To create humor in drama, one must either make witty
wordplay, create an amusing situation, or use physical
comedy. Often jokes may be incorporated into a play, or a
comic situation may result in a series of complicated
antics. The tradition for some of these comic devices has
been carried over for hundreds of years, dating back to
Shakespeare in the 1600's. In his play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare creates humor through three diverse
devices: oxymoron's, malapropisms and mistaken identities.
All result in a farcical mix of comic situations.
Wordplay, such as the use of oxymorons, is an abundant
source of humor in Shakespeare. The word oxymoron comes
from the Greek meaning "pointedly foolish." Pointedly
foolish certainly applies to the mechanicals, whose
ignorance provides the root of all their comedy in the play. For example, Quince refers to the play of Pyramus and Thisbe as "the most lamentable comedy." (Iii 9) This does not make
much sense, since we would hardly express sorrow over a
comedy. However, as it turns out, the pathetic production
they eventually put on is so bad it actually is lamentable.
When Bottom says: "I'll speak in a monstrous little voice,"
(Iii 43) he surely does not mean a voice which is both
monstrous and little, for something cannot be both monstrous and little. What Bottom is trying to say is that he will
speak in a "very" little voice. Bottom does not realize
what he has said and creates amusing confusion for the
reader. One of Helena's oxymorons is in Act 3, scene 2,
line 129: "oh devilish- holy fray!" Obviously something
cannot be devilish and holy at the same time, and by most
people's standards, the devil certainly is not pious.
The ignorance of Bottom and his friends seems to be
bottomless and voluminous and results not only in oxymorons, but also in "malapropisms." A malapropism is the confusion
of two words that sound alike but mean different things,
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