Once a byword for Protestant sobriety and moral idealism, Spenser is now better
known for his irony and elusiveness. Yet his sense of humour is still
underestimated and misunderstood. Challenging the bias behind this neglect, this
study shows that humour, far from being peripheral or superficial, goes to the
heart of Spenser’s moral and doctrinal preoccupations. It explores rifts between
The Faerie Queene’s ambitious and idealising postures and its Protestant vision
of corruptible human nature. Figures to be comically ‘undone’ include the hero,
the chivalric lover, the virgin, and the ideal monarch – as well as Spenser’s
own epic-poet persona. Yet bathos has a positive significance in Christian
theology, and Spenserian humour proves to be an expression of tolerance and
faith as well as an instrument of satire. On this basis, Comic Spenser contends
that the alliance of humour and allegory in The Faerie Queene affirms the value
of the creative and ‘errant’ imagination.
that response can be a tortuous business. Theories of the comic (which for the most part incorporate laughter but also speak to humour more broadly) have roots in discussions of jokes by classical rhetoricians, and, since the early modern period, have evolved within a range of contexts – moral, medical, philosophical, and psychological. Such diversely motivated attempts to encapsulate the essence of humour have been synthesised, by modern historians of comictheory, into three competing schools of thought, commonly referred to as ‘superiority theory’, ‘incongruity
interpretation of that limitation. Central to this study (and to comictheory more generally) is the understanding that comic recognition possesses an affirmative dimension, inextricable from the pleasure it entails, pertaining to the apprehension of limited negative consequences – from pain that is not too painful or ugliness that is not one’s own, to sinfulness that is redeemed. Not coincidentally, there is a strong sense in the Mutabilitie Cantos that whatever limitation Faunus represents, and exposes, is to be celebrated as well as condemned. His folly has undeniably
For an overview of this development I am
indebted to Stuart M. Tave, The Amiable Humorist: A Study in the
ComicTheory and Criticism of the Eighteenth and Early
Nineteenth Centuries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Thomas Carlyle, From ‘On Heroes and
figure whose ‘personality and style … seemed to give classical authority to the mixture of genres which was a legacy of the Middle Ages’.
142 As Prescott observes, early modern comictheory ‘lagged behind the imaginative complexity of actual practice’; ‘Humour and Satire in the Renaissance’, p. 284.
143 Traité , p. 235 (Book III, Chapter 1), p. 87 (Book I, Chapter 14); Treatise , pp. 95, 44.
144 Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World , pp. 66–7.