Shakespearean Virtues and Vices – Response to Northrop Frye’s ‘The Argument of Comedy’

Shakespearean Virtues and Vices – Response to Northrop Frye’s ‘The Argument of Comedy’ – Millie Delaney-Doust.

Northrop Frye’s essay ‘The Argument of Comedy’ begins by establishes two distinct kinds of comedy originating in Greek antiquity: ‘Old Comedy’ and ‘New Comedy.’ ‘New Comedy’ differs from the Aristotelian ‘Old Comedy’ through the centrality of the comic theme: man outwits rival to “possess the girl of his choice.”[1] As Frye highlights, ‘New Comedy’ finds its comedic tenets in “a comic Oedipal situation.”[2]

Frye uses Shakespearean examples to highlight his point, and makes the comment that, in New Comedy, “comedy is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of selfknowledge. It finds the virtues of Malvolio and Angelo as comic and the vices of Shylock.”[3] Malvolio and Angelo from Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure respectively, are stern, virtuous, and religious characters. The comedy often comes from contrasting the virtues of these characters with ‘dirty,’ often sexualised situations. The clip I have chosen comes from Tamsin Greig’s performance as Malvolia in a gender-blended version of Twelfth Night produced by the National Theatre in 2017. Part of the comedy of the play back when it was written came from the fact that all the actors were male, and in the play’s diegesis there is Viola’s gender blend (so you have a bloke pretending to be a woman, who is in turn pretending to be a man).

Throughout the play Greig plays Malvolia as the stern, puritanical servant who is in love with Olivia, but in this version, the production includes the addition of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 135, which Greig sings whilst stripping on stage. The clip is hilarious, and proves correct Frye’s point that comedy is designed to ridicule a lack of self-understanding. Greig’s Malvolia pleads to Olivia, whilst crooning and taking her clothes off to reveal whirring breast feathers. The audience doesn’t expect it at all: it’s uncharacteristic for Malvolio/a, and the sonnet doesn’t feature in the original play, its surprising, ridiculous, and thus very funny.

[1] Northrop Frye, ‘The Argument of Comedy.’ In David Allan Robertson (ed.) English Institute Essays, 1948. New York: AMS Press, 1965. p.58

[2] Frye, ‘The Argument of Comedy.’ p.58

[3] Ibid. p.61




One comment

  1. This is a fantastic example (and also massive love for Tamsin Greig). I think adding questions of gender to Frye’s argument and to Shakespearean comedy in general is a very interesting lens to look through: the preoccupation with and reliance on cross-dressing and gender subversion within Shakespeare, as you say very rightly, stems in part from practical realities of not being allowed female actors, but I would be interested to consider the ways in which gender figures theoretically, and how these themes and tropes have filtered down directly from Shakespeare into film comedies, early or otherwise.

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