Shakespeare LOL

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 7

Let's face it: Modern audiences sometimes go from roaring with laughter to scratching their heads when it comes to enjoying Shakespeare's jokes four hundred years later. How (and why) has "what's funny" changed over the years—and what's still a guaranteed belly laugh?

Theater artists and scholars, along with narrator Rebecca Sheir, host of our Shakespeare Unlimited series, take an amusing, sometimes surprising, look at things that were funny in Shakespeare's time, but not so much now—as well as gems of Shakespearean comedy that still sparkle today.

Among those featured in this podcast episode:

  • Michael Green is the author of The Art of Coarse Acting.
  • Robert Hornback is associate professor of English, comparative literatures, and theater and chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literatures at Oglethorpe University.
  • Austin Tichenor is a writer, performer, and managing partner of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. He also produces and hosts the Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast.
  • Adam Zucker is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of The Places of Wit in Early Modern English Comedy.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © July 30, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "All Mirth and No Matter," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul, an author and documentary producer who is also a long-time member of Washington's own Capitol Steps singing comedy troupe. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for this podcast from Esther French. We also had help from Candice Ludlow, Jane Degenhardt, Ian Briggs, and Andrea Bath. Original music composed and arranged by Lenny Williams.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called “All Mirth and No Matter.”

People love to laugh, which is why there’s something called “comedy.” But not everyone laughs at the same things, and sometimes jokes don’t age well. Funny is in the eye, or the gut, of the beholder. When it comes to Shakespeare’s comedies, modern audiences sometimes end up scratching their heads when it comes to the jokes. There are a lot of reasons why, and we’re going to look at some of them in this podcast.

Before we start, though, I want to be clear about what’s on offer. We cannot cover the entire genre of comedy and Shakespeare, all of the light-hearted and charming moments that have kept audiences coming back to the comedies. For the next 20 minutes or so, when we say “comedy,” we mean the things people laugh at. Whether it’s during a Shakespeare comedy, a history play, or a Shakespeare tragedy, comedy is everything that’s funny in Shakespeare. Okay, enough caveats. Bring in the clowns. Our narrator is Rebecca Sheir.



REBECCA SHEIR: Here’s the funny thing about funny: funny is not like sweet or sour. It’s not black or white. While it’s fair to say we all like to laugh, social scientists can’t agree about why. And in the same way, it’s hard to find consensus on just what makes us laugh. What I think is funny, you might find puerile. On the other hand, I might find your taste in comedy pompous and highfalutin. Which I do, by the way.

But there are some things we can say for sure about funny. One is this: while people might tell you

[CLIP of Michael Green:]

GREEN: A joke's a joke. [LAUGH]

SHEIR: or that

[CLIP of Michael Green:]

GREEN: Being drunk was funny in Greek comedy 2,000 years ago, and being drunk is funny on the stage today.

SHEIR: The truth is, a lot of comedy just doesn’t travel down through the ages.

[CLIP from Twelfth Night:]

Pourquoi, my dear knight?

What is "pourquoi"? Do, or not do?

SHEIR: Something that was funny in another era, you might see it today and it’ll go right over your head, and probably leave you scratching it. Your head, that is. The other thing is this: For hundreds of years, people have disagreed about what exactly we’re looking for when we walk into a comedy.

ADAM ZUCKER: I do think that comedy, both then and now, served a kind of escape function.

[CLIP from A Midsummer Night's Dream:]

FLUTE playing THISBE (falsetto):
   These lily lips,
   This cherry nose,
These yellow cowslip cheeks
   Are gone, are gone!

ZUCKER: To get to laugh and see a story that takes you out of your ordinary life…

[CLIP from The Tempest:]

This is a very scurvy tune to [LAUGHTER]
Well, here's my comfort.

SHEIR: That said, though, not everyone goes to a comedy just to cut loose. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that.

ZUCKER: Remember, going into different kinds of comedies, you’re going to get different things.

[CLIP from Much Ado About Nothing:]

PRINCE: I think this is your daughter.
LEONATO: Her mother hath many times told me so.

AUSTIN TICHENOR: For me, context is one of the most important things about comedy.

[CLIP from Twelfth Night:]

Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better Fool.

God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity!

ZUCKER: Suddenly, the comedy comes alive. It literally comes alive, because the actors are embodying this.

[CLIP from another production of Twelfth Night:]

Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better Fool.

God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity, for the better increasing your folly!

ZUCKER: I do think that there are always lessons to be learned in comedy, in part from watching a kind of negative example of the world.

[CLIP from Henry IV, Part 1:]

You may buy land now as cheap as stinking mackerel.

SHEIR: So, given all that, what’s to be expected when we walk into a Shakespeare comedy? What should we plan for? What should we expect?

ZUCKER: Nowadays, it’s very likely that you would go see Shakespearean comedy for a reason other than letting go and laughing.

[CLIP from The Comedy of Errors:]

Her rags and the tallow in them would burn a Poland winter. If she lives till doomsday, she'll burn a week longer than the whole world.

TICHENOR: You can look at it and stroke your beard thoughtfully and go, “Yes, that is funny,” even though you’re not laughing.


SHEIR: What people want from comedy is not all that straightforward, and it never has been.

[CLIP from The Daily Show]

JON STEWART: Hey, ladies and gentlemen, I'm Jon Stewart. A big one for you tonight – Robin Williams!

SHEIR: Think about it. If you go see a Judd Apatow movie, you’re looking for one thing. Maybe laughing at emotionally immature men fumbling around in domestic situations. You turn on the topical and political comedy of The Daily Show, you’re looking for something else. They both make you laugh, but for totally different reasons.

TICHENOR: My favorite kind of comedy, I have to say, is the kind of comedy that has a little meat on the bone.

SHEIR: Take it from someone who knows funny. Austin Tichenor is a member of the comedy troupe known as the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

TICHENOR: When I go to see a play, including a Shakespeare play, I’m really hoping I’m going to get more than just comedy.

SHEIR: More than just comedy. It’s how The Daily Show became so popular with its audience. It’s something that makes you laugh, but also something that makes you think, especially about things that are important. According to Robert Hornback, a theater professor at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, that’s what Shakespeare’s audience was looking for, too.

ROBERT HORNBACK: I don’t think that they were really expecting a holiday from contemporary events or a sort of an escapist fantasy. One thing they were expecting instead was some topical commentary on the events of the day.

SHEIR: In other words, what Shakespeare’s audience was looking for from comedy, and what he was giving them most often, was something subversive. By the time Shakespeare was writing, satire had become a powerful tool. Robert Hornback says that for the previous 75 years, speakers, leaders, writers, propagandists, and others were deploying satire to score points on both sides of a society as riven by culture wars as we are today.

HORNBACK: Martin Luther used a lot of comical devices in his polemic and propaganda, so he portrayed the pope as an ass or a donkey, also processions of bishops and priests dressed as fools, and that sort of thing.

SHEIR: Seventy-five years later, a lot of those conflicts were still burning just as hot. So, it’s no surprise that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were using satire to keep those conflicts in the public conversation, and they weren’t just satirizing church leaders in Rome. Adam Zucker is a professor at U-Mass and author of the book The Places of Wit in Early Modern English Comedy.

ZUCKER: When I teach a play like Henry IV, Part 1, for example, or any of Shakespeare’s history plays, I do like to point out that even in the midst of these more serious narratives, you have examples of these kinds of bodily jokes.

[CLIP from Henry IV, Part 1:]

'Sblood, you starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stockfish! O, for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor's yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck—

ZUCKER: I read this list to my students and they laugh. They think it’s uproarious, hilarious. But then I’m able to say, you know, yes, this is, in and of itself, a recognizably funny moment. But remember, in the beginning of the 17th century, when they’re watching this play, this is a person insulting the heir to the throne of England with all of these jokes.

SHEIR: Shakespeare was able to be subversive in this way because he was writing during an unusual period. By the end of his career, satirical works were regularly banned and even publicly burned, and not too long after his death, clowns were being executed for mocking the Parliament. But Shakespeare fell right in the middle. A time where, even when the comedy was scathing, Robert Hornback says, satire got a free pass.

HORNBACK: Clowns had permission and they were allowed to mock and even attack authority. That’s something that happened in the Reformation, and it’s something that continues to happen today.

[CLIP – news broadcast clip on The Daily Show:]

ANNOUNCER: The show mocked him when he was awarded an honorary degree in Pakistan.

SHEIR: Even in the most repressive circumstances. This is a news story about Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, who was jailed, and then released under public pressure, after mocking Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president at the time, for wearing an unusual hat.

[CLIP from The Daily Show:]

ANNOUNCER: And also took aim at the president's less than fluent English.

JON STEWART: Making fun of the president's hats, and less than fluent English? That was my entire career for eight years.


SHEIR: Of course, for satire to really penetrate, it needs to be timely. Because, face it, there’s nothing more passé than a dated political joke.

[CLIP from Bugs Bunny cartoon:]

BUGS BUNNY: Hey, could that have been a gremlin?

GREMLIN: It ain't Wendell Wilkie!

[CLIP from Laugh-In:]

DANNY KAYE: According to the Internal Revenue, we can deduct $600 for everybody we support. Well now, this year, I am listing the government of South Vietnam.

[CLIP of Capitol Steps, "Ronald the Red-Faced Reagan":]

When Georgie Bush stopped shakin'
He decided that henceforth
Every mistake by Reagan
He would blame it all

Who will take the fall?

Blame it all on Ollie North.

SHEIR: And, of course, it’s not just political comedy that can seem dated.

[CLIP of Bert Lahr performing with an orchestra:]

BERT LAHR: I got a number – one/two.  I got a number – three/four.  I got a number, woof-woof.

SHEIR: This is a song from a 1938 movie with Bert Lahr. He’s the guy who played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. In this scene, he’s in a tuxedo and he’s standing in front of an orchestra on a stage. He’s singing the song “Mississippi Mud,” and he looks, to all appearances, like he’s having a stroke.

[CLIP of Bert Lahr performing:]

BERT LAHR: Zaz-zu-zaz.  Zaz-zu-zaz. 

SHEIR: He grimaces and shouts out these odd, random syllables.

[CLIP of Bert Lahr performing:]

BERT LAHR: Fourteen fifteen. Woof ah!  Ah! Ah!  Ah-ah!

SHEIR: And the audience is just eating it up. They are laughing hysterically.

[CLIP of Bert Lahr performing:]

BERT LAHR: Yeah man, hot dog. Well, burn my clothes. [AUDIENCE LAUGHS]

SHEIR: And as you watch this, you realize, while there are a lot of things about humanity that are timeless, the things that make us laugh are definitely not. Austin Tichenor says the same thing that’s wrong with this Burt Lahr number can affect Shakespeare’s comedy, too.

TICHENOR: I don’t think jokes are timeless. I think jokes date. And I think that’s one of the reasons that Shakespeare’s comedies are often very tough, and maybe not as funny as everybody wants them to be, because jokes don’t travel very well down the centuries.

SHEIR: For one thing, Shakespeare often wrote jokes knowing his audience, and only his audience, would understand them. Here’s an example from British author and comedy writer, Michael Green.

GREEN: There’s a very famous line in Shakespeare, which the Gravedigger in Hamlet has. And he says to the assistant gravedigger, “Get thee to Yaughn,” Y-A-U-G-H-N, “and get me a stoup of liquor.” Well, you can’t get a line out of that. It doesn’t mean anything.

SHEIR: But what if you knew there was a bar across the street from the theater owned by a guy named Yaughn?

GREEN: Then it starts to make more sense.

SHEIR: It becomes like those jokes that stand-ups tell about Cracker Barrel, or the endless buffet at Denny’s. Everyone knows what you’re talking about, so they laugh. But it’s not just dated references that can keep 21st-century audiences from getting Shakespeare’s comedy. There’s also a problem of dated context. Or, as Robert Hornback puts it…

HORNBACK: Things that were funny then, that are not funny now.

SHEIR: There are any number of things that had 'em rolling in the aisles in the 1590s that we can’t even fathom as funny today. Such as…

HORNBACK: Laughing at someone who is mentally ill or who had brain damage.

SHEIR: Not a laugh riot today. Adam Zucker from U-Mass has more 16th-century hilarity. Things you might remember from Comedy of Errors and Taming of the Shrew.

ZUCKER: Dogs attacking bears, unhappy Jews. In Shakespeare’s day, it would be hilarious for a social superior to beat a social inferior, violence against prostitutes, destitute people are beaten repeatedly, and this was a laugh riot.

SHEIR: And there’s more.

HORNBACK: Another thing I think that was just extremely funny to Elizabethan audiences was the stereotype of the Puritan.

ZUCKER: Getting well-known works of literature wrong. You don’t see very many Homer or Ovid jokes in popular culture these days.

SHEIR: On the subject of things we no longer laugh at quite as readily, we have to bring up perhaps the biggest sticking point when it comes to comedy in Shakespeare.

 [CLIP from The Simpsons:]

BART: Can’t sleep. Clown'll eat me. Can't sleep. Clown'll eat me.

SHEIR: Yes, we’re talking about Shakespeare’s clowns.

GREEN: Someday, I should like to run a competition to find the unfunniest clown in Shakespeare. There’s a lot of choice. Nobody can make me believe even the groundlings laughed at them, unless, as I suspect, the lines were enlivened by rude gesture.

SHEIR: That’s Michael Green again. And his is not just some idle nasty opinion. There was a time when Michael Green was himself considered one of the funniest men in England. Through a string of charming best sellers in the mid-1960s, he became kind of the Bill Bryson of Britain. Instead of travel, though, Green’s focus was on amateurs and their misadventures trying to behave like professionals. His first book, The Art of Coarse Acting, focused on small-time Shakespeare.

GREEN: During a production of Twelfth Night, in which I played Fabian, the director carefully explained Feste was the elderly clown on his way out, which was why he wasn’t funny, and Fabian was the up-and-coming replacement. I pointed out Fabian was even less funny than Feste, but I could not convince him. I remember one line in particular. “Sowter will cry out upon ‘t, for all this, though it be rank as a fox.”

[CLIP from amateur production of Twelfth Night:]

FABIAN: Sowter will cry out upon ’t, though it be rank as a fox.

GREEN: Every time we came to that in rehearsal, I said, “Look, surely you don’t believe that’s funny, do you?” And the director would assume an air of pitying superiority and say, “It’s simply the way you’re saying it.” Well, I tried every way of saying that wretched line. I said, “Sowter will cry out on it.” And I said, “Sowter will cry out on it.” And I said, “Sowter will cry out on it.” And it still fell on the audience like a lump of suet pudding.

Until one evening, I delivered it as usual, and there was a great shout of laughter from the back of the hall. For just a moment, I thought I had triumphed over the Bard, when I realized that there was something familiar about the laughter. I glanced offstage and saw that the stage manager was not in his seat. He had collected every spare person, crept in at the back of the auditorium, and organized a claque for the line. After that, the real audience became convinced they were missing something and laughed in all sorts of unexpected places. The only person who didn’t think it hilarious was the director.

SHEIR: Now, to be fair, Green says the problem with Shakespeare’s clowns usually isn’t actually a problem with Shakespeare’s clowns. The problem is with amateur theater directors who don’t understand what Shakespeare meant when he wrote the words “Enter Clown” as a stage direction. According to Robert Hornback, “Enter Clown” was not a general term. When Shakespeare wrote that, he didn’t mean just any clown. He was talking about specific clowns, professional comic actors. Men like Will Kemp. As Michael Green says…

GREEN: Will Kemp, who’s a renowned clown, a world-class clown, and the audience would laugh just when he came onstage.

SHEIR: And if you look closely across Shakespeare’s plays, Robert Hornback says, you can even find evidence that he was talking about specific people when he wrote “Enter Clown.” Throughout the plays, he says…

HORNBACK: There are examples of “Enter Kemp” to refer to the clown Will Kemp.

SHEIR: So, of course, a clown may not work 400 years later. Think about parts that were written specifically with Jonah Hill or Seth Rogan in mind. Or Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. Or Leslie Mann.

[CLIP from The 40 Year Old Virgin, drunk driving scene:]

LESLIE MANN (drunk): You think I'm pretty?

STEVE CARELL: Oh yes! Oh God!  Yes.


MANN: You're not looking at me.

CARELL: Yes, you're pretty.


MANN: You're not looking at me. 

CARELL: Yes, you're pretty.

MANN: Do you think I'm pretty?  Look at me. (yelling) LOOK AT ME! (screaming) LOOK AT MEEEEEEEE!

CARELL: (Terrified) You're pretty!  You're pretty! God, I just wanna live!


SHEIR: A screenwriter can write a script for that particular comedian and know that certain lines and certain bits of business will get a laugh. Austin Tichenor says that’s exactly what Shakespeare did.

TICHENOR: And he’d say, “Here, Will Kemp, go fall down or do something. Make this bit work. Go off, make it work, come back.” Because he was busy rehearsing all the other actors. He appreciated the talents of the actors he had in his company.

SHEIR: And he put those talents to work. For example, Robert Hornback says…

HORNBACK: Will Kemp, it’s thought by many, played Falstaff.

[CLIP from Henry IV, Part 1:]

For, Harry, now I do not speak to thee in drink, but in tears; not in pleasure, but in passion; not in words only, but in woes also.

HORNBACK: Falstaff is a part that’s written for someone who clearly understood improvisation. You know, he’s trapped, and he has to sort of think or joke his way out. He also echoes questions, which is something that you see a lot in improvisation. So, “When was the last time you saw your knee?” “My knee?”

[CLIP from Henry IV, Part 1:]

How now, my sweet creature of bombast? How long is 't ago, Jack, since thou sawest thine own knee?


My own knee? When I was...

HORNBACK: It’s a part that Will Kemp could have played, and it’s over 500 lines, which is a complicated part.

SHEIR: Kemp wasn’t the only specific clown Shakespeare was writing for.

HORNBACK: Robert Armin, who played Feste, was also a clown.

SHEIR: This leads to another reason why modern directors get tripped up when they see “Enter Clown.” Just like today’s comedy stars, there were times when clowns like Kemp and Armin got tired of playing for laughs and asked the playwright to give them something else to do. Remember in the early 1990s, when Robin Williams and Jim Carrey decided that they wanted to play straight? Robert Hornback says that happened in Shakespeare’s day, too. For instance, Armin…

HORNBACK: Probably played Iago in Othello.

SHEIR: Hornback says there’s plenty of evidence to prove it, but the thing that clinches it for him is that Iago does a bit that Armin was famous for, something called “quips upon question.” This was a piece of improv, where people in the audience would ask random questions like, “Why does that dog bark?” and Armin would riff on dogs and barking. It was hilarious.

HORNBACK: Well, Desdemona does that with Iago, asking him about different types of wives and that sort of thing, and he answers in the kind of rhymes that Armin engaged in.

[CLIP from Othello:]

If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,
The one's for use, the other useth it.

Well praised! How if she be black and witty?

If she be black, and thereto have a wit,
She'll find a white that shall her blackness hit.

Worse and worse.

                        How if fair and foolish?

She never yet was foolish that was fair,
For even her folly helped her to an heir.

SHEIR: It should be said, though, that while there was a lot from that era that just hasn’t come down to us today as funny, there’s plenty of the comedy Shakespeare wrote that, Adam Zucker says, still kills.

ZUCKER: There’s certain things in classical comedy, in the comedy that Shakespeare was writing in the 16th and 17th centuries, and in the comedy that we’re seeing now in popular culture, that are shared.

SHEIR: Austin Tichenor has a list.

TICHENOR: Making fun of the pompous, making fun of the powerful, falling down, the timeless example of a man getting hit in the genitals. That has never stopped being funny.

[CLIP from Taming of the Shrew:]

I' faith, sir, you shall never need to fear.
For sure it is not halfway to her heart.
But if it were, doubt not her care should be
To comb your noddle with a three-legged stool
And paint your face and use you like a fool.

From all such devils, good Lord, deliver us!

SHEIR: And if you’re someone who’s not finding Shakespeare funny, Tichenor says maybe you’re just looking in the wrong place. As the Reduced Shakespeare Company say in their show…

[CLIP from Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged:]

PERFORMER: What we'd like to do at this juncture in time is return quickly to the rest of Shakespeare's tragedies, because, basically, we found that the comedies are not as funny as the tragedies.


SHEIR: Yeah, it’s funny. But it turns out it’s also true.

TICHENOR: So much of comedy is about tension and release. People laugh after they have a moment of tension released, then people laugh or they scream in horror. And so, some of the more interesting comic moments come out of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

[CLIP from Macbeth:]

PORTER: Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' th' name of Beelzebub? Here's a farmer that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty.

TICHENOR: The drunken porter in Macbeth. You know, that comes at a point in the play where you really need a moment of levity.

SHEIR: Shakespeare, he says…

TICHENOR: He knew how to change up the rhythms of the piece.

[CLIP from Macbeth:]

Faith, here's an equivocator that could wear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. [LAUGHTER]

SHEIR: Tichenor says there’s another reason you can be confident that there will always be something funny in a Shakespeare play, and that’s because Shakespeare understood comedy. Now, by that he doesn’t mean Shakespeare was funny himself. In fact, he says…

TICHENOR: We don’t know much about Shakespeare as a person, and what we do know doesn’t suggest that he was a lot of laughs.

SHEIR: No, when he says Shakespeare understood comedy, he means he’d studied it. He’d researched it. And, as the Reduced Shakespeare Company says in their show…

[CLIP – REDUCED SHAKESPEARE COMPANY, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged:]

GUY 1: Basically Shakespeare stole every comedy he ever wrote.

GUY 2: No, no.  “Stole's” a little strong. “Distilled,” maybe.

GUY 1: OK, well he distilled the three or four funniest comic gimmicks of his time and then he milked them into 16 plays.

GUY 3: Yeah, you see, basically Shakespeare was a formula writer.  Once he found a device that worked, he used it

ALL: Over and over and over again. 

TICHENOR: Mistaken identities, marriage plots, providential coincidences, and disguise. He loved to use inversion or reversal of social roles.

SHEIR: In Tichenor’s show, they demonstrate this by taking all of Shakespeare’s 16 comedies and condensing them into one. A play that they call…

[CLIP from Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged:]

GUY 3: The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentlemen Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer's 12th Night in Winter


GUY 2: Or

GUY 3: Cymbeline Taming Pericles the Merchant in the Tempest of Love as Much as You Like It for Nothing.

GUY 2: Or

ALL: Four Weddings and a Transvestite.

TICHENOR: One of the reasons that Shakespeare was so great and such a genius is that he knew the truism that one only steals from the best.

[CLIP from Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged:]

GUY 1: Act 1. A Spanish duke swears an oath of celibacy and turns the rule of his kingdom over to his sadistic and tyrannical twin brother. He learns some fantastical feats of magic and sets sail for the Golden Age of Greece, along with his daughters, three beautiful and virginal sets of identical twins.

TICHENOR: He used comic tropes that were found around from the Greeks to comedia.

[CLIP from Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged:]

GUY 2: Act 2. The long-lost sons of the duke's brother, also coincidentally three sets of identical twins, have just arrived in Italy. Though still possessed of an inner nobility, they are ragged, destitute, penniless, flea-infested shadows of the men they once were, and in the utmost extremity are forced to borrow money from an old Jew, who deceives them into putting down their brains as collateral on the loan.

TICHENOR: By combining all these styles with his own understanding of the human condition and his own sense of what his audience wants to see, he’s able to create these incredibly rich plays that we’re still reading 400 years down the road.

[CLIP from Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged:]

GUY: The duke's brother's sons recognize their uncle.

GUY 2: One of the shrews is elected senator from New York.

GUY 3: And they all get married and go out to dinner.

GUY: Except for a minor character in the second act, who gets eaten by a bear, and the duke's brother's sons, who, unable to pay back the old Jew, give themselves lobotomies.

ALL: And they all live happily ever after.

Thank you very much! Thank you!


SHEIR: Much of the essence of what’s funny in Shakespeare falls under the category of misrule. This was a popular comic trope in those times. According to Robert Hornback, during holidays like Twelfth Night, the last night of the Christmas holiday, there would be festivals of misrule. He compares it to Mardi Gras.

HORNBACK: There was an inversion of hierarchy, often with misrule.

SHEIR: All sorts of hierarchies, like gender.

HORNBACK: So, there was cross-dressing.

SHEIR: They’d have a mock king, who had to be from the lowest class and who’d satirize the real king.

HORNBACK: The low was elevated.

SHEIR: Imagine a fraternity skit. Boys in grass skirts and coconut bras reading jokes that make fun of the provost who’s in charge of discipline. Try and think of it that way, and it’ll make sense when Robert Hornback says…

HORNBACK: It was considered incredibly funny.

SHEIR: And unlike some of the material in Shakespeare’s plays that doesn’t work today, this idea of misrule is still with us.

HORNBACK: There are certainly modern examples of this today. We see this in things like Monty Python.

[CLIP from Monty Python's Flying Circus:]

ANNOUNCER: This is a frightened city. Over these houses, over these streets, hangs a pall of fear. Fear of a new kind of violence, which is terrorizing the city.  Yes, gangs of old ladies [AUDIENCE LAUGHS] tormenting defenseless, fit, young men. [SOUND OF FIGHTING] 

HORNBACK: Or philosophers… You know, the Philosophers Drinking Song.

[CLIP from Monty Python's Flying Circus:]

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

SHEIR: See, it’s not funny ‘cause it’s true, it’s funny ‘cause it’s not. And it’s not in ways you understand. Get it? That’s misrule. And so is this.

[CLIP of Ras Trent in The Lonely Island:]

Rude boy living in the shanty dorms
My roommate Nick is an ignorant ball head!
Now chant down Babylon, midterm essays
Then puff from de chalice I fi make from a Sprite can

SHEIR: Misrule, satire, release from fear, cross-dressing… it’s all there in Shakespeare. Honest, it is. Sometimes, even guys getting hit in the crotch. And it’s funny. Unless you don’t like that kind of thing, in which case, it’s not. But that’s the thing about funny. You know, it’s funny.

[CLIP from The Lonely Island:]

Are you there Jah? It's me, Ras Trent
Are you there Jah? It's me, Ras Trent

Are you there Jah? It's me Ras Trent


WITMORE: “All Mirth and No Matter” was written and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series from Esther French. We also had help from Candice Ludlow, Jane Degenhardt, Ian Briggs, and Andrea Bath. Our narrator was Rebecca Sheir. The original music was composed and arranged by Lenny Williams.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.