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Theories of Laughter

Comedy in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
by

Beth Hopkinson

on 4 January 2013

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Transcript of Theories of Laughter

Incongruity in Twelfth Night Hazlitt's 'Incongruity' Exploring Laughter Many attempts have been made to determine the exact causes of laughter:
Hazlitt's 'Incongruity'
Bergson's 'Mechanical inelasticity' Bergson's 'Mechanical Elasticity' "The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human" Bergson's theory in Twelfth Night Malvolio clearly does not adapt well to having guests in his mistresses house - he is socially rigid Other Theories Laughter, Failure and Foolishness Comedy in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night Theories of Laughter "Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between the ways things are and what they ought to be" Lectures on English Comic Writers (1819) PROBLEMS Both Comedy and tragedy are incongruous Aristotle - a perfect tragedy is a
pre-condition for catharsis - 'excites fear and pity' "the follies ... that men commit ... afford us amusement from the ... rejection of these false claims upon our sympathy" The Audience's initial perception of Malvolio Malvolio is created as a bitter and judgemental character, who is quick to put down others "I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone" The idea of his egotistical personality is created early on through Olivia's chastising of him "oh you are sick of self love,Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite" He almost foreshadows what will happen to him later in the play - disguised as an insult of Feste "...infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool" His is conveyed as an enemy of comedy and a spoilsport "Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" How this changes in Act 3 Scene 4 He becomes humorous and lighthearted - no longer an enemy of comedy "Sweet lady, ho, ho!" - "No madam, he does nothing but smile" He is no longer concerned with himself, rather he is completely absorbed by his infatuation with Olivia "..but what of that? If it please the eye of one, it is with me as the very true sonnet is: 'Please one, and please all'" However, we are forced to feel an element of pity for him as a character through Olivia's emotions "Good Maria, let this fellow be looked to." Removing Pity Malvolio's Incongruity Maria's Letter "Laughter is accompanied by the absence of feeling" - it consists of some defect or ugliness that is not painful or destructive" "You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt isolated from others ... our laughter is always the laughter of a group" Social life requires adaptation to changing circumstances - we are suspicious of inelasticity of character and laughter is the penalty for this rigidity. Problems Bergson reduces the causes of laughter to the single principle of inelasticity. Bergson reduces the causes of laughter to the single principle of inelasticity. He ignores that a lack of elasticity also characterises tragedy. He claims that 'laughter is incompatible with emotion'. Bergson disregards the fact that laughter can be pleasurable and not just a punishment - as in the case of satire. He also ignores that people laugh not only at the object of laughter but also with the agent of laughter - the fool (Feste in Twelfth Night) "If you can separate yourself and your misdemeanours, you are welcome to the house; if not...take leave of her" What makes Malvolio human to us is the way that he can be both uptight and a buffoon. "My masters are you mad? Or what are you?" - "Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs." Malvolio does not make any attempts to endear himself to the audience. "I protest I take these wise men that crow so at these set kinds of fools no better than the fools' zanies." Laughter, Anxiety and Catharsis Laughter, Pain and Pity Cultural Dependency In the world of clowning, there is a clear connection between failure and foolishness - e.g. clowns falling over. "we laugh at the clown's movements because they seem extravagant ... we are laughing at an expenditure that is too large" Freud (1989) However, tragic characters often fail too... "we laugh at the clown's movements because they seem extravagant ... we are laughing at an expenditure that is too large" Freud (1989) In Oedipus by Sophocles - Oedipus fails in his endeavor to avoid the fate predicted by the prophet However, tragic characters often fail too... However, tragic characters often fail too... ... that is because the humorous failure is characterised by foolishness/clumsiness/painless consequences/lack of responsibility .... Does this apply to Twelfth Night??? Laughter is culture dependent... "It is ... notorious that a 'sense of humor is an unreliable quality and what will seem laughable to and English audience will not necessarily seem so to a Scottish [one]." Styan (1968) "It is ... notorious that a 'sense of humour' is an unreliable quality, and what will seem laughable to an English audience will not nessecarily seem so to a Scottish one" Styan 1968 In different cultures spectators are subject to different
inhibitions ... different types of humour must be used to appeal to different audiences ... Illyria : Shakespeare's England Eating and Drinking Beef - "but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe it does no harm to my wit" Tosspot - "With tosspots still 'had drunken heads // for the rain it raineth every day" Familiar phrases Sneck up - Coxcomb - "We did keep time, sir, in our catches. Sneck up!" "If a bloody coxcomb be a hurt, you have hurt me" Current affairs - Puritan
- Brownist (followers of Robert Browne)
- Yeoman of the wardrobe
- Lady of the Strachy (a reference to a story toldby Bandello, the Italian novelist) To human beings, there is nothing more dreadful than being ridiculous ... ... the actions of a comic character embody the lifting of an inhibition which is percieved as a foolish failure ... ... laughter can be considered a cathartic mechanism which presupposes and is fueled by the anxiety produced by failure ... a) The presentation of an action that increases anxiety - the serious phase




b) The total release of anxiety - the cathartic phase "What employment have we here?" "I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of love ... " Laughter is essentially episodic - the abrupt transition from one mood to another is a nessecary condition for laughter Under certain circumstances the spectator is expected to laugh at the suffering of a ludicrous character ... It is possible that foolish behaviour invloves pain, but in order to trigger laughter there should be no pity - as in Hazzlit's notion of 'incongruity' A foolish failure can be considered a merited misfortune ... Laughter and Pity in Twelfth Night Due to his foolishness a ludicrous character is probably neither aware of the painful consequences of his acts nor of his own foolishness The reader is predisposed to feel no pity for Malvolio (as mentioned earlier) For a character to be considered Ludicrous ... ... there has to be a combination of a high mimetic (status) and a humorous mood ... Malvolio also has designs far above his status - he manufactures for himself a high mimetic "To be Count Malvolio!" We also encounter Sir Toby and Sir Andrew whose high mimetic mode and humorous mood create grotesque and ludicrous characters " ... a plague o' these pickle herring! How now, sot?" However, a different kind of humor is created through Feste - he is of lowly mimetic, this creates farcical humor and a more traditional type of comedy "I shall never begin if I hold my peace." As well as laughter, there is a parallel and opposite outlet that can be triggered through abrupt changes in mood ... Crying "The human body tends to [cathart] any excessive emotion by certain physical outlets such as laughter and weeping ... Thus weeping ... can betoken extreme joy as well as extreme grief" Elder Olson 1968 Comedy is not the opposition of tragedy but of melodrama ... ... Neither crying or laughter is a necessary response to tragedy or comedy respectively ... Melodrama can contain both cathartic outlets: holistic catharsis (the need to release a build up of emotional tension) and episodic crying ... Is Twelfth Night a melodrama or a comedy? ... do we cry for Malvolio? The twins? ... or do we simply laugh at their misfortune? Catharsis Noun
The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
Hazzlit concludes - Laughing and Crying
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