Laughter and Control

Pointing and Laughing: Nelson Muntz of 'The Simpsons'

I recently attended a seminar about laughter given by the intellectual historian Professor Quentin Skinner. I was looking forward to a light-hearted ninety minutes – a few jokes, some entertaining examples, and since thinking about laughing invariably makes me smile, I expected to leave with my spirits raised. It was a surprise, therefore, to discover that in the sixteenth century, laughing was primarily understood as a powerful tool of social coercion.

Renaissance scholars argued that the passion giving rise to laughter was not joy or happiness, but instead the sort of pleasure you get from mocking people, something close to the malicious delight suggested by the German word Schadenfreude. Skinner’s claim was that to laugh in this period was to mock, scorn, taunt or deride, a quite intentional act that aimed to humiliate and expose, but above all to reinforce the ideal of the Civile Conversazione.

The notion of Civile Conversazione was an important one for Renaissance scholars. Conversazione did not only imply speaking to one another, but came to include a whole spectrum of social encounters, including sexual ones. In this respect Conversazione is like our own use of ‘intercourse’, and may have been equally snigger-worthy (Skinner’s recollection of reading George Eliot’s immortal line ‘Rosamund and Lydgade made their intercourse lively again…’ provoked the first laughs of the afternoon…). Civile, as you might expect, is the art of being well-mannered and behaving with propriety. It is a virtue defined by its absence. In the work of a number of Renaissance writers, including Baldassare Castiglione, Giovanni della Casa, Stefano Guazzo and Simon Robson, the un-civile appear as boastful, haughty and foolish. Pointing and laughing was, according to these authoritative writers, the most efficient way to check incivility, redress social equilibrium and ward off potential offenders with the threat of public humiliation.

Contemporary comedians often argue that their role is to puncture and deflate, exposing the hypocrisies and over-inflated egos that prop up social hierarchies. It is usually an argument made when some gag or other has got out of hand, but the claim that the jokester stands outside society’s norms to critique them is hardly a new one. From Shakespeare’s riddling fools who speak truth to power, to Rabelais’s intricate fart jokes that inspired Mikhail Bakhtin’s seminal work on the carnivalesque, laughter is often equated with social disruption, regeneration and levelling, a force for good.

Skinner’s paper assigned a rather different role for laughter, giving the giggles a faintly Foucaultian twist. In the Book of the Courtier (1561), Castiglione describes how one lady exposed a man with military pretensions to public ridicule on the dance-floor. His un-civile crime? He refused to join in the dancing  insisting that, as a fighting man, he was above such trivialities (he reminds me of Gareth Keenan, the fictional paper salesman and TA lieutenant in The Office). The woman pours scorn on the would-be soldier, humiliating him in the hope that he will learn his lesson:  ‘thus with much laughinge of the standers by she left him with a mocke in his foolish presumpcion’. In this example, as in the many more offered by Skinner, pointing and laughing in public emerges as a distinctive feature of Renaissance social life, one which was not only socially sanctioned but also served to maintain the status quo.

To a modern audience ridiculing offenders in public might seem a cruel and unnecessary tactic – indeed, one of the reasons that Malvolio’s punishment in Twelfth Night is so difficult to stage in modern productions is because it seems excessively nasty. However, not all Renaissance authors agreed that laughter should be used to discipline. Della Casa cautioned his readers not to ‘scorne or scoffe at any man’, suggesting that laughing at others might itself be un-civile. By 1640, the golden age of derision had seemed to have come to an end, when Thomas Hobbes argued that ‘Laughter at the defects of others is a sign of Pusillanimy’. Ever pragmatic, the author of the Leviathan also pointed out that since laughing might be a preliminary to fighting, it should be avoided at all costs.

Despite the fact that fifteenth- and sixteenth-century writers were obviously fascinated by the efficacy and dangers of derision, I was left wondering how they linked scorn to other sorts of laughing. There is surely a taxonomy of laughter, with multiple and overlapping varieties. What about sniggering at a double entendre? What about nervous chuckles, flirtatious titters, contagious giggles and complicit guffaws? Were these rather more homely sorts of laughter obscured in Renaissance accounts?  Nonetheless, as Skinner’s fascinating paper demonstrated, the way we perform, articulate and think about emotions – even ones so seemingly innocuous as laughter – can reveal important questions about the operation of power in a given culture. Indeed, this very point has been raised in a recent study of contemporary comedy by sociologist Sam Friedman, whose work looks at the relationship between class and taste among audiences of the Edinburgh fringe. Friedman explores the way middle-class audiences assert their intellectual credentials through a taste for whimsical in-jokery (of the Marcus Brigstocke variety, say, rather than Frankie Boyle’s). His account of middle-class comic pleasure suggests, to my mind at least, a further type of laughter too, the kind that drips with cultural capital, the sort of laughing you hear in theatres while Shakespeare comedies are being performed, the ‘I’m letting you know I get the joke’ – type laughter. I wonder if they worried about that in the Renaissance too.

Tiffany Watt-Smith
Quentin Skinner’s paper was given on the 6th October 2011 as part of the QMUL Department of English Postgraduate Research Seminar.

One thought on “Laughter and Control

  1. Ah, yes, I think we all know that “I’m so clever that I got that joke” laugh in the theatre. Certain playwrights particularly lend themselves to it, I think – e.g. Tom Stoppard. My own favourite anecdote about laughter in the history of medicine is to be found in a series of lectures by the Edinburgh-trained physician, and founding father of the United States, Dr Benjamin Rush. Rush explained to his students how the passions could cure bodily diseases – fevers could be cured by anger, rheumatism by terror, and rickets by laughter. He then tells the story of a Cardinal in Rome who was cured from his sickness by laughing as he watched ‘a favourite pet monkey put on his pontifical robes, and strut about his bedchamber, with the solemn face with which he had often seen his master perform his public ecclesiastic duties’. I think perhaps my favourite point about this story is the casual use of the phrase ‘a favourite pet monkey’ which conjures up the image of a whole ecclesiastical menagerie of monkeys, and treats this as quite commonplace. Another interesting footnote to the Rush anecdote is that he described laughter as a ‘gentle and pleasing emotion of the diaphragm’ connected with the passion of joy. This was a fairly widespread eighteenth-century use of ’emotion’ as a word for the bodily change connected with a passion. But that is another story.

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