Comedy: Civil Sayings

  • John Michael Archer
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


Comedies by Shakespeare are usually linked to London, if at all, under the categories of “city comedy” or “citizen comedy,” and more often than not they fail to meet the expectations which attend these terms. Measure for Measure has emerged as the chief example of a city comedy manqué. According to Jean E. Howard, as we have noted, Shakespeare shares the citizen dramatists’ concern with the monitoring and punishment of wayward desire in an urban setting. But he also differs from them, as we see in this problem play, “an urban representation” in which the middling sort and its institutions are elided.1 It is setting and “representation” that determine the extent to which a given comedy fits the citizen mold. Measure for Measure is set at least in a Vienna reminiscent of London. Alexander Leggatt calls The Merry Wives of Windsor “Shakespeare’s only citizen comedy” because its theme of marriage and cuckoldry melds with the town of Windsor and its lively burghers.2 Perhaps The Comedy of Errors and The Merchant of Venice should be included in the list of plays whose concern with marital matters, civil society, and punishment in an urban setting mark them as something like city comedy.3


Sovereign Power Citizen Context Public Theater Privy Council Royal Court 
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© John Michael Archer 2005

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