Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Laughter in Twelfth Night and Beyond: Affect and Genre in Early Modern Comedy

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Laughter in Twelfth Night and Beyond: Affect and Genre in Early Modern Comedy

Article excerpt

In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1602), Maria writes a mock letter that is designed to make fun of Malvolio's vices of arrogance and self-love. When Malvolio does follow Maria's ridiculous instructions in the letter and appears smiling, in yellow-stockings and cross-gartered, she triumphs and invites her co-conspirators to share in the joke thus:

If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourselves into stitches, follow me. Yon gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado, for there is no Christian that means to be saved by believing rightly can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness. He's in yellow stockings. (3.2.64-69).1

Maria advertises the effect of her mock letter on Malvolio by highlighting the prodigious amount of laughter it will produce. If her co-conspirators want to feel the 'spleen' she offers, or the flow of pleasurable emotions associated with amusement;2 if they want to 'laugh [themselves] into stitches', or experience laughter so violent that they will feel stabs of pain, then they should see Malvolio 'in yellow stockings'. Maria's call to Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian foregrounds the laughter on offer, in its most overwhelming degree, as the primary payback of watching Malvolio make a fool of himself. Similarly, Sir Toby calls the others to keep laughing at Malvolio until their joke gets 'tired out of breath' (3.4.134). While one might happily think of Maria and Sir Toby's invitation to more and more laughter in the style of 'the more, the merrier', early modern audiences would have felt either discomfort at the intemperance and sensuality of the characters' passionate engagement, or, more likely, they would have enjoyed Malvolio's humiliation with the distinct sense that their own laughter might compromise their status as reasonable human beings in control of their sensual emotions. Twelfth Night vividly dramatizes the stakes of evoking laughter in the early modern period through the structure of its double plot: the subplot parodies the predominant humanist technique of using laughter to purge social vices, even as the main plot frames this experience as all too English, too bodily and potentially anarchic. The tension between these two plots - the hilarious subplot with Malvolio and the improbable plot centered on 'cross wooing' and set in mysterious Illyria - has a distinctly national character that hitherto has not been noticed by critics.3 In contrast to the critical tendency to conflate the two plots as if they refer to the same national reality or propose a unified vision of England, this essay suggests that the lines of division between the English and the foreigners are clearly demarcated and meaningful for the play as a whole. 4

The subplot with Malvolio, I argue, is based on the humanist strategy of using the bodily pleasure of laughter in order to teach social lessons and improve the audience's behavior. Early modern theoreticians of laughter, learned writers like Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, Thomas Wilson, and Baldessar Castiglione, universally advised their readers and audiences to refrain from laughing too much and giving in to the pleasure of laughter at the cost of social 'profit'. Blending Christian morality with humanist ideals and the humoral view of passions as chaotic and potentially ungovernable, humanist writers urged poets to restrain and temper audience passions by directing them to socially useful goals. For instance, in Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry, the 'Comic' and the 'Satiric' poetry seem to blend together, as ridicule and display of social vices characterize both.5 If the Comic poet displays 'the common errors of our life' in the 'most ridiculous and scornful manner', the Satiric poet likewise 'sportingly never leaveth until he make a man laugh at folly, and at length ashamed to laugh at himself, which he cannot avoid, without avoiding the folly'.6 In both the Satiric and the Comic poetry, the pleasure of laughter is ideally harnessed towards the goal of castigating social vices. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.