Shakespeare and laughter

A cultural history

Author: Indira Ghose

This book examines laughter in the Shakespearean theatre, in the context of a cultural history of early modern laughter, and looks at various strands of the early modern discourse on laughter, ranging from medical treatises and courtesy manuals to Puritan tracts and jestbook literature. It argues that few cultural phenomena have undergone as radical a change in meaning as laughter, a paradigm shift that can be traced back to the early modern period, which saw some remarkable changes in the culture of laughter. Hitherto, laughter had been mainly regarded as a social corrective that mocked those who transgressed societal norms. The evolving cult of courtly manners that spread throughout Renaissance Europe stigmatised derisive laughter as a sign of vulgarity. Laughter became bound up with questions of taste and class identity. At the same time, humanist thinkers revalorised the status of recreation and pleasure. These developments left their trace on the early modern theatre, where laughter was retailed as a commodity in an emerging entertainment industry. William Shakespeare's plays both reflect and shape these changes, particularly in his adaptation of the Erasmian wise fool as a stage figure and in the sceptical strain of thought that is encapsulated in the laughter evoked in the plays.

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