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That’s What I Said: Shakespeare, Chaucer, and a Philosophy of Bawdy Humor

September 11, 2011

Shakespeare and Chaucer were great Christian authors. They also wrote stories with lots of dirty jokes in them. Chaucer could perhaps be pegged as the originator of “gross-out” comedy, and Shakespeare, although constrained by his medium of the stage from writing anything like “The Miller’s Tale,” was not above bawdy humor. (Much of which is lost on modern-day audiences due to changes in the English language.) Yet compared to their modern-day counterparts, Shakespeare and Chaucer’s dirty stories seem inspired, fresh, and even joyful, while modernity’s bawdy humor is dull, tired, grating and sexist. Why is this?

1.) Shakespeare and Chaucer were great. It seems pointless to say this, but it is actually relevant. When Shakespeare and Chaucer were being nasty, they weren’t the literary equivalent of teenage boys in the locker room telling “That’s what she said” jokes. For example, in “The Miller’s Tale” Chaucer took two folk stories, the tale of the “second flood” and the tell of the “misdirected kiss, and combined them with uproarious comic results. Looking at the end of “The Summoner’s Tale”, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue”, or any of Shakespeare’s dirty lines will show that the two authors were more witty than today’s practitioners of bawdy.

In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape makes the point that there are two kinds of people who tell dirty jokes–those who talk about sex because it cultivates incongruities and those who cultivate incongruities because it gives them an excuse to talk about sex. I think Shakespeare and Chaucer fall into the first category. Their bawdy humor was not so much focused on the bawdiness itself (though that aspect was still important) as the wit inthe joke. Contrast this with today’s humorists whose comedy is not only obscene, but often obscenely stupid.

2.) Shakespeare and Chaucer didn’t just write bawdy humor. Unlike today’s obscene comics, Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote great literature. Chaucer may have written “The Reeves Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale,” but he also wrote “The Knight’s Tale,” The Parson’s Tale,” “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and much else besides. Shakespeare could write plays like Hamlet and Henry V, which include both bawdy humor and inspiring soliloquies. The fact that Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote truly great literature proves that they didn’t have their minds in the gutter. We have yet to see a modern equivalen of Hamlet from the creators of The Hangover or American Pie.

3.) Shakespeare and Chaucer were not nihilistic. They both lived withing the culture of Christian England. While we don’t know if they were personally Christian, we know that they were culturally Christian. When they wrote bawdy humor, it was in the light of Christian moral standards. It as if when they wrote such stuff they wrote it with the knowledge that it was wrong, but it was funny. Also, the cultural standard of Christian morality was in some ways what made their bawdy humor funny. It was humorous because it went against what the Christian community knew was right. For a more recent example of this, take Otis, the town drunk from the Andy Griffith show. Otis is funny because he represents the way things should not be. It is assumed that everyone in the audience knows that drunkeness is wrong, and therefore laughs at Otis.

(I digress here to note that the “wholesome” Andy Griffith show promotes drunkeness, cigarette smoking, moonshining, law-breaking, liberalism, socialism, chauvinism, lying, xenophobia, and Ernest T. Bass. It’s a wonder that the generation that grew up watching it didn’t grow up to become psycopathic serial killers.)

Modern comedy, on the other hand, exists in a nihilistic universe without moral absolutes. As a result, modern comedy eschews wit and simply tries to shock the audience by becoming more and more perverse, and consequently, more and more dull and lifeless.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 18, 2011 4:23 am

    Great post. Waiting to see the next one. Be sure and check out George Grant’s take on Chaucer.

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