Volume 25, Number 1, September 2014 Teaching notes
Characters and caricatures Luke McBratney Many characters in dramatic comedy seem to fall into certain familiar stereotypes: the lover, the servant, the trickster, the fool and so on. What often happens, however, is that these same characters ultimately perform quite complex roles within the play, and these can generate different possible readings of the text. My article on pp. 12–15 of the magazine explores one example of this comic complexity: the character of Professor Higgins. Dramatic comedy often treads a thin line between character and caricature. We often take ‘character’ to refer to a relatively complex combination of qualities that come together to form a recognisable example of a human being. A ‘caricature’ is a more distorted portrait, one in which certain features are exaggerated for comic effect — perhaps therefore, ironically, creating a bit of a ‘character’. The Elizabethan playwright, Ben Jonson, scattered his plays with caricatures. He explored in his comedies what was called ‘the theory of humours’. This term derives from the ancient belief that four bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) determined personality. In the well-adjusted individual these four ‘humours’ existed in due proportion within the body. If any one of these fluids was present to a disproportionate degree, that person would be prone to a particular emotion, e.g. an excess of black bile was said to cause melancholy. The character could be said to be ‘humorous’. Task: research the theory of humours and see if any of the characters in the play that you are studying seem to fit into the four basic types indicated above. You might also consider to what extent the characters in your play remain as essentially caricatures, or develop during the play into something much more complex — and perhaps interesting — than this. Higgins can be seen at times to be a bit of a caricature – the overbearing father/teacher, the spoiled only child – but the article argues that Shaw ultimately creates a very multi-faceted character.
The authority figure One of the central roles that Higgins performs is that of the authority figure. You may have discovered that in your study text one or more characters represent authority within the world of the play. Many of these characters, but not all, will be fathers. Bunten points out that two father figures, Higgins and Doolittle, wrestle for influence in Eliza’s world. In comedies such as The Taming of the Shrew, father figures seem to be everywhere, and have to be somehow managed by the various lovers that manoeuvre and plot within the play. In the first scene, Baptista leads his two daughters onto the stage. His need to find husbands for these daughters generates the opening movements of the plot, and activates a whole crowd of suitors. The chaos of the closing scenes is partly created by the unexpected arrival of another father — Vincentio, the father of one of the suitors, Lucentio. Vincentio has to deal with the presence of a false ‘father’, a passing traveller who has been persuaded by Tranio, Lucentio’s servant, to take on the disguise. Disguise, with its many baffling subversions of role and character, is a staple feature of comedy.
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Task: while fathers play a prominent part in many dramatic comedies, mothers are often conspicuous by their absence. This is not so in Pygmalion, where Mrs Higgins has an important place in the plot. What is the case in the plays you are studying?
The lover My article shows how Higgins can also be seen as representing the figure of a lover, if often an unconventional one. Freddy Eynsford Hill ultimately marries Eliza, but is not presented as an impressive figure. Many other lovers in dramatic comedies appear faintly ridiculous, especially the males. Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew often seems much at the mercy of events, and his servants take most of the responsibility for ensuring that he wins Bianca’s hand in marriage. Bianca’s other lovers are if anything even more ridiculous. Task: consider the extent to which love is presented in dramatic comedies as mere foolishness.
Social mobility Pygmalion has a great deal to say about social mobility. Social pretensions and the consciousness of class are other subjects held up to mockery. The ease and success of Eliza’s rise into the ranks of society represented by the ambassador’s garden party call into question the whole validity of distinctions based on class. Doolittle’s own staggering ascent through the ranks is of similar significance.
Other genres My article also draws attention to the existence of features of other genres within Pygmalion, partially represented through the character of Higgins. These include myth, fairy tale, romance (of a rather ironic sort), biography, satire and legend. It is a characteristic of most texts to be multi-generic. You might do some research into your own play to discover elements of other genres that emerge from within the comedy. Remember always that the plays you study are plays, and need to be considered as such.
Other texts A study of other related plays can often throw some light on aspects of the central text. Shaw’s Arms and the Man, like Pygmalion, mocks some of the pretensions of romantic love and affectations of heroism. Willy Russell’s Educating Rita can be seen as a modern-day Pygmalion, in which a selfregarding and emotionally flawed teacher is similarly discomfited by the emergence into independence of his pupil.
Further reading Books Holroyd, M. (1988–1992) Bernard Shaw, Vintage. (Biography) Bernard Shaw, G. (1898) Plays Pleasant. Stott, A. (2005) Comedy (The New Critical Idiom), Routledge.
Philip Allan Publishers © 2014
Websites This site gives clear, accessible descriptions of the four humours: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/themes/traditions/humours.aspx Insights on how ideas of the humours are reflected in some of Shakespeare’s plays: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/shakespeare/fourhumors.html An early Telegraph review of Pygmalion. It is judicious in its use of the term caricature. There are also links to other articles about the play: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/10757120/Pygmalion-His-MajestysTheatre-1914-review.html This resource is part of THE ENGLISH REVIEW, a magazine written for A-level students by subject experts. To subscribe to the full magazine go to www.hoddereducation.co.uk/englishreview
Philip Allan Publishers © 2014