My first real, in-depth introduction to the comedies of William Shakespeare was during a class on Shakespeare's comedies and histories during my senior year of college. I had a vague idea that I would enjoy the comedies more than some of his tragedies (a bad experience with Romeo & Juliet in high school had me convinced that the tragedies weren't for me), so I entered the semester with very little background on any of Shakespeare's works outside of his greatest hits.
I was wrong: besides one or two comedies that I genuinely love, I much preferred Shakespeare's tragedies to his lighter works. That may be because I didn't expect the comedies to be as horrifying as they actually are.
When you hear "comedy", you probably think of characters in silly situations who eventually solve their problems to the delight of all involved. You probably don't expect to be exposed to abuse, Stockholm Syndrome, forced marriage, and near-rape. Or maybe I just have a different idea of comedy than the crowds during Shakespeare's time. Even accounting for this difference in time and culture, I still have an uneasy relationship with many of Shakespeare's comedies.
You'll have to read them to get the full scope of madness for yourself, but below I've examined the seven most horrifying moments from Shakespeare's comedies.
Actually, a lot of moments from Measure for Measure are horrifying (which may be why it's often categorized as a "problem play"). First, the lecherous judge Angelo tries to force a nun, Isabella, to have sex with him in order to save her brother's life. Then, Isabella tricks Angelo into thinking he's had sex with her when actually he's had sex with an entirely different woman. THEN, the Duke, supposedly the "good guy" of the play, proclaims that he's going to marry Isabella (still devoted to being a nun, remember), and Isabella is never given a say in the matter. Isabella is given a pretty raw deal the entire play, and even the terrible Angelo doesn't deserve to unknowingly have sex with someone else. This is all pretty messed up, Shakespeare.
Another "problem play", this one kind of boils down to our "heroine" raping her love interest (see the "bed trick" used in Measure for Measure). Even though Bertram makes it quite clear he doesn't care for Helena, she still follows him around, forces him to marry her, and gets him into consummate their marriage by tricking him into thinking he's sleeping with another woman. Of course, because this is a comedy, by the end of the story Bertram is totally fine with all of this. If this happened in real life, Helena would be a crazy stalker charged with sexual assault. I am definitely not okay with this supposedly happy ending.
Sorry fans of 10 Things I Hate About You, but the movie's source material has some really icky elements to it. Katherina is a woman with a strong personality, hence why she gets called a shrew a lot. Petruchio is looking for a wife and decides to make Katherina his project. He makes a scene at their wedding, keeps her in the house against her wishes, and refuses her food, clothes, and other comforts as a means of "taming" her. By the end of the play, Katherina (who is displaying signs of Stockholm Syndrome by this time) is nothing like her old self and gives a lecture as to why wives should obey their husbands. Ick, ick, ICK.
The pretty blatant antisemitism is enough to make this a questionable comedy. Despite the moving "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, when your happy ending involves cheating your Jewish character out of his property and forcing him to convert to Christianity, I have to call shenanigans on the "comedy" aspect. Not that Shylock is a completely innocent victim, of course. He does demand a pound of flesh as repayment for a debt, which is a pretty extreme and gross request. (Side note: why would anyone ever sign a contract with this written into it? That seems like a terrible idea, but what do I know.)
Julia, girl, you can do so much better than that dog Proteus. Proteus swears his eternal love to Julia, but then immediately falls in love with his best friend Valentine's love interest Silvia, gets Valentine arrested, and tries to woo Silvia with a gift that Julia gave him! None of this is screaming "great husband material." Eventually Proteus apologizes for being such a jerk and remembers that he loves Julia, but Julia should never have accepted him back! I can't get behind their happily ever after, nor can I be happy that Julia has won her "love" back. He's a scrub, Julia.
I absolutely adore this play, but that doesn't mean it's without its problematic moments. The virtuous Hero is engaged to Claudio, but the dastardly Don Jon decides to cause some mischief by convincing Claudio that Hero has been cheating on him. Enraged, Claudio humiliates Hero at their wedding, accusing her of sleeping around. The understandably distraught Hero faints, and what does her father do? He wishes aloud that she were dead. NOT. COOL. When your daughter is accused of being unfaithful you should defend her, not hope that she dies to save you from the shame.
The fact that one of our main characters dies in order to bring about the happy ending doesn't exactly bode well for a comedy, but what I actually want to focus on here is the story of the jailer's daughter. She falls in love with Palamon and helps him escape, but he rejects her. She goes mad with grief and ends up joining a theatre troupe before her father finds her. And how does he help her get over her grief? By convincing a man who loves her to pretend to be Palamon until she falls in love with him! Imagine thinking you're with the man you think is the love of your life only to find out he's a pretender. I know her father's heart is in the right place, but that's the wrong way to handle that situation.
Images: BBC Films