Shakespeare’s Comedies and Tragedies

I’ve been teaching summer school for a few weeks, which is a much bigger drain on my time and energy than I would have imagined, and we’ve now reached the point in the term where we delve into Shakespeare.  Due to a failure on someone’s part — not sure where — the play I like to teach in my British Literature Survey course, King Lear, didn’t get ordered.  So I’m forced to teach the play included in the Norton Anthology: Twelfth Night.

On the one hand, this isn’t a tragedy. Sure, I’m accustomed to teaching King Lear, but a little variation can be a good thing. It does save the students from the cost of another book ($7?), and Twelfth Night is a great play in its own right. Plus, while some students may have read Lear in high school, I feel fairly confident that not one read Twelfth Night.

On the other hand, this isn’t a tragedy. Twelfth Night, that is. Unlike the sublimely tragic Lear, it’s a comedy. And as I’ve begun reading over the play in preparation for tomorrow’s class, I’m finding that it is this generic fact that troubles me the most as I think about teaching it (something I’ve never done).

I seem to recall someone saying that Homer divides the world: there are folks who love The Odyssey, there are folks who love The Iliad, but no one loves both. It’s a grossly simple generalization, but one can see a shred of truth in it. And a similar over-simplification might apply to Shakespeare: there are folks who love his comedies, there are folks who love his tragedies, but no one loves both. If that statement, too, holds any water, I’m finding I know for certain that I’m in the tragedy camp.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy his comedies (and Twelfth Night might be his most supreme accomplishment in that regard). I do. In fact, given the choice of seeing a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet, I’ll go for the comedy nine times out of ten. Ask me to list the top-3 Shakespeare plays I’ve attended, and I can tell you without hesitation that Stratford Festival performances of Midsummer and Taming of the Shrew are right up there (the third would likely be a mesmerizing rendition of the rarely performed Troilus and Cressida, also at Stratford). I just don’t enjoy reading the comedies as much as I enjoy watching them.

Quite the opposite holds true for me when it comes to the tragedies: I don’t tire of reading Othello, but I’ve never seen (in person or on film) a performance of the play that really hit home. Ditto Lear. And Hamlet? Fuhgeddaboutit. Always good on the page, rarely good on the stage. Even that performance of Troilus that I loved so much wasn’t superior to the text at all. It was just so brilliantly shocking (again and again) that I was enthralled. (It also didn’t hurt that it was a close-stage production and I was in the front row on the right wing: actors’ outfits would literally brush my knees as they ran on and off the stage, and at one point I could have jumped up and clubbed Achilles in the back of the head during one of his grand speeches.)

What does all this mean? I don’t know. Probably not much other than the fact that I’ll be a bit out of my element tomorrow as I jump around the room, from desk to desk, acting out the cross-dressing sex-confusing comedy that is Twelfth Night.

But, then again, who wouldn’t be?

As a thank you for reading this far, I give you a clip from one of the two best Hamlets on film: the one slipping in and out of Stoppard’s film of his exceedingly wonderful play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:

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