Credit Where It's Due: A Discussion of Shakespearean Comedy with Rikita Tyson

This is not a funny article.

Nothing sucks the humor out of a joke like explaining why it’s funny, and the paragraphs that follow do something like that, turning an academic eye on the inner workings of Shakespearean comedy. Why subject you, dear reader, to this joyless exercise? Because, well, comedy don’t get no respect.

“I wish we took comedy more seriously,” says Rikita Tyson. “People think it’s harder to make people cry than to make people laugh. But I think it’s so hard to make people laugh and not to do it in a stupid way. You know, like slipping on a banana peel—although that’s not fair, because slipping on a banana peel actually takes a lot of balletic grace.” To Rikita, who has taught English at Commonwealth since 2013, comedy can teach us just as much about the human condition as more highbrow fare, sneaking in lessons while slapping a smile on our faces. Her favorite purveyor of those lessons: William Shakespeare.

In a building full of unapologetic Shakespeare nerds, Rikita stands out, the go-to scholar when, say, the theater department needs a dramaturg for Macbeth or when students are desperate to find out how old Hamlet is. “Most people who know me know that I’m a doofus before they know I’m a Shakespeare person,” Rikita says. Still, when they do learn she’s a Shakespearean Scholar, they tend to react solemnly and with (understandable) reverence: “‘Oh, wow, Shakespeare,’ which is always a little bit sad to me,” Rikita says, because “Shakespeare is so much fun! It’s so fun.”

What makes Shakespeare’s comedies comedies, anyway? Seventeenth-century playwright Thomas Hayward would say that Elizabethan comedies begin in turbulence, with some sort of logical impasse (like a noble father saying, “You crazy kids can’t get married!”), and they end in peace (like when the noble father ultimately relents and those crazy kids do, in fact, get married). It’s not that Rikita disagrees with those definitions—they’re just too simple. If she had to define Shakespearean comedy, it would be “plays in which characters figure out how to make the world malleable, and then they change it.” Yes, people will pair off and conflicts will resolve and everything will work out, but it doesn’t happen by magic (mostly). It might, however, happen through “modal verbs,” which convey possibility; e.g., “shall,” “will,” “should,” “would,” “can,” “could,” “might,” “must.” Rikita wrote her dissertation on modal verbs and rhetoric in Shakespeare’s comedies, exploring how they capture “this thing that comedy does, which is move from the world that says, ‘You must do this’ to a world that says, ‘I can do this.’”

You can see this at the beginning of As You Like It, where Orlando has just been told that his brother wants him dead. He doesn’t know what to do and debates running away, becoming some sort of bandit making a “base and boisterous” living on the road. “This I must do, or know not what to do,” Rikita quotes (effortlessly). Then he changes his mind: “Yet this I will not do, do how I can.” “For me, that’s comedy. That’s making the world malleable,” Rikita says. “People tend to think that comedies just sort of happen, like you go to the forest of Arden, and a comedy breaks out! And I tend to think that it’s the characters who make that happen,” she says. “[They] have to figure out ways to get around those very real obstacles at the beginning of those plays.” Through cunning or force of will, the characters in comedies control their own destinies and forge their own happy endings. “The thing I love about the comedies is that the characters are figuring out how to make those things happen for themselves,” Rikita says. “I want them to get more credit for that.”

You’ll find similarly motivated characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories; Juliet, for instance, certainly tries to change the world. “She just doesn’t have enough people on her side to make it happen,” Rikita notes. Romeo and Juliet actually feels a bit like a comedy to Rikita, she says, “because they live so long in that hope. And they almost make it.” More—and more successful—hope-filled characters “tend to cluster in the comedies,” and their combined toiling actually leads to change.

When I’m feeling incredibly grand, I like to say that comedy is a utopian genre. Like, if you get enough people together who think that they can change the world, you can actually start changing things. And the characters in the comedies are so full of that hope and that persistence and that willingness, and sometimes they can even overcome death, you know, because they wish for it and they want it so hard.”

“When I’m feeling incredibly grand, I like to say that comedy is a utopian genre,” Rikita says. “Like, if you get enough people together who think that they can change the world, you can actually start changing things. And the characters in the comedies are so full of that hope and that persistence and that willingness, and sometimes they can even overcome death, you know, because they wish for it and they want it so hard.”

Comedy may be utopian, but it isn’t perfect. The obstacles often seem arbitrary, but the characters need something to fight against. “If there’s no darkness, there’s no light—she said dramatically,” Rikita quips. “Comedies are so full of these moments where whatever project is trying to happen might not happen. It might fail, because people are untrustworthy, or they do these terrible things to each other.” Characters in Shakespeare’s comedies do plenty that, to a modern audience, seems wildly out of place in a “funny” show. In Much Ado, Claudio publicly humiliates Hero. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon (himself a faithless partner) vindictively enchants his queen, Titania, so she falls in love with the first creature she sees: an ass. People will rightly say these characters don’t deserve forgiveness, Rikita says. But in the context of the Protestant theology of the time, “nobody deserves forgiveness,” she says. “You can’t earn it. You can only be given it. And so comedy, I think, does that in miniature. Forgiveness feels like such a part of comedy. And so you have to do something that needs to be forgiven for the forgiveness to be an option in the world.”

Rikita’s love of comedy didn’t start with Shakespeare, and it’s not confined to the Bard. Jane Austen has a special place in her heart, Monty Python made an early impression on her, and she remembers “the golden age of Comedy Central’s stand-up specials” in high school. Her top sub-genre? “Romantic comedy. Definitely.” She has a soft spot for It Happened One Night, When Harry Met Sally, and My Best Friend’s Wedding. The constrained circumstances in these films make the most fertile ground for jokes, Rikita says. Take 2007’s Music and Lyrics, starring Hugh Grant (of course) and Drew Barrymore, playing two songwriters who need to write a hit in twenty-four hours. “If you could write a song together, you could be in a relationship together,” she says. “This makes sense. Go for it.”

Hugh Grant owes a huge debt to Shakespeare, whose proto-romantic comedies, especially As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, set the stage for the romcoms we know and love today, Rikita says. She remembers watching His Girl Friday, the 1940 screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, in one college Shakespeare class after reading Much Ado: “The rat-a-tat-tat of that dialogue was like, Oh, right. It’s the same thing as ‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me,’” Rikita remembers. Like Grant and Russell, Much Ado’s Beatrice and Benedick “fight in harmony. They’re using the same language, they’re picking up on each other’s signals, they understand each other perfectly. That’s why they can fight so well—so they’re going to eventually be able to love really well, too.”

Despite her ability to thoughtfully dissect and reflect on comedies written from the seventeenth century until now, Rikita says she’s still trying to figure comedy out. “I feel like it’s still very slippery and very protean. There’s comedy that feels to me like ‘capital C comedy,’ which is about regeneration and rebirth. And then there’s ‘little c comedy,’ which is comedy that makes you laugh. And those things frequently overlap, but I don’t know that they are entirely the same thing.” Should Ted Lasso and Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and All’s Well That Ends Well be lumped together? “They feel so different to me, but we talk about them as the same thing,” Rikita says. “Are they really related or is this just a weird accident that we decided we’re going to put them in the same bucket?”

But Rikita has zeroed in on some comedy essentials. Start with vulnerability. “You have to be willing to look like a buffoon sometimes to be funny,” she says. “A joke can always go really wrong. You have to be yourself to be willing to be open to that possibility. And if you try to hedge yourself, try to wall yourself off from it, you lose a lot of the funniness.” Next, find and sharpen your rhythm. Then add some unexpected juxtapositions and pile on some pathos, and you’ve got the makings of both big and little “C” comedy.

“Okay, I’m gonna be earnest again,” Rikita says. “I think comedy can teach us about hope. [It] can teach us to laugh at the things that otherwise would overwhelm us. And that can be a really useful thing.” Even though we think of comedy as the thing that makes us laugh, “sometimes that feels like the wrong lens to me, or at least an only partially adequate lens,” she adds. “But I don’t know. Comedy is weird, man.”

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