Date of Degree
Richard C. McCoy
Literature in English, British Isles
Shakespeare, comedy, performance, genre theory, sexuality
I argue that Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well reveal underexplored features common to Shakespeare’s comedies. Often interpreted as “problem plays,” they are more representative of the genre than previously acknowledged. I suggest that Shakespeare wrote them to de-nature and de-familiarize his own practices. The plays present the coercion inherent in the normativizing of marriage as the basis for social and political order. The “happiness” achieved—or at least gestured towards—at the end of Shakespearean comedy restricts human possibilities and is often presented as an imposition or injunction rather than a reflection of spontaneous, collective emotion. In particular, the late plays foreground the function of the woman dedicated to marrying a specific man, what I call the “henikosexual” woman, as the anchor of all of Shakespeare’s comedies and the origin of the plays’ sexual and marital norms. These plays also highlight the inadequate rational explanations for comic action, frequently promised but deferred in the endings of Shakespeare’s comedies, often with an attendant command to find the proceedings joyful and festive. Shakespeare’s comedies close with the policing of knowledge and affect and the unjustified elevation of monogamous heterosexual commitment as a means to encourage communal subjection to civic authority. Shakespeare therefore exposes one of his own genres—which was distinct from the comic practices of his contemporaries—as amoral, coercive, and arbitrary, in the service of a “happiness” enjoyed by a small minority.
Spiro, John-Paul, "Shakespeare's Problem Comedies as Self-Critique" (2020). CUNY Academic Works.
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