ABSTRACT

Shakespeare’s comedies—but also many scenes in the histories, tragedies, and romances—are special because they do one of the things Shakespeare wanted them to do: they make people laugh. But what is it that enables them to do so? One of the main things is the action they represent. In some cases, the comic incident consists in nothing more than incompetence, people doing things badly. Thus, at least one of the reasons the mechanicals’ performance of the Pyramus and Thisbe play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be so funny is just that, as their audience remarks, they are such bad actors! One of the reasons Orlando in As You Like It is funny is that, as many other characters remark, he is such a bad love poet. In Henry IV, part 1, Falstaff makes for a pretty poor soldier when, instead of producing his pistol to give Prince Henry in the midst of battle, he pulls out a bottle of sack. And one of the reasons Dogberry and his men are funny in Much Ado About Nothing is that they are rather sad watchmen, and not very good at legal proceedings either (though in the benign world of that comedy, they still manage to apprehend some of the bad guys).