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Characterization in Shakespearian Comedy Author(s): Northrop Frye Source: Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Jul., 1953), pp. 271-277 Published by: Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University Stable URL: . Accessed: 17/03/2011 02:17
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how undeveloped These sound like simple principles.)We know very little about the contemporaryreception of Shakespeare'splays. . the rejection of Falstaff in historical terms only. but one of the things we do know is that Falstaff was exactly the same kind of popular favorite then that he is now. the characterswill be essentiallyspeaking dramaticfunctions. No doubt many in Shakespeare's audience did addle their brains with the theory of monarchy or Reformation theology or the chain of being or the four humours when they were not being better educated by Shakespearian Comedy Characterization NORTHROP FRYE depends on function: what a charN drama. his ignorance was certainly no fault of Shakespeare's. Given a sufficientlypowerful sense of structure. TV audiences are still laughing at the same kind of jokes that were declared to be worn out in the opening dialogue of The Frogs. The structureof the play in its turn depends on the category of the play: if it is a comedy. the drama is the least dependent on its historicalcontext. is not based squarely on the conventions of the dramatic such. and for exactly the same reasons. Dramatic function in its turn depends on the structureof the play: the characterhas certain things to do because the play has such and such a shape. as they are in Jonson'scomedy of humours. (One may observein passing that if any member of Shakespeare'saudience did not know that sixty years of unbroken disaster followed the careerof Henry V.But theatricalaudiences. The central approach to Shakespeare. and merely say that the original audience were much more aware than we of the importanceof getting France conquered by a strong leader. say. or by adaptationsof them which differ very little from their models. its structurewill require a comic resolution and a prevailing comic mood. They have been neglected for a historical approach. The Acharnians of Aristophanes. which. It will therefore not do to explain. we meet the miles gloriosus or swaggering soldier who is still going strong in Shaw's Arms and the Man and Chaplin's Great Dictator. both in the individual play and in the broader structural principles which underlie the categories of tragedy and comedy. characterization acter is follows from what he has to do in the play. In the earliest extant European comedy. can only lie through a study of dramatic structure. however useful in itself. hardly change at all from one millennium to another. Of all forms of literary expression. therefore.but it is extraordinary they are in Shakespeariancriticism.It is similarlynot surprisingthat Elizabethan audiences could still be amused by Plautus and Terence. We meet the comic parasitewho in the Denis of O'Casey'sJuno and the Paycock appears practically unchanged in twenty-five centuries.

it follows that there are four typical functions in comedy. but Aristotle also contraststhe buffoon with another characterwhom he calls agroikos or churlish. And what the Tractatus says about characterization in comedy is this: "There are three types of comic characters:the alazon. a word usually restrictedto farce in modern English. Such a contest is found in all comic forms: one thinks for instance of the first book of the Republic. who deprecates his own knowledge. not so much the structureof comedy. the solemn or inarticulate characterwho allows the humor to bounce off him. of all the essential facts about comedy. so to speak. and thereby deflates or exposes the alazon. One thinks too of all the hundreds of comic scenes in which some kind of boastful or self-deceived character soliloquizes complacently while another character makes sarcasticasides to the audience. The proper meaning of bomolochos is buffoon. however. demolishes the boastful Thrasymachus." Alazon means impostor. however. who says more than he knows. and the alazon is his predestinedvictim. boaster or hypocrite."So we may expand the three types of the Tractatusinto four. in his edition of it. literally "rustic. a treatise called the Tractatus Coislinianus. Eiron means a person who deprecateshimself. The relationof Sir Toby Belch to Sir Andrew Aguecheek will illustrate the contrast.the characterwho amuses by his mannerisms or powers of rhetoric. Aristotle disapproves to him they are on opposite sides of the equally of boaster and self-deprecator: golden mean of behavior. There does exist. the eiron. and four cardinal points of comic structure.This list is closely related to a passage in the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle contraststhe bragging alazon with the self-deprecatingeiron. We must thereforelook to the opposition of alazon and eiron to find the structuralprinciple of comedy.272 SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY Shakespeariancomedy is a form in which the same devices are used over and over again. Now let us apply this idea of a contest of eiron and alazon to the formulas of Terence and Plautus. a page or two in length. as the comic mood.We see at once that the dramaticrelation of alazon and eiron is very different from the ethical one. But in drama the eiron regularly speaks for or has the sympathy of the audience. We now have four typical charactersin comedy. in which the ironic Socrates. arrangedas two opposing pairs. a dry bald little summary. suggests that it may summarize Aristotle's own lost work on comedy: it certainly is very close to Aristotelian ideas. a man who pretends to be something more than he is. Professor Lane Cooper. The most recent dramatic critic to be primarily interested in the structure and the categories of drama appears to be Aristotle. It is clear that the buffoon and the churl or rustic polarize. who did not say much about comedy. who were still structuralmodels for the Renaissance . By not paying enough attention to structure. If characterdepends on dramatic function. This rustic type may also be extended to cover the whole range of what Elizabethanscalled gulls and what in vaudeville used to be called the straight man. and the essential function of the rustic is to act as a foil for him.of seeing in the repeated formulas of his comedies a kind of Art of Fugue of comedy. and the bomolochos.we deprive ourselves of the perfectly legitimate pleasure of appreciating the scholarly qualities of Shakespeare. but which may be extended to the general sense of entertainer. What a clown may do in a play is variable: his essential function is to amuse.

The main reason for his popularity is that he is a man of words rather than deeds.The center of one group is the hero and heroine. for He example. as we have said. Another common type of alazon is the pedant or crank. then. including the king himself. as she would be called now. a compulsive braggart who hates his own runaway tongue. Shakespeare seems not greatly interested in the type. In later bourgeois comedies the miles gloriosus is often replaced by a female rival to the heroine. as hard to tell apart in the dark as Demetrius and . The kernel of truth in the Morgann conceptionof Falstaff seems to me to be that Falstaff is not an uncomplicated bragging coward. or by some other kind of rival. Otherwise. interestsShakespeareeven less: the only clear example. and he runs through Shakespearefrom the Thurio of The Two Gentleman of Verona to the Stephano of The Tempest. There is a whole nest of comic pedants in Love's Labour's Lost. but a versatile comic genius who adopts the miles gloriosus as one of his obvious roles. is a miles gloriosus gone into reverse:he may be a coward. At the end of the play they are outwitted and the hero has his will. in the latter group.The female alazon is rarein Elizabethandrama: Katharina the shrew is the only Shakespearianexample. who are opposed even when they contain many of the same individuals. we find that the centerof this group are the Turning to the eiron characters. though the simple pedant is common enough from Cinquecento Italian comedy on. and is almost relieved to be unmasked.IN SHAKESPEARIAN COMEDY CHARACTERIZATION 273 dramatists. We usually find too that these charactersare rather dull unless they are combined with other types. and the eiron types in the former. in the sense that he is full of ideas that have no relation to reality.So is the comedy of the bluestocking or precieuse ridicule. the pleasant young man and the pleasant girl he finally gets. The commonest type of alazon is of course the braggartor miles gloriosus. In Renaissancedrama such a type is frequently a student of the occult sciences. or the persecutorof the heroine. and the metaphysical poet Armado. Aguecheek. Holofernes. Such comedy turns. Osric. Parolles is a half-pathetic figure. The young men (adulescentes) of Plautus and Terence are all alike. technical hero and heroine.but he is a completely inarticulateone. the rival. Jonson's Bobadil. who is such a staple of courtly drama. a behaviorist'sparagon whose every remark is pure responseto stimulus. often a slave or courtesan. though the Beatrice of Much Ado has a link with the type in her role as a wit converted to love. has. The related type of the fop or coxcomb. who is also a man of words without deeds. belongs to a tragedy. like Sir Epicure Mammon or the astrologer in Congreve's Love for Love. Slender in The Merry Wives is a similarcombinationof types. and is consequently far more useful to a dramatist than any tight-lipped hero could possibly be. or at least are able to thwart his desire. with his academic Utopia. for instance. then. the center of the other is the father. but this development is for the most part post-Elizabethan. like.often a pimp. Shakespeare gives a series of subtle and ingenious variationson the theme. At the beginning of the comedy these opponents of the hero have control of the girl.Their plays are usually based on an erotic intrigue between a young man and a young woman. We should expect to find our alazon types.The intrigue is opposed either by the young man's father. on a clash between two social groups. many of Aristotle's agroikos characteristics. often a wandering soldier. a "menace" or siren.

but soon reduceshim to the of Errorsand The Two Gentlemen of rank of an incidentalclown.Edgar. withhim in Figaroandin theLeporello encesaremostfamiliar for the cleverservantin the Comedy Shakespeare startsout full of enthusiasm of Verona.and his of disguises. and this play has wherethe heroand heroineare pickedup a hint or two fromPlautus'Casina. comedyhowever had another Venice. It is he who helpsthe play to end happily. thoughPetruchio favoriteof Jonsonand Middleton." the latteris a cheeky. Similarly in the type In tragedythe vice has a counterpart tion of " becausehe acts from pure love of mischief. with the herowhenever The viceis combined improvident young man who hatcheshis own schemesand cheatshis rich fatheror is a uncle into giving him his patrimony along with the girl. to have been Greene. The vice-hero but not of Shakespeare.who is generally by the MatthewMerrygreek be developedfrom the vice or iniquityof the moralityplays. herselfas a boyto forward her schemes. as Puck or as malignant may be as light-hearted at leastfrom but as a rule the vice'sactivityis. a complicated questioninto which we cannotenterhere. Anothereirontypehasbeenevenlessnoticed.andin Spanish of Don Giovanni. eiron.has only a bit part. technicalhero. and puts the youngin one another's is in fact the spiritof comedy. This is a character. in spiteof his name.A typicalexampleis the Brainworm Jonson's EveryMan in His Humour.and Edmundis contrasted to blind or mad peoplein different his appearance roles. variety vice. Edmundin King Lear has the role of a tragic with his bewildering with Edgar.Elizabethan saidto of RalphRoisterDoister. from pure love of evil.cheatsor arms.The vice can also.who callsthe actionof the playthe day the difficult Ariel has to surmount stagedirecof his metamorphosis. of tragic"virtue. as in the LancelotGobboof The Merchant represented type of trickster.274 SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY that enablesthe whole audihas the neutrality Lysander.The vice. as Don Johnin MuchAdo." villain. Shakespeare.who also often acts withoutmotivausuallycalled the Machiavellian tion.and the two clearest examplesof the type in Puck and Ariel.He hoodwinksthe stupidold men. very useful to a comic dramatist The vice and can set a comic actiongoing withoutneedingany motivation. be combined with the heroine. Far moreimportant. generally . For somereason who usuallydisguises in whichhis chiefprecursor favorite appears this is Shakespeare's combination. The hero'scharacter playshim down. the comicpoint of view.benevolent. not even broughton the stageat all. a man namedFenton.a kind old of the experiment comedy. This whichbringaboutthe hero'svictory. and hencethe dramatist ence to accepthim withoutquestion. is the type fromthe pointof view of characterization.In The MerryWivesthe a self-deprecating makeshim quietand modest.however. in Continental drama plays.are both spiritual beings. and to comepat like the on the thirdsoundof the trumpet to appear tendency seems to be an in a new type. of usually be recognizedby give him thatname. catastrophe if I may coin this wordby analogy. is closeto the type. comedyhe becomes the schemingvaletwho is so frequent and in Renaissance Modern audiis calledthe grazioso. entrusted with hatchingthe schemes character in Romancomedyis almostalwaysa trickyslave (dolosusservus). and the type may The role of the vice includesa greatdeal of disguising.

There is no cook in Shakespeare. King Lear has a very similar structure: there too the minor or Gloucester plot is a tragic adaptation of the common Terentian theme of a stupid old father outwitted by a clever and unprincipled son. like the father of Helena. As You Like It and The Tempest reverse the usual formula of the retreating eiron. like the malapropismof Dogberryor the comic accentsof Fluellen and Dr. and where he was. Caius. or the father of Portia. When the heroine takes the vice role. qua parasite. In Shakespearethe vice is rarely the real architectus:Puck and Ariel both act under orders from an older man.The clearestShakespearianexample is the Duke in Measurefor Measure. He deriveschiefly from Greek Middle Comedy. attempts the role of a retreatingpaternal eiron three times. singers. has a great variety of such characters.CHARACTERIZATION IN SHAKESPEARIAN COMEDY 275 an older man. but as something more like a master of ceremonies. He is often a father with the motive of seeing what his son will do. clowns. and which usually means either churlish or rustic. as Jonson gives Mosca the role of a vice in Volpone. unlike Roman comedy. like the parasite. the owner of the house which is the scene of The Alchemist. she is often significantly related to her father. depending on the .not simply as a gratuitous addition. in a soliloquy. the cook. pages. The action of Every Man in His Humour is set going in this way by Knowell Senior. It also has a tragic counterpartin the returning ghost of the Senecan revenge plays. The oldest buffoon of this incidental nature is the parasite. closely associated with another established buffoon type.In Prospero the architectusrole of this older eiron type is at its clearest. In the role of cook the buffoon or entertainerappears. but a similar role is often attachedto a jovial and loquacioushost.does nothing but entertain the audience by talking about his appetite. if one may call Oberon a man for the moment. Renaissancecomedy. as Duke Senior and Prosperoare followed by the whole cast into their retreats. who gives her his medical knowledge.who may be given something to do. the latter being a stock comic theme adapted to a tragedy. those whose function it is to increase the mood of festivity rather than to contributeto the plot. One of the tricky slaves in Plautus. professionalfools. Finally. though there is a superb description of one in the Comedy of Errors. there is a fourth group to which we have assigned the word agroikos. and incidental characterswith establishedcomic habits. like the "mad host" of The Merry Wives or the Simon Eyre of The ShoemakersHoliday. is parallel. who breaks into several plays of Plautus to bustle and order about and make long speeches about the mysteries of cooking. which appearsto have been very full of food. The formula is not confined to comedy: Polonius. We pass now to the buffoon types. who shows so many of the disadvantagesof a literary education.but Shakespeareis more addicted to the type than might appear at first glance. In Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch we can see the affinitiesof the buffoon or entertainer type both with the parasite and with the master of revels. boasts that he is the architectusof the comic action. The disappearanceand return of Lovewit. even when the father is not in the play at all. who begins the action of the play by withdrawing from it. a center for the comic mood. who arrangesthe scheme of the caskets. but who. and ends the play by returning. In other words. In Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One the mad host type is combined with the vice. once too often. the major and minor themes of Hamlet are in direct counterpoint. not unnaturally.

All miserlyold men in comedies are with Shallow. theidealized virtuesof rurallife may be represented by a simpleman who speaksfor the ideal. and it is not veryclose. however.276 SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY context. Chapman. he keepsgettinglaughs. Horriddoubtsarisein our minds:perhaps the Duke afterall is only a tiresome and snoopyold bore. Caliban has muchthe samerelation to the churlish typethatArielhas to the vice or trickyslave. In the sulky and self-centered Bertram of All's Well thereis a most unusualand ingenious combination of this type with the hero.Silenceand Measure belongsto the alazongroupof characters: for Measure. In a very ironiccomedya different type of character may play the role of the refuser of festivity.But Lucio scorespoint afterpoint againstthe Duke. themalecontent likeApemantus. or railer. avoidsthe type.But often.Of coursemorally and historically soundcriticswill conclude. like Thersites.Leontes and Angelo.We find churlsin the miserly. draJonson. In the writers of humourcomedies.The stageis set for the utterannihilation of Lucio.complex and unpredictable the sameformulas. or.listening unseen Duke hasthe eironroleof disguising as an awful incarnation of omniscient to the action.however. himselfas a simplemonk.who has heardof himselfwhatan eavesdropper deserves to hear. uses exposed. as in everything is a theLafeuof All's Well. but like Parolleshe talks too much. he is Lucio. superior as he is to someextentin Marston's playof thatname. attemptto alterthe traditional But conception is so sardonic the moodof Troilusand Cressida thatThersites stealseveryscene he is in. In The Tempest. the churlbelongs to the alazongroup.but who mayalsobe too motivated by envyto be muchmore than anotheraspectof his society's makesno evil.snobbish or priggishcharacters whose role is that of the refuserof festivity.wherethe moodis morelight-hearted.Shakespeare kindof dramatist. or at least contrasted with.and Shakespeare.and Shylock has a close affinitywith this group. In his characterization.andin Jonson it would have been that: the sceneis dramatically not unlikethe trialof Volpone. in keepingout with his usualadroitness of moralrat-traps. Massinger. and an absurdsocietymay be condemnedby. The moreironicthe comedy.and then returning outspoken advocate of a kind of moralnorm who has the sympathy of the audience.Two socialgradesof this areexhibited in the Duke Seniorand pastoral the Corin of As You Like It. no doubt .and who gets laughsgets at least some of the audience's any character sympathy. maticeffectis normally If a braggart predictable he will braguntilhe is unconditionally is introduced. way. who may be morally to his society.Moreoften. the moreabsurd thesociety. Examplesare Duke Frederick. in termsof dramatic function.Shakespeare often sets up a churlishor sinisterfigureat the beginningof his comedyto act as a starting pointfor the comic action. locksup the food and drinkinstead of dispensing it.the killjoywho triesto stop the fun.His closestapproach to one. like Malvolio. however.Marston. The plaindealer. but not a different tist thanhis contemporaries. The not a miles gloriosuslike Parolles. we may translate agroikos simplyby rustic. Shakespeare but in a muchmoresubtle. goes with an implication of moralvalues.In a pastoral comedy. a character that we may call the plain dealer. When the tone deepensfrom the ironicto the the plaindealer tendsto become bitter. Shakespeare of Thersites as an enviousrailer. Middleton. A good exampleis the Cleanteof Moliere's Tartufle.

and went on her progressesin order to be delivered of them. thought that the Duke alluded to James I himself. That stock type is not the character.and. Many in his audience doubtlessheld properlyJacobeanviews about government and prerogative. but I am trying to suggest that the notion of an antithesis between the characlifelike characterand the stock type is a vulgar error.All Shakespeare's of the stock type which belongs ters owe their consistencyto the appropriateness but it is as necesto their dramaticfunction. and demonstratesthe values of personal monarchy to an audience already convinced of them. I am not trying to reduce them to stock types. Those who are morally spineless and historically vague. sary to the characteras a skeleton is to the actor who plays it. like some modern critics.Victoria College. will have to take what comfort we can from the incidental victories of impudence over dignity.COMEDY IN SHAKESPEARIAN CHARACTERIZATION 277 rightly. Toronto . like myself. It is because he can get every ounce of dramaticeffect out of his situations that Shakespeare'scharacters seem so wonderfully lifelike. But I imagine that Shakespearehad a similar diversityof creaturesin mind. that the scene representsan impressivetriumph of Justice over Slander. Or there may have been in the audiencethat Henry Hawkins who asserted that Queen Elizabeth had had five children by Lord Cecil.