This post was written by Holly Boud, Humanities Center Intern
This weekend I went to the Utah Shakespeare Festival for my very first time. I have lived in Utah most of my life, and somehow have never made it down, which is a pity because it is an incredible production! My friend and I attended A Midsummer Night’s Dream for its last performance. I have studied Shakespeare, but I have never actually read Midsummer nor seen it performed. So besides having a basic understanding of the plot from the references to it in popular culture, I didn’t know what to expect.
Except for the four lovers and Bottom, all of the other played at least two roles. Theseus and Hippolyta also played Oberon and the Fairy Queen; Puck was also the servant; and the fairies made up the rag-tag acting company. Having never seen Midsummer performed before, I can’t tell if this was unique or conventional, but it brought a whimsical and amorphous feeling to the performance, which worked nicely with the content of the play—entering into the wood where anything can happen.
All throughout the course of the performance, I found myself laughing. Of course I knew that this was a comedy (both in the theatrical sense of marriage as well as the modern sense), but it is always delightful to see hear the reactions of the audience as the actors play up certain parts and add movement to the text of the play. In my experience, you never see the same Shakespeare play twice.
Since this was the final performance of Midsummer, I assumed the actors were well-weary of it by now. But during this play within a play performance (something Shakespeare seems to like to do), the actors genuinely broke character over laughing. Hippolyta was laughing harder than her character was wont as Pyramus dragged out his dramatic death, constantly coming back to life to utter another loud cry of agony. Lysander had to turn his face away for laughing as Thisbe loudly plunged the sword in her breast. Though laughing heartily myself, I thought the mirth amongst the actors odd until something I heard later. Since this was the final performance, the actors ad-libbed the ending. They didn’t know what their fellow actors were going to do with the play, and their laughter was genuine.
I started to wonder at the merit and role of humor in the academy. Humor certainly has a spectrum with slap-stick on one side and word play on the other. Puns are one of the greatest and most sophisticated forms of humor, or so I have heard. Some humor seems universally appreciated while other forms (inside jokes, etc.) belong to particular groups and contexts. And Shakespeare seemed to master it all.
Though we tend to think of Shakespeare for his deep psychological depth and tragedies, he was at the core a comedian. I am sure humor is something classes are devoted to, but I have never seen one nor have I ever studied humor seriously in the texts I have read over the course of my education. What is the art of humor? Why do we consider something funny? Isn’t humor not just a feature, but the stylistic feature in so many of the texts that we enjoy (including Shakespeare)? Maybe because something is funny we take it less seriously (duh!), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on it, and it seems counter-intuitive when we are trying to understand the merits of the works we study.
I learned something about my approach to literature. Maybe the Bard is trying to tell us something—to learn to laugh and take ourselves less seriously as academics. We’d all live longer and happier lives if we did.