Laughter in Early Modern Plays

For our inaugural issue, Sarah Hill Antinora (University of California) wrote about the oft-criticized and baffling laughter elicited by Beatrice’s ‘Kill Claudio’ in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.

In this guest post, Sarah talks about emotional play in early modern drama and the questions that prompted her paper.

Measure for Measure Title Page

My favorite early modern plays always have had that one moment (well, at least one) of conflicting emotions: the confused delight of first reading ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ in A Winter’s Tale, the grotesque fascination in seeing the ‘lifeless’ figures of the Duchess’s family in The Duchess of Malfi, and the uncomfortable titillation of witnessing the bed trick plots in The Changeling and Measure for Measure. Perhaps the moment that best embodies the way this era’s playwrights work the emotions of their audiences is Bergetto’s death scene in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a moment that finds an audience’s tears of laughter give way to tears of sadness. This is all a long way of saying that I enjoy the moments in which an audience’s emotions are played with, turned, or challenged, and, that, in short, is why I had never much liked Much Ado about Nothing.

My experiences with Much Ado about Nothing were confined to the stilted readings in a high school English class, a serious approach by a university professor who claimed it to be a dreadful excuse for a comedy, and Kenneth Branaugh’s 1993 film adaptation. Some of these experiences with the play were more pleasant than others—in fact, ‘pleasant’ is the very word I would have used to describe the play (I’m not sure, though, if ‘pleasant’ is actually a compliment here). Thus, it was a sort of revelation when I finally had the opportunity to see the play performed live. It was a 2006 production of the Redlands Shakespeare Festival, a three-week festival held each summer in Redlands, CA, with the aim to bring free Shakespeare to its local community. The players often go for the easy jokes to ensure that all members of the family-filled audience are having fun, but the productions are a blast and nothing, really, beats Shakespeare under the stars.

This production brought slapstick humor to any moment that the text allows it — along with some moments where it quite clearly does not — and portrayed Dogberry as a one-note simpleton, but the moments between Beatrice and Benedick after the aborted wedding have stayed with me all these years. The audience, myself included, laughed at almost every line: Benedick’s inquiring after the length of time that Beatrice has been weeping, Beatrice’s subtle questioning of his manhood, and their awkward proclamations of their love for each other. These words, that on the page and in at least one film adaptation, had always felt disconnected to me, now made perfect sense. And, then came the shocked, loud laugh at Beatrice’s ‘Kill Claudio.’ My feelings about the play were immediately and forever changed in this moment.

Yet, it was not until many years later, and after attending many other live productions of the play and witnessing the same emotional responses from audiences as those at RSF, that I earnestly returned to that moment and the questions it raises. Why does this line make the audience laugh? Why do so many productions take pains to avoid that laughter? Why does it in many ways feel wrong to laugh in this moment, and, more importantly to my mind, what do we mean when we say that it is ‘wrong’ to laugh? ‘Please Let This Be Much Ado about Nothing: “Kill Claudio” and the Laughter of Release’ raises these questions and, I hope, answers at least some of them.

You can read Sarah’s full article here.

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