On Not Finding Shakespeare Funny
I’m beginning to fear that William Shakespeare would think I have no sense of humor. I’m not laughing at the punch lines in some of his plays.
Several years ago I resolved to spend a year watching, reading and re-discovering every Shakespeare play, writing about each as I did so. As New Year’s resolutions went it was overly ambitious, but it did have the effect of making Shakespeare a constant in my life. Like baking bread or futzing in the garden, I found myself allotting time for the Bard as a matter of course. Between books and workaday projects, I habitually filled the interstices of my life with Elizabethan literature so that there was rarely a week that passed without me opening some biography or history, some collection of drama or poetry from the era. Other people go jogging, do yoga. I put BBC productions of Shakespeare in the DVD player.
As habits go, my Shakespeare dilettantism has been relatively harmless and generally rewarding. I couldn’t think of the pursuit as wasting time, even when I found myself watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream instead of, say, doing my taxes. But I did not, surprisingly, end up feeling moved to write about each play as I saw it. In fact, I was more than a little shocked to find myself actually disappointed in some of the plays.
It is possible that I suffer from some kind of defect of character, here. Because as far as I was concerned, not liking Shakespeare was as absurd like not liking ice cream—it’s a ridiculous notion.
The first play that elicited a lukewarm response in me was Two Gentleman of Verona, where I was continually distracted by the fact that Proteus needed a good whack upside the head. It’s acknowledged by critics as one of Shakespeare’s earliest and weakest plays, and the only thing I really took away from the story was that Sylvia was too good for any man in the cast, and that the dog Crab had the funniest parts. (“Love, and a bit with a dog,” says Henslowe in the movie Shakespeare in Love, “that’s what they want.”) I had a bit of trouble with the Comedy of Errors as well, for two reasons. First, because the production I saw featured David Tennant as Antipholus of Syracuse, and thanks to a devotion to BBC science fiction at the moment I can’t look at the man without seeing The Doctor. But my other problem was a little more fundamental. The entire play is founded on sight gags and mistaken identities. And a little of those goes a long, long way with me. Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, which is a good thing because no one in the play knew who they were talking to and it was driving me mad. I couldn’t have stood for it to go much longer.
I fought with my feminist self over Taming of the Shrew, going so far as to rationalize why I liked the parts I did like (the repartee between Kate and Petruchio) in the face of the unapologetic misogyny of the rest of the play. And I tolerated what seemed like a very silly premise in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the few but treasured observations on the power of men’s imaginations.
It took me almost two years to see the trend—I’m a little slow on the uptake. But eventually it dawned on me that I wasn’t finding Shakespeare’s comedies all that funny. I was laughing in all the wrong places. Not at Bottom, stumbling around the forest with the head of a donkey, but at Puck’s constant sneering commentary. Not at Petruchio, showing up for his wedding in rags, but at Kate, when she traded insult for insult with her enforced fiancé. Not at the tricks played on drunken millers, but at the viciously agile mockery Shakespeare is so very adept at delivering. I would not, ever, want to trade words with the man, I’d be humiliated in less time than it takes to quaff an ale.
It’s possible that I just don’t respond well to slapstick. As jokes go, people tripping over their own feet and falling on their asses stops being funny after the first hundred or so times. And Shakespeare is at a disadvantage here, because unlike his audience in the late sixteenth century—which used to pay good money to see dogs baiting bears and tripping clowns—I grew up on a steady diet of television sitcoms, hours and hours of them. I like my humor to be clever and very black, so I’m drawn to the puns and insults far more than to the trips, the falls and the fools. Mostly, I can do without “the bit with the dog”–the dog doesn’t usually talk.
Which brings me to The Merchant of Venice, which has been in the DVD player and on my bedside table for the last several weeks.
I don’t like it.
And I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried really hard. I approach any Shakespeare play with the assumption that it is great literature worth watching, and that I’ll be able to tell why. So I’m aware that I’m flying in the face of centuries—literally centuries—of tradition here. I know The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and that the central character, Shylock, is so iconic that the very name is common slang. I know that critics and writers and dramatists and high school English teachers have all found the play to be a profound comment on human nature. There are shelves filled with books about Shylock the Jew and what Shakespeare might have intended in creating so reprehensible, yet sympathetic a character. Theories range from the rather fantastic notion that Shakespeare had never met a Jew to the even more fantastic idea that Shylock is a stand in for the author—the very first “Mary Sue” in literature.
As with the rest of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve encountered, I took on The Merchant of Venice unburdened by any critical opinions beyond those I may have absorbed indirectly, reading biographies or histories, simply dumping it into the DVD player without preparation or fanfare, relying on the play itself to get its point across. I wanted to see it free of the bias of either its critics or its apologists, and I frankly felt unequal to the task of absorbing all the literature that has been written about this, one of the Bard’s most troubling plays. Besides, I suspect that anything written about Shylock after World War II is really about reconciling our inclination to laugh at and enjoy such a blatantly anti-Semitic story in a world where we allowed the Holocaust to happen. People who argue that The Merchant of Venice is not anti-Semitic tend to cling to Shylock’s famous “if you prick us, do we not bleed” speech like a shipwrecked sailor to a floating board. They have to; there is nothing else in the play to hold on to.
But the anti-Semitism is not exactly what bugged me about this play. (And don’t kid yourself, the play is certainly anti-Semitic.) It wasn’t the reason I wasn’t laughing. Shylock, I decided as I was watching Al Pacino dominate the screen in the 2004 film directed by Michael Radford, and then the more muted BBC production, was a villain. Vicious, passionate, complex—he reminded me of Aaron in Titus Andronicus, of Richard III, both of whom recognize that they are outsiders and outcasts, and live to wreak havoc and revenge. Characters like that aren’t funny. Shylock belonged in a tragedy, not some improbably-plotted comedy. But where Aaron dies hissing curses and spite at his captors, where Richard falls, surrounded by battle and war crying for a horse, Shylock slinks away—soon to be forcibly converted to Christianity against his will. This is what Elizabethan audiences would call “a happy ending.”
The fact is, the things that usually make me laugh in a Shakespeare play are almost completely absent in this one. The dialogue is mean-spirited, the plot is implausible, the characters are, with the exception of Shylock, completely forgettable. And the comedy is all in the nasty way Shylock is treated by everyone from the morally superior Antonio to the sly and ungrateful servant Launcelot, to Shylock’s own heartless daughter, Jessica.
My dissatisfaction with Shylock’s capitulation at the end of the trial wasn’t ameliorated by the fact that with the possible exception of Portia, not a single other character in the play has any dimension. Antonio—the titular merchant—is, let’s be honest, a prig. He’s mean and superior and inclined to laugh at petty things like the way Shylock dresses and walks. His friend Bassanio is an irresponsible spendthrift who has the effrontery to suggest that since he’s spent all the money friends have lent him, they should lend him more to give him a chance to win it all back. Everybody else in the play—friends and servants and their paramours—are filler. An editor would have cut out most of them because they do not offer a single thing to move the plot forward.
And then there is Portia—the leading lady without a leading man—and the only character I came close to liking. She, at least, seems to have some common sense, if you can excuse the fact that she has agreed to follow her late father’s decree and allow herself to be married off to whatever nitwit happens to pick from three chests the one that holds her picture. As the play opens, it is clear that she has had a surfeit of very stupid suitors, because she is still unmarried and at no risk of being married in the near future. In fact, to Portia goes the only conversation in this entire comedy that actually made me laugh—she has some beautifully catty observations about the men who want to win her hand and money. Portia must also have used her time waiting for a decent suitor to good effect, because when later on in the play she appears in court in disguise to save Antonio’s worthless hide, she seems to know Venetian law better than the judge.
Alas, she throws away all the good credit she earned with me when after the trial she engages in a pointless little game to trick her oblivious husband into giving her a ring she had previously given to him. Why she does this I can’t fathom. Perhaps the play was too short and Shakespeare needed to draw it out to justify the box office fee. Perhaps he felt he’d gone awry at the trial’s end, and didn’t want the audience’s last thoughts to be of Shylock slinking away, defeated. Villains should be allowed to have the last word—they usually have the most interesting things to say. Whatever the reason, Portia gets her ring back, teases her husband about it, and then everyone goes out to eat. Except Shylock, of course. But presumably even his end is a happy one because although he has lost all his wealth, goods, family and reputation, he now has a chance to get into heaven.
Bah and humbug. I hope when he gets there he has the pleasure of watching St. Peter boot Antonio down into Hell for committing the sin of being a smug bastard. But that’s not, perhaps, the reaction that Shakespeare was going for.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.