Gilbert, That's quite the opening salvo. Thanks for a lovely start. I feel as if I should pour myself a pint and settle in ...
I think I'll start here:
Mankind still falls short, caught up in inevitable helplessness. Tragedy is impressive. But comedy is about humans, that is, about us, and we can't really let anyone catch us taking ourselves seriously, or they might laugh at us.
I like the distinction you make, but my impulse is to blur it, particularly in light of this play. Both Tragedy and Comedy strike me as being about lines and what happens when we cross them. My favorite comedies are transgressive, generally to the point of subversion. (I'm thinking of this play's ability to separate gender from gender roles, for instance.) And while comedies generally offer closure and tidiness at the end, the status quo comes off as simultaneously comforting and silly -- sometimes to the point of being, perhaps, broken, or at the very least absurd.
And while boundaries get crossed in both genres, they are crossed more readily or with less consequence than in supposedly meatier work, which for me can lead to a greater sense of transcendence, in all the meanings of the word.
One thing that you noted that really resonated with me was the draconian and in some ways arbitrary nature of how these societal boundaries are invoked:
This grave grounding even of the most frivolous of plays reminds the audience that human behavior is serious, that outside the doors of the theatre there is life and death and disappointment, and what happens in the play is not merely an escape.
I'd add Measure for Measure to the list, for obvious reasons, and throw in Prospero's rather notable fixation on the sanctity of Miranda's "virgin knot" in his paternal chats with Ferdinand. These boundaries do have profound consequences -- the kind of consequences that might cause a fellow who found himself abruptly married at eighteen to contemplate their ramifications for the rest of his life. (I'm just finishing Greenblatt's Will in the World -- which is excellent, by the way-- so these biographical musings may leak in for the first few plays.)
As far as your musings on reputation and honor (and the fact that these things don't exist separate from our perception of them), they led me here: in this intensely communal (and more geographically static) Elizabethan world, loss of reputation is easily conflated with loss of identity. So, when you say that "maintaining reputation potentially seems an occasion for human folly greater than errors of mistaken identity," my impulse, again, is to blur the two.
If our perceptions about the world around us are limited, foolish, and shallow, and yet there is very little of us that exists separate from those perceptions (or at the very least has little power and agency without the world's recognition and regard), then where does that leave us? This is the type of question that comedy can sometimes lead me to as readily as tragedy, and I like to sit and think about it. Or better yet, lie down in my hammock. This is complicated by the power and superiority that the dramatic irony confers upon the audience -- it's awfully easy to feel smug, perhaps, as we witness these shenanigans, because we know exactly what's going on, and yet virtually all of the folly we're laughing at is generated by the character's conviction that they know exactly what's going on.
I have much more to say -- I want to take a look at all the ropes and chains keeping things tethered, and I think the "sex" question is a good one -- but I'll send this along now, just to get things going. (As an addendum to my bio, I should probably add that my kids are 6 and 3, which often results in contemplation truncation.)
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