Shakespeare is my jam, which is why I particularly like summer with its Shakespeare Festivals popping up in every district park and on every street corner. I also just finished a class, which knocked me on my ass, filled my head with iambic pentameter, and turned a lot of my bardic understanding upside down. Isn’t that just like a comedy?
There’s nothing like a good lusty Elizabethan comedy – boy falls in love with girl at first sight, girl dresses up as a man, twins get mistaken for each other, bears and donkeys gambol in the forests, and they all get married in the end. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s 38 plays had the comedy label slapped on them by the playwright’s buddies who helpfully subdivided his plays the early folios. We all learned about those divisions in school: comedies end in marriages and no (usually) deaths; tragedies center around a protagonist whose flaw causes mayhem and his own death; and histories were about the kings.
Yet comedies aren’t so easy to categorize. In fact, the last five chronologically are often recategorized by modern scholars as “romances” because they contained tragic elements. But, then, there are the three middle comedies, written before the romances, which have also been called “problem plays.” They are problematic indeed.
What’s the Problem?
My class about “Queasy Endings” was taught by Julian Lopez-Morillas, a Bay Area acting treasure, who pointed out that he enjoys teaching these three precisely because of their messiness. The plays–Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida–don’t satisfy the desire for an easy romance, despite using comic conventions. These plays push past comedy into something entirely different–irony, satire, bitterness, theater of the absurd–there’s some very uneasy to digest material here.
Oh, what man may within him hideMeasure for Measure, Act III, scene 2
Though angel on the outward side!
Maiden, No Remedy
Consider Measure for Measure, a play which I studied in college. A duke leaves town, putting his austere, puritanical “vice president” in charge, and the prudish deputy promptly starts closing down the brothels and putting baby daddies on death row. The sister of one such unmarried teenager, who is about to take final orders in a very strict convent, appeals to Deputy Angelo’s mercy. He promptly propositions her: ..”either you must lay down the treasures of your body…or else to let him suffer…”
We spent a lot of time in my 1980 class discussing all the “seeming” imagery, how Angelo’s speeches reveal his inner conflict, and how “people” struggle to reconcile inner feelings with outer appearances. We didn’t spend much time discussing the choices facing Sister Isabella, the nun. Be sexually assaulted or be responsible for your brother’s death. Shakespeare “solves” her dilemma with a Bed Trick, switching out another woman whom Angelo must marry, which probably satisfied me in 1980, as it has audiences of yore. But it doesn’t sit so well after the #MeToo times of recent years. Nor does the ending where the Duke also propositions Isabella, perhaps to up the marriage count at play’s end to four.
As we discussed, though, Isabella never answers the duke. She could be directed on stage to acquiesce with a smile, a nod of the head, or a throwing off the veil, but Shakespeare doesn’t say. What if Isabella instead turns her back? A different stage direction might give Isabella more control–more agency as we’d say today–to repel some of the distaste.
Why, Doctor She!
Or take All’s Well that Ends Well, which really doesn’t. Helena, the foster daughter to a countess, cures the king of a severe malady, and he allows her to marry a husband above her station. She chooses Bertram, the son of the countess, her childhood infatuation. End of play? Nope. Bertram sneers at her and refuses to take part in the wedding night, instead becoming a mercenary for another city state. He gambles, drinks, and concocts a plan to deflower a virgin. In short, he is a peevish, immature, Brock Turner-type who makes a poor romantic hero.
Helena controls the outcome with another Bed Trick, at least given the agency to drive her destiny in a way denied to Isabella. Pregnant with her husband’s child, she confronts Bertram, who instantly becomes a changed man. That part seems especially queasy. He begs for pardon, claiming he’ll love her “dearly, ever, ever dearly…” You can’t help but cry bs at these lines, but, in fact, Shakespeare provides clues. The next character says, “Mine eyes smell onions.” Everyone starts speaking in rhyme. In other words, it’s ridiculous, and the playwright knows it.
Suppose instead of Bertram simply smiling and taking Helena’s hand, he does a cartoonlike double-take, looking around the room with a panicked realization that he is Busted. Or, he takes her hand with overwhelming gusto, on bended knee, acknowledging that she has bested him. The playwright doesn’t say that this must be handled with gentle, loving acquiescence; there’s no real love here yet. Not all marriages are designed to be happy, yet people must make the best of them. In this sense, the un-romantic happy ending is more like lives we may know–maybe not so comic but a reflection of truth.
The Whole Argument is a Whore and a Cuckold
Which brings me to the dark comedy of Troilus and Cressida, a spiffing little romp through the Trojan War. It starts with uncle Pandarus–get it? panderer?–trying to hook up his Trojan niece Cressida with Hector’s younger brother, Troilus. They love each other, of course, only by sight but come together by mid-play with a happy ending in bed. Ah, but that’s only Act III. Act IV has a morning after, where Cressida is taken from Troy to the Greek camp, in a prisoner exchange. After a bizarre encounter with all the Grecian nobleman, where she is forced to exchange kisses with them, she takes up with another Greek, becoming a famous symbol of infidelity. Infamous perhaps, but what choice did she have? Isn’t it instead likely that she had to attach herself quickly to a Greek warrior before becoming a “common gamester” to the camp?
If this were a simple tragedy, Troilus would be killed or commit suicide by battle out of grief, and versions like Chaucer’s may have treated him that way. But in the play, Troilus simply wanders off moaning. Instead, Hector is set against Achilles, and that doesn’t go well for Hector. Unlike in the ancient poem, where the two great warriors fight a pitched battle, Shakespeare has Hector killed while unarmed. It is decidedly unchivalrous, in contrast to the earlier speeches that wallow in courtly love. That ending makes it clear; this ain’t no romantic comedy. It doesn’t feel tragic either. My wife, taking the class with me, had the right insight: this is Robert Altman.
That particular insight set all three plays together for me like a whack on the side of the head. The first was confusing, the second repugnant, but the third brought the epiphany. They don’t read as conventional comedies because someone decided that comedies are defined with happy endings and happy marriages. Shakespeare didn’t decide that. He’d written ten comedies already. Maybe he just wanted to mix it up a little and mess with the convention. After all, people don’t have the veil lifted off their eyes in the morning. They don’t have purple juice squirted in their eyelids that make it all better. Life is messy; why not have your plays be that way?
The “Distraction” of Gender Fluidity
Much as I enjoyed vigorously debating these queasy plays, I really enjoyed capping them off with a viewing of a more traditional Elizabethan comedy, As You Like It, which is this summer’s local offering of free Shakespeare in the park. This version is a full-scale musical, with hummable tunes accentuating the more familiar notions of blind love, exiled leaders, forest hikes, and characters in drag. At the center is young and poor Orlando’s infatuation for Rosalind, daughter to an exiled duke. Rosalind takes on the guise of a man, Ganymede, first for protection in the forest but then to mess with Orlando. She asks him to “pretend” s/he is Rosalind (when she actually is Rosalind), and then extracts poetry, love songs, and a fair measure of his good character.
… Woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday humor and like enough to consent.As You Like It, Act IV, Scene 1
In the meantime, Phebe, a shepherdess, falls in love with Rosalind dressed as a boy, much to the dismay of the shepherd who is wooing her. Romantic comedy ensues and the ending is not queasy. Four marriages, which all might just be good ones. Phew!
The core of the play rests on confused identities. Many modern versions–both the one I saw here in Pleasanton and one done this year up in Ashland–play with not only Rosalind’s gender, but others as well. Several of the courtiers, as well as Charles the wrestler, were made female, and the production didn’t suffer from it. Jaques, the melancholy friend to the duke, who gets to spout many of Shakespeare’s best known speeches (“All the world’s a stage”), was non-binary. The really funny bit was that Silvius, the shepherd wooing Phebe, was also played by a woman. So when Phebe changes her mind about Ganymede because Rosalind throws off her male disguise, when Phebe decides she can’t love a woman and turns back to Silvius, who really is a woman, it was particularly funny. Still, some audiences seemed confused by such modern renditions as the Oregon version prompted a variety of 1-star Yelp reviews:
The director’s choices to pursue gender fluidity was such a HUGE distraction to the play…Was looking for classic Shakespeare…I paid $140 a ticket to see beautiful costumes and authentic Shakespeare…Male characters should be played by males and female characters by females. The gender mismatches were a big negative for this production.1 star reviews of OSF’s As You Like It, 2019
Classic Shakespeare—Aye! there’s the Rub
It seems the ultimate irony to criticize gender fluidity in As You Like It, which rests on such fluidity at the core of its humor. This further stressed the point to me–confusion only reins if you bring in preconceived notions. Speeches should be declaimed with English accents, costumes should be intricate and beautiful, men should play the male parts and women play the women. Such ideas have been imposed over four centuries of theater and are hogwash.
The reason Shakespeare still works, why the plays still stand up to repeated viewings, is their ability to be modernized and to reflect sensibilities that update over time. The problem with the “problem plays” is in trying to stick their square peg into comedies’ round hole. The lack of appreciation for a modern staging comes from an expectation that characters should be dressed as Elizabethan, which doesn’t even necessarily make sense if they’re in the Trojan war or romping in a forest.
Much better to think of these as character studies that run the entire gamut of human feeling and behavior, which isn’t easily subdivided into neat categories. Comedy can be bitterly funny. Lovers can be any gender.
If we really don’t feel satisfied, our imagination can write the sixth act.