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Shakespearean Melancholy

Philosophy, Form and the Transformation of Comedy

J.F. Bernard

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Argues that Shakespeare transforms philosophies of comedy and melancholy by revising them concomitantly

Iconic as Hamlet is, Shakespearean comedy showcases an extraordinary reliance on melancholy that ultimately reminds us of the porous demarcation between laughter and sorrow. This richly contextualized study of Shakespeare’s comic engagement with sadness contends that the playwright rethinks melancholy through comic theatre and conversely, re-theorizes comedy through melancholy. In fashioning his own comic interpretation of the humour, Shakespeare distils an impressive array of philosophical discourses on the matter, from Aristotle to Robert Burton and as a result, transforms the theoretical afterlife of both notions. The book suggests that the deceptively potent sorrow at the core of plays such as The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, or The Winter’s Tale influences modern accounts of melancholia elaborated by Sigmund Freud, Judith Butler, and others. What’s so funny about melancholy in Shakespearean comedy? It might just be its reminder that, behind roaring laughter, one inevitably finds the subtle pangs of melancholy.

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Series Editor’s Preface
1. What’s so Funny about Humours? Melancholy, Comedy and Revisionist Philosophy
2. Comic Symmetry and English Melancholy
3. Melancholic Dissonance and the Limits of Psycho-Humouralism
4. Melancholic Ambience at the Comic Close
5. Melancomic Time in Late Shakespeare
6. The Philosophical Afterlives of Shakespearean Melancholy
Works Cited

About the Author

J.F. Bernard teaches in the English department at Champlain College, Canada. He specializes in Renaissance drama and its philosophical, cultural, and social points of intersection. He is also interested in ideas of cultural production, adaptions and storytelling, particularly at it relates to contemporary engagements with Shakespeare’s plays. He was the project coordinator for the city of Montreal’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.


In this highly original discussion, J. F. Bernard provides a comprehensive analysis of Shakespeare’s distinctive understanding of melancholia. Working with a range of classical and early modern sources, he reveals a complex tension in the comedies between melancholy as disease and the melancholy temperament as a powerful resource for creativity.

- Michael D. Bristol, McGill University

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