The Spirit of Shakespearean Comedy

  • Patrick Swinden


That was what Dr Johnson wrote about Shakespeare when he was preparing his edition of the plays in 1765. It is not what we should expect to hear from a modern editor or, for that matter, from many people who enjoy Shakespeare, who read him and go to see the plays in the theatre today. In fact I have the impression that Shakespeare’s comedies — the ‘straight’ comedies, not the so-called problem plays like Measure for Measure, or the final plays like The Winter’s Tale — are an embarrassment to his admirers. What are they to make of the improbable coincidences and the impossible disguisings, the imperceptive heroes and the boys dressed up as girls and the girls dressed up as boys whom they fail to perceive? Even so, Johnson admired them. He thought Shakespeare had an instinctive preference for comedy. And Johnson was a man who was not easily pleased. Six years before his edition of Shakespeare was published he had written Rasselas, a grave and, some would say, pessimistic inquiry into the nature of human ambition — not at all silly and, unfortunately, not at all improbable either. If the comedies were not an embarrassment to the author of Rasselas, there is no reason why they should be to us.


Minor Character Theatre Today Play World Final Play Theatrical Duplicity 
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© Patrick Swinden 1973

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  • Patrick Swinden

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