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Shakespeare & Beyond

Arthur Murphy's 18th-century collection of humor - Excerpt: "Laughing Histories" by Joy Wiltenburg

People laughing and playing music
People laughing and playing music

Laughing HistoriesJoy Wiltenburg, Professor Emerita of History at Rowan University, writes about the 18th-century writer Arthur Murphy’s “large compilation of laughter lore” in this excerpt from her new book, Laughing Histories: From the Renaissance Man to the Woman of Wit.

Murphy’s commonplace book, a handwritten volume of some 500 pages with sections on “Wit,” “Ridicule,” and various other aspects of humor, is part of the Folger collection.

“Murphy may be the first person in history to subject laughter to such intensive and extensive study, at least from the perspective of a laughter professional,” writes Wiltenburg.


Arthur Murphy was an intimate acquaintance of Hester Thrale, a man she admired for his wit but not for his morality. It was Murphy, in fact, who introduced Samuel Johnson to the Thrales, sparking that famous literary friendship. Although largely forgotten today, he was an astoundingly prolific author of plays and other works. Many of his plays, especially his comedies, went through multiple editions during his lifetime, including translations into French and German. Some critics have faulted him for lack of originality, as he sometimes adapted foreign plays for the English stage. But then, Shakespeare borrowed plots too. Murphy’s plays delighted audiences not only in his own day but for many decades thereafter. He was an adept classical scholar, author of a translation of the Roman historian Tacitus that was standard for more than a century. He published editions of the works of Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson, along with their biographies and that of the actor and producer David Garrick. All this was in addition to his work as an essayist and editor for the periodical press. Today, he is fairly obscure even among scholars; a few intrepid literary critics have examined his plays—but not many. Yet he cut quite a figure in his time, not only through his writings but also as an ornament to social gatherings, where he could be counted on for entertainment and laughter.

In his professional life, Murphy was a seller of laughter. He also cultivated it in social encounters. His natural comic abilities, as Thrale testified, were formidable and adaptable to audiences of every class:

so willing to amuse you, to divert your Company, to inform, to sooth: yet no Buffoonery, no Coarseness, no meanness, but a Behaviour perfectly decorous… . Is your Table filled with People of high Rank & Accomplishments? nobody outshines Murphy, yet nobody is eclipsed by him; every one goes away in the same Mind concerning him. Have you a set of low Fellows, Burgesses of a Boro’ or Freeholders of a County? Murphy sets them on a continual Roar.

But he did not rest on these laurels. In his large compilation of laughter lore, now preserved at the Folger Library, Murphy pursued the essence of the laughable through all its guises. Comedy was his profession and also his intensive study.

Murphy’s collection falls into the early modern genre of the commonplace book. In vogue throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the commonplace book was typically a collection of extracts, drawn from an individual’s reading but also sometimes including material from everyday experience. Women’s commonplace books sometimes included recipes and herbal remedies. Songs and poems were also common matter for these personal aids to memory. In Murphy’s case, the compiler’s advanced education, voracious curiosity, and organizational zeal led to a collection that went far beyond the norm. The oversize volume of 500-odd pages is carefully organized into sections corresponding to every aspect of wit, humor, and comedy. He allotted more than 100 pages to Wit, with a range of subheadings including True Wit, False Wit, and Mixt Wit. Other sections include Humour (about 40 pages), Ridicule (90 pages), Causes of Laughter (38 pages), and the hugest section, headed Comedy (most of the last 200 pages). Every page bears a label in its upper corner giving the subject heading and page number, marked off in a rectangular box. A smaller heading at the top center gives the source of that page’s material, usually carried over from the previous page. He even constructed an index for reference back to authors and ideas within the sections. The extracts range from Latin citations of authors like Ovid to contemporaries such as Voltaire and Lord Chesterfield. Murphy quoted extensive passages from successful comic playwrights such as Dryden, Jonson, and Shakespeare, as well as theorists like Hobbes and Hutcheson. He was especially impressed by Corbyn Morris—not only quoting him in many of the subsections, but adding an entire section after the index to record Morris’s views on various authors.

While Murphy devoted his longest section to his professional interest in comedy on the stage, he was also intent on uncovering ultimate truths about why people laugh. Under “Causes of Laughter,” he looked at a number of authorities, only to deem several of them wanting. He found Hobbes, in particular, an unreliable guide. In fact, Hobbes appears in this section mainly as the target of criticism from other writers on laughter, particularly Hutcheson and Addison. Murphy was not satisfied with Addison either, complaining that in all his discussion of the subject, “it is certain that he gives no account of the cause of laughter, nor of its final causes.” It was the elusive “final causes” that Murphy hoped to trace. In his systematic combing of writings on laughter, he subjected them to a rigorous analysis. His dissection of the arguments pared them down into enumerated points, laid out on the page with white space for clarity, along with careful page citations. He even cross-referenced his own organization, as in his notes on Hutcheson’s critique of Hobbes. After dividing the arguments into propositions one and two, and spending a couple of pages on Hutcheson’s points of evidence for the first proposition, he moved on with a reference to his own earlier page: “as to the Second proposition in this Book fol. 282.” This was an exhaustive and painstaking study.

While compiling many carefully referenced extracts and outlines of others’ arguments, Murphy also interjected his own observations and judgments. His favorite formulas, “it is certain that” or “certainly,” regularly signaled a shift into his own thoughts. He joined Hutcheson in disapproval of Hobbes’s seemingly misanthropic view of laughter as a “sudden glory” in one’s own superiority. So impressed was he by Hutcheson’s arguments on this score that he actually laid them out in enumerated propositions twice—once in introducing them and again in summing up. He was sure, like Hutcheson, that self-loving pride could not be the mainspring of laughter. There were too many prideful moments when laughter did not occur, and too many kinds of laughter where there is no question of superiority. Pride might contribute to certain kinds of laughter, but it was no final cause. Murphy endorsed Hutcheson’s idea of incongruity as the key:

It is certain that in the use of ridicule Hobbes’s sudden glory[double underline] may mix with the emotion of Laughter; But that sudden Glory can not be the Cause of Laughter: It is the opposition, the Clash, the Contrast of Ideas that Excites the Laugh, and the Little triumph of the Mind may blend itself with the Laugh.

Murphy may be the first person in history to subject laughter to such intensive and extensive study, at least from the perspective of a laughter professional. The sixteenth-century physician Laurent Joubert came first but was more interested in physiology than in practice. Murphy’s own favorite laughter authors, Corbyn Morris and Francis Hutcheson, each wrote only brief treatments of the subject. Morris’s “Essay towards fixing the true standards of wit, humour, raillery, satire, and ridicule” comes to some 50 pages, counting his long discussion of Falstaff and other literary characters. Without this addendum, the laughter analysis is about 25 pages. Hutcheson was similarly brief, a series of three letters about laughter, another 50 pages. For Morris and Hutcheson, laughter was a sideline—important enough for some serious thought, but hardly their main preoccupation. Morris was far more noted for his writings on economics and demography than for his essay on wit. It was those more serious subjects, particularly his collection of statistics on the city of London, that got him elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1757. Hutcheson became a professor of philosophy, noted for his essays and later magnum opus on morals and aesthetics. His ideas about laughter were a small piece of that larger and more sober whole. But for Murphy laughter was a central concern. In fact, adding up all the pages where they appear, Murphy may have expended more ink on Hutcheson and Morris’s laughter ideas than they did in their original works.

Excerpted from Laughing Histories: From the Renaissance Man to the Woman of Wit by Joy Wiltenburg. Copyright © 2022 Joy Wiltenburg. Used with permission from Routledge.