The Comedy and Society of Wit
Of all of Shakespeare’s plays and characters, few of them can be said to have spawned a genre of comedy—save Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. From Restoration comedies to Hepburn and Tracy movies, these characters have inspired generations of writers to create their own witty couples who resist their own coupling and use language as an armor and a weapon in order to protect what director Arin Arbus calls their ‘fragile hearts.’ But it is more than just their fully realized personas or their fragile hearts that have sparked imaginations; it is their use of language, their wit, that has engendered such emulation. It is clear that Shakespeare understood the delights and dangers of language; one need only hear the gulled Benedick ruminate on Beatrice’s language with “Ha! ’Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner’—there’s a double meaning in that” or ponder over “Kill Claudio” to immediately see examples of both. But where did Shakespeare learn this language? And why were these characters such “meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick” and “my dear Lady Disdain”? Perhaps some basic answers lie in the early modern obsession with language and, in turn, in how Shakespeare used his predecessors’ theories on the comedy and language of wit.
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