’marry, that “marry” is the very theme’ : comedy and marry-age
Marriage and merriment form two points in a triangular configuration of meaning in Shakespearian comedy. The importance of the first term is well attested to in recent criticism. In Catherine Bate’s phrase, Shakespearian comedies are about courtship ‘if they are about anything’: ‘Men and women meet, match, marry and mate. This is the eternal story which Shakespeare’s comedies retell again and again.’ Understood as ‘wit’, merriment’s place within Shakespearian comedy is, if anything, still more critically established. Samuel Johnson famously (if too negatively) observed it in his Preface to Shakespeare (1765):
A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.