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The Wit of Will: Clown, Comedy, and the Ha-ha of Shakespeare

26/06/2015 10:52 BST | Updated 24/06/2016 10:59 BST

In 400 years time Chandler in Friends will not be funny.

'I-KEA this is comfortable' will be around the same point on the funny scale as Beatrice telling Claudio he's being as 'civil as an orange' ('civil' was pronounced more like 'Seville', where the oranges - oh, never mind).

Whether we're into Funny Ha-Ha or Funny Peculiar, there's an almost tangible resistance with Shakespeare's jesting, perhaps that has been genetically handed down from school, bad memories of bad jokes, badly told.

A lot of Shakespeare's kit-bag of quips, quibbles and witticisms fall flat because we're losing our love and practice of rhetoric and word-play that Shakespeare's audience delighted in. Puns and word-play usually now elicit groans, whereas a few decades ago The Two Ronnies barely traded in anything else.

Writing the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary of Shakespeare last year (a shameless plug, and only very slightly non sequitur-y) Dad and I - like everyone else does - puzzled over Aguecheek's line to the Fool Feste:

AGUECHEEK Thou wast in very gracious fooling last night,

when thou spok'st of Pigrogromitus, of the Vapians passing

the equinoctial of Queubus. Twas very good, i'faith. I sent

thee sixpence..."

Aguecheek seems to be recollecting a (very wordy) joke of Feste's, that chortled him so much he gave a tip. It doesn't really matter what the words meant - if it's hilarious to Aguecheek, it will be funny to us.

Moving from the words to the speakers of those words, the owners of those parts, and we stumble on another hurdle: we don't have a strong point of reference to attach ourselves to who these semi-ridiculous, fantastical people are.

We've long lost the notion of an all-licensed, motley Fool - a professional jester, wearing colourful, patchwork clothes, and allowed to say anything he wants without getting in trouble.

Over the canon, two different types of comedy in particular were being explored: the first ten years, a stand-up comic, word-play and slapstick, the quick mercury diatribes of Launce, Dogberry, Gobbo; the second decade, the singing, semi-serious, rogue truth-teller of Feste, Touchstone, of Lear's Fool.

Reason being, over his 20 years in London, Shakespeare worked with two actors who specialised in Clown work: William Kemp, who left London in 1599, making his grand final exit by dancing. All the way to Norwich. (111 miles)

Kemp then, replaced by Armin, Robert - an actor with a very different style. Think a shift in the acting company as from Tommy Cooper to Bill Hicks. Charlie Chaplin to Steve Martin. 2000s Eddie Murphy to 80's Eddie Murphy.

Watch! as Shakespeare adapt the type of Clown character he writes as the skill set of his theatre company changes.

The writing of parts became like his father's glove-making. With every play, a better and better fit to his actors' abilities, whether they be lead tragedian, leading boy, leading clown, until - a perfect fit, actor, playwright, theatre space, in harmony.

It isn't just about being funny, but about what type of funny Shakespeare's asking you to be. It isn't always going to fit. He wrote his parts for a particular comic actor. Another man's glove won't feel as good in your hand as one tailored for yours.

We approach these parts 400 years later with a rather intense pressure (a) not to fuck it up, (b) a lot of academic learning, and (c) an inordinate amount of artistic development, integration, and cross-pollination.

The jokes that aren't funny anymore I have few concerns about cutting - it's always a damned shame, like slicing off a bit of skin - but once we've tried over and over to make a line work, it feels less like slicing off skin, and starts to feel more like sculpting marble.

What would Shakespeare say now? He was an entertainer, a playwright, a craftsman of both theatre and the theatrical experience. His sense of drama has the power of a panther.

In 1600 he handed over a heavy manuscript, the 4-hour opus that was Hamlet (knowing full well the sun would set behind the Globe's roof long before a play of such length would jig). He wrote the play he wanted to write. Sometimes he'd write to size; sometimes much more would splurge forth.

Persistence in speaking every line out of reverence makes his plays antique. Having been careful to respect the work, we must allow ourselves to be rougher with the plays too.

I always try to imagine him in the room with us, as we rehearse:

"Hey Bill, this joke doesn't work - we've tried but it just doesn't anymore."

Surely, he'd shrug and say, "Well of course it doesn't, it's 400 years old, snip-snip."