Should we take literature seriously?

I mean without laughing. I remember teachers who made me laugh, and not much else about them, so laughter is memorable. Shakespearean comedy is ruled by professional fools like Touchstone and Feste, and Shakespeare was not alone with the idea. Half a century on, in Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes thought laughter marked us out from the beasts and called it sudden glory: ‘the privilege of absurdity, to which no living creature is subject but man only.’ Animals mourn, but only people laugh.

Shakespeare’s greatest clown is Falstaff, in the history plays, but he showed his first theatrical strength in comedies. Critics do not now much respect the fact, though they once did. In his 1765 preface to Shakespeare Samuel Johnson remarked that his tragedy seemed to be skill and his comedy instinct, which sounds like an accolade. It is hard to imagine anyone writing that now. Schools of literature have courses on tragedy but few on comedy, and they are mostly about how serious it all is. Half a century ago I was shushed during the first London production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, though recent productions have rightly found it hilarious, and Shakespeare conferences can be little short of dire. I recall one in German in Weimar during the Soviet era, a few miles from Buchenwald concentration camp. The camp had ceased to operate a few years before, in 1950, having been used for five years after the war by the Soviets for its original purpose. Perhaps it cast a shadow. At all events there were no laughs.

The serious mode has ruled for a century and more. In 1904 A. C. Bradley argued, in Shakespearean Tragedy, that the great tragedies show how character changes under the pressure of events, though that started with Falstaff; and more recently, in Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode gently deplored the great comedies for their fatal addiction to amorous banter and gave the palm to late, gritty plays like Coriolanus. Somehowthe sunny side of Shakespeare is not much respected, and it is time to ask why.


The likeliest answer is the sheer intellectual prestige of pessimism. In Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? A. D. Nuttall grappled manfully with the problem, which relates to life, after all, as well as to the arts. Spectators do not look away at street accidents but crowd around to watch in sympathy; but that leaves unanswered the question why anyone would want to watch at all. Nuttall cautiously concludes that mankind needs variety: ‘we can’t bear monotony.’ On the other hand tragedies are not necessarily pessimistic. They can exhilarate. Flights of angels sing Hamlet to his rest. Comedies, likewise, are not necessarily optimistic: Twelfth Night ends with Feste, that most melancholy and perceptive of clowns, facing a familiar world of deprivation and loss. ‘Gainst knaves and fools men shut their gate,’ and the hardship of vagrancy, as he knows, is his endless portion. ‘Heigh ho, the wind and the rain.’ The lovers are duly matched as the play ends, each to each. But that is cold comfort if your trade is making people laugh. The world goes grimly on, as it always will – cold, hungry and wet.


There is no drawing a line around laughter or ordaining where it will end. It can happen at a feast or on the scaffold, and no human experience – not even a deathbed – is immune. Sydney Smith, a witty clergyman, once remarked that he and his brother Bobus had inverted a law of nature: ‘He rose by his gravity, I sank by my levity.’ It pervades public affairs. When Clement Freud won a seat in parliament a reporter told him many had thought him a joke candidate, and he replied: ‘I thought I had the last laugh.’ Boris Johnson, mayor of London, maintains a wisecracking political tradition at least as old as Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Charles James Fox; Wellington made jokes at Waterloo. People often joke about their convictions, and he went on to win the battle. So historians who imagine jokes cannot be serious need to think again.

Laughter is not a minor element in great literature, even in tragedy. The Oresteia of Aeschylus begins with a joke. The great innovative masterpieces of fiction, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, are comic, and comic verse down the ages has been metrically more inventive than the epic or the lyric. ‘A concert pianist is allowed a wrong note here and there,’ Kingsley Amis remarked in the introduction to the New Oxford Book of Light Verse, but ‘a juggler is not allowed to drop a plate.’ Comedy dominates Shakespeare’s early career in theatre. He wrote no notable tragedy till 1595, with Romeo and Juliet, when he had already written four comedies: The Comedy of Errors, a Latin comedy after Plautus; The Taming of the Shrew, a knockabout farce; Loves Labours Lost, an academic play for a learned audience; and Two Gentlemen of Verona, a romantic comedy. All belong to the early or mid 1590s – an author around the age of thirty, a newcomer who will do anything for a laugh, who wants the world to know it, and who thinks the classic rules of the game are there to be flouted and defied. In Hamlet, at the turn of the century, he would mock schoolroom categories by putting them into the mouth of Polonius, who is a dotard – ‘tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral’. You may laugh at Polonius whenever you please.

That may explain the sudden flashes of laughter in the late tragedies, like the drunken porter in Macbeth or the gardener in Antony and Cleopatra who, in the last act, brings her an asp to die. ‘I wish you all joy of the worm.’ Even in death the tragic hero is not above laughter. Hamlet is a mimic, and like an actor he can play any role: out-rant any ranter like Laertes, out-bore any bore like Polonius, and out-smart the Machiavel who has murdered his father. He can tell his mother how to behave, which amazingly she accepts, and in the last moments of the play he out-fops the foppish Osric. His straight-faced ‘The concernancy, sir?’ employs a word not otherwise known in the language, but there is no doubt what it means. It means ‘what has that to do with anything?’

The play is at once a tragedy and a riot of laughter. No wonder audiences want it, no wonder actors feel deprived if they never get a chance at it. Sad that Alec Guinness, that comic genius among actors of his age, did not see it was meant to be funny; sad, too, if Laurence Olivier’s film version died the death of the glooms. It inserted a depressing announcement at the start about a man who could not make up his mind. Hamlet made up his mind when he heard the ghost speak. But he was having too much fun – teasing bores, producing a play, writing extra lines for it and telling his own mother how to order her life. He had no time to kill a king.

There is nothing puzzling about that. Hesitation is among the commonest of human weaknesses, and among the most ridiculous. You wake and do not instantly get up. You think about working, and go on thinking. Writers hate to write, teachers to teach, students to learn, actors to act. Stage entrances are the perfect instance. Flora Robson used to say she liked to give herself a good shake in the wings; Humphrey Bogart spent thoughtful moments in the dressing room in front of a glass; and actors at first nights have been known to encourage each other with a mantra about breaking an arm and a leg. The one certain thing about life, apart from death, is that there are plentiful moments when the joke is on you: you do not want to do the thing you have spent years waiting to be allowed to do. ‘Be careful what you want in youth,’ Noel Coward used to say. ‘You may get it in middle age.’

Which is absurd. But then absurdity is a privilege known only to mankind.

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