Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’ and Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’ are both considered ‘comedies’. Whilst ‘the Rivals’ is more of a “laughing comedy” than the ‘Wife of Bath’, both include various types of humour. Satire, irony and farce are examples of the types of humour that are portrayed within these texts. Sheridan explores a broader range of humour- a satirical work in the first instance, and yet there are also examples of farce, for example the use of multiple entrances and exits. Both the playwright and the poet subvert stereotypes – Sheridan through the roles of Lucy and Fag, and Chaucer through the behaviour of the outgoing wife. Chaucer also mocks the idea of ‘courtly love’ as something attainable, as the “chivalrous knight” of medieval times is twisted into a rapist within the Wife’s tale. Aristotle asserted that comic figures were generally the ‘lower orders of society.’ Again this has been subverted by Sheridan, as Mrs Malaprop- someone of reasonable authority and social standing- is the protagonist of folly, whereas Lucy, the ‘simpleton’ shows herself to be extremely intelligent. In terms of helping us come to terms with human weakness, there are two main weaknesses explored within the texts, and they are sexual desire and vanity. In defining ‘come to terms with’, we can define it in any way we choose. It may be that we condone our weaknesses when they are portrayed as ‘comedy’, or maybe that we recognise them as flaws and yet continue to condemn them. The question that arises when we are analysing comedy is whether all comedy is inherently cruel. If so, then perhaps the human weakness that humour helps us come to terms with is not anything that is portrayed within the text, but rather our own weakness as an audience. We must also consider the writers intentions here, was it to offer moral commentary or was it simply to entertain?
Sexual desire is a human weakness that is reflected throughout both the ‘Wife of Bath’ and ‘The Rivals’. Within ‘the Rivals’ it is somewhat more subtly presented- reflecting Georgian culture at the time – as there are very few direct references to sex or sexual desire. Mrs Malaprop as a character is one whose sexual desire is portrayed in a comic fashion, her pursuing of Sir Lucius O’Trigger and subsequent rejection is interesting in terms of how it could be played. Depending on the direction, it could either lend itself to the farcical- a bedraggled Mrs Malaprop running around the stage to the exaggerated dismay of the men- or it could be played as a moment of realisation that she is no longer ‘in the game’ as it were. The reaction of the audience would fluctuate depending on the acting in this scene. If we assume it is played as sad rather than slapstick then it begs the question of do we as an audience appreciate cruelty in comedy- and is all comedy inherently cruel? Taking the original slapstick piece of a man slipping on a banana- we laugh at his misfortune. With regard to ‘coming to terms’ with human weakness, does this recognition of the cruelty of humour allow us to recognise it within ourselves? Within the ‘Wife of Bath’, there are elements of darkness- for example in the wife’s tale the knight raped a maiden. Comedy is not all funny all the time, and it is a reflection of the audience that this is the case. As Hamlet said, plays ‘hold a mirror to nature’- it may be the case that cruelty gives comedy some verisimilitude, and that is what we appreciate. Especially in Chaucer’s time, having experienced the Black Death and the peasant’s revolt, the audience would have been open to far darker humour than we may expect. The Wife of Bath as a woman who embodies the ‘weakness’ of sexual desire is clear, Chaucer deliberately satirises the typical position of women, and the authority of the Church by undermining the sanctity of marriage and the authority of men. A woman was considered to be a mans property- this is another example of Chaucer using irony as a comedic technique, as the wife marries her first 3 husbands for property. The interesting question that arises here is whether or not this tale is a feminist tale. By it’s very title ‘the Wife of Bath’ it would appear not- that she is simply given a title and her name (Alisoun) is hardly ever recognised places her further into the anti-feminist camp than may be thought at first glance. With regard to human weakness, this use of caricature and stereotype may be highlighting fundamental flaws within humanity, which we only begin to acknowledge when they are presented to us under the pretext of ‘a comedy.’
A second ‘weakness’, which is explored within the texts, is that of vanity. ‘The Rivals’ being a ‘comedy of manners’ means that the predominant focus of the piece is on satirising vanities and sentimentalities of the time. For example within the very first scene we see the pretentious Fag – ‘excuse my glove Thomas.’ The footnote highlights this pretention by drawing attention to how ‘Thomas’s honest simplicity, contrasted by the affectations Fag has acquired in Bath’. Sheridan mocks vanities throughout the play; all of his characters are to some degree vain. For example Faulkland: his demands for constant reassurance are overplayed to the extent that it becomes comical- even farcical. With regard to ‘coming to terms with weakness’, we may question whether Julia comes to terms with Faulkland’s vanity, or does it reflect a weakness within Julia? Compared to Lydia, Julia is generally considered ‘sensible’ – and yet her willingness to attend to Faulklands every whim and elope with him may show an inherent weakness in her character. In the Bristol Old Vic production of ‘The Rivals’, it is Julia’s character that utters the words ‘love gilds the scene, and women guide the plot’. We may question the extent to which this is a true assessment- women such as Lydia and Julia display reliance upon men, perhaps reflecting the paternalistic undertones of the play. Lydia says ‘and I am myself, the only dupe at last!’ Within the Wife of Bath, her uncompromising demands to be in command of her own autonomy may be seen as a sort of vanity. Similarly to Mrs Malaprop is Alisoun an aging woman who is desperate to appear ‘in the game’? This vanity is portrayed also through her attire, her ‘coverchiefs that weyeden ten pound’, and ‘shoes ful moiste and newe’ show how she is desperate to appear not only imposing but beautiful. These vanities and affectations are satirised within both texts- and we may argue that we come to terms with vanity as a weakness that is inherently part of us. It must also be recognised that vanity is not only reflected through women, as may be thought in the first instance. The knight in the Wife’s tale, it may be argued is vain- having raped a woman. The knight assumes infallibility and power over the maiden through the act of raping her. The intrinsic balance of power between victim and perpetrator is one that is subverted within the Wife’s tale, as a woman later controls the originally dominant figure of the knight. This reversal of power- and challenge to typical gender roles- is the most obvious support for the feminist interpretation of the Wife of Bath’s tale. Coming to terms with the weakness of vanity is not done through humour in this particular case, but rather through the darker elements of the poem, and ideas of justice.
In conclusion, the idea that we come to terms with human weaknesses through humour is true if we take that to mean that we recognise human weaknesses as existing. However it does not mean that we condone the weaknesses that we see represented. The predominant human weakness we see addressed through comedy is cruelty and that is more reflected through the audience than the play itself. Comedy it would seem is cruel in nature- particularly comedic techniques such as satire. This is because it is drawing attention to and mocking human vices, something we engage in willingly as it draws attention from our own follies. I do not think that humour helps us come to terms with weaknesses, rather that it forces us to recognise their existence.