Indira Ghose.  Shakespeare and Laughter: A Cultural History. New York: Manchester UP, 2008. vii+230 pp.  ISBN 978 0 7190 7692 3.

Adam Spellmire
 Tufts University

Adam Spellmire. “Review of Indira Ghose. Shakespeare and Laughter: A Cultural History." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 7.1-7 <URL:>


  1. This interdisciplinary study examines the changing, sometimes conflicting attitudes toward laughter in Early Modern England.  Fundamentally, though, Ghose emphasizes laughter’s social origin and function; citing neuroscientist Robert Provine in her Introduction, she observes that laughter “is above all a form of communication” (6).  Throughout, Ghose draws as much on recent scientific, philosophical, anthropological, and historical treatments of laughter as on literary criticism, and she shows similar breadth discussing laughter in Early Modern medicine, philosophy, economics, and theology.  Centring on five dramas – Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, both parts of Henry IV, and King Lear – she consistently aligns laughter and play.  Ghose maintains that while laughter exists partly in a separate world of play and so is neither didactic nor corrective, laughter above all creates community.

  2. After an Introduction that includes a helpful “potted history of laughter,” the first chapter begins with a discussion of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and the emerging aesthetics of courtly manners; Ghose then examines Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Each chapter proceeds similarly, detailing a particular social aspect of laughter and then analyzing a Shakespeare play through those ideas.  In chapter one Ghose points out that The Book of the Courtier, contrary to its classical precursors, concerns itself more with the aesthetics than the ethics of manners, counseling courtiers not to use jests offensively, but recreationally, as displays of wit.  Although she insists that this courtly game exists in a realm of aesthetics and play, Ghose links laughter and self-definition, and so she stresses too that this game affected courtiers’ material conditions, that there “exists no realm of pure play” (22).  She convincingly argues that, like The Book of the Courter, Love’s Labour’s Lost treats the Renaissance court’s evolving emphasis on manner and attention to form. The play’s men, for example, suffer chastisement not for ethical transgressions, but because they violate the new social manners by making indecorous fun.  Contrariwise, the play’s women, who emphasize community and meaning, prove to be the “ideal courtiers” and outshine the men in the game of wit (43).

  3. Continuing the examination of laughter’s shift from medieval expression of scorn to Early Modern emphasis on recreation, chapter two begins by looking at Early Modern medical theories of laughter, which profess, as do many popular theories today, its healthiness.  Not only does this claim lack any medical evidence, but laughter, Ghose argues, is neither a pure nor direct expression but rather a controllable one, which Early Modern theorists did recognize.  Her claim supports a larger argument that laughter does not have the kind of political efficacy academics have often recently lent it:  “One of the most pernicious fallacies to have taken hold of literary studies is the notion that laughter represents the authentic expression of the masses, a direct articulation of bodily impulses” (69).  Renaissance humanists, she explains, did not see the body and mind in such stark opposition, and so they are not “elevating the body over the mind” when praising laughter (69).  In this, perhaps the book’s most interesting and pointed section, Ghose traces the contemporary entertainment business to the market economy’s Renaissance emergence.  Following Paul Yachnin, she explains that the embattled Early Modern theatre called itself harmless, used ambiguity, and pointed to its illusions as defenses against political and religious attacks.  She suggests, then, that perhaps contemporary critical attention to the Early Modern stage’s political potential, whether subversive or hegemonic, is “misguided” (80).  A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s play within the play and its multiple audiences exemplifies for Ghose what she sees as laughter’s community-making potential, its “cross-class sense of mutuality” (78).

  4. Chapter three discusses Early Modern humor: jest books, jigs, and the stage fool.  Examining Twelfth Night, Ghose demonstrates how laughter and the aesthetic create realms separate from reality, a claim she makes from different angles throughout the book.  She argues that because laughter promotes community, Malvolio is ridiculous because he cannot interact with the other characters.  Through Malvolio, Ghose distinguishes between Shakespeare and Jonson in a way that highlights the changing attitude toward laughter, for the steward does not reform; laughter cannot correct him.  Shakespeare, then, departs from Jonson by disallowing laughter any ethical purpose (and Ghose perhaps suggests that Shakespeare, then, is the more modern of the two). 

  5. Further developing her insights on aesthetics and laughter, Ghose claims that “the groundwork for the notion of the autonomy of art was laid” in the Early Modern anti-theatrical debates (145).  In chapter four she argues for Falstaff, rather than Malvolio, as the representative stage Puritan. Falstaff, she writes, is not “demotic,” but “the personification of rampant individualism” (156).  Trapped in the separate comic world, Falstaff sees no difference between representation and reality, much like the anti-theatrical critics themselves. Ghose continues the chapter by charting the change from laughing at to laughing with a stage character, another Early Modern laughter development that emphases community.

  6. A discussion of Lear’s Fool and Erasmus, to whom Ghose alludes throughout, ends the book.  She explores laughter’s inherently conservative nature, showing how even subversive laughter presents only a façade of resistance and does not conduce political action, and arguing that contemporary treatments have overrated laughter’s subversive power.  And here Ghose explains that, because of its comic plot inversion, in Lear laughter and the grotesque only heighten the horror.  The tragedy of Lear, far from presenting a world based on Christian ethics, represents random, “gratuitous” tragedy, which Ghose does not call nihilism, for “the real abyss of the play … is not the certainty of absence.  It is the absence of certainty” (202).  Suggestively, she argues that tragedy, like play and laughter, is its own end.

  7. Ghose deftly ties tragedy and laughter, and indeed Shakespeare and Laughter’s most obvious strength is its ability to link many concepts and disciplines.  Although attention to Early Modern laughter might seem to be of specialist interest, Ghose connects laughter to many facets of Renaissance culture, and her book thus makes a useful introduction both to Shakespeare’s plays and the culture in which he wrote.



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© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).