Two things that it may not seem wise to introduce into a television comedy are religion and death. The final episode in the most recent series of the BBC’s Upstart Crow gave us both, and it was the appearance of the latter that I found extraordinary. When can someone die in a comedy, and what does that say about comedy itself?
Upstart Crow is a sitcom based around the life of William Shakespeare, which makes some attempt at acknowledging the historical figures and facts that relate to Shakespeare’s life, as well as following the production of the plays in a roughly chronological sequence (each episode usually revolves around the experiences in Shakespeare’s life which then inspire him to produce a play). First produced in 2016, marking the Shakespearean quatercentenary, the series is written by Ben Elton, and has obvious echoes of the series he wrote with Richard Curtis, Blackadder II. Both are set in the Elizabethan era, both feature a central male character with a circle of acolytes on whose company they rely, both are the victim of malign characters of higher station than theirs.
However, Upstart Crow is a lesser, because lighter, work than Blackadder II (or its successor series). It has none of the latter’s savagery, nor satiric bite. Edmund Blackadder, as played by Rowan Atkinson, is – as I have argued previously – a malcontent, a figure common in Elizabethan (strictly speaking, Jacobean) theatre, who rails against the society that must exclude him. William Shakespeare, as played by David Mitchell, is a petit bourgeois, as worried about his commute from Stratford to London as he may be about the state of things, whose moments of genius are as much of a surprise to him as they are to his associates. Upstart Crow mocks modern living through the absurdities of Elizabethan conditions, but there is no strong governing idea behind it.
Its chief virtue is the figure of Shakespeare. Mitchell gives us possibly the most convincing screen portrayal yet of the playwright, indeed probably the only one. His Shakespeare is moderate in everything except his muse. He fusses over petty matters, he worries constantly about himself, he cheats but only in small things, he is defensive without strong argument, and he lives for home life. Yet at the same time he thinks poetically, with stubborn determination. The programme understands that elevated ideas have their home on the page, offset by life’s essential ordinariness.
Shakespeare also provides Upstart Crow with its best lines. A paradoxical feature of the series is that jokes are continually made at the expense of Shakespeare’s reputation, characters complaining at how dull, improbable or convoluted his work can be, yet at the same time it revels in quoting from the plays in a manner than can only silence all criticism. Time and again, beautiful words halt action and argument:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief?
Constance’s lines from King John on the death of her son Arthur come at the end of episode six of the third season of Upstart Crow, entitled ‘Go On and I Will Follow’. The action had been proceeding in expected fashion, with some fine laughs generated by a satire on awards ceremonies. Early on, however, there had been an odd introduction of seriousness at Shakespeare’s home, where the family is preparing for his son’s Hamnet’s confirmation, and there is disagreement between Shakespeare and his wife Anne (played by Liza Tarbuck) over religious faith. Shakespeare will have none of it, and leaves in anticipation of acclaim at the award ceremony rather than attend the religious ceremony. He returns, empty-handed, and complaining of his coach travel as usual, but the audience laughter has gone. The family sits in silence, waiting for him to stop. Then he is told that his son has died.
The family’s reaction is more resignation than devastation. It is a time when many children die; they must be grateful that their two daughters are still living. The eldest daughter Susanna, played by Helen Monks, asks her father if he believes, as they do, in an afterlife in which they will meet Hamnet again, but he cannot. The programme ends with Shakespeare and Anne seated at home. Earlier episodes end with the two of them contemplating recent events with ironic humour. In this episode, they are silent, while we hear Mitchell’s voice reciting the words from King John. The end titles then remind us that Hamnet was a real person, giving us his dates – February 1585 to August 1596. Time collapses, and every viewer understands the Shakespeares’ pain.
Deaths are rarities in comedies. The obvious precedent is in Elton’s Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the First World War, where the leading players go over the top in the final episode, facing certain slaughter. Other TV comedy deaths have come about through the death of an actor – Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach in Cheers, died towards the end of series three, his absence through ill-health and then his passing being written into the scripts. Death features in black comedies and sketch shows, of course, but death as an unforced element in a comedy series does seem exceptional.
So what is comedy, and how can anyone die in it? Of course, comedy sets out to amuse and to generate laughter, but what lies at the root of it? Aristotle, in Poetics, saw comedy as it contrasted with the higher dramatic form, tragedy: “Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life”. Comedy, for Aristotle, was something chiefly concerned with the affairs of “characters of a lower type, not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive”. It was good, because it brought about pleasure. George Meredith, in an once-famous essay on comedy, argues that comedy concerns a social group, whereas tragedy is concerned with the fate of the individual, and that comedy is a mark of civilisation:
The laughter of Comedy is impersonal and of unrivalled politeness, nearer a smile; often no more than a smile. It laughs through the mind, for the mind directs it; and it might be called the humour of the mind. One excellent test of the civilization of a country … I take to be the flourishing of the Comic idea and Comedy; and the test of true Comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.
For comedy to work, the laughter must be thoughtful, must trigger thought. The action generates a recognition of ourselves, of how we survive despite and because of our follies. Comedy brings about understanding though a recognition of the social self. The tragic victim is someone set apart from the rest of us, whose fate we can never fully comprehend. The comic figure is one of us, the audience looking in on itself. Whether the comedy is satirical, farcical or sentimental will affect how we view its subjects, but we still recognise them as our neighbours, and ourselves.
Of course, in modern times the classical idea of comedy has fallen away. Comedies can be absurd, brutal, cruel, nihilistic even. They may challenge the idea of laughter itself, when we find ourselves in a world that is no laughing matter. Comedy, in its traditional sense, suggests a compliance with societal norms, even when it may hold these up to ridicule. It needs an acceptance of normality to thrive.
Death is a part of normality, but it cannot be funny – it destroys the illusion of continuity on which comedy depends. This is particularly so in a comedy series that trades on a warmth of feeling towards its characters. We stick with a long-running comedy series not just because it makes us laugh but because of our recognition of the characters. Their world makes our world understandable, and tolerable.
The purpose of comedy might therefore be said to be not to make us laugh but to make us realise that we are not alone. The function of stories is, at root, to instruct us in how to survive in the world. This is the conclusion of John Yorke’s fine study of narrative form, Into the Woods, which argues that stories fulfil our need to see order imposed, saving us from the arbitrary nature of existence. Different genres then must supply different forms of that lesson. A thriller or horror film ultimately reassures us that we are safe. A tragic drama confirms that our own decisions have been, on the whole, wise. A comedy tells us that we belong. Laughter is not its purpose, but the outcome.
Other forms of drama perform a similar, affirmative societal function (soap operas, for example). The distinguishing feature of comedy is that it makes us laugh. So it is that the death of Hamnet (not a major figure in the drama, it must be noted) can belong in a comedy for its social function, but is disturbing because it cannot generate laughter. It is not a trick that the series could pull off twice. Notably, despite the series’ efforts at acknowledging history, the character of Christopher Marlowe is not murdered, as he was in reality. Instead he fakes his death and thereafter goes into hiding, before re-emerging as his identical twin, Kurt.
Upstart Crow achieved the coup because it had established sufficient trust with its audience, and because it had formed a particular relationship to historical reality. Its underlying intention has been to make Shakespeare meaningful to a modern audience, not through performance but through character. Ironically, it is through performance that Shakespeare has shown to have greatest meaning after all. His words again and again have trumped all satire throughout the series, being the only words possible at the end of ‘Go On and I Will Follow’, when the laughter had to stop.