Comedy: Unity through Trinity

There is nothing more subjective than comedy. What is amusing to one individual may be conversely interpreted as tragic to another. For “comedy depends on the eye of the beholder…not the character…he has in view” (Potts 198). Comedy’s livelihood depends on the presence of three critical elements: timing, the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter being presented, and the delivery of the material. These rudiments have a tightly knit, interdependent relationship with one another and thus make up the comedic triad. Each individual component works together with a particular purpose, much like the muscles in the human body function harmoniously with one another to execute various tasks. The more highly developed the muscles are, the stronger the collective body will be. The more cohesive the comedic trinity is, the greater the response from the audience will be – in most cases laughter and to some extremes hysterical howls of joy.

The timing of comedic dialogue, whose intention is to delight, is of greatest importance; it can be likened as the heart of the comedic triad. It sets the pace, the flow, and the beat of the humor. Without this pacesetter, the dialogue would be read or dictated as a jumble of words and phrases, whose humorous intent would dissipate into the ether. On some occasions, it is the contravention of the rhythmic wave that elicits humor from the audience. “Discussing Hero, Claudio and Don Pedro slip into patterned, formal prose, whose rhythm is parodied” and subsequently “broken by Benedick” (Leggatt 153).

CLAUDIO: That I love her, I feel.
DON PEDRO: That she is worthy, I know.
BENEDICK: That I neither feel how she should be loved, nor know how she should be worthy, is the opinion that fire cannot melt out of me; I will die in it at the stake.

(Shakespeare I. i.)

An increased pace, a rapid-fire succession of words can also be set forth to build laughter while concurrently heightening suspense. This technique is most notably carried out during the heated round of ridiculing between Benedick and Beatrice upon his arrival.

BENEDICK: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.
BEATRICE: Scratching could not make it worse, an ‘twere such a face as yours were.
BENEDICK: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
BEATRICE:A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
BENEDICK: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.

(I. i.)

In order to succeed at comedic prose, the use of timing must be crafted carefully into the piece. The extremes of dialogue pacing must be examined; a dialogue that is sustained at a rapid pace may very well cause the “heart” of the triad to arrest and subsequently disjoin the audience from the action. Conversely, dialogue that is continually stagnant and lacking pace ultimately creates dullness throughout the work and consequently causes the rhythm of the work to collapse. To combat a straight-line effect, there are often periods of high comedic action contrasted with periods of conflict. These periods occur in series of undulating waves with the two extremes being a high of pure comedy and a low of extreme tragedy. Benedick’s and Beatrice’s unadulterated comprehension and use of whimsical language are truly the pinnacle of high comedic action. In contrast, the foray of Don John on Claudio’s intent to marry the fair Hero and the false indictment of scandalous encounters by her are nothing but the trough of tragedy. While favoring one extreme, the mind tends to discount feelings for the opposite end of the spectrum. This deprivation causes a heightened sense of emotion when the differing extreme is later revisited. Shakespeare, rather than inundate his audience with superfluous tormented exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice, sprinkles the debates lightly throughout Much Ado About Nothing. This “seasoning” flavors the play to appeal delectably to his audience while avoiding a “salty” over-saturation. As previously stated, the reaction from the audience is directly related to each of the three reactors. The removal or overuse of one element forces a domino effect on each of the others; the muscles of the collective therefore become stiff and their effectiveness begins to subside. Often, an author may employ “pace-makers” in his or her story to set the rhythm of the comedic action. These “pace-makers” are characters of normal demeanor, such as Claudio and Hero, whose attributes lie within the confines of acceptable societal norms.

The rhythm fosters a link between what the audience comprehends as familiar and tranquil contrasted to the unusual or uncomfortable. It is the familiarity with the subject that is the second element in the comedic triad. L.J. Potts writes, “It is the main concern of the comic writer to discriminate between what is normal and abnormal in human behavior” (199). As Shakespeare obviously makes apparent in Much Ado About Nothing, “[the] tale of a credulous lover deceived by a false friend, the business of the disguise at the chamber window, and the final exposure of the trick is, to say the least, highly improbable” (Parrott 155). A groundwork of normalcy needs to exist throughout the piece of work to which the audience can relate. The relationship exists to contrast the realities of human nature against the fictitious nature of the comedy. The closer the relation among the participant, the characters, and the character’s situation the higher the response will be to the distorted reality. There cannot subsist any humor in truthful accounts of events without any disparity to what is normally expected in the social order. The “Claudio” and “[Hero] plot is a conventional story” (Leggatt 151) and therefore does not deviate from the norm of most audience members – the courtship between Claudio and Hero is, for the most part, a fairly common occurrence, at least during the time in which the play is set. The regularity of events such as the latter do not elicit laugher because of their commonplace in society. “Beatrice and Benedick, on the other hand, are freewheeling, invented characters, whose unorthodox love affair and airy use of tongue are generally regarded as presenting a more convincing kind of drama” (151). It is this drama that readers will recognize as deviating from the usual and therefore emit a mirthful response. Benedick quickly detaches from his usual line of philosophy and subsequently rationalizes his love for Beatrice once he is made aware of her “love” for him.

BENEDICK: Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour? No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.

(Shakespeare II. iii.)

The audience is aware of Benedick’s disposition toward marriage, and it is the sudden and drastic variation in his thought process that educes such a humorous reaction.

The third and final element that unifies the trinity is the delivery and inflection of the comedic content. The specific manner in which the dialogue is spoken to the audience can enhance or diminish the reaction that is produced by them. Delivery is closely bound to the element of timing; the two work in concert to produce a livelier response from the reader or watcher of a written work. If well timed dialogue is read in a monotonous and unwavering voice, the two elements will clash and produce little or no reaction – hence no laughter. If the following exchange between Conrade and Dogberry were read with no variation in tone, the humorous undertones would become gray and shadowed.

CONRADE: Away! you are an ass, you are an ass.
DOGBERRY: Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But, masters, remember that I am an ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.

(Shakespeare IV. ii.)

An upbeat delivering, however, does not correlate to a guaranteed laugh every time. The context in which the delivery is performed must draw a parallel to the content that is being dictated. There are many instances where a dull and droning inflection can elicit a higher response than if the script were read with a lively step. It can be implied that a larger emphasis is placed on the context of the comedy rather than the content. A greater weight is placed on the manner in which the content is delivered, which ultimately determines how the audience interprets it. Inflection is a conditioner; where timing and subject awareness build muscle mass, inflection and delivery condition the muscle thereby enhancing its effectiveness.

Comedy’s livelihood depends on the presence of three critical elements: timing, the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter being presented, and the delivery of the material. These rudiments have a tightly knit interdependent relationship to one another and thus make up the comedic triad. Comedy cannot exist without the presence and cohesiveness of the comedic triad. Much like the human body will succumb to death when it is dissected, “…when a joke is [analyzed], it abruptly ceases to be funny” (Styan 231). It is the unified bond between each triadic element that permits comedy to remain strong and prevalent. The more highly developed an individual’s muscles are, the stronger the collective body will be. The more cohesive the comedic trinity is, the greater the audience will respond – in most cases with laughter and to some extremes hysterical howls of joy.

Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco: Chandler, 1965.
Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love. London: Methuen, 1974.
Parrott, Thomas Marc. Shakespearean Comedy. New York: Russell and Russell, 1949.
Potts, L. J. “The Subject Matter of Comedy.” Corrigan 198-213.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. New York: Dover, 1598, 1994.
Styan, J.L. “Types of Comedy.” Corrigan 230-42.

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