Elbow and humour

Elbow is a constable, a lowly officer of justice; as would have happened in Shakespeare's time, he has been designated by his area, or ‘ward', to take on the role. His very name, like other low-life characters such as Pompey, Froth and Mistress Overdone, is comical, and throughout his first, and most lengthy, appearance in the play (in Act II sc i) he is a rich source of humour. This is partly because he is clearly at a disadvantage when dealing with the wily Pompey, but also because of his many malapropisms (see also Shakespeare's Language). It is amusing when, each time he tries to show Pompey as a villain, he calls him a ‘benefactor' rather than a ‘malefactor'.

Elbow shows the poor state of law in Vienna

  • Through the comedy, Shakespeare uses Elbow for a more serious purpose: in showing how readily the mischievous and clever Pompey can outwit the officer of the law, Shakespeare indicates the parlous state of justice in Vienna.
  • In addition, the mistake of calling Pompey and Froth ‘benefactors' is an ironic comment on a city where they can hope to escape retribution, while a young man of basically good character, such as Claudio, becomes a condemned criminal.

Elbow's ignorance also serves to reveal the good sense of Escalus (see also Characterisation > Escalus), who tactfully takes action to replace him with worthier constables, without overtly criticising Elbow - a citizen who has, after all, tried to do his duty.

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