'To what base uses we may return, Horatio!' : Comedy and Class Struggle (4:2)

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Criticism of spiritual things is to distinguish between the genuine and the nongenuine. This, however, is not the concern of language, or only deeply disguised: as humor. Only in humor can language be critical. The particular critical magic then appears, so that the counterfeit substance comes into contact with the light; it disintegrates. The genuine remains: it is ash. We laugh about it. The rays of anyone who beams excessively will also tackle those heavenly unmaskings we call criticism. (Benjamin 1994: 84)

Humour, for Walter Benjamin, is the language of criticism. The genuine is the ash: the material that associates with death, and the function of criticism and humour alike is to turn the spiritual into material. It seems that comedy often has a connection with the material. Before the climax of Hamlet , William Shakespeare introduces the tragic hero to the gravedigger whose business, as my discussion is going to show, is to remind the prince of his impotence. The clown, the rustic, represents the comic anti-hero whose responsibility is to dig the base, or, to use Benjamin ’ s term, to ‘ brush history against the grain ’ (1968: 257). Through a rereading of the gravedigger scene, I am going to examine two questions in this article: (1) what is the relationship between comedy and the material? And (2) how can such a relationship tell us about the mutuality between comedy and tragedy? Based on the discussion, this article argues that the two genres are interrelated and should be understood together, for what is a tragedy for the bourgeois may just be a comedy for the proletariat.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Comedy Studies Reader
EditorsIan WIKIE
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9780429615580
ISBN (Print)9780367175931
Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2019


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