Classical comedy is a genre of play that follows the traditional five act formula while addressing strong human emotions usually love using humor. Comedies explore absurd situations including magical intervention, miscommunication, and underlying commentary on the absurdity of the social condition. This sample paper by a Ultius writer examines A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a classic comedy.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream as classic comedy
Comedies, whether film or television, include parts of the same formula as classic comedic plays. Comedy generally is wrought with absurd situations depicting humiliation, misplaced passions, misunderstanding, and some form of ultimate cosmic resolution. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the quintessential example of classic comedy because it not only follows the generic formula, it brilliantly navigates absurdity, featuring human and magical creatures resulting in hilarious situations, and explores, in a fantastical way, the profound effects of love and how silly it makes people.
Comedy deals with strong human emotions, such as love, overcoming obstacles in pursuit of harmonious unions, supernatural elements, absurdity, mythical resolution (deus ex machina), and philosophical aspects of love. Although Shakespeare’s plays sometimes feature Machiavellian themes, in this one, classic comedy also follows the five act formula characteristic of drama. These were summarized by Schwarz, and include:
- Exposition (act I)
- Rising action (act II)
- Turning point (act III)
- Falling action (act IV), and
- Conclusion (act 5)
The five act model works for drama and is a critical part of the definition of a classical play. Understanding genre in literature and plays requires the evaluation of a particular play to identify whether it includes certain conventions consistent with the genre. This is the technical definition for a classic comedic play. This format is consistent with the classical Greek comedies and was masterfully applied by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Therefore, since A Midsummer Night’s Dream is organized in the traditional five act way and deals with the strong human emotion of love in a whimsical and humorous way, it is definitively a classical comedy.
Characters, themes and plot points
There are four pairings of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; two human and two fairies. The central theme of the play is love. A wedding is planned and those in attendance fall in love with each other. However, the object of their affection does not love them back, so the fairies intervene by using a magical love potion.
Soon, the pranks of the fairies backfire as the humans keep falling in love with the wrong people. These changes are confusing to the humans as they affections keep moving around. Puck, the fairy, exclaims “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (Act 3 Scene II). Puck makes this comment after observing how totally enchanted in love the humans become. Their absorption into love is humorous and seems serious to the whimsical fairies.
- The absurdity of love is exemplified when Titania falls in love with the ass-headed Nick Bottom. The comedic premise for the play is genuine love, but Shakespeare toys with the notion by elucidating how absurd, fickle, and passionate love is.
- Love is also completely illogical. So much of the actions people take under the influence of “love” don’t represent sound thinking.
- In this play, the human notions of love are chemically induced by the fairies’ magic formula. Titania being in love with a man with an ass-head makes no sense, but it is amusing. This is Shakespeare’s commentary on the philosophical aspects of such powerful human emotions.
A comparison of comedies
Comedy is comprised of a few subgenres including the farce and satire. All comedies generally play on the senses and passions of situations and endeavors. Romantic comedy movies like Knocked Up follow a similar formula. In this recent film, two seemingly mismatched people are brought together by an evening indiscretion and a fondness develops during the course of the pregnancy.
While each of them adjusts to the idea of being parents, both characters grow emotionally. For example, Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen, matures as his role as father while the career focused Alison Scott, played by Katherine Heigl, begins to relax. It is as if divinity brought them together and all turns out well by the end of the movie. The journey through the film uses the devices of embarrassment, awkwardness, and ironic situations to tackle what love means for these two. This film takes a seemingly absurd situation and through humor makes commentary about the human condition. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is closely similar as it deals with love, misperceptions, and unlikely connections (remember Nick Button with an Asses head?).
A comedic play is defined by formula, subject matter, and how that subject is treated. The arc of the story is broken into five acts, and other forms of comedy follow the same trajectory. Comedies often deal with strong emotions like love in a treatment that expounds how absurd the extremes of emotions are. In doing so, comedies are wildly entertaining and speak to the underlying philosophical precept of emotions’ influence on actions. Often these reactions to the feelings are divorced from reason, and it is enjoyable to see people acting unreasonably.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains one of Shakespeare’s most appreciated plays. It follows the standard formula employing the conventions characteristic of the comedic play. It not only technically does this, but artfully. I’m not sure Shakespeare would appreciate his play being compared to the movie Knocked Up, but both are comedies in their form and degree of absurdity. Both remind us that love can be silly and that mortals are often fools. If this comparison does offend, pretend that you just slumbered here while these words did appear, and all will be mended.
Knocked Up. dir. Seth Rogen. Perf. Seth Rogen, Kathrine Heigl. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2007. Film.
Schwartz, Deborah. “Comedy.” Cal Poly CLA – College of Liberal Arts. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. .
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“SparkNotes: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Context.” SparkNotes: Today’s Most Popular Study Guides. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.