Extracts from Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, by C. L. Barber

Here are some extracts from my current reading of C. L. Barber’s Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy that I found of particular interest, either because of what was written or how it was written, or, best of all, both together.

“No figure in the carpet is the carpet. There is in the pointing out of patterns something that is opposed to life and art, an ungraciousness which artists in particular feel and resent.” (p. 4)

“In a self-conscious culture, the heritage of cult is kept alive by art which makes it relevant as a mode of perception and expression. The artist gives the ritual pattern aesthetic actuality by discovering expressions of it in the fragmentary and incomplete gestures of daily life. He fulfills these gestures by making them moments in the complete action which is the art form. The form finds meaning in life.

“This process of translation from social into artistic form has great historical as well as literary interest. Shakespeare’s theatre was taking over on a professional and everyday basis functions which until his time had largely been performed by amateurs on holiday. And he wrote at a moment when the educated part of society was modifying a ceremonial, ritualistic conception of human life to create a historical, psychological conception. His drama, indeed, was an important agency in this transformation: it provided a “theatre” where the failures of ceremony could be looked at in a place apart and understood as history; it provided new ways of representing relations between language and action so as to express personality. In making drama out of rituals of state, Shakespeare makes clear their meaning as social and psychological conflict, as history. So too, with the rituals of pleasure, of misrule, as against rule: his comedy presents holiday magic as imagination, games as expressive gestures. At high moments it brings into focus, as part of the play, the significance of the saturnalian form itself as a paradoxical human need, problem and resource.” (p. 15)

“Shakespeare, coming up to London from a rich market town, growing up in the relatively unselfconscious 1570’s and 1580’s and writing his festive plays in the decade of the 90’s, when most of the major elements in English society enjoyed a moment of reconcilement, was perfectly situated to express both a countryman’s participation in holiday and a city man’s consciousness of it.” (p. 17)

“Separation of feeling from function is at the root of perversity and lust.” (p. 24)

“…the golden age of English literature – that brief moment when, as C. S. Lewis observes, the obvious was entirely satisfying.” (p. 83)

“When the forms for serious meaning are inevitable, received from accepted tradition, the comic reapplication of them need not be threatening. People so situated can afford to turn sanctities upside-down, since they will surely come back rightside up. It is when traditions are in dispute, when individuals or groups are creating new forms and maintaining them against the world, that it becomes necessary for those who “build the lofty rhyme” to be on guard against the “low”.” (p. 83)

David Hurley