The control of comic distance is important in comedy for it is this measure of separation from the characters that allows for comedy to take place. Comic distance is usually controlled by sympathetic charactersÃ¢ÂÂcharacters who are placed in a difficult situation through no fault of their own or to whom the audience can relateÃ¢ÂÂbecause an audience's connection with the characters affects their perception of an event as comic, dramatic, or tragic. Distance is controlled in different levels between Period and Restoration comedy, however, for while Period comedy such as Shakespeare's As You Like It contains more sympathetic characters, therefore exhibiting less comic distance, there are very few sympathetic characters in Restoration comedy such as Sheridan's The School for Scandal. This lack of sympathetic characters creates a greater comic distance, allowing for comedy to be displayed in ways that would have been impossible to portray as funny in Shakespeare's work.
Shakespeare uses comic distance in As You Like It, but a far cry less than is exercised in The School for Scandal. He uses less comic distance because it is crucial to the plot of the work that the audience feels sympathetic toward certain characters such as Rosalind and Orlando. Therefore he must use alternative methods in order to make As You Like It funny; obstacles such as mistaken identity and devices such as wordplay, inversion, digression, and innuendo. He also plays the classic cross-dressing card, which is always good for a few laughs.
However, Shakespeare makes use of comic distance in scenes where there are characters who are unsympathetic such as the scene when Rosalind, dressed as Ganymede, delivers a scathing monologue to a girl named Phebe. The speech would have been quite cruel if Phebe had been a character with whom the audience was sympathetic. Instead, Shakespeare controls our distance from Phebe by dashing our sympathy for her. He makes sure we are unsympathetic with Phebe by making her an obstacle to the attainment of love between Rosalind and Orlando, and also by making her perusal of Ganymede annoying and her refusal of Coran's proposal foolish. Thus, when Rosalind harshly berates her for not accepting a "good man's love" and insults her beauty and her moralsÃ¢ÂÂ"who is your mother that youover the wretched"Ã¢ÂÂit is funny to the audience. When Phebe continues to fawn over Ganymede despite "his" attacks, the audience loses even more respect (which equals sympathy) for Phebe, sealing the comic effect of the exchange by making Phebe's hopeless devotion even more outrageous and foolish.
Therefore, with this high level of comic distance, Sheridan can get away with his characters saying horrible slanders or insults and doing cruel things to each other and make it seem humorous where, without this level of comic distance, the play would be a tragedy. An exchange such as, "Why sir, you cannot mean that your wife is the cause of your problems" "Why, has someone told you that she is dead?" is not a funny concept in and of itselfÃ¢ÂÂa husband wishing his wife was dead because she causes him trouble, and the misogyny of the character in generalÃ¢ÂÂbut in context the line is one of the funniest in the entire work because we do not have sympathy for these characters.
Between the two plays, Sheridan's comedy seems much more controlled than Shakespeare's because it exhibits a greater level of comic distance, which allows for the play to be funny without having to employ the use of devices like digression. This streamlined, concise, and direct plotline offers a sense of control and stability throughout the work that is not present in the slightly rambling, slapstick feel of As You Like It. However, while the distance from the characters in The School for Scandal allows for the not-so-happy ending of the play to be comic as opposed to tragic, the distance also keeps the audience from taking any sort of emotional satisfaction from the work, whereas the happy ending of As You Like It, where the sympathetic characters attain the love they were searching for and all of the bad-guys are punished, offers the audience the feeling of "all's well" that comedies are meant to bring.
Though it exhibits a lower level of comic distance, As You Like It may prove to be the more comic comedy, simply on the basis that it ends in such a way that highlights the restorative powers of love in a way that School for Scandal does not. As You Like It also brings about a sense of moral triumph while School for Scandal merely shows that immorality leads to disaster that can be technicallyÃ¢ÂÂthough not completelyÃ¢ÂÂdiverted. The School for Scandal does not inspire an uplifting concept of humanity that, while it is a hysterical play to read, ends up detracting from the work in a way that the ending of As You Like It does not. Therefore, though The School for Scandal may exhibit a greater level of comic distance than As You Like It, and though both works exhibit a precise control over this distance based on its importance to the characters and plot, Shakespeare's work proves to be the better comedy for its demonstration of elements of comedy that are only minorly seen if not entirely absent in Sheridan's The School for Scandal.