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.
Jacobson’s advocacy of comic writing has also manifested itself in the introductions he has written for editions of classic American comic novels such as Leo Rosten’s The Education of Hyman Kaplan ( 1937 ) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 ( 1961 ), and for an anthology of James Thurber’s prose, entitled Better to Have Loafed and Lost ( 2002 ) (see Jacobson 2000a , 2004a , 2002f , respectively).
2 There are generally held to be three main schools of comictheory: superiority, relief and incongruity. For a summary of these different schools, see, for example
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
history of comictheory, from medieval reformulations of Aristotle and
Cicero to film theory’s much more recent interventions. In a
sixteenth-century response to one of the many routine puritan attacks on the
theatre, Thomas Lodge, author of the source story for Shakespeare’s
As You Like It , starts his defence by quoting from the late Roman
grammarian Aelius Donatus on the origins of both comedy and tragedy in
in Génération Père Noël
(Grenier 1994), Veber’s autobiographical account of his unusual
career (Veber 2010), and critical writing on comedy in French and in
English (e.g. Harris 1998; Moine 2007 ; Lanzoni 2014 ). Some of these sources help to establish
direct connections between screenwriting and comictheory (Defays 1996;
Critchley 2002; Stott 2005), while others reveal connections with modes
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.