Excess is a recurring idea in comic works that is portrayed through the various actions and interactions of the characters. Excess is essentially the idea of taking something to an extreme, in some cases to the point where it begins to stretch the realistic credibility of what is occurring. Comedy attempts to be realistic, using characters that seem human, and, to an extent, the audience can relate to these fictional beings. But excess is the flip side, where the actions of the characters seem artificial and exaggeration. Is excess really an exaggeration at which the audience is supposed to laugh but not think to be credible? I think not. Excess has its foundations in the exploits of everyday people. All around us, excess is present, whether we are the initiators or victims of it. The truth is that comedies are not only there to give us laughs with the excessive acts of all the characters, but they also, through their hilarity and outrageousness, are intended to make us see our own faults and acts of excess. Through the introspection that comedies prompt, we are supposed to revise our own perceptions and actions that may be considered excessive. Comedies such as A Midsummer Nights Dream, Twelfth Night, The Miser, and Trading Places provide great examples of excess that apply to real world experiences that we can change.
Excess in comedies can be broken down into two major types: excess as applied to tricks or pranks and excessive love. The first, exaggeration as it relates to tricks, is when a character plays an often cruel prank on another character either out of spite or simply for entertainment.
In A Midsummer Nights Dream, the fairy Puck is characterized as a trickster character, and, indeed, he fulfills his title in numerous ways, one of which is when he transforms Bottoms head into that of an ass for sheer amusement. He happens to walk in on the rustics play practice in the forest and says, What a play toward! Ill be an auditor/ An actor too perhaps, if I see cause, (MSND 3.1.80-81). He sees them practicing and decides to intervene for fun. He goes too far when he turns Bottoms head into that of a donkey, and all of Bottoms comrades flee out of fear. Obviously this is an example of excess, seeing how Puck alters Bottoms physical being for the worse. Drawing parallels to a real world situation, this can be seen as poking fun of or making an ass out of someone, just for amusement. What Puck does seems hilarious, but there is a menacing quality to it, as he does it without provocation. Similarly, it is quite menacing for a person to insult another and speak down to them for fun.
Another prime example is from Twelfth Night where the revelers, Sir Toby and Maria in particular, plan to exploit Malvolios self love after he acts abrasively towards them. At first they make him believe that Olivia is in love with him and make him act in an outlandish manner, but they take it to the extreme when they lock him in a dark room and pretend to think he is mad. Their intents are made clear when Sir Toby says,
Come, well have him in a dark room and bound. My niece is already in the belief that hes mad. We may carry it thus, for our pleasure and his penance, till our very pastime, tired out of breath, prompt us to have mercy on him (Twelfth Night 3.4.141-145).
He makes it clear that they are torturing Malvolio for fun and will only stop when they are bored and tired. This is definitely excessive, as they follow through with their plan, getting the Clown to pretend to be a priest sent to exorcise Malvolio. Caught up by the hilarity of the situation and the other chaotic plot lines, the audience does not think to feel very sorry for Malvolio, especially given his stoic nature. But if we were to put this into another context, such as a group of people locking another up into a room and making everything think he or she is mad, it seems a lot more malevolent.
Finally, one of the best examples of a prank taken too far is the bet between the Dukes in Trading Places that forms the crux of the entire plotline. Randolph and Mortimer make a bet that ruins life of Lewis Winthorpe, as they help Billy Ray Valentine work his way up the social and economic ladder, only to be willing to drop him back down after they are through with him. They toy with peoples lives over the amount of one dollar. That is excess taken to the extreme. Sure it causes a comic plotline to follow, but it is cruelty nonetheless.
As seen through these three works, if the abundant tricks and pranks played in comic works are taken out of context, they seem cruel and, of course, excessive. Thus the intended meaning is clearsuch tricks should be watched carefully or they can go too far.
The vast majority of comedies involve some kind of love story. With comic plays, these love stories usually form the main plot, but in other works they can be seen as side plotlines. Nevertheless, they are almost inevitably present in comedies. Thus, there are many cases where love can be seen in excess.
In Twelfth Night, there are multiple plot lines involving misplaced love, and a paradigm of love taken to the extreme is Duke Orsinos sappy speech about his undying love for Olivia in the opening scene. Indeed, the audience is probably laughing or gagging after this speech, including when the Duke says,
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence.
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
Eer since pursue me. (Twelfth Night 1.1.20-24)
That very first line he says is a clich, and it only gets sappier when he compares himself to a deer being chased by the hounds of love. The light tone of the scene makes it clear that this over the top love sickness is not to be taken seriously, as Shakespeare is making fun of such star-crossed lovers. The Dukes love is definitely in excess, seeing as he knows it is not reciprocated, but he proceeds to fawn over Olivia. In fact, if a person were just as obsessed about someone, his or her friends would definitely say, what are you thinking!? and try to dissuade the person, or at the very least try to put their feelings into a more realistic perspective.
A different type of excessive love is portrayed in The Miser by the title character, Harpagon, who seems to value his money more than his own family. He hides his wealth from everyone, including his children, and even accuses them of cheating him out of money. Even at the end of the play when families are reunited and couples prepare for marriage, Harpagons last words are, And I, to see my darling money box, (The Miser 5.1. last lineno line numbers). The entire play he is just finding ways to save or gain money. He, as the senex figure, is the obstructing figure in the love stories of his children, and only steps out of the way when his son, Cleante, holds Harpagons stolen money box ransom. And while everyone else rejoices at the union of new families, Harpagon just enjoys the return of his money box. His love for money is definitely taken to an extreme, and adversely impacts everyone else as his monetary obsession impedes the progress of all the other characters plot lines. His excessive stinginess is a comic way to let the audience know the negative effects of material obsession.
Love can be seen in excess in various comedies, either in the form of an obsession with a person or objects. These infatuations have deleterious ramifications that affect not only the person exhibiting the irrational love, but also the people surrounding him or her.
These comic authors obviously had a purpose in mind when penning scenes of excess, whether in the form of a trick or an obsession. In fact, these actions and interactions between characters are not only parodies of real life situation but they are also satirical. They are prompting a reaction from the audience. The situations are purposely outrageous and hilarious to catch the attention of the audience. Yet if the audience pays close attention they can see that there are subliminal messages showing the cruelty of tricks when they go too far, such as making an ass out of someone, or how foolish and irrational love can be when it becomes an obsession. It is up to the audience members to pay attention and keep one part of their minds at the comic level and another at a subtle level, keeping track of the messages depicted by the excessive actions. But that is not all; only once people attempt to implement the suggested changes in their lives and avoid excess in its multitude of forms will they be fulfilling the goals of the comic authors.