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My concern is with a way of beginning and concluding which Shakespeare develops in The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, and A Midsummer Night's Dream and continues to use throughout his career as a compositional schema in plays as different as As You Like It, Measure for Measure, and Cymbeline. In each instance a threat of death initiates the main action. Egeon in The Comedy of Errors faces execution for having violated a law barring all citizens of Syracuse from Ephesus. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Hermia must be prepared to die or live the barren life of a votaress of Diana if she continues to refuse to marry according to her father's wishes. In Love's Labour's Lost the threat is "devouring time," itself. Each threat is followed, in turn, by a sudden and radical shift in dramatic focus. Egeon is left behind, "hopeless and hapless ... to procrastinate his liveless end" (I. i. 157-58), (1) while we follow his son, Antipholus of Syracuse, into what seems to him to be a strange and dream-like world of inexplicable occurrences. In A Midsummer Night's Dream we leave Theseus' court to follow the young lovers into a forest of moonlight and enchantment. The shift of focus in Love's Labour's Lost is not so immediately obvious. We join a king and his friends and guests in what amounts to an interval of holiday until a packet of documents on its way from the King of France arrives. Finally, in the closing moments of each play, the focus suddenly shifts again and the characters in the play-world must again confront the mortal threats which since the opening moments have been put aside.
The result in each instance is a play consisting of two distinct and radically different kinds of action, each with its own beginning and ending, and with one enframing the other. The enframing actions are recognizable as common to the world we leave behind when we enter the theater to be free for a time of its claims--where fathers are unreasonable, laws inequitably administered and even unjust, and where we confront the demands of everyday. The enframed actions, on the other hand, are playful and even farcical and are set in places where the laws of verisimilitude and probability, along with clocktime itself, have been set aside.
Each action, in short, is presented in a distinct kind of fiction which, in turn, invites a different kind of response from the audience. The fictions of the enframing actions, however extraordinary the events they depict, are mimetic and invite indentification and empathy--recognition that the problems encountered by those who are involved in them are of the kind that touch our own lives, whereas the enframed fictions are "ludic" and invite the opposite kind of response. They are games of make-believe which the audience is invited to join as a way of escaping temporarily from the very kinds of problems with which the enframing fictions invite the audience to identify. Participation requires only that the audience accept the hypothetical situations they present--two sets of long separated identical twins on the loose in the same city, or a fairy-enchanted forest. Having accepted the hypothesis, we are free as members of the audience to laugh at situations which the characters find utterly incomprehensible and even frustrating because we are in on the fun. The playmaker has taken us into his confidence, "distancing" us from those situations by sharing with us his perspective. We laugh at the bewildering situations the Antipholus brothers and the runaway lovers encounter because we know they are only temporary and will be happily resolved for all. For the plays of which they are a part are comedies and comedies always, or almost always--Love's Labour's Lost being the obvious exception--have happy endings.
The result in each instance is a play which really consists of two plays in one: one which is mimetic, involving dangers to life and inviting audience indentification and empathy; and another which is "ludic," devoted to the improbable and offering the audience an interval of fun in which to escape for a time the problems that engage us all.
The native traditions of comedy provide long-established precedents for Shakespeare's enframing of an interval of "mirth and game" within a fiction representing the world of everyday. The practice of providing audiences with two kinds of entertainment is at least as old as the secular drama itself. Henry Medwall, for instance, at the close of Fulgens and Lucrece (1497) indicates that he has mingled "mirth and game" of an old an familiar kind with exemplary instruction:
That all the substaunce of this play was done specially therfor Not onely to make folke myrth and game, But that such as be gentilmen of name May be somewhat mouyd By this example ... (II, 888-93) (2)
John Rastell, too, when describing The Nature of the Four Elements (1517) as a "philosophical work" in which he has "mixed ... merry conceits to give men comfort," (3) indicates that he has provided his audience with two different kinds of entertainment--something of substance for those who are looking for profit and edification and "merry conceits" for those who want simply to be entertained.
As a practice guaranteeing the broadest range of potential patrons of public playhouses, the mingling of "substance" with "merry conceits" and "toys" was one which professional playwrights were quick to take up. William Wager advertises The Longer Thou Livest the More Fool Thou Art (1559-68) as a play in which he has "interlaced" "honest mirth" with "wholesome lessons" (Prologue, 11. 64-70) (4). Nathaniell Woode explains in his Prologue to The Conflict of Conscience (5) that its story of suicidal despair is …