The Rejection of Morality by Comedy
By Christopher Fannon
Understandably enough, when a writer wants to infuse his work with meaning, he will often try to use his platform to teach some sort of lesson. Similarly, it is easy for the critic to look at literature that has a clear moral message and analyze the factors that contribute to that centralized lesson. Unfortunately, too often the significance and power of comedy are overlooked by the expectation of this kind of moral contribution coming from literature. In the time of Shakespeare, so much drama was directed towards teaching lessons, as evidenced by the immense popularity of “morality plays.” But those values, corrective, moral values, belong to the realm of satire. Comedy handles things differently. Comedy embraces diversity of opinion rather than asserting a single moral view. Comedy is full of a spirit of reconciliation and tolerance. Therefore morality, in the traditional sense, has no place in comedy, since it restrains the genre’s central message. One can look at any Shakespearean comedy to see how misplaced morality would be. Through his plays, not only does Shakespeare create a comic universe, but he shows a profound understanding that comedy praises a set of values well outside of the realm of morality.
Shakespeare’s most evident method of displaying the futility of morality in a comic universe is through the creation of the out-of-place moral character. These characters are utterly humorless, letting their senses of right and wrong completely sap them of any enjoyment of life. They are antagonists only in the sense that they go against the vitality and freedom of the comic characters in favor of a more rigid existence. There is no happy ending for these characters, since they are not willing to give themselves to the uncontrollable comic forces that drive the story in a comedy. Rather, in their end, there is a moment where they must cut themselves off from the rest of the cast.
In “As You Like It,” this character exists in the form of Duke Senior’s melancholy attending lord Jacques. He loves reveling in his own sadness. In his second line, he sums himself up quite well, “I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks egges. More, I prithee more” (1). He cannot stand the happiness of others, because he must over-analyze everything into some sort of moral tragedy. When he is first mentioned, one of Duke Senior’s lords is explaining how he was seen sitting and moping after seeing a group of hunters wound a deer. Even in the dire situation of being exiled to the wilderness, Jacques still holds his endless moralizing to be the most important thing. Even when he and the rest of the Duke’s men need to hunt to maintain their own lives, Jacques sees it as an opportunity to sit and mope about the misery of his own situation and the general situation of mankind.
This personality makes for an interesting relationship with Duke Senior, a character who makes the best of all he encounters, a truly comic outlook on life. His opening speech proves this. Though exiled into the wilderness he looks around and happily embraces the intense harshness of the elements, “And this out life, exempt from public haunt,/ Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in every thing” (2). Interestingly enough, Senior enjoys Jacques’ company, though the latter does not return the favor. He finds his misery amusing. He knows that he can always count on Jacques to give a new viewpoint on things, contribute some insight into things. This demonstrates how the comic universe can readily embrace anything it is dealt, even someone as out of place and contrary to the comic spirit as Jacques. “I love to cope him in these sullen fits/ For then he’s full of matter" (3). It is as if Senior considers Jacques to be a sort of fool in his own peculiar way, musing at his numerous observations and criticisms rather than ever really taking them seriously.
This perspective makes Jacques’ relationship with the official clown of the play, Touchstone, that much more intriguing. The clown, working as the quintessential comic figure, comes into conflict with Jacques humorless moralization. The difference perfectly demonstrates the separation of comedy and morality. When the audience first sees Duke Senior and Jacques sharing the stage, Jacques speaks of his encounter with Touchstone. Jacques informs us that he longs to be a fool himself. However, in this speech, Jacques reveals how little he understands the role of the fool, and consequently, the purpose of comedy. He demands, “Give me leave/ To speak my mind, and I will through and through/ Cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world,/ If they will patiently receive my medicine” (4). Jacques sees that the fool is permitted to say what he wants, and desires the same position. But he does not understand that the fool’s freedom in society comes first from an internal freedom that Jacques does not possess. Jacques wants to use the position to make people behave they way they should be acting. He wants to be able to mock simply to teach. He wants to be able to point out the failings of others in order to make them better people. Simply put, he wants to be a satirist. Jacques hounds Touchstone throughout the play, admiring his wit, but never really understanding him
A clown should be the court’s great equalizer. In “Twelfth Night”, Feste mocks the mourning Queen, demonstrating why she is more a fool then he is for letting her sorrow overrun her life, “The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen” (5). The clown does not pick on the immoral any more than anyone else, especially not those who are only doing wrong insofar as they are overindulging themselves in sex, drunkenness, or sloth. The only person a clown might explicitly target is anyone being uptight or humorless.
Unlike Jacques’ melancholy attitude, Malvolio is bitter towards the comic universe, and, as a consequence, is a much less likeable character. The pranks that Sir Toby, Maria, and Feste pull on Malvolio are really quite cruel, when examined from a moral standpoint. They mislead him in thinking that Olivia has fallen for him, have him make a fool of himself, then lock him up and convince him that he’s gone crazy. From one standpoint, one might feel the prank goes too far and really starts to become torture. But from another standpoint, it really seems that Malvolio fully deserves all that he receives. He is pompous and arrogant, with no patience for the play’s comic characters. As Olivia puts it “O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio” (6). There is nothing wrong with Malvolio on his own, but he is miserably out-of-place in the zaniness of “Twelfth Night,” and is not a comic enough person to simply engage in the dance of madness that comedy usually demands.
Malvolio, like Jacques, also must cope with his antithesis in the form of a clown. However, where Jacques delighted in Touchstone’s wit, and tried (but failed), to emulate his characteristics, Malvolio loathes Feste. From his initial insulting (“I protest I take these wise men that crow so at these set kind of fools no better than the fools’ zanies.” (7)) it is clear to Feste that Malvolio needs to be put in his place. Once again the clown must serve as the court’s equalizer. When Malvolio is locked up, Feste harasses him by trying to convince him that he has gone mad, but his most relevant wisecrack comes, much like with Olivia, from a simple turn of phrase.
Malvolio: Fool, there was never man so notoriously abus’d; I am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art.
Clown: But as well! Then you are mad indeed, if you be no better in your wits than a fool. (8)
Malvolio is constantly and derisively referring to Feste as “fool,” (twice in one sentence in the quote above) therefore it is only appropriate that he should retort by proving him the true fool. It is hard to feel pity for Malvolio when the clown takes so much delight in tormenting him.
Like Jacques, Malvolio becomes the fool when the comic world laughs at his moralizing. He might not be a comic character, but that cannot stop the comic world from deriving humor from him. Ironically enough, the fool proves himself much wiser then the moralizing character by having enough wit to join in the dance of comedy.
Sir Toby could also be considered Malvolio’s antithesis, but his approach in mocking is far less subtle. When Malvolio storms downstairs to the sight of Toby, Andrew, Maria, and Feste drinking, laughing, and having a good old time, he threatens to kick Toby out of Olivia’s house. Toby drunkenly replies, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (9) To put it differently, Toby asks Malvolio if he honestly thinks that they are going to let one man’s uptightness and misplaced morality ruin their fun.
Yet intriguingly enough, the comedic universe’s final acceptance of the character anyway says quite a bit about the nature of comedy. At the end of As You Like It, as Jacques is about to retire to the monastery, Duke Senior implores him to stay. At the end of Twelfth Night, Orsino gives the order to pursue Malvolio and make peace with him, after he storms off enraged at discovering his misfortunes were all an elaborate prank. At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers return to the city, coming to terms with the oppressive authority that drove them into the wilderness to begin with. No matter what the situation, comedy is all-inclusive. Even those who refuse to live in the comic universe are embrace by comedy. As Northrop Frye puts it in his Anatomy of Criticism, “The tendency of the comic society to include rather than exclude is the reason for the traditional importance of the parasite, who has no business to be at the final festival but is nevertheless there.” (10) It is the nature of comedy therefore, to accept the overly moralized characters, even if they ultimately refuse to join in the fun.
Morality doesn’t rear its ugly head in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the way it does in the characters of Malvolio and Jacques. Nevertheless, the aspects of life affirmed in the play’s events do not belong to a moral universe. Rather, the events in the play show a slipping from the normal, structured, and disciplined world of the city into the mania and amorality of the wild. Then, when the characters return to the city, they have all gained something from their comic experiences, something that they never could have acquired in the moralized universe. The lovers are mismatched and distraught in the city. Hermia’s father Egeus demands that she marry Demetrius, the man he has picked out for her. Despite the fact that she disobeys her father’s authority and runs away, her disobedience ends up leading to the greater good. The characters need to escape from authority, discipline, and rules of conduct and enter into the “dance” of the wild. Once they go through this, they re-emerge for the better.
Hippolyta: But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable. (11)
The danger has been averted, lovers have been married, and the characters have found a way to live comfortably in the restraints of the city life. However bizarre it all may have seemed, good ultimately came out of it.
“As You Like It” shows this pattern as well. The characters are all driven into the wilderness by the threats of violence in the court life. Orlando is fleeing from his brother Olivier, who intends to kill him. Duke Senior has been thrown out of power by Duke Frederick. Rosalind, and as a consequence Celia and Touchstone as well, are also thrown out by the paranoid Frederick. It is through the events in the wilderness, however bizarre, that everything works itself out. The comic characters need to venture outside of the restraints of the court to find release in the wilderness. Though dangerous at some times and absurd at others, the mania of the wilderness eventually works everything out for the play’s heroes and heroines. At least, the characters that accept their situation and try to make the best of it, the comic characters, find this release. Jacques, on the other hand, moralizes the whole matter, and gains very little from the experience. When everyone else can return to the moral world having grown from their experiences in the wild, Jacques still has not come to understand the comic world, and rather than returning, makes his way to a monastery to live the contemplative life instead.
“Twelfth Night” takes a somewhat different approach. Like in the other two plays, sudden and disturbing circumstances cause the heroes to be suddenly taken from their comfortable lives into a new and dangerous location. Unlike the others, the brother and sister team of Viola and Sebastian are not sent into the wilderness, but a strange foreign country. They are separated and assume the other dead, so they truly have to fend for themselves. But they are able to make the most of their situation. Viola immediately disguises herself and quickly establishes herself as Count Orsino’s right-hand “man.” Sebastian is drawn into a truly maddening situation with the people of Illyria mistaking him for his sister. He followed by the clown, attacked by Sir Andrew, and then confronted and proposed to by Olivia. All of this happens in a matter of minutes and all of this coming from people he has never met before. But Sebastian’s reaction is purely comic. He accepts his situation. He makes effort to defend himself against Toby and Andrew, and he welcomes Olivia’s proposal, marrying a complete stranger. “I am ready to distrust mine eyes,/ And wrangle with my reason that persuades me/ To any other trust but that I am mad/ Or else the lady’s mad”(12). Sebastian knows that this cannot be as it seems. He is smart enough to know that there is some misunderstanding or madness at the source of this. But he does not care, and it does not stop him from enjoying the situation as best as he can.
However, unlike its fellow comedies, “Twelfth Night” does not end with a return to civilization, but with complete revelation of all the secrets throughout the play. All the characters remove whatever masks they have been hiding behind in Act V, and make peace with things as they are. Viola reveals her true identity and Orsino in turn takes her hand in marriage. Sebastian reveals that he is not Cesario, but Olivia still accepts him as her husband. No one is chastised for misleading the other characters, but they can all laugh it off. All of the characters, that is, except Malvolio. When Fabian admits that he and Toby devised the plot against Malvolio, he feels horribly victimized. Not only is he enraged at the pranksters, but against everyone else for being able to laugh it off. His last line is a threat, “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you”(13). He will not accept the comic world, but it still wants to accept him.
All of these plays conclude with weddings. This is perfectly placed, for what better way to spread a message of inclusiveness than through a marriage? In spite of all differences, misunderstandings and other craziness, the comic characters come to accept falling in love. In “As You Like It,” the god of marriage himself appears to wed the happy couples. In “Twelfth Night” the audience does not see the wedding, but we know of see Orsino propose to Viola, know that Olivia is going to stay with Sebastian, and hear of Toby and Maria’s engagement. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the best and most fitting conclusion of all. Not only are all the play’s lovers together and married, but there is a dance to celebrate. This is particularly fitting looking at the events of this play. More than any of the other comedies, the mania in the forest as the lovers continually changed partners very much resembles a dance.
The dance is the perfect symbol of comedy. While dancing, a person willingly gives themselves to forces beyond their control. A person dancing does not belong to themselves, but finds freedom in moving with rhythm. It may cause a person to act unnaturally, but there is something extremely rewarding about that. It is freedom. Like the madness the lovers of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” find in the wilderness, the dance is a sort of madness that frees the dancer from the normal, uptight posture of normal life. Yet in the end, going through that madness allows the return to normalcy to be that much more fulfilling.
Like comedy, dance has also never had the best relationship with morality. Religious groups have frequently frowned upon the obvious sexual connotations of dancing. But that morality is clearly misplaced. The dance is the natural tendency of human beings to act unnatural. Both comedy and dance can be truly absurd at times, and they can cause some ridiculous things to happen. The comic character, such as Rosalind, embraces the absurd and makes it work for her. The overly moralized character, on the other hand, such as Malvolio, tries to fight it and is eventually driven mad. People need to give themselves to the release that comedy brings. It truly helps put life into a greater perspective. They need to give themselves to outside forces and embrace the natural flow of things, accepting life as it is dealt to them. It would not be too overreaching to say that the sort of release found in comedy is vital to being human.
Northrop Frye addresses the social reconciliation that comes at the end of comedies as something that is definitively comic, even if it does not seem so at first glace, “Comedy usually moves toward a happy ending, and the normal response of the audience to a happy ending is ‘this should be,’ which sounds like a moral judgement. So it is, except that it is not moral in the restricted sense, but social”(14). This distinction is important to understand the nature of comedy. The genre is about acceptance and reconciliation, not about derision and shaking one’s finger at what is wrong. This continues in most modern examples of comedy, even in less pure forms of the genre. Though the form has changed over the centuries, the central goal of comedy remains the same.
In every one of the plays, the events in the wilderness or new country could be seen as maddening, belonging much more to a tragic universe then a comic one. After all, should not comedy be about lighthearted matters? It certainly should not be so serious. Assuming such things leads to a corrupted view of comedy. Comedy is no less serious than tragedy. The comic universe is filled with death, destruction, and deception. The only difference is in the way the characters stand up to the challenges they face. The comic character confronts many of the same challenges that a character of any other genre might face. The hero would nobly stand behind his convictions and battle for the greater good to find his personal fulfillment. The satirist would separate the conflicting forces into right and wrong and criticize the wrong.
But the comic character takes a very different approach. The comic character is a survivor. He acts because he loves life, and seeks greater fulfillment in the complete appreciation of life as it is. He may frequently act immorally, yet the audience applauds him for it. In the comedy, a lust for life becomes more important than morality, and when morality attempts to limit it, the comedy is in danger of being lost. Fortunately for us all, whenever morality does try to stifle the values of comedy, comedy has the unique ability to laugh, continue to enjoy its “cakes and ale,” and keep on dancing.
1) As You Like It, II. v. 12-14
2) As You Like It, II. i. 15-17
3) As You Like It, II. i, 68-69
4) As You Like It, II, vii, 58-61
5) Twelfth Night, I.v, 70-72
6) Twelfth Night I.v, 90
7) Twelfth Night, I. v. 88-89
8) Twelfth Night, IV. Ii. 87-90
9) Twelfth Night, II. iii. 114-116
10) Northrop Frye. “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths.” Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Pres,. 1957. 166
11) A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i. 23-27
12) Twelfth Night, IV. iii, 13-16
13) Twelfth Night, V. i, 378
14) Northrop Frye. “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths.” Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Pres,. 1957. 167
© Christopher Fannon