Critical Essays Neoclassical Comedy


The "romantic comedy" (Shakespeare's variety) of the period directly preceding Molière's emphasized a kind of plot development which was to be rejected by Molière. Comedies written during the Renaissance period were often similar in outline: a complex situation involving a number of characters, misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and the like is created, then an element of suspense is added, and finally all of the complications are unraveled to the satisfaction of most of the characters. "Romantic comedy" had nothing directly to do with contemporary society; indeed, the settings of most of the plays are in faraway kingdoms or "exotic" foreign countries. Any immediate social reference would usually be embedded in the fanciful story of the play.

In the neoclassical period, however, contemporary society became one of the central concerns of the comic dramatist. An age of balance, precision, and regularity — as the neoclassical age is generally considered — insists upon certain norms of behavior in society. The "irregular," eccentric individual had to be laughed back to normalcy. While the same principle may have applied to Shakespearean comedy in general, the identification of actual social types in the plays was not quite so obvious as it became with Molière. The very subject matter for neoclassical comedy became problems implicit in society. Although this type of drama, "social comedy," necessitates a certain faith in the value of society, the dramatist does not necessarily condone all of the aspects of his particular contemporary society. Laughter is evoked when a character departs in his behavior from the sanctioned norms of society, but it is also evoked often enough from the very "norm" itself.

Repeated emphasis in neoclassical comedy is placed upon "rational" perspective and behavior. As late as Voltaire's Candide the irrational acceptance of a popular philosophy is ridiculed. In England, earlier, Jonathan Swift was concerned with rationality in a similar fashion. In many of Molière's plays the characters, even when they are in error, maintain that they are acting from purely rational motives and in a most collected manner. They repeatedly express the exasperated wish that the rest of the world would act equally as rationally. A reader might be surprised at the number of times the word "reasonable" appears in this context in Molière's plays. It is often used by opposing characters to add strength to their own contradictory points of view.

Neoclassical comedy also calls for a degree of intellectual detachment from the audience which other types of plays do not. Tragedy demands sympathy for the protagonist; other kinds of comedy — like "Romantic comedy" — individualize characters and allow for a certain identification with them. This detachment forces us to see a fop as a fop (the type) and thus comic, rather than as an individual evoking pity. The more complex of Molière's characters verge on winning our sympathies for the moment — but more in the sense that we can see his point of view in ridiculing society than in feeling a deep pity for him as a suffering human being.

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