Late comedies tragically inflected
The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night
in The Shakespearean comic and tragicomic
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This chapter treats three comedies dating from between 1596 (roughly) and 1604 as experiments in tragicomedy, broadly understood here as an uneasy juxtaposition of comic patterns fulfilled with an affirmation of tragic potential as encoded in the human condition and left suspended at the conclusions. The comic patterns are mainly of Italian origin, but certain tragically tending elements emerge more clearly through hitherto neglected French intertexts. One bearing especially on both Merchant and Measure is a Protestant allegorical morality by Henri de Barran, L’Homme justifié par Foy (1554), which dramatises the Reformation reading of Mankind as doomed by sinfulness according to the Old (Mosaic) Law and redeemable only by the New Law of Mercy. Mankind’s struggle is staged in terms especially evocative of the confrontation between Antonio and Shylock, but light is also shed on the fall, suffering and forgiveness of Angelo. The potentially tragic fate of the latter is also illuminated by the tragedy of Philanire, by Claude Roillet, whose French version presents particular intersections with Measure. Finally, it is argued that the tragicomic associations of Malvolio in Twelfth Night may have been enriched for audiences by knowledge of the contemporary life and writings of Pierre Victor Palma Cayet.

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