How “Mean,” Comedy Means the Most.

My first blog post focused on the rotten aspects of comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There, I argued that part of Shakespeare’s currency with us today is that we are still animals that enjoy laughing at others’ expense. Now, consumed with literal and figurative expenses in The Merchant of Venice, it seems apropos to reconsider this writing-off of dramatic cruelty. Perhaps there is a greater utility.


In the opening scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the audience is shown the gravity of subverting the law: Egeus demands the father’s right “…As she is mine, I may dispose of her…Or to her death…” (1.1.42-45) Likewise, the mechanicals’ less overt attempt at upsetting entrenched authority (by hoping to rise out of their current station to become court thespians) is dismissed with condescension: “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst/ are no worse if imagination amend them.” ( Throughout the play, those who would alter the expectations of law and society tread a difficult path. A similar danger is seen in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock seeks to prosper as a Jew in Christian Europe. Among many examples, his recitation of the ills he has endured at just Antonio’s hand is enough to envisage a fraught business life: “He hates our sacred nation…In the Rialto you have rated me…You have called me misbeliever, cut throat, dog,/ And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine…” (1.3.43; 103; 107-108) 


Both of these plays are flush with this simple message: upset the entrenched order, watch yourself. An interesting facet of this message is just what type of message can be drawn from those characters who would upset the order? Do they serve a simple didactic purpose (don’t try this, kids…), or a much more nuanced and subversive one? For one thing, the rebellion of Hermia against her father’s wishes is successful. And while there is a great deal that could be said about the interactions she has, from her own small victory one could draw the conclusion that a woman can determine whom she would marry, in spite of a male-dominated society.


The mechanicals’ failure to win admiration, on the other hand requires a different treatment. Though obviously present primarily for comic relief, the manner in which the upper class treats these players is telling. The punning, snyde commentary of Theseus, Demetrius, and Lysander throughout the play in Act 5 could give the audience both a laughable time and an opportunity to judge whether the condescension of the upper-class is acceptable. Here, as with Hermia’s attempt at subversion, by placing criticism within disenfranchised characters (here a woman and lower-class laborers, respectively), Shakespeare can jab at entrenched power while generating laughs. At a time where censure could be severe, the utility of satire at this level seems broad.


Much the same is seen in the way Shylock is employed in The Merchant of Venice. After thoroughly establishing he is a “…dog Jew…” (2.8.14), the impassioned speech of Shylock in Act 3 Scene 1 can be employed as a fierce impeachment of Christian society’s double standards. He appeals to the audience to see him a human on the same footing as a Christian and creates a compelling argument: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs…affections, passions…If you prick us do we not bleed?…If you poison us do we not die?…If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge…The villainy you teach me I will execute…” (3.1.50-61) Had such a speech been lodged in the mouth of a respected Christian, it would mean little. Here, however, the delivery from a despised and malicious character not only allows such an outwardly scathing judgment of Christian morality to be heard, but to be entirely ignored in the context of the play (Shylock loses in court and is dismissed). Though there is room for staging to vary our interpretation of Shylock as a whole, the text is clear: through an abused, marginalized, and outcast figure comes bitter truths about society and power.


My initial focus in looking at Act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was to denounce the baseness of human beings in our tendency to take pleasure in the pain of others. However, considering the utility of cruelty (in fiction, of course) both in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in The Merchant of Venice, there are complex uses for such scenarios. When lodging social criticisms in the visage of fools, outcasts, or disenfranchised characters, Shakespeare takes the opportunity to make ambiguous, bold, and counter-cultural statements that might otherwise be unpalatable. In the guise of the mechanicals, Hermia, or a Shylock, however, he can ask deep and troubling questions of his audience without putting himself or delicate sensibilities at too much risk.


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