AD's English Literature : Essential Characteristics of Comedy which Constitutes the Comic Spirit

Essential Characteristics of Comedy which Constitutes the Comic Spirit



Primarily the essence of Comedy depends on its happy ending and its ability to evoke laughter. All discussions on the basic nature of comedy have stemmed from Aristotle’s definition of comedy as “Imitation of bad characters, bad not with respect to every sort of vice, but to ridicule only, as being a species of turpitude or deformity ……………….. This is neither painful nor destructive”. Aristotle’s definition takes comedy to be an imitation of what is ridiculous or deformed in manner. Aristotle’s theory  might be applicable to the comedy of ancient Greece, but so far as the comedies of Shakespeare and of later times are concerned, it is quite untenable. The best way of discussing the essence or the spirit of comedy is to highlight its different features.




   The most common feature of comedy as a work of art, which ends happily and which leaves behind a pleasurable sensation, is the element of love. Comedy strikes a sense of joy, a sensation of the light of life basically sponsored by love. Meredith in his essay On Comedy has upheld love as the staple of literary comedy. Rightly does Sheridan write in the ‘Epilogue’ to The Rivals that ‘love gilds the scene and woman guides the plot. The triumph of love as the central thing of comedy is not only evident in Shakespeare’s major plays like As You Like It or Twelfth Night, but even in radically different plays like Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, Congreve’s The Way of The World or Shaw’s Arms and The Man.

                If love is the staple of comedy, laughter it its spirit. In fact laughter is the most necessary ingredient in comic art. Laughter may arise from
(i)                   Physical deformity and incongruity, mental deformity or obsession,
(ii)                 Amusing situations, ridiculous or awkward manners
(iii)                Diverting dialogue or ludicrous expression. Again laughter may arise either through
(iv)               Satire or gross farcical caricatures.

Laughter arising out of physical deformity is best evident in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, where the deformed nose of Bardolph provokes laughter. Similarly, Falstaff’s bulky body, Bottom’s bodily change are matter of laughter as well. Mental deformity as the source of laughter has also many glaring instances. One immediately remembers the unbelievable stupidity of Dog Berry and Verges in Much Ado About Nothing or Miss Malaprop’s delusion about her own learning and Sir Anthony Absolute’s wild extravagances in Sheridan’s The Rivals. Similar instances can be easily multiplied.

        Laughter in comedy also results from comic situations. For instance, the mistake of Marlow and Hastings about the identity of Mr. Hardcastle’s house as an inn resulting in Marlow’s misconceiving his would be father-in-law to be an innkeeper results in uproarious laughter in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Comic situation is also evident in Captain Absolute’s simultaneous clipping of Mrs Malaprop in the identity of Sir Anthony’s son and Lydia in the identity of Beverly in the third act of Sheridan’s The Rivals.

        Laughter also results from witty and humourous dialogue. An instance can be cited here the scene is the verbal duel between Sir Peter and his fashion minded extravagant wife, Lady Teazle:

Lady Teazle:  What though I was educated in the country, I know very well the women of fashion in
                        London are accountable to nobody after their marriage.

Sir Peter:        Very well, madam – so a husband is to have no influence no authority?

Lady Teazle:  Authority? No, to be sure! If you wanted an authority over me, you should have adopted
                        Me, not married me.

Similar instances may fill thousands of pages of comic drama in literary history. Wit in dialogue pervades the plays of Ben Jonson, Congreve, Etherege, Sheridan, Shaw, Wilde and many more, not to mention Shakespeare’s wit as a highly sophisticated expression in comedy. It marks triumph of intellect, and therefore, often lends an air of artificiality to comic drama. But humour is a question of deeper human attitude conditioned by an earnestness of feeling. It is the simultaneous co-existance of humour and with that lends grace to comedy.

        Another source of laughter in comedy is the use of satire. Satire differs from wit and humour, though it is also an intellectual exercise. It is a sort of exposure of ills and evils intended to evoke laughter. It hits hard to ridicule the follies and vices in men and manners. One of the best examples of delightful satire is Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. This play caricatures the anger of thoughtless young fellows, the obsessive cares and anxieties of old fathers and the meaningless suspicion of over fifty husbands. Perhaps the most penetrating effect of satire is perceived in unmasking the hypocrisy, vanity, greed and other distortion of individual and social morality. For instance, Goldsmith ridicules the stupid fondness of ignorant women for fashion through Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer while Sheridan satirizes the male chauvinism through the character of Sir Anthony absolute in The Rivals, but everywhere the purpose is to provide delight and not to hurt or take revenge. It is the harmonious blending of all these factors of comedy account for its spirit.


Reference: R. J. Rees: An Introduction of English Literature to the Foreign Students.
                  George Saintsbury: History of English Literature


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