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Us vs. The World

Written by: The CinCitizens

Shakespeare's comedy

As I sit here watching the Alan Smithee rogue extended edition of David Lynch’s classic Dune, I’m reminded of this movie’s grand Shakespearean tone – its sprawling cast, intricate storylines, bizarre expository asides and aristocratic focus.

I’m also reminded that Shakespeare’s comedy is not funny, so stop laughing at it.

Now, notice what I said – Shakespeare’s comedy isn’t funny. I didn’t say his comedies weren’t funny – most of them certainly can be – but his grating puns and incessant dick-jokes simply are not funny by any modern standard. Hell, I can’t even imagine they were funny back in his day.

What pisses me off even more is hearing people at a Shakespeare play or watching a Shakespeare movie laughing at this non-funny shit because it makes them feel smart to do so. These are otherwise normal people who would never laugh at this kind of garbage in a non-hoity-toity setting – but when it’s Shakespeare! Oh, no! When you laugh at an unfunny Shakespeare pun, then everyone knows you paid attention to the notes in your Folger Library edition!

And you know what? I’ve been one of those pretentious assholes. Ugh. I shudder to even think of it.

Furthermore, if we go on a comedy-by-comedy basis, all of the good stuff has absolutely nothing to do with the ostensibly “funny” parts of the stories. To wit:

The Merchant of Venice: Yes, it’s an anti-Semitic diatribe, yes, Shakespeare was an ignorant anti-Semite, but Shylock is hands-down the reason to go see that play. Many an eminent Shakespearean scholar has put Shylock into the same proud company as Hamlet and Falstaff for the sheer amount of life that Shakespeare packed into him — and they're right to do so.

The rest of the play? Drudgery. One interminable, unfunny scene after another, capped by an unnecessary and, again, unfunny fifth act. As a writer, I’d like to point out that Shakespeare added that whole entire shitty fifth act after he wrote the climax to his dumb play.

(Side note: The mind boggles at how Al Pacino nearly sunk the recent film version of Merchant. Somehow, he took the best role in the play — one of the can't-miss roles in the canon — and turned it into pure boredom. Only Shakespeare's stellar writing and a surprisingly well-directed fifth act saved the movie.)

As You Like It: Ugh. What a miserable piece of shit play – and I’ve been in it. The only interesting character is Jacques – the guy who says “All the world’s a stage” – and even he isn’t that interesting unless directed well.

This play’s greatest crime? It’s terminally unfunny “clown,” Touchstone. Don’t believe me? Go back and read his “much virtue in ‘if’” speech in act 5. Go back and read it, and then tell me with a straight face and a clear conscience that it’s clever. You won’t be able to.

Much Ado About Nothing: Easily the most pleasant of Shakespeare’s comedies, but still nowhere near approximating “funny.” What directors and actors doing Shakespearean comedies need to understand is that audiences should smile more at Shakespeare’s comedies that outright laugh at them. The Benedick and Beatrice storyline is solid, even if the “witty banter” – I revile how people invoke that phrase ad nauseam in reference to this play – isn’t. The end of act 4, scene 1, when these two characters end their old grudge against each other, is not only one of the best scenes in Shakespeare, it’s also one of the most modern, featuring some ahead-of-its-time rapid-fire dialogue.

I could go on, but why? I encourage you, if you’re a Shakespeare fan, to reexamine your opinion of his comedies. I’m not saying you can’t laugh at them. I’m not even saying they can’t be funny. I’m saying that Shakespeare’s skill lies in his examination of human personalities, not in verbal comedy.

— Tony Sanders 

Author: The CinCitizens

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