Thursday, September 11, 2014

Much Ado About Romantic Comedy

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms:
Romantic comedy, a general term for comedies that deal mainly with the follies and misunderstandings of young lovers, in a light‐hearted and happily concluded manner which usually avoids serious satire. The best‐known examples are Shakespeare's comedies of the late 1590s, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It being the most purely romantic, while Much Ado About Nothing approaches the comedy of manners and The Merchant of Venice is closer to tragicomedy. 
I don't know what the Dictionary means by "purely romantic" but I don't agree that Much Ado About Nothing approaches a comedy of manners. Much Ado About Nothing is the very exemplar of the romantic comedy as the term is now understood.

I know a bit about Shakespearean romantic comedy - my ill-starred Tam Lin  owes everything to the 5-act structure and standard tropes of Shakespeare. So much so that a reviewer referred to it as a "Late-Autumn Night's Dream." And it even includes the "bed-trick" trope, for which I am now ashamed. 

Shakespeare used the bed-trick in All's Well that End's Well - which does not make the Oxford list of romantic comedies, partly because it's not very funny and party because the lovers come together at the end only after it was revealed that Helena is pregnant by Bertram because she pulled the bed-trick on him - or in other words, raped him. 

It must be said that audiences absolutely adore the bed-trick - and that includes the Tam Lin audiences. That may well have been the most popular scene in the play. (The Tam Lin bed trick also results in pregnancy.) Audiences don't perceive it as rape, in part I suppose because it's considered silly to imagine men can be raped - men are assumed to always want it from whomever will give it - and it's even considered a funny joke in the case of prison rape.

Midsummer isn't quite exactly a romantic comedy - it deals with many couples and magical powers and is more comedy than romance. Not that I don't appreciate Midsummer - it is one of Shakespeare's hardiest vehicles - I've seen plenty of Shakespeare's plays screwed up by directors taking too many liberties - I've yet to see a production that screwed up Midsummer

Although arguably rape happens in Midsummer, since Titania is ensorcelled by Oberon into lusting after Bottom - although we don't know explicitly what goes on between them. And then there's the questionable "courtship" of Theseus and Hippolyta

Twelfth Night is a little closer to the mark, but there is still the problematic issue of the woman disguised as a man. The relationship of Orsino and Viola doesn't happen in earnest until the very end of the play when Viola's true identity is revealed. And while there is plenty of comedy to be had by the mistaken identities and the ever-popular mockery of Puritans (the character Malvolio) the play is more about misunderstandings than love. 

As You Like It, while dear to my heart, has the same problem with Rosalind dressing as a guy - although at least she meets Orlando first as a woman. As You includes a queertastic moment when Rosalind is wooing Orlando as Ganymede. Shakespeare probably didn't mean audiences to take it that way (or did he?) but when I saw the BBC production it seemed like Orlando could easily be falling for Rosalind while he thought she was a boy. It completely blew my mind. This, I thought, is waaaay different from Julius Caesar (the only Shakespeare play I was familiar with up to that point.) 

But the play is at least as much about the relationship between Rosalind and her cousin Celia as it is about Rosalind and Orlando. Call it an early buddy comedy.

And the four marriages at the end are accomplished via deus ex-machina when Hymen the god of marriage shows up. Not something you're likely to see much of in any self-respecting romantic comedy these days.

In Much Ado there is no supernatural match-making, Beatrice never dresses as a guy, and Beatrice and Benedick are introduced already having a history together. They don't even have to "meet cute." I used that idea in my Julia & Buddy.

Although in Much Ado there is a moment that comes close to a bed-trick: Claudio, believing he is responsible for the death of his fiancee Hero, has agreed to marry a cousin who just happens to look like Hero - according to her father. Turns out it it's Hero after all (Shakespeare used this scenario again in A Winter's Tale.) It's Claudio's own volition to marry the cousin, albeit a pretty dumb idea, that saves this from being a true bed-trick.

But although Claudio and Hero are the alpha couple in the play, nobody really cares about them. It's the B & B show. Here they are meeting up after not seeing each other for awhile - and the battle of the wits begins.

So do any other romantic comedies even come close to Much Ado? I will address that next.