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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Humor of Shakespeare
By Edward Dowden (1843–1913)
 
From ‘Shakespeare: a Critical Study of His Mind and Art’

A STUDY of Shakespeare which fails to take account of Shakespeare’s humor must remain essentially incomplete. The character and spiritual history of a man who is endowed with a capacity for humorous appreciation of the world must differ throughout, and in every particular, from that of the man whose moral nature has never rippled over with genial laughter. At whatever final issue Shakespeare arrived after long spiritual travail as to the attainment of his life, that precise issue, rather than another, was arrived at in part by virtue of the fact of Shakespeare’s humor. In the composition of forces which determined the orbit traversed by the mind of the poet, this must be allowed for as a force among others, in importance not the least, and efficient at all times even when little apparent. A man whose visage “holds one stern intent” from day to day, and whose joy becomes at times almost a supernatural rapture, may descend through circles of hell to the narrowest and the lowest; he may mount from sphere to sphere of Paradise until he stands within the light of the Divine Majesty; but he will hardly succeed in presenting us with an adequate image of life as it is on this earth of ours, in its oceanic amplitude and variety. A few men of genius there have been, who with vision penetrative as lightning have gazed as it were through life, at some eternal significances of which life is the symbol. Intent upon its sacred meaning, they have had no eye to note the forms of the grotesque hieroglyph of human existence. Such men are not framed for laughter. To this little group the creator of Falstaff, of Bottom, and of Touchstone does not belong.  1
  Shakespeare, who saw life more widely and wisely than any other of the seers, could laugh. That is a comfortable fact to bear in mind; a fact which serves to rescue us from the domination of intense and narrow natures, who claim authority by virtue of their grasp of one-half of the realities of our existence and their denial of the rest. Shakespeare could laugh. But we must go on to ask, “What did he laugh at? and what was the manner of his laughter?” There are as many modes of laughter as there are facets of the common soul of humanity, to reflect the humorous appearances of the world. Hogarth, in one of his pieces of coarse yet subtile engraving, has presented a group of occupants of the pit of a theatre, sketched during the performance of some broad comedy or farce. What proceeds upon the stage is invisible and undiscoverable, save as we catch its reflection on the faces of the spectators, in the same way that we infer a sunset from the evening flame upon windows that front the west. Each laughing face in Hogarth’s print exhibits a different mode or a different stage of the risible paroxysm. There is the habitual enjoyer of the broad comic, abandoned to his mirth, which is open and unashamed; mirth which he is evidently a match for, and able to sustain. By his side is a companion female portrait—a woman with head thrown back to ease the violence of the guffaw; all her loose redundant flesh is tickled into an orgasm of merriment; she is fairly overcome. On the other side sits the spectator who has passed the climax of his laughter; he wipes the tears from his eyes, and is on the way to regain an insecure and temporary composure. Below appears a girl of eighteen or twenty, whose vacancy of intellect is captured and occupied by the innocuous folly still in progress; she gazes on expectantly, assured that a new blossom of the wonder of absurdity is about to display itself. Her father, a man who does not often surrender himself to an indecent convulsion, leans his face upon his hand, and with the other steadies himself by grasping one of the iron spikes that inclose the orchestra. In the right corner sits the humorist, whose eyes, around which the wrinkles gather, are half closed, while he already goes over the jest a second time in his imagination. At the opposite side an elderly woman is seen, past the period when animal violences are possible, laughing because she knows there is something to laugh at, though she is too dull-witted to know precisely what. One spectator, as we guess from his introverted air, is laughing to think what somebody else would think of this. Finally, the thin-lipped, perk-nosed person of refinement looks aside, and by his critical indifference condemns the broad, injudicious mirth of the company.  2
  All these laughers of Hogarth are very commonplace, and some are very vulgar persons; one trivial, ludicrous spectacle is the occasion of their mirth. When from such laughter as this we turn to the laughter of men of genius, who gaze at the total play of the world’s life; and when we listen to this, as with the ages it goes on gathering and swelling, our sense of hearing is enveloped and almost annihilated by the chorus of mock and jest, of antic and buffoonery, of tender mirth and indignant satire, of monstrous burlesque and sly absurdity, of desperate misanthropic derision and genial affectionate caressing of human imperfection and human folly. We hear from behind the mask the enormous laughter of Aristophanes, ascending peal above peal until it passes into jubilant ecstasy, or from the uproar springs some exquisite lyric strain. We hear laughter of passionate indignation from Juvenal, the indignation of “the ancient and free soul of the dead republics.” And there is Rabelais, with his huge buffoonery, and the earnest eyes intent on freedom, which look out at us in the midst of the zany’s tumblings and indecencies. And Cervantes, with his refined Castilian air and deep melancholy mirth, at odds with the enthusiasm which is dearest to his soul. And Molière, with his laughter of unerring good sense, undeluded by fashion or vanity or folly or hypocrisy, and brightly mocking these into modesty. And Milton, with his fierce objurgatory laughter,—Elijah-like insult against the enemies of freedom and of England. And Voltaire, with his quick intellectual scorn and eager malice of the brain. And there is the urbane and amiable play of Addison’s invention, not capable of large achievement, but stirring the corners of the mouth with a humane smile,—gracious gayety for the breakfast-tables of England. And Fielding’s careless mastery of the whole broad common field of mirth. And Sterne’s exquisite curiosity of oddness, his subtile extravagances and humors prepense. And there is the tragic laughter of Swift, which announces the extinction of reason, and loss beyond recovery of human faith and charity and hope. How in this chorus of laughters, joyous and terrible, is the laughter of Shakespeare distinguishable?  3
  In the first place, the humor of Shakespeare, like his total genius, is many-sided. He does not pledge himself as dramatist to any one view of human life. If we open a novel by Charles Dickens, we feel assured beforehand that we are condemned to an exuberance of philanthropy; we know how the writer will insist that we must all be good friends, all be men and brothers, intoxicated with the delight of one another’s presence; we expect him to hold out the right hand of fellowship to man, woman, and child; we are prepared for the bacchanalia of benevolence. The lesson we have to learn from this teacher is, that with the exception of a few inevitable and incredible monsters of cruelty, every man naturally engendered of the offspring of Adam is of his own nature inclined to every amiable virtue. Shakespeare abounds in kindly mirth: he receives an exquisite pleasure from the alert wit and bright good sense of a Rosalind; he can dandle a fool as tenderly as any nurse qualified to take a baby from the birth can deal with her charge. But Shakespeare is not pledged to deep-dyed ultra-amiability. With Jacques, he can rail at the world while remaining curiously aloof from all deep concern about its interests, this way or that. With Timon he can turn upon the world with a rage no less than that of Swift, and discover in man and woman a creature as abominable as the Yahoo. In other words, the humor of Shakespeare, like his total genius, is dramatic.  4
  Then again, although Shakespeare laughs incomparably, mere laughter wearies him. The only play of Shakespeare’s, out of nearly forty, which is farcical,—‘The Comedy of Errors,’—was written in the poet’s earliest period of authorship, and was formed upon the suggestion of a preceding piece. It has been observed with truth by Gervinus that the farcical incidents of this play have been connected by Shakespeare with a tragic background, which is probably his own invention. With beauty, or with pathos, or with thought, Shakespeare can mingle his mirth; and then he is happy, and knows how to deal with play of wit or humorous characterization; but an entirely comic subject somewhat disconcerts the poet. On this ground, if no other were forthcoming, it might be suspected that ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ was not altogether the work of Shakespeare’s hand. The secondary intrigues and minor incidents were of little interest to the poet. But in the buoyant force of Petruchio’s character, in his subduing tempest of high spirits, and in the person of the foiled revoltress against the law of sex, who carries into her wifely loyalty the same energy which she had shown in her virgin sauvagerie, there were elements of human character in which the imagination of the poet took delight.  5
  Unless it be its own excess, however, Shakespeare’s laughter seems to fear nothing. It does not, when it has once arrived at its full development, fear enthusiasm, or passion, or tragic intensity; nor do these fear it. The traditions of the English drama had favored the juxtaposition of the serious and comic: but it was reserved for Shakespeare to make each a part of the other; to interpenetrate tragedy with comedy, and comedy with tragic earnestness.  6
 
 
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