Disorientation is often the cause of much anxiety. The human inability to control the breakdown of social or personal order can be the source for significant panic and disarray; that which is many times mentally jarring. This element of confusion for characters within literary works often times becomes their downfall, as they are placed in situations in which reality is unknown. Confusion can cause individuals to become blindsided, and while it is usually a cause for concern, this inability to conceptualize and regulate situations in comedic drama is root for much hilarity. The letter scene in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the employment of the Breeches Role in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, as well as the fortune teller scene in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, each develop a dynamic in which some characters are all-knowing, while others ponder as to what is reality. It is in these instances, when specific characters, as well as theatre audiences, harness the power of information, while others fail to comprehend the course of action, where humour is most innately established. Thus, this essay will argue that it is the correlation between an individual’s disorientation and confusion with the reality of the plot, and the direct opposition they face in relation to other characters, as well as audiences, who are fully mindful of the truth, which allows for comedy to ensue.
While in Twelfth Night, as in most Shakespearean comedies, audiences are provided with a stereotypical fool - the clown, referred to as Feste - it is the character of Malvolio, in his attempt to win the heart of Lady Olivia in the letter scene after being deceived, who is made the greater fool of the two. His character’s arrogance and supposed superiority over all others is made evident when he discovers Sir Andrew and Sir Toby drinking, explicitly judging their demeanor. Malvolio proclaims in response to their disorderliness, “My masters, are you mad? Or what are you? Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty but gabble like tinkers at this time of night?” (Shakespeare 2.3.81-3). His character’s willingness to judge his superiors, assuming himself of a higher esteem, prepares the audience for his downfall. The distaste and animosity audiences develop toward the character, sets the scene for a much-celebrated and humorous abasement of the pompous puritan. When Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew, alongside Fabian, devise a plan to outwit Malvolio, they cunningly utilize deception and confusion to prepare his demise. Malvolio, a man once in a position of self-authority, has been stripped of his ability to understand the parameters of fact and fiction, while those around him, the audience included, are well informed of the realities of the plot. Both Malvolio and Olivia are throughout the scene unaware of the practical joke occurring, while those playing the joke on them contribute to the confusion that ensues. Maria, a trusted servant to Olivia, enhances the confusion, as well as the comic nature of the scene, by suggesting to her mistress that Malvolio “is coming in a very strange manner,” and that “He is sure possessed” (Shakespeare 3.4.8-9). Maria’s awareness of the truth behind Malvolio’s maddening actions, in combination with her contribution to the disarray unfolding on stage, influences audience amusement. Similarly, when Olivia asks Malvolio why he is behaving in such a cheerful manner, Maria again interjects and asks out of artificial concern, “How do you, Malvolio?” (Shakespeare 3.4.32). Humour here is not only derived from the power dynamic established, whereby Maria assumes the utmost control of the situation, but also from the relative misfortunes and incomprehensiveness of the other characters. It is Olivia’s blindness to the truth of the situation, as Maria pacifies reality with further modes of deception, which allows for comedy to be enacted throughout the scene.
Moreover, when Malvolio enters the court, audiences are met with a man who genuinely believes Olivia has sent him instruction to present himself in such a peculiar manner. As Olivia questions his demeanor, as to why he is wearing yellow stockings cross-gartered, he perplexed by her probing, merely continues referencing back to the letter, suggesting “Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs. It did come to his hands, and commands shall be executed” (3.4.25-27). While Maria, as well as the audience, are aware that his attire is part of their ploy, Malvolio and Olivia’s transaction is heavily charged with confusion. This disorientation caused by the subliminally playful remarks which Maria contributes to the exchange, as well as the incomprehension of reality on the part of both Olivia and Malvolio sets the stage for much comedic expression. The threshold between knowing and not knowing is particularly significant in this scene, as it is those who are aware of the reality of the plotline - that is Maria and the audience - who are in the position of power. Malvolio’s power of alleged superiority is unknowingly stripped from him the moment he chooses to follow the instructions of the letter. His constant reiteration of the letter’s quotations, such as when he states, “‘Be not afraid of greatness.’ Twas well writ,” acts as a reassurance mechanism, suggestive of his perplexity (Shakespeare …). Being that audiences are trained from the onset of the play to despise Malvolio’s character, his disorientation, as well as his distress, ultimately behaves as a method of enacting comedy. It is the divide between knowing and not knowing the truth, which permits banter to occur, however inadvertently.
Similarly, in the case of the Pinchwifes, of the comedic play by William Wycherley entitled The Country Wife, the correlation between characters who are aware of the reality of the plot and those unaware is deliberately exercised as to enact comedy in the Breeches Role scene. In his attempt to protect his wife from prying male suitors, Mr. Pinchwife employs a deceitful plan to “dress [Mrs. Pinchwife] in the suit [they] are to carry down to her brother” (Wycherley 3.1.119-120). Out of fear that his male companions will be so drawn to her, Mr. Pinchwife unintentionally engages with a staple of the Restoration Comedy, known as the Breeches Role. With a growing presence of women onstage, the Breeches Role encouraged female actors to carry out scenes in male attire, as to emphasize the female figure, and thus, appeal to male audience members, ironically, actively counteracting Pinchwife’s intentions (Pablos 70). Nevertheless, in doing so, Pinchwife encourages a shift in the power dynamic amongst he, his wife, and his friends. The Pinchwifes’ possession of power in this scene allows for those with the knowledge that Mrs. Pinchwife is not actually “his wife’s brother,” to control the direction the scene will take, and, as such, enacts comedy (Wycherley 3.2.180). When Horner declares his love for Mrs. Pinchwife, while she is dressed in male costume pretending to be her brother, she encourages him to reveal more of what he loves about her. Her persistence, asking questions such as “But did you love her indeed, and indeed?” as to incite further flattery from him, not only fulfills her longing to be sexually desired by other men, but also in the process makes for a very awkward situation with her uptight husband. Horner’s response is not only conversational, proposing “Yes indeed, and indeed, pray you tell her so,” but also physically, as suggested by the stage direction, in which he kisses her not once, but three times (3.2…). This tension produced because of the relationship between Horner’s ignorance to the reality of Mrs. Pinchwife’s identity, as well as Mr. Pinchwife’s inability to relieve said tension as it would prompt the reveal his wife’s identity, is cause for much hilarity.
Furthermore, as an individual who in the scene is all-knowing, Mrs. Pinchwife additionally plays on her knowledge of the reality of her identity, by utilizing this moment of superiority to take control and taunt her husband. While she is in a private conversation with Horner, Mr. Pinchwife returns to the scene rather frantically. Similarly, as in the case of Twelfth Night, it is Lucy’s perplexity as to why he is acting so hysterically, which makes the scene amusing. He enters questioning, “Where? – How? – What’s become of?” to which Lucy confusingly replies, “He’s gone with the Gentlemen who will give him something, and it please your Worship” (3.2…). While it is understood, by both audiences and Mr. Pinchwife, that his wife is actually the one in a private conversation with a man who is romantically interested in her, Lucy’s blindness and confusin to this reality of the young man’s identity, and to the situation as a whole, is what permits comedy to ensue. After returning from her discussion with Horner, Mrs. Pinchwife plays further on the knowing/not knowing dynamic present throughout the scene. She enters, alongside Horner, stating “O dear Bud, look you here what I have got, see. The fine Gentleman has given me better things yet” (3.2…). While Horner had only given her an orange, as he indicates later in the scene, Mrs. Pinchwife pokes fun at her husband’s anxieties, knowing very well that if he exercises control against her, that her true identity will be revealed. It is his distress throughout the scene, alongside the relationship between those who are fully conscious of Mrs. Pinchwife’s identity and those who are left in the dark, that encourages the merriment of audiences.
Regarding The Rover, a play by Aphra Behn, the interdependence of characters who are conscious of the plotline’s realties, such as Florinda, and those who are fashioned to be ignorant of it, as in Belvile, function together as to sanction a comedic response from audiences. The play itself, taking place at a time in Naples when Carnival is occurring, whereby men and women roam the festivals in masquerade fashion, encourages deception and confusion, that which in the comedic genre inspires much hilarity. Dressed as a gypsy in the streets, Florinda is unrecognizable to all, intentionally done as to not be caught disobeying her brother’s orders to remain faithful to Don Vincentio. As Belvile suggests, Carnival is the perfect place to do as you please “Because whatever extravagances we commit in these faces, our own may not be obliged to answer ‘em” (Behn 2.1.2-3). Ironically, this is a common theme throughout the play, as the disguises of numerous character allow for the avoidance of social order and personal or moral responsibility. In gypsy attire, Florinda provides Belvile with a palm reading in attempts to uncover his inner feelings for her, for instance when she states, “As I was saying, sir, by this line you should be a lover” (Behn 1.2.217-218). Belvile’s inability to recognize Florinda through her disguise, prompts her to pry further, utilizing her secret identity as a method for cunning investigation. When he becomes tiresome of her and pleads with the mysterious woman to let him leave, she acts intrusively again, stating “I will not, sir, til you have confessed whether the passion you have for the vowed Florinda be true or false” (Behn 1.2.221-222). It is Belvile’s blindness and inability to identify similarities between the fortune teller and Florinda, alongside Florinda’s continuous prying, which permits an implicitly playful and humorous exchange for viewers. The framework of this interaction, in which one character is entirely aware of the actuality of the plot, while the other ceases to uncover these realities impacts audience reception in a jocular manner.
Likewise, Belvile’s inability to recognize the woman he claims to be madly in love with, too sets the scene for comedy to be enacted. At the first auditory perception of Florinda’s name, Belvile is taken aback, quickly changing his demeanor from uninterested to shocked and fixated on the gypsy’s every word. He even suggests, “Thou hast nam’d one will fix me here forever” (Behn 1.2.225). Belvile’s preoccupation with Florinda, though conveyed through his remarks, are not parallel in his actions, as he throughout the scene is unable to identify his true love through the costume. Not only does his failure to recognise his lover allow for greater plot development, permitting Florinda to request he meet her “this night at the garden gate,” but qualifies the scene as humorous (Behn 1.2.126-127). Viewers are presented with a man so in love, so emotionally attached and devoted to Florinda, yet, aside from such is unable to distinguish the woman he cares for from beneath a costume. The knowing/not knowing foundation of the conversation between the two individuals, whom like devoted lovers should be able to conduct open and honest conversations, as well as identify them beyond a mere disguise, allows for the scene to develop comedically.
Literature frames interpersonal relationships in a manner as to utilize character connections as a framework for plot development. As such, the genre of comedy employs its characters as a vehicle to enact humour, by developing their language, performative action, and overall characterization in a bizarre, yet, hysterical way. Character associations within Twelfth Night, The Country Wife, and The Rover are fashioned to limit the knowledge and understanding of one or more characters as to cause confusion, while the remainder of the characters on stage are all-knowing. It is this reciprocity between characters in comedic theatre, which allows a conversational exchange that is often a network of misperception and foolishness, sure to entertain audiences. While numerous dramaturgical aspects lend themselves to the expression of humour in these literary texts, it is these brief moments of character delusion and misunderstanding that are most notable for their exhibition of comedy.