Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Laughing at Shakespeare

Adam Zucker

At gift-giving times of year, Shakespeare professors are mildly cursed by the pop-culture avatars of our scholarly interest.  It is not so much the movies and books that cause problems for us; it’s more the coffee mugs, the tote-bags, the Shakespeare action figures, and the “quote-a-day” calendars.  Do real estate agents receive tiny toy homes from their mothers on their birthdays? Do lawyers get mugs with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s face on them?  It is the lot of the Shakespeare scholar to be easy to shop for.  Last spring, my cousins presented me with my favorite bit of late-capitalist Shakespeareana yet: a Kleenex-box cover in the shape of Shakespeare’s head.  Tissues can be yanked, one after another, from the ordinarily mustachioed area between his mouth and nose.

I showed my students a picture of this gift during my final lecture this past semester as my introductory Shakespeare course wound down.  I wanted them to laugh at it, and they did.  I explained to them how it feels to teach plays by someone so famous that you can pull tissues out of him.  I explained to them that, in many ways, I was lucky, insofar as I rarely had to explain my scholarly passion, unlike so many of my peers in the academy.  And I explained to them, most importantly of all, that the affectionate laugh we had all just shared together was something to consider seriously.

Shakespeare, I told them, is always out there as the punch-line to a kind of joke, a joke about the uselessness of an English major, a joke about the frivolity of a liberal arts education, a joke about tax-payer money supporting silly classes about entirely imaginary things.  The people who give me gifts with Shakespeare’s face on them are telling a version of that joke.  And if cheap mugs and tote-bags define your sense of the subject, then, yes, every Shakespeare class is a bit ridiculous.  But I encouraged my students to see past those kitschy presents and think about what it means to laugh at Shakespeare.  Jokes like these are not useless.  Jokes are not dumb.  Jokes can change the way people think about the world they live in and their place in it.

To prove it to my students, I presented them with three examples of dialogue I had read out loud over the course of the semester that had made them laugh.  The first I took from Titus Andronicus, and, more specifically, from Aaron, the murderous servant who chops off Titus’s hand for pleasure: “Wheak, wheak!” he squeals as he stabs a nursemaid who has just delivered him his infant son, “So cries a pig preparéd to the spit.”  My students, remembering something of Aaron’s morbid sense of humor, laughed again at the line.  We had discussed the curious (and, to me, unfathomable) appeal of slasher films and farcical violence: Aaron’s savagery here fit right into place with that reading of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play.  The second bit I gave them was Bottom’s stomping apostrophe to night from the rude mechanicals’ staging of Pyramus and Thisbe: “O grim-looked night!  O night with hue so black!/ O night, which ever art when day is not!/ O night!  O night! Alack, alack, alack!”  More chuckles from the students, many of whom had understood, finally, what “iambic pentameter” meant after I read those lines to them the first time around. Like the staged spectators of Bottom’s performance, they thought of themselves as being sophisticated enough to laugh at a dunce.  And the final joke I had them remember was Falstaff’s catalog of phallic insults hurled at the heir to throne of England:  “You starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish!” Needless to say, they remembered all these, too.

There is much more to observe about each of these jokes: the social arrangements they make and unmake, the odd revisions of ordinary relationships – between father and child; between actor and audience; between governor and governed – they perform for us, even today, some four centuries after they were first written.  But I re-told them to my students simply so that they could feel the pleasure they inspired.  Those jokes, after all, were meant first and foremost to appeal to a paying audience.  In that regard, they might be seen as epigrammatic enactments of Shakespeare’s plays themselves: whether they make us laugh, or make us uncomfortable, or make us squint at a strange word, or make us marvel at the ludicrousness of it all, jokes, like the plays we encounter together, bind us to characters and narrative motion, to personal flaws or desires, to the successful pushing forward of story or the strange twist of unexpected action.  As such, I suggested in class, plays can make us feel connected with one another as audience members, as students, as writers, as readers.  Humor does this straightforwardly.  The jokes in Shakespeare’s plays (and those told in a lecture class about them) turn us into a community of laughers.  We are drawn together that way.

Shakespeare’s plays often encourage us to think about the communal processes enacted by jokes and by theatrical spectacle more generally.  They help us consider what our power is as audience members, as consumers of Shakespeare’s art (and kitsch), and as people who take pleasure simply in reacting together.  At the end of my course, I always point my students towards the final scenes of the plays we read together: so many of them include audiences on stage, watching their own story end just as we do.  Bodies are strewn across the floor in Titus Andronicus and in Hamlet while one character begs us (along with everyone left alive on stage) to look carefully at the corpses and to understand them.  A group of witty noblemen and women laugh together at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bitterly mocking a group of artisans who want nothing other than to please them, just as they themselves, actors and artisans, seek to please us.  In The Winter’s Tale, audiences on-stage and off- are astonished by a living statue that heals old wounds.  In The Tempest, an exiled Duke and his enemies, trapped by his magic, watch a boy and a girl in love, playing chess, uniting dynasties and warring families.  In each of these moments, the aesthetic effect of the play is bound up in the acknowledgement that a social group, a political organization, or even, simply, a family must absorb and reckon with a narrative outcome or a scenic tableau.  Shakespeare’s audiences – both in the theater and in the classroom – find their places alongside the imaginary Kings, councilors, and Clowns who all become, in the end, model spectators for the works of art they help compose.

Shakespeare’s plays, then, contain in themselves the observation that theatrical spectacle and good jokes become something other than useless as soon as an audience gathers around and begins to think things over.  The purposes of the plays, like those of laughter and humor, sit at a remove from strictly practical considerations in our own day.  Understanding Bottom’s failures as a poet and an actor will not put food on my students’ tables.  But when we laugh at Bottom together, when we understand his witlessness, we live through a valuable moment of assessment and critique.  The audience becomes like Theseus and Hippolyta in that moment, drawn together by the joke and the ability to see it as such.  This is not necessarily an unambiguously positive identification – Bottom and his fellow actors, after all, don’t really deserve the scorn heaped upon them by everyone who passes judgment on their performances.  I often feel a bit bad when I laugh at them myself.  But even this dark strain at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream pushes us to think about the social purposes of jokes and joking in theatrical contexts.  We can, with work, understand most of Shakespeare’s jokes and jibes.  Understanding what to do as a knowing community of laughers… that, fortunately for us, is a much more difficult riddle to piece out.

About The Author

Adam Zucker

Adam Zucker is the author of The Places of Wit in Early Modern English Comedy (2011). He is associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he te...

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