Laughter in Medieval English Drama: A Critique of Modernizing and Historical Analyses

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Laughing, like weeping, is a spontaneous, involuntary expression of our emotions. (1) It is a "window" through which we can look inside our fellow humans and without which we would probably not be viable as social beings. What we observe through this window is a fascinating sight, especially when the people we observe have lived many centuries before us. We must, however, be able to interpret what we see. This is particularly important for the laughter of the past. It would be desirable if historical research could always distinguish neatly between situations in which somebody had to laugh and situations in which everybody was meant to laugh. (2) I am not aware of a study of medieval laughter that makes, let alone problematizes, this distinction. The frequent references by Mikhail Bakhtin and his followers to the "medieval culture of laughter" suggest that everybody was meant to laugh, but in the records of medieval drama the instances in which somebody had to laugh are far more frequent. Nevertheless, we must also assume that there were numerous scenes at which the audience was meant to laugh, even though we are unlikely to find cogent proof of this in the records. To discover such occasions we must interpret the dramatic texts themselves, and there we are always in danger of believing that our ancestors had the same prejudices as we.

Most of us like to laugh, but our acculturation also tells us that in many situations we must not laugh. Laughter about obscene, racist, or sexist jokes is disapproved of in our culture. Laughter about somebody else's misfortunes--that which in German and many other languages is called Schadenfreude--is also objectionable. When we cannot suppress such laughter we are embarrassed and apologize.

The point is one for which the Middle Ages are difficult for modern men and women who flatter themselves that they have undergone what Norbert Elias has called the "civilization process" The religious literature of the Middle Ages especially is full of the terrible fate that awaits the damned but which apparently is not meant to call forth sympathy; on the contrary, Schadenfreude, even triumphant derision, seems to be the intended reaction. (3) The modern critic who catches himself or herself enjoying such texts has a guilty conscience, and this has prompted many attempts to wrest, especially from dramatic texts, an alternative interpretation to make them more acceptable to our modern tastes.

In the criticism of English medieval drama, such interpretatio moderna can look back on an impressive tradition. Since the groundbreaking work of E. K. Chambers it has been common to value those plays highly which were most "secularised" in that they presented comical, nonbiblical scenes. Particularly influential have been the studies of A. P. Rossiter and Robert Weimann, both of whom are Shakespeareans rather than medievalists. (4) From such a vantage point it was only natural to emphasize those features that could be regarded as "paving the way" for Shakespeare. Only in the 1950s and 1960s was the principle accepted that medieval plays should be viewed against the ideological and social background of their own time and that the evolutionism of earlier decades should be rejected as anachronistic. (5) But the pendulum is swinging back again. Whereas thirty or forty years ago the alterity of the Middle Ages was emphasized above all, we can now observe a tendency to integrate the medieval drama into our modern reception horizon with the help of such categories as Bakhtin's "culture of laughter." The crown witnesses that are cited for this interpretatio postmoderna are largely the same plays as were preferred by Chambers and his followers. In the first place they are those of the so-called "Wakefield Master," who was once celebrated as the great realist of medieval English drama. Another example, more popular now than formerly, is the late-fifteenth-century morality play Mankind, which for a long time was regarded as "vulgar" and "degenerate. …