Top 10 funniest characters in Shakespeare – numbers 10, 9, and 8
1 Jun 2021
We asked an expert panel to name their favourite rib-tickling characters in Shakespeare. Today, we continue the countdown with numbers seven, six and five.
Compiled by Andy McLean
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7. MERCUTIO (Romeo and Juliet)
Many of Shakespeare’s funniest characters are unwittingly hilarious. Characters like Dogberry and Malvolio take themselves too seriously and, in doing so, make fools of themselves. But Mercutio is a more dynamic, self-aware comic creation. He revels in skewering the puppy love and naivety in Romeo and Juliet to such an extent that the play, with him in it, feels more like a comedy than a tragedy.
Unfortunately for Mercutio, his rapier-like wit is much sharper than his swordsmanship. From the moment Tybalt fatally stabs Mercutio, the play lurches towards inevitable tragedy. Everyone’s fate is sealed from that moment on. Yet even as he lays dying, Mercutio is wisecracking and joking to the very last: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man…” It’s this unswerving commitment to comedy that earns him a place in our top ten.
Listen to Abbie-lee Lewis discussing Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab speech’ in Bell Shakespeare’s Speak The Speech podcast.
Read an interview with Damien Strouthos about playing Mercutio for Bell Shakespeare.
6. HAMLET (Hamlet)
Wait! Hamlet? How can this moping student be one of Shakespeare’s funniest characters? He’s the original emo wallowing in existential angst, isn’t he?
Well, yes. And no. When he’s not struggling with the futility of life, the great Dane offers great comedy value. “Hamlet has an irreverence for any situation,” says Bell Shakespeare Artistic Director, Peter Evans. “From the moment we meet him he’s playing with words and phrases; and running rings around other people. As a Prince, he’s in a privileged position and he’s always puncturing that.”
By way of example, Evans points to the ‘fishmonger’ scene with Polonius: “In production, that’s one of the first really funny scenes. Hamlet mucks around and pretends not to know who Polonius is. Then later on, there’s the way he toys with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then the riddles he spins Claudius, after Hamlet has killed Polonius. Despite his anger and sorrow, Hamlet is a very clever, funny guy.”
Peter Evans is directing Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra during September and October this year.
5. FOOL (King Lear)
When naming his funniest character in Shakespeare, academic Dr Will Sharpe went for an even more unorthodox pick: Lear’s Fool. “Jan Kott wrote a famous essay called ‘King Lear or Endgame’ in which he made explicit parallels between King Lear’s grim, absurdist vision and Beckett’s, noting the dark comedy that pervades both. In King Lear the tropes of clownage are all there, but horribly drained of comfort and solace – laughter in the dark – and the willingness to push comedy until it is almost worse than tragedy is a profound measure of Shakespeare’s art in the play. While the Fool stands for the traditional comic character in name and garb, his comedy packs the poignant punch of the bitterest kind of truth-telling; and that, somehow, feels kinder, and more liberating, than the laughter that lets us escape. I may sound like a real misery-guts here, but it’s the Fool for me all day long.”
Just as an aside, when we think of laughter, King Lear isn’t the first Shakespeare play that springs to mind. But comic gems are hidden amidst the bleak, rain-soaked tragedy. As actor Jane Montgomery Griffiths points out: “I played Goneril in Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 tour of King Lear. By Act IV things have gone from bad to worse: Lear is in the wilderness, Gloucester has been blinded, Poor Tom is still running around naked, and Goneril is meanwhile plotting the murder of her husband and sister while conducting some very salacious adultery with the dishy bastard Edmund.
“In the midst of this mayhem, Goneril weighs up the relative merits of Edmund with her exceptionally dull husband Albany with the line ‘Oh, the difference of man and man’ [Act IV, Scene 2] – not an overt rib-tickler, but with a bit of technical timing, a very welcome, laugh-out-loud circuit breaker in all the tragic proceedings, and one which ended up being probably the biggest laugh line I’ve ever got in a Shakespeare!”
Jane Montgomery Griffiths stars in Bell Shakespeare’s national touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from July to November this year.
TO BE CONTINUED…