A look at the humorous characters in Our Country’s Good and The Tempest

Comic elements are often said to be integral in both in Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker and The Tempest by William Shakespeare. In The Tempest, the characters of Trinculo and Stephano are arguable almost entirely for comic effect, even having their own sub-plot comic in nature. This can also be said about ‘shitty’ Meg in Our Country’s Good, and in both plays most characters take part in some form of comedy. Whether included in dialogue or stage directions, comedy creates light and shade in both plays and thus heightens the importance of themes such as love, power and class divisions.

One of the potentially most obvious ways in which both Wertenbaker and Shakespeare utilise comedy is through arguably crude sexual innuendos. Not only do these provide light relief for the audience after a more intense and sombre scene in both plays, but also reveal the transition from innocence to experience in Miranda in The Tempest. In Act One Scene One of The Tempest, Gonzalo says ‘I’ll warrant him for drowning, though the ship were no stronger than a nutshell and as leaky as an unstanched wench’, the words ‘unstanched wench’ referring to menstrual bleeding and ‘leaky’ implying sexual incontinence. A violent storm risks the lives of all those on the ship in this opening scene, therefore providing a three dimensional atmosphere to the audience from the offset of the play. With Gonzalo being an ‘honest old councillor’, such a way of speaking would seem out of place with his class position, strengthening the element of danger in his situation whilst still being humorous. In Our Country’s Good, Wertenbaker also similarly uses this technique, with ‘shitty’ Meg telling Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark that she will ‘play’ him ‘tight as a virgin’ and will ‘play with any part you want’. This rather crude yet funny metaphor for a penis (like playing an instrument) occurs at the beginning of Act One Scene Five; the previous scene called the rather solemn title of ‘The Loneliness of Men’ consists entirely of an intense dialogue between Ralph Clark and Midshipman Harry Brewer. Thus ‘shitty’ Meg, whose purpose is seemingly only for comic effect due to her only being present in this scene and only speaking about sexually related matters, is placed appropriately in the play and again offers light relief.

However, comic sexual references are not always of a crude nature, as is shown in the discourse between Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest. In Act Three Scene One, she asks Ferdinand to be his wife straight after saying ‘all the more it seeks to hide itself the bigger bulk it shows’. Not only does this refer to pregnancy as is automatically perceived, but may also denote an erection. Miranda is a virgin (she has never seen a man apart from her father and Caliban for twelve years), thus indicating her readiness to come of age, mature and offer herself to Ferdinand. This courtly love is of a most pure nature, and her breaking out of her ‘puppet role’ in asking Ferdinand to marry her foreshadows the future harmony brought upon the characters. References to love are also prevalent in both plays; Miranda and Ferdinand experience ‘love at first sight’ and Miranda’s line when she first sees Ferdinand of ‘What is’t, a spirit? … It carries a brave form, But ‘tis a spirit’ not only highlights the fact that this is the first man she has encountered of her age, but is humorous due to her mistaking him for a magical being. Ferdinand replies with ‘No, wench, it eats and sleeps and hath such senses, As we have – such’. He speaks about himself in the third person, which the audience may have found rather amusing. The fact that both characters seem to create a rapport straight after meeting provides an insight to the audience that their love will blossom, ultimately aiding the result of reconciliation and forgiveness. With these being two of the main themes in Shakespeare’s play, it seems that the pure and courtly relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand acts as a vessel to achieving these aims. Furthermore, the ‘love triangle’ prevalent between John Wisehammer, Mary Brenham and Ralph Clark in Our Country’s Good and its associated complications can be said to have comic elements. In Act One Scene Eleven, ‘Wisehammer comes forward eagerly’ when given the opportunity to read Plume (Mary’s ‘Captain’ in the play) as he thinks it would bring her closer to Mary. Here the audience could empathise with Wisehammer’s longing yet also find his almost childish enthusiasm amusing. The comic aspect here is developed through Ralph suddenly realising that he has ‘competition’ and therefore immediately changing his mind through saying ‘no, I’ll read Plume myself’. One could imagine this scene being acted as if there were two male animals competing over their potential mate! However, Wertenbaker uses this comedy not only to provide enjoyment for the audience, but also to show the problems associated with Ralph, an officer, consorting with Mary, a convict. Although a relationship between Wisehammer and Mary would be one between two equals, there would be a potentially damaging divide if Ralph were her partner. Though love is certainly important for a successful relationship, in the eighteenth century equal status was universally regarded as a defining factor in marriage.

The fact that both Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest both believe that Prospero is against their budding relationship but that in fact it is all part of his cunning plan, revealed through his speaking ‘aside’ to the audience, is another effective tool used by Shakespeare for comic effect. Prospero indicates his seeming distaste towards their relationship for example through him saying to Ferdinand in Act One Scene Two ‘My foot my tutor? Put thy sword up, traitor… For I can here disarm thee with this stick and make thy weapon drop’. In doing so Ferdinand is unable to lift his ‘weapon’, or sword; the visual dramatic effect of this is humorous as it humiliates Ferdinand in a light-hearted way. In addition, the term ‘weapon’ may be inferred to also refer to his penis, Prospero’s threat therefore indicating an emasculation of Ferdinand. This is also a clear assertion of power over Ferdinand, power in regards to both colonialism and language being another theme addressed in both plays through the use of comic elements. In The Tempest, Act Two Scene Two shows a clear distinction between the ‘superior’ Italians Trinculo and Stephano and the ‘savage’ Caliban, whose name is an anagram of ‘cannibal’. When Trinculo first sees Caliban, he mistakes him as a fish, saying ‘What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish, a very ancient and fish-like smell. Were I in England now… and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver… when they will not give a doit to receive a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian’. Not only does the initially hilarious association of Caliban with a fish dehumanise him, the ‘selling’ of Caliban is a reference to slavery. Through equating Caliban to a fish, Shakespeare succeeds in increasing the level of shock here; the audience thinking of Caliban, a human being, being treated in the same way as a dead fish, heightens the negative impacts of slavery. This use of humour to half-mask more sombre topics requires the audience to reflect on their own lives and behaviours. The superiority of Stephano and Trinculo is further enhanced through Stephano assuming the gabardine covering Trinculo and Caliban to be a ‘two-voiced monster’; ‘his forward voice’ (Trinculo) ‘is to speak well of his friend’, whereas ‘his backward voice is to utter foul speeches… how cam’st thou to be the siege of this mooncalf?’ With ‘the siege of this mooncalf’ equating to Trinculo literally being ‘shat’ out of the ‘monster’ (mooncalf), which undoubtedly would have been incredibly amusing for the audience of the time, these lines may be interpreted to only have comic effect. However, although unknown by Stephano, this ‘monster’ is in fact Caliban, highlighting his portrayal as a monstrous ‘savage’ and thus the viewpoint many colonials would have had about indigenous people. This is shown not only through his appearance, but also through his voice consisting of ‘foul speeches’. Caliban’s speech is in English, showing that not only the actual language impacts on one’s assumptions made about a certain individual, but also the tone and accent used.

The power of language is deemed as crucial themes in both Our Country’s Good and The Tempest, and through the use of puns and slang such power is heightened. Our Country’s Good incorporates canting slang, the dialect utilised by the convicts, much of which has comic impact. ‘Screw jaws’ and ‘salt bitch’ said by Duckling and Dabby Bryant whilst in an argument highlights the vulgarity of this dialect, and acts as a huge contrast to the ‘fine language’ they are taught through acting in the play The Recruiting Officer. The convicts’ education of ‘higher’ language parallels with their transformation from unsympathetic convict to compassionate individual with a sense of identity. Through learning about higher cultures, they gain an understanding of what sort of lives they could lead, enabling them to salvage hope for the future. ‘Fine’ language is also utilised by Shakespeare in The Tempest to highlight the aristocrats’ intelligence: Gonzalo and Sebastian mock each other in Act Two Scene One through the use of word play. For example, when Gonzalo says ‘when every grief is entertained that’s offered, comes to th’entertainer and Sebastian answers with ‘a dollar’ (a pun on Gonzalo saying ‘entertainer’ as if the word were used in the sense of a paid performer), Gonzalo quick-wittingly responds with ‘dolour comes to mind, indeed’ with dolour referring to sorrow. As upper class individuals, it would have been educated and be able to manipulate language, a contrast to the blank verse used by Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano. Thus Gonzalo’s and Sebastian’s ability to make witty puns through clever handling of language strengthens the impact of class on education, understanding, and the ability to communicate effectively. Comedy is also used effectively by Wertenbaker in Our Country’s Good to highlight the difference in class between the convicts and their corresponding parts in the play.

To conclude, comedy is associated with many of the main themes in both Our Country’s Good and The Tempest, providing a stark contrast and waves of tension, thus ultimately reinforcing the emotional depth and breadth of the more sombre underlying meanings. Such themes include love, the power of language and the potentially damaging effects of static class divisions. However, as both plays end happily and with a sense of satisfaction, harmony and progress, they are often categorised as traditional comedies overall. Throughout both plays there is a transformative journey undergone by most characters, and the successful employment of comic elements encourages the audience to think deeper about the underlying message, therefore resulting in the audience experiencing a moral transformation themselves.