Sweet are the comedies of adversity: Shakespeare and Ted Lasso

After lots of paperwork and multiple COVID-19 tests and precautions, my wife and I visited London last month on a much-delayed anniversary trip and, in addition to reunions with old friends and colleagues, made emotional pilgrimages to two hallowed British landmarks—Shakespeare’s Globe in Southwark and the Ted Lasso pub in Richmond.

The Globe, of course, is the recreation of Shakespeare’s original playhouse where, inexplicably, I’d never seen a show in person despite having seen many of its productions on film. And Ted Lasso is the hit streaming comedy about an American football coach hired to coach a British soccer team despite knowing nothing about the sport.

Yet, put another way, Ted Lasso is also a comedy about lovers fleeing troubled relationships who find solace and reinvention in the green world of a soccer field—excuse me…football pitch—and who embody the power of kindness and forgiveness against a backdrop of battles, heartbreak, and treachery. From its opening episodes, this comedy grounded by danger and pain reminded me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, specifically the 2013 production directed by Dominic Dromgoole, the first version I’d seen that leaned into the incredible trauma that sets that play into motion—and was produced by Shakespeare’s Globe.

Jason Sudeikis in “Ted Lasso” season two, now streaming on Apple TV+

In a dumb show that preceded the text, Dromgoole staged the battle Theseus mentions in his second speech (“Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword / And won thy love doing thee injuries”). Many productions ignore or gloss over this bit of text, but the Globe’s staging underscored the tension between the characters and raised the stakes for the Duke and his captured war bride as their “nuptial hour / Draws on apace.” In addition to Egeus literally threatening his daughter Hermia with death if she doesn’t marry his chosen suitor, the Globe production created an incredibly dark and serious background against which the coming comedy could sparkle. (The 2019 Bridge Theater production also leaned into harrowing depictions of patriarchy, borrowing iconography from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; compare them both to the bland and boringly untroubled Theseus and Hippolyta in Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film version.)

Many who cherish Ted Lasso for its depictions of joy and love in its first season felt disappointed by its emphasis on darkness and pain in its second, but those of us familiar with Shakespeare saw these shadows clearly in season 1. Part of what makes Ted Lasso’s comedy so poignant is the incredible pain at its root, and the comic contrast between the hope and kindness of the title character and the very R-rated language and bawdiness that surrounds him. True, the show sidesteps the worst aspects of racism and laddishness that permeate football fandom, but it’s not afraid to depict grownups struggling with very real issues and using very adult language. It’s a loving and gracious comedy and, simultaneously, a very horny one.

The Ted Lasso writers know they’re steering into darkness in season 2 and even call it out in episode 5—“smack dab in the middle” of their proposed three-season run—acknowledging their debt to both Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm. Ted tells his team (and we, his audience) that:

Fairy tales do not start nor do they end at the dark forest. That’s only something that shows up smack dab in the middle of the story, but it will all work out. It may not work out how you think it will or how you hope it does. But believe me, it will all work out, exactly as it’s supposed to.

This contrast of light and dark, or the courtly versus the green worlds of Midsummer and As You Like It (among other Shakespeare plays), takes many forms in Ted Lasso, not the least of which is Ted’s fish-out-of-water experience in 1) London, coaching 2) soccer, and the unexpected grace and forgiveness he shows his players more used to win-at-all-costs aggressiveness.

“Shakespeare is life!” Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernández) reconsiders his famous catchphrase (“Football is life!”) after reading this article. Credit: Cristo Fernández in “Ted Lasso” season two, now streaming on Apple TV+.

Like Midsummer, Ted Lasso has its tyrants, villains, and lovers, but its football team resembles nothing so much as Midsummer’s mechanicals: the players are sources of comedy, joy, slowly revealed depth, and surprising poignance. So much of Ted’s unexpected charm is his employment of pithy, folksy sayings—bumper sticker wisdom, if you will, and reminiscent of Polonius’s hackneyed advice to Laertes. It’s doubly funny: first when he says it, causing the other characters to roll their eyes; then again, when it turns out to be actually helpful. It’s always joyful when Shakespeare’s rustic fools accomplish something, as when the clownish watchmen catch bad guys Borachio and Conrade in Much Ado About Nothing, or when Nick Bottom, Peter Quince, Francis Flute, and the other rude mechanicals surprise their audience—and themselves—by performing a satisfyingly well-received “Pyramus and Thisbe” before the Duke and his court. So it is a huge joy when Ted’s coaching transforms a player or his friendship and forgiveness defang a villain.

The similarities don’t stop there (and this episode of the Protest Too Much podcast spends an entertaining 40 minutes imagining which Shakespeare characters best resemble Ted Lasso’s). Fools spouting wisdom is a much-beloved Shakespearean trope, and if there isn’t one already, there will surely soon be a book compiling the collected sayings of Ted Lasso, which might very well resemble a book of inspirational Shakespeare quotes. To get that (soccer) ball rolling, I offer these examples:

Ted Lasso: “Be curious, not judgmental.”
Henry VI, Part 2: “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.”

Ted Lasso: “You know what the happiest animal on Earth is? It’s a goldfish. Y’know why? It’s got a 10-second memory. Be a goldfish.”
As You Like It: “Forget this new-fall’n dignity.”

Ted Lasso: “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”
As You Like It: “Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

Ted Lasso: : “You might be so sure that you’re one in a million that sometimes you forget that out there, you’re just one of eleven.”
Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

Ted Lasso: “I promise you, there is something worse out there than being sad, and that is being alone and being sad.”
Henry V: “For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother.”

Ted Lasso: “If Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan can go through some heartfelt struggles and still end up happy, then so can we.”
Much Ado About Nothing: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

Ted Lasso: “You say impossible, but all I hear is ‘I’m possible.’”
Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Ted Lasso: “I come bearing sweet treats to numb the sting of defeat.”
Timon of Athens: “To forget their faults, I drink to you.”

Hamlet: “Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes.”
Ted Lasso: “I do [believe in ghosts]. But more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves.” *

* Stylistic inconsistency there, putting the Shakespeare quote first, but done intentionally because it’s funnier this way. Sue me.