, boil and bubble.”

This is followed by a ‘sing along’ around the fire with the witches and other spirits.

In the end of the play, order and justice are restored. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are dead. Yet, though the play has deeply implicated the witches in Macbeth’s monstrous assault on orderly life, there are no repercussions on them.

Shakespeare’s mastery of the English language, his vocabulary of about 53,000 words, prodigious output, and timeless subject matter strike at the very heart of mankind. His plays are timeless treasures of the English language with universal appeal. Wit and humor are found throughout, sometimes overt, other times bubbling under the surface only to escape in word or action even in the darkest of tragedies.

The Fredonia Shakespeare Club was established in 1885.

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