Dogberry shows up at the end of Act III just when this comedy is getting a little bit too serious. So, I guess this makes him the “comic relief” of the comedy, if you will.
Ok, but did Shakespeare include Dogberry for something more than just “comic relief”?
Let’s look at what makes Dogberry so funny and hopefully decode this ridiculous Shakespearean character.
So, the first thing to know is that Dogberry speaks in malapropisms. This is when he mistakes one word for another. Here are a couple examples:
- It’s like when you say “supposively or supposably” when you mean “supposedly.”
- It’s like when I say “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes,” which is what I meant.
Since Dogberry is an officer, this style of speech was probably Shakespeare’s way of poking fun at the police and bureaucracy in general—kind of like his way of saying, “hey, look how foolish this guy is because he doesn’t even know what he’s saying.”
But what makes Dogberry particularly absurd is the way he uses language. See, it’s not enough that Dogberry just mistakes one word for another: it’s that his malapropisms move beyond simply mishearing and repeating a word. Dogberry’s ignorance often makes him say exactly the opposite of what he means, which is hilarious if you know what to look for.
1) When Dogberry tells the audience how they should really feel…
“Only get the learned writer to set down our excommunication, and meet me at the jail.” —Act III, scene v
What he says: “Excommunication,” (n) the exclusion of an offending member of any religious community.
What he means: “Communication,” (n) the exchanging of information.
Why it’s funny: When Dogberry mistakes “excommunication” for “communication,” he implies that when they carry out the law and question these two criminals, the cops will be shunned. Obviously he actually means that they will simply have a conversation to get to the bottom of the crime. But with this slip of the tongue, he implies that there is a reason he and his partner will be rejected from polite society. Perhaps because they are entirely incompetent? No, people in power never get shunned for that…
2) When Dogberry questions his own authority…
“Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years?”
—Act III, scene v
What he says: “Suspect,” (v) to regard someone with suspicion or distrust.
What he means: “Respect.” (v) to value or esteem.
Why it’s funny: The audience and the characters on stage should “suspect” Dogberry’s powerful position. He cannot question the witness, he seems to have a huuuge ego, and he obstructs justice by trying to assert his importance in the conversation. While he means to tell the rogue to respect his authority, Dogberry is spot on with his malapropism: We should all be suspecting how he got this job. He’s really not very good at it.
3) When Dogberry reveals his reading problem…
“Our watch, my lord, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.”
—Act III, scene v
What he says: “Comprehended,” (v) to understand.
What he means: “Apprehended,” (v) to arrest in the name of the law.
Why it’s funny: Dogberry states that he “understands” the rogues with this malapropism. Which is funny, because when he starts questioning them in a later scene, we find out that he really does not understand them (or anything else) at all.
Bonus time! He also makes up a word, “aspicious,” by combining suspicious and auspicious (meaning ominous).
So, in this quote, we see that both of these types of malapropisms (strongly) suggest that Dogberry can’t read. If he’s just repeating what he’s heard others say, then it makes sense that he’d mix up words that sound similar. After all, “comprehend” sounds a whole lot like “apprehend.” (Try saying it in your best cockney accent. We’ll wait.)
So, Dogberry looks ridiculous because he repeats what he thinks someone else has said or what someone else actually said, without knowing what it means. He’s a perfect example of why it’s important to work on those reading skills or just admit it when you don’t know something.
Verify your sources people! Read in print before you repeat!
4) When Dogberry saves souls…
“O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”
—Act III, scene v
What he says: “Redemption,” (n) the act of setting one free.
What he means: “Damnation,” (n) to condemn or punish.
Why it’s funny: Damnation is literally the opposite of redemption. It is the difference between spending eternity here:
Because he does not know the difference, Dogberry accidentally tells the rogues that they will be rewarded for their evil actions. They will be set free instead of arrested for their crimes, which is probably not the best way to get a confession.
5) When Dogberry doesn’t know what slander means…
“Marry, that he had received a thousand ducats of Don John for accusing the Lady Hero wrongfully.”
“Flat burglary as ever was committed.”
—Act III, scene v
What he says: “Burglary,” (n) to rob or take.
What he means: “Perjury,” (n) to swear something is true before legal court that one knows to be false.
Why it’s funny: “Perjury” suggests that this rogue was questioned under oath on a witness stand in court and lied to the jury, judge, and prosecution. Even the least careful reader will realize that none of these characters have been in court at any point in this play.
So! This means that this is a DOUBLE malapropism. Dogberry mistakes “burglary” for “perjury,” which ends up not being the word he is looking for either.
What he means: “Perjury” (n) to swear something is true before legal court that one knows to be false
What he means: “Slander,” (n) the act of intentionally spreading false information about someone in order to defame their character.
While all the other malapropisms in these scenes are ridiculous, this one is by far the worst. Dogberry is, after all, the police chief, and these are legal terms. Burglary, slander, and perjury should be part of his vocabulary because his job is to stop burglaries, slander, and find evidence to prove perjury has happened. Well done, Mr. Police Chief, well done.
Are we laughing yet? Do we think Dogberry is the funniest character of all time because he is so foolish?
Ok, ok, you may not be belly-laughing on your floor. But this analysis does get the hidden joke within Shakespeare’s comic-relief comedy character. To understand these jokes, the audience has to know that they are jokes. And since the focus here is on the meaning of words, to get the joke the audience has to be educated; they have to know the meaning of words. Dogberry is only funny if you know that he is getting the words wrong, which, admittedly, is difficult when reading Shakespeare.
So, we laugh at Dogberry not only because he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he says, but also because he often uses words that have the exact opposite meaning of what he intends. BUT! and here’s the real joke, the whole thing is a satire. Shakespeare is poking fun at the audience member who doesn’t get why Dogberry is funny, making that person even more ridiculous than Dogberry.
Well, there it is. I’ve explained the joke, which definitely means it’s that much funnier than it ever was before. Cue the ivory-tower laughter, I’m out.