11 OCTOBER 1946, Page 16


Shakespeare's Comic Characters

THERE was probably nobody better qualified than John Palmer to write on Shakespeare's comic characters. He had pondered much on comedy, had written about Moliere and about the English comedy of manners, and had given us a brilliant little book on the nature of comedy. That, by itself, would not be enough for the book in hand ; but, added to these qualifications, Palmer had an intimate knowledge of the drama as it actually comes out in the theatre, a deep human appreciation and a practitioner's understanding of creative work. Thus he never isolated theory from what was to be done and could be done, yet at the same time he never confused art and life, or, rather, the judgement we bring to each. This is, of course, a ticklish business, and critics do not always succeed in walking the razor edge. Palmer pm the problem succinctly in talking about Shylock : "There is a school of critics which, in reaction from those who discuss Shakespeare's characters as though they were real live persons created without reference to the play in which they are required to perform certain acts, tend to insist that everything they' say or do is determined by some necessity of plot or technical requirement of the stage."

The truth is, of course, that the great playwright blends the two so cunningly that the spectator of the play is not aware of a dis- tinction. The division possibly becomes apparent in the process of analytical study. The charm of Palmer's work is that you always find in it the man who could merge the two when he came to the theatre.

Palmer's main thesis in this, alas, unfinished, book, is that Shake-. speare differed from other writers of comedy such as Moliere and Congreve by sympathetically identifying himself, and therefore us, with the supposed butt of his .comedy. We are ourselves in part Berowne or Shylock, Beatrice or Benedick or Bottom, or rather cart of us is altogether those people. Comedy for Shakespeare is not life seen at a distance ; and Palmer makes the interesting point that Shakespeare made certain that this shall not be so for us, by always having an eavesdropper, an unsympathetic critic to accompany the comic figure. Somebody is all the time 'watching Malvolio or Benedick or the King of Navarre or Tithnia.

"The spectator thus perceives not only the victim but the unsym- pathetic witnesses by whom the victim is derided. He is invited to realise that there are two parties to the jest and to divide nis sympathies. There are occasions, too, when even the contrivers of the mischief cease to be entirely merciless."

There is, nevertheless, one condition—namely, that the comic figure should have his own proper context. Remove him or her from it, and you get such a disastrous mistake as Falstaff in The Merry. Wives.

While we may agree with the thesis—and Palmer's pen is so per- suasive that it is difficult not to—we may perhaps differ as to the

distinction made between Shakespeare and other comic "writers,

• especially Moliere and Congreve. We may doubt, for instance, whether the procieuses ridicules are really much more "distantly " treated than the fantastics in Love's Labour's Lost, or whether Mirabel

and Millamant are much more coldly felt than Beatrice and Benedick. The distinction is true, one would think, where other Elizabethan dramatists are concerned ; it is certainly true of Jonson, perhaps of

Chapman and Middleton. Luckily we do not have to agree in toto with a critic's theory to benefit from, and enormously enjoy, his own application of it. Moreover, in this book we find, as we did in Palmer's book on the political characters, much to brush away fusty cobwebs, much to bring us back to an alert normality of approach, an approach from the centre. It is, as we know, only a fragment of the book he had in mind. There is no Falstaff here, though we can guess what the treatment would have been from the booklet Comedy. There is no Nurse, no Malvolio or Sir Toby, no Ajax, no Leontes, but we have, admirably treated, Berowne and his companions, Touch- stone, Bottom, Beatrice and Benedick, and, most notably of all, Shyloe.k. – What Palmer was intent to do in that chapter was to sweep away the sentimental idea of Shylock the tragic figure the noble spirit broken and distorted, which has held the stage without much protest for about a century. This is perhaps the most interesting chapter, of all, because it is here that we get the chief discussion of the problem referred to at the beginning of this review, the problem ol relating life to art, and art to the exigencies of the drama. But the chapter on Bottom is equally probing and productive of ideas, espe- cially when we read about Bottom "holding up the proceedings by the very qualities which make him so helpful and necessary—sheer enthusiasm, good-fellowship, and unfailing readiness to meet all occa- sions and to identify himself with all sorts and conditions of men." Bottom- also discourses upon the problem of reality in art and nature, and Palmer reminds us that Hazlitt thought "that Bottom under- stood the matter as well as any man before or since." Indeed, he constantly reminds us of other critics' obiter dicta, which, Whether or not we have forgotten them, he enables us to bring to a sharper