Shakespeare and Laughter: A Cultural History

September 18, 2008

Indira Ghose's adroit, engaging study begins with a moment of consternation. When invited by a newspaper to nominate the "funniest Brit of all time", the nation chose not Shakespeare but Eric Morecambe - and by a landslide. How could this be? For intelligent, reflective adults (or Daily Mirror readers, at least) to think more highly of the man who gave us "You can't see the join!" than the creator of Twelfth Night suggests misprision. But, as Ghose implies, the choice is hardly surprising. Laughter is a communal affair. We laugh more readily when in company than alone, and most of all when the source of the humour is present; and we do so as much to signal our willingness to share the fun as we do at anything intrinsically "funny". Hence we actually laugh more before the punchline of a joke than after it. All of this suggests that Will was always at a disadvantage. When we laugh at Eric, we see him, and hear the effect he has on his audience. When we laugh at Will, we are actually laughing not at him but at Judi Dench, Desmond Barrit or whoever is speaking his words that night. It is the actors we remember as funny, not the man who scripted the text.

Ghose's book is not a narrow argument that Will is really funnier, but a careful account of the ways in which he and his contemporaries wrote and thought about laughter. And as she demonstrates, for 16th-century commentators the subject was far from simple. Linked to the body, and the passions and sins of the fallen world such as sloth and pride, laughter was often treated critically in medical treatises, conduct books and on the late-medieval stage. Fashionable courtiers disparaged its capacity to distort the features and reduce men to inarticulate grunting, while Puritan divines thundered against those who, by laughing through this life, were storing up a world of pain in the next. Shakespeare both reflected and refracted such attitudes, but, as Ghose shows, for him the uses of laughter vastly outnumbered its dangers.

Each of her chapters looks at an aspect of contemporary thinking, considering Love's Labour's Lost in the light of attitudes to wit, charting the history of theatrical clowning and jokes about cuckolding as a way into Twelfth Night, or using puritanical diatribes to illuminate the character of Falstaff, here read as a star turn for Will Kemp. The humour lies in the degree to which the clown's conventional anarchic persona was only partially submerged in the figure of a parodic, hypocritical stage-puritan.

Further chapters examine Lear's fool and the humanist/Pauline conception of wisdom through folly. Perhaps the most engaging section examines medical treatises and notions of laughter as social protest as a way of approaching A Midsummer Night's Dream. Jan Kott memorably identified the dark undercurrents to Bottom's asinine transformation and the lovers' disorienting sojourn in the forest, but Ghose's reading is more benevolent. Rather than a figure of psychosexual threat, her Bottom is actually "every woman's dream": amiable, undemanding and, well, hung like a donkey. Easily ridiculed and continually out of his depth, he is nonetheless painted by the playwright as waving not drowning, and, like Shakespearean comedy more generally, he is ultimately triumphant despite the odds.

Ghose's book shows that Shakespeare treated laughter in sophisticated, nuanced ways, and was quite capable of responding critically to the latest thinking about the subject. Her book will be required reading for students, even if they have to struggle against the tiny font to unlock its riches. What might Eric have thought of it so far? Actually, he'd probably have liked it.

Shakespeare and Laughter: A Cultural History

By Indira Ghose. Manchester University Press. 2pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780719076923. Published 1 June 2008

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