A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
As You Like It,
As Enhanced by Humor
If formal comedy must be defined without reference to humor, humor is still the pyrotechnic element in comedic writing. And humor must be seriously considered in its own right if its place in comedic art is to be appreciated rather than hopelessly misunderstood and maligned.
We have in earlier works discussed fundamental principles about humor which guide the present study. (See, for example, Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle, Chapter Three: A Quadrilateral of Humor of the Mind.) First, humor is really plural, not singular: humors not humor. Second, there are sub-classes of humor, for example Humor of the Body, Humor of the Mind, and Humor of the Spirit, each of which is in itself sub-dividable. We choose for this study to concentrate on four types of Humor of the Mind—Gotcha, Sympathetic Pain, Incongruity, and Word Play. This simplification allows us to start building an edifice of humor criticism within comedy based in disparities between these sub-forms of mental humor.
Additionally, throughout these essays, we will have continual recourse to two ideas about the difference various mental humors make in Shakespearean comedy as in all comedy.
First, the dominance of two types of humor can be thought of as creating a humor personality for a play, just as a person can be characterized by the type of humor he or she generates. For example, someone who is known for an extraordinary fondness for telling excremental jokes and sex jokes (two forms of Humor of the Body) will probably develop a reputation as having a smutty character. Similarly, a number of Class-B movies are known precisely for this reason to have precisely this smutty character. Humor personality in dramatic work, however, is far more extensive, varied, and rich than just smuttiness, and it is these richer forms which will be one of our primary concerns.
It may seem scandalous to suggest that a person can be judgmentally characterized simply on the basis of two humor preferences. And it may be sensational to suggest that the abiding impression of a play, when a good deal of the plot has been forgotten, may be essentially the residue of two preferred types of jokes in the play. Yet professionals in theatre say much the same thing, as for very recent example, Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman’s claim, “Lesson learned: Laughter is such a strong spice, it’s hard to taste anything else. If you write something funny enough, you can get away with murder” (15).
A secondary concern, a much more subtle concern, is humor texture. Humor texture is subtle enough that some may think it is simply another way of talking about humor personality or may equally think that all such talk is nonsense to begin with. Humor texture is a certain tone or feel which is separate from any dynamis of comedy, separate from the subject matter of the comedic action, and also separate from humor personality. While some textures are obvious, most aren’t, except to analytic artists and sensitively perceptive critics. Nevertheless, at a subconscious level, even the very unperceptive are influenced by textural differences. So we will be at some pains to divide our discussion of humor personality and our discussion of humor texture.
Put succinctly, humor personality is a quality of the work of literary art created through its preference for or dominance of some types of humor over others in its telling. Humor texture is something we as audience feel because of the perceived humor. As Suzanne Langer so eloquently argued in Feeling and Form, artistic form creates feeling perceived by the audience. Humor texture, like Langer’s artistic feeling, is an experience of the audience in the presence of an artistic work.
Having defined humor personality and humor texture, let us start to concretize these ideas with direct application to As You Like It.
If one goes to an internet search engine these days and looks up Humor and Shakespeare, it is hard not to come away with two observations: one, that many people think they can discuss Shakespeare’s humor in a very few pages; and, two, that the humor they think is worth discussing is almost entirely made up of one-liners, typically puns with scandalous references.
All of us have some reason to agree. If in our student days we have waded through the footnotes in any of many commendable complete Shakespeares, we have found out just how much we didn’t know about Elizabethan slang and how completely the age seemed to dwell on venereal disease—typically British that it should be talked about as the “French disease”—the lower half of male and the lower three quarters of female anatomy. The footnotes didn’t give us much guidance on any other principles of humor.
The slang puns of Shakespeare overlap Humor of the Body and Humor of the Mind. It turns out that humor is often like that—jokes are typically funnier and more professional if they are, in fact, complex jokes depending on a combination of disparate forms of humor for their total effect. Shakespeare’s slang and sex jokes are a case in point. Puns as puns are a mainstay of Word Play humor. Appreciation of the joke takes at least an infinitesimal second’s mental work of comparing two word groups and finding a clash between them. Puns are one of the earliest humors to develop in children, and often we may remember word play interests with child-like wonder throughout life. Paul had a colleague who always told her students how fundamentally strange and funny she found it as a child that sole of a shoe and sole the fish, and soul the anima in “animation” all sound alike. If we are honest, we probably all must admit that language’s oddities are a perpetual fascination for us and frequently a source of amusement throughout life.
But the slang puns of Shakespeare also rely on the fundamental humorousness of the body and all its parts. How strange, how wonderful to be the creatures that we are, as Miranda finds at such length and depth in Tempest. It is easy to think we are exaggerating in order to be precieux, that we are disingenuously covering the fact that it is only certain politely-not-to-be-mentioned parts of the body that are funny—until we remember Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac or the recent Steve Martin cinema take-off, Roxanne. Those with a great deal more time to read might be interested in the Patrick O’Brian's Jack Aubrey-Steven Maturin books beginning with Master and Commander. Throughout, Dr. Maturin and his abstractedly medical and scientific interests in physical body, whether of hermaphrodites or platypuses, are routinely moments of hilarity. Equally so are Maturin’s bodily idiosyncrasies, his inability, for example, to focus on physical differences that distinguish different types of ships and his incapacities for physical judgment and coordination, as, for example, in jumping from a gig to the forechains of a ship. Back to Shakespeare’s Miranda, her most quoted line, “O Brave new world. . . .” (V.i.185-6) is the wonderfully positive body joke of her first reaction on seeing an athletically young and handsome prince.
The plethora of body jokes in Shakespeare’s comedies which require endless footnotes and scholarly explication must be acknowledged. But for our purposes here, we are concentrating on the mental humors rather than humors of the body. And let our first step be simply to go with the critical flow and allow that puns, or more broadly what we call Word Play, is clearly a dominant form of humor in As You Like It.
But let us add that Word Play is a dominant form of humor in As You Like It not because it randomly throws out many one liners that are also Word Play as sops to the groundlings. Rather, As You Like It’s Word Play humor is very carefully interwoven with Shakespeare’s depiction of character and with his social plot development, and this interweaving makes the Word Play all the more dominant and memorable, as well as all the more effective in creating the humor texture we experience in As You Like It.
Thus Celia’s and Rosalind’s seemingly interminable quibbling in Act I, scene iii, has many more justifications than morsels for the groundlings. The banter is used to show their easiness with one another and, beyond their easiness, their sense of close identity. When Le Beau comes in and easily joins their quibbles, a further point is made: that the quibbles are much more than distractions for the audience. They are instead a central cultural feature of the new duke’s household. When we get out to the Forest of Arden, in Touchstone and Jacques predominantly but also to some extent in Duke Senior, we find the quibbling Word Play of Celia and Rosalind is not at all limited to the new court. It is as much a feature of the society in exile, perhaps more a feature of the court in exile than of the sitting court, since Duke Frederick is comparatively devoid of such humor.
The Word Play life style of Celia and Rosalind cannot be discarded like a garment as they prepare to flee into the forest. Instead, the Word Play becomes central to their flight as Rosalind takes on the name Ganymede and Celia the name Aliana. And in the forest, Rosalind no sooner meets Orlando than she is involving him in Word Play games that would make a steadier man’s head spin. Having succeeded with Orlando, Rosalind goes off to work Word Play on Phoebe’s romantic affairs just as Touchstone has thoroughly overborne Audrey with his. We easily get lost in the footnote references which explain all this in detail. And the lost we get is precisely lost in the details of individual one liners rather than drawing the obvious conclusion that we are witnessing a society that revels in and perhaps depends upon a plethora of words and contrived word clashes.
More than that, the Word Play is typically employed in making fine distinctions, discussion proceeding by the play of intellect, by one mind topping the rhetorical device of the other. The practice has been called “flyghting,” with at least the suggestion that good sense can easily be lost somewhere in the middle of the discussion as rhetorical flourish finally does away with all need for sense, logic, or directed thought.
Thus as we move toward establishing humor-of-the-mind personality and texture in As You Like It, we must acknowledge that clearly Word Play is at least one of the dominant forms of humor in the play, and many would claim it is the only dominant and only humor of the mind in the play. Before we leave Word Play, however, we need to expand on the “flyghting” character of Shakespeare’s rhetoric as it would be perceived by people of his time. If we today find it tedious, time-wasting, and frothy, as students so often do, so did the Puritanical aldermen of London.[i] Many Puritans, of course, did not frequent the theater, but even they were almost certainly aware of what was going on at the Globe. The theaters were railed against in numerous sermons and pamphlets.
The London aldermen in question were, of course, products of a century uniquely devoted to religious ideas and affairs. The fine distinctions of As You Like It in many ways reflect the fine distinctions then being made in biblical studies, distinctions that often resided in careful investigation not of the English Bible nor even of the Latin Bible but of the Greek text made available to Western Europe by Erasmian scholarship at the beginning of the century. We might conjecture then that the London aldermen were enchanted by the fine-distinction quibbling of Shakespeare’s thespians. Yet we know from repeated Puritan attempts to close down theaters that the London aldermen were decidedly not enchanted. As the Puritans objected strongly to elaborate dress and excessive attention to style, they would similarly object to flyghting as excessive and frivolous verbiage.
Consider the alderman who had seen or heard recited some of the Rosalind-Celia quibbles. What would the reaction of such an alderman be, an alderman who had also recently read, say, the New Testament book, Titus, with phrases running through his mind like “shun foolish controversies,. . . reject a factious man after the first and second warning, knowing that such a man is warped and is sinning, being self-condemned” (3: 9-11), or “In all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach,” and “instructing us . . . to live sensibly [other translations read ‘soberly’], righteously, and godly in the present age” (2: 7, 8a, 12). To London aldermen, the play would likely seem lacking sobriety, out of control, lost in a giddy frivolity, a mountain of words signifying almost nothing, set in unreality, resolved by dues-ex-machina fantasy.
Contrastingly, the Elizabethan courtier would realize that the ability to say little in a lot is far from drunken, far from giddy, far from frivolous. Sophisticates in London with some knowledge of the court and its practices would surely have known what we know from historical records, that Elizabeth and her court were themselves long on Word Play and flyghting. The court poetry of the age had mastered the art of Word Play lyrics, and Word Play had become a dominant motif of diplomatic language and court flattery. It was a way of life, one of the few commendable ways of life.
It was also a way to stay alive in a dangerous world of wildly swinging reprisals and anathemas. Courtiers depended on flyghting Word Play for survival, and the court depended on it for navigating treacherous international diplomatic waters. The flyghting of As You Like allowed an appreciative interest in a life style that keeps one alive and out of trouble, presented innocuously against a fairy-tale background in the Forest of Arden.
These and other disparities in reaction to flyghting based on theological/moral/social/political values will come into considerably more focus when we discuss perception of humor personality and humor texture, the feel of the play experienced by the audience.[ii]
We should note that Shakespeare’s time, with its love of rhetoric, of conceit, of poetry, of multi-media production, provided a broad rhetorical stage for advanced Word Play. J. L Styan in Shakespeare's Stagecraft explores the musical quality of what he calls “duologues” and “duets” between pairs of Shakespeare's characters, noting particularly the dance quality of the duet in As You Like It's Act IV, scene i, in which Rosalind disguised as Ganymede woos Orlando. Styan comments:
The scene proceeds with a lightness and distancing of a play-actor play-acting her part and yet being herself . . . . The dance of her words gracefully embraces and repels the loved one. (179)
While our outright laughter in this particular scene is more likely provoked by the incongruities of the drama before us, the imbedding of dramatic lines into unexpected rhetorical or artistic forms—flyghting, formal argumentation (as we shall see in I Henry IV), or even song and dance—became for Shakespeare rich extensions of what we commonly recognize as Word Play. It should come as no surprise that Shakespeare’s poetic drama is constantly long on Word Play. When we say that As You Like It is long on Word Play, it is essentially a short-cut for saying As You Like It is even longer on Word Play than the rest of the canon; As You Like It is remarkably long on Word Play compared to the consistent Shakespearean emphasis on Word Play.
We began with the obvious: As You Like It is exceedingly long on Word Play. Often in Shakespeare, we can start a humor analysis with such an obvious, dominant humor. However, going beyond a first dominant humor is routinely more challenging. Getting the combination of dominant humors reasonably right and arguable requires us to backtrack to fundamental definitions and a much more careful process for establishing second dominant humor of the mind.
We have defined the four types of Humor of the Mind which form the basis of our humor analysis as follows:
Word Play: We laugh at a humorous juxtaposition of words or parts of words.
Incongruity: We laugh at the juxtaposition of humorously unlike things or ideas.
Gotcha: We laugh because someone thinks he or she is smart and then gets got.
Sympathetic Pain: We laugh with, in sympathy for, an undeserving victim.
We have already noted the predominance of Word Play in As You Like It. In determining dominant humor-of-the-mind sub-forms of films under consideration in CTCV, choice of a second dominant humor was often difficult, and we suggested careful procedures to determine secondary dominance and careful thinking to know how to proceed when the question wasn’t easily answerable. For As You Like It, there is no particular need for such care. For Incongruity, the humorous juxtaposition of disparate things or ideas, stands out just about as strongly as Word Play as a dominant humor.
Any play that depends for several acts on a boy playing a girl playing a boy, playing a girl will almost inevitably be a play with dominant Incongruity humor. Any play that focuses on multiple characters falling in love at first sight will have abundant material for dominant Incongruity humor. Any play with even one lover populating the forest with poem-bearing trees will have set the stage for dominant Incongruity humor. Any play that features a philosophic fool much less a foolish philosopher will be ripe for dominant Incongruity humor. Any play in which sylvan exiles conduct a debate over the buck killed for their dinner is asking for a strong response of Incongruity humor. Thus Incongruity persistently nominates itself as the second dominant humor-of-the-mind sub-form in As You Like It.
If Word Play and Incongruity are the dominant humors of As You Like It, then by definition Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain are the subordinated or least represented humors of the mind. It is instructive to pause on that point.
There is little place for Gotcha in all of As You Like It, much less a humorous presentation thereof. Gotcha is a sort of humorous poetic justice: somebody overestimates his abilities, understanding, or worth and gets got for it. Charles is got early in the play when instead of killing Orlando, he is himself maimed. But that incident goes by swiftly, the injury is handled entirely in dumb show, and the romantic interest of Rosalind and Orlando separately falling in love with the other immediately distracts any attention and thus any Gotha humorous response we may have given Charles.
Similarly, in Act V, it is possible to argue that Duke Frederick is got by his conversion into giving up the dukedom and resorting to a monastery. Yet if Frederick is got, he himself doesn’t know it, feeling evidently just the reverse—that he has been saved. Moreover, the incident is only reported, having occurred off-stage, and is immediately swallowed up in the pageantry of quadruple weddings There is no time or attention available to move to Gotcha humor from Gotcha incident, if indeed the Gotcha incident exists.
Touchstone and Audrey are perhaps mutually got, but they too feel the reverse. Phoebe is certainly got in falling for the boy-girl Ganymede, but there is reason to think that she is saved from her own inanity by getting a soundly reliable husband like William.
If Gotcha is virtually absent in As You Like It, our fourth humor sub-form, Sympathetic Pain humor, is subordinated. Sympathetic Pain humor invites us to laugh with undeserving victims of life’s vicissitudes. The subordination of Sympathetic Pain humor, however, does not necessarily imply a deficiency of sympathy itself. Sympathetic Pain humor is, in fact, a substitute for real sympathy. Real sympathy requires feeling with the pain and challenges of others. As You Like It is long on sympathy and relatively short on Sympathetic Pain humor.
That said, there is certainly some room for Sympathetic Pain humor in response to Orlando’s witlessness in love and in Rosalind’s over-dominant machinations waiting for Orlando to grow up as a lover. We probably even sense a certain sympathetic pain humor in Phoebe’s yearning for someone different from the William who loves her, and in Touchstone and Audrey, those absolutely antithetical wills and intellects that love seems inevitably prone to throw together.
In short, even in a play assiduously given to Word Play and Incongruity, Shakespeare is easily perceived by sensitive audiences to be fundamentally attracted to Sympathetic Pain humor, which in As You Like It insists on lurking as a distant-third humor impetus. We will have much opportunity to return to this central fact of Sympathetic Pain humor in the Shakespearean comedic canon.
But in our analysis of the dominant humor-of-the-mind forms of As You Like It, we are left with Word Play and Incongruity as its dominant humors. To determine a humor personality on the basis of these two humor forms, we need a theoretical framework.
In our humor analysis, formation of a theoretical framework went hand-in-hand with the development of an empirical testing program, a testing program which could easily cast doubt on theory and might just lend very significant support to theory. We designed the Humor Quotient Test (HQT), a humor preference test based on pairings of the four sub-types of Humor of the Mind, and administered it to a variety of groups, including students, retirees, and community members, and eventually nursing home residents and staff. Empirical testing repeatedly confirmed the theoretical distinction of the four types of Humor of the Mind as well as the theoretical humor personalities created by the predominance of two of these four sub-types.
For our empirical testing, we posited that in individuals, the preference for two of the four types of Humor of the Mind would indicate a humor personality. And we posited that preference for various humor sub-forms would be correlated with other socio-psychological variables. With the graciously consistent support of Winona State University, its faculty, and its students, the empirical testing began in 1992. Decades later, that research was continuing outside Winona State and with a recent emphasis on humor in elder-care institutions’ residents and staffs.
In twenty years of humor-of-the mind investigation, we have benefited from testing insights derived from diverse sites including Philadelphia, PA (with associate researcher Dr. Dan Holt), the military academy at West Point (with associate researcher David Priest), and Woodruff, WI; among entirely secular groups and among religious denominational groups; with overwhelmingly female-respondent groups, with study clubs, with groups of fellow alumni gathered at Carleton College alumni reunions.
We consider all of these volunteers to be associate researchers, and for all of them we are immensely grateful.
In all this empirical testing, we have repeatedly found encouragement for the theoretical constructs with which we began the investigation. Various controlled investigations have shown that the humor personality identified for individuals by their own personal humor preferences could in a high proportion of cases be substantiated by non-related evidence from that individual’s life. In other words, the humor personality fit.
Additionally, we found that humor preference in individuals correlates positively to a great many life variables—political, social, psychological, economic, and more. In fact, whenever over that 20 years of testing we have run a test with at least 30 respondents of humor-of-the-mind preferences against other life variables, we have always, without exception, found that humor preference was indeed related to at least one of those outside variables at high or very-high (95% or 99%) confidence levels. This record is all the more remarkable in that we have done humor-of-the mind testing with almost 3,000 respondents, from college age to past 90. Perhaps it is the interconnections between humor preference and so many other preferences in life that sensitizes all of us to humor, makes us very defensive of our own sense of humor, and makes humor the extraordinarily strong spice that drowns the taste of almost everything else.
Additionally, the high number of correlates to particular humor-of-the-mind sub-forms is itself strong evidence that those sub-forms are distinct and need to be considered distinctly in critical analysis. If we say humor is humor is humor, without recognition of its distinct sub-forms, we deprive ourselves of valuable critical insights and lull ourselves into a superficial interpretation of literary work which is oblivious to much of the work’s power.
The rubrics (or titles) which Robin originally assigned to various combinations of humor-of-the-mind preferences remain today what they were when we did our first humor testing. And these rubrics and the concepts behind them are fundamental to all identifications of humor personality and humor texture in later chapters. So here we provide a short synopsis of the theory we have proposed in many other places (see “Humor Quotient Test: Theoretical Design” and CTCV, “Chapter Three: A Quadrilateral for Humor of the Mind.”
In positing that humor personality would be determined by the tested preference for two of four sub-forms of Humor of the Mind in the case of individuals and by the observed predominance of two of the four sub-forms in the case of literary works, we were necessarily creating a rubric of six personalities. (Mathematically, four items can be paired in six different ways). The names, titles, or handles—in short, the rubrics—for these six personalities were chosen not from the results of empirical testing, since that had not yet begun, but rather on the basis of inherent qualities of humor forms themselves.
In establishing the six rubrics of humor-of-the-mind pairings, it became apparent that while we tend to think that humor is by definition “not serious,” in fact, inherent qualities underlying humor of the mind are very serious., At the base of humor-of-the-mind forms are very serious values. Each one depends on appreciation for or recognition of a particular value.
Thus, Gotcha depends on a perception and appreciation of justice. After all, the overconfident butt is getting just deserts. If we cannot appreciate the justice of the braggart getting got, we will less appreciate such jokes. (An appreciation of justice distinguishes Gotcha Humor of the Mind from mere taunting, goading, and mean-spirited humorous jabs.)[iii]
Sympathetic Pain depends on a perception and an appreciation of mercy and compassion. We must recognize non-judgmentally that an undeserving victim has suffered discomfiture or pain, a pain which is, in a sense, common to humanity. Unlike Gotcha's laughter of poetic justice, Sympathetic Pain laughter extends mercy and compassion, with an understanding that we all are victims of life's vicissitudes.
Incongruity depends on a perception and an appreciation of truth and reality. If we don’t know what is true or real, we will not confidently know what is incongruous. Though they also abound in general parlance, Incongruity jokes lend themselves to insider jokes among experts because they assume a certain knowledge base, a knowledge of certain truth or certain reality which makes incongruity obvious.
And lastly Word Play depends on a perception and an appreciation of linguistic, aesthetic, or logical appropriateness. In order to enjoy the humor juxtaposition of words, we have to know what words, phrases, and logical constructions typically go together and are aesthetically pleasing. Word play in its fullest involves not only recognizing a pun when we see or hear it, but further, knowing the difference between ordinary prose and tour de force prose or poetry and recognizing literary allusion and the humorously unfitting use of literary tropes and figures of speech. To appreciate Word Play, we need to be comfortably familiar with our language.
Based on these serious underlying values, we assigned six personality names or rubrics, for the pairings available from the four humor-of-the-mind sub-forms:
Crusader (Gotcha and Incongruity): a knight, someone who sees what the problems are and tries to right the wrongs
Advocate (Gotcha and Word Play): an activist wordsmith, someone who uses verbal flair to rectify problems
Bridgebuilder (Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain): a people person, someone who sympathizes but also rectifies wrongs
Consoler (Sympathetic Pain and Word Play): a comforter, someone who sympathizes and soothes pain with the right words
Reconciler (Sympathetic Pain and Incongruity): someone who recognizes the problems and empathizes with others
Intellectual (Incongruity and Word Play): a facts-and-ideas person, someone who likes to deal perceptively with reality, facts, words, and ideas.[iv]
In order to better visualize the six personalities and their relationship to one another, we created the following Humor-of-the-Mind Circle (in other publications also referred to as the “Natural Order Circle” or the “Classical Humor Circle”).
Applying these humor personality rubrics, if we conclude, as we earlier did, that As You Like It has dominant humor forms of Word Play and Incongruity, we are also claiming that it has an Intellectual humor personality and an Intellectual humor texture. It is important to remember that “Intellectual” here does not mean or imply “smart.” It does mean preferring to work with things and ideas as opposed to people. As can be seen in Figure 1 above, Intellectual is opposite to Bridgebuilder. Opposite humor personalities anywhere in the figure are opposite because the components of humor in the one are exactly not those represented in its opposite.
Now we might protest that As You Like It embodies a love story—three love stories, if you wish. Doesn’t that make it a people story? How can it be Intellectual? Why not Bridgebuilder?
Of course, all theatre involves characters and their interaction. Not all theatre has a Bridgebuilder humor personality. And while the plot of As You Like it does end in three voluntary—and one involuntary—marriages, the interaction of As You Like It rather than promoting romance, stalls it. In fact, the stall is persistent enough that without the intervention of Providence, the action risks becoming another Love’s Labors’ Lost.
Still we might ask how can a play so characterized by seeming lack of motivation and vast improbability be Intellectual?
We might equally ask what else would it be? What else is left to Rosalind and Celia, to these women of rank, schooled in the art of flyghting, of making fine discriminations with endless verbal flair, now biding their time in Arcadia? What other than intellect is left to these refugees from the court where real-life issues of justice and mercy are dispatched, now having to temporize until some greater authority arrives to appropriate justice and mercy for satisfactory resolution?
The order of the day is to temporize by playing intellectual games.
We could also ask what other kind of humor personality is fitting for Jacques, that melancholy philosopher who can contemplate his venison supper from a deer’s point of view? And what is more fitting for Orlando, a voluminous writer and publisher of poetry—bad poetry, admittedly? But humor Intellectual personality does not presume good poetry, only a preference for dealing with words, things, and ideas rather than grappling with the gnarly relational issues of justice and mercy.
An Intellectual humor personality is quite appropriate for a comedy which asserts the great value of equivocating and temporizing with sophisticated quibbles and fine rhetorical discriminations until such time as power relationships have clarified. Probably both the Puritanical London alderman and the Elizabethan courtier perceived the Intellectual quality of As You Like It, even if disagreeing on the moral character of flyghting. And modern students dizzy from consulting clarifying footnotes are likely to agree: so many words, so many fine distinctions, so little action, so little reality. In short, whether we look at the play’s personality from the presumed prejudices of Puritanic aldermen, sophisticated Elizabethan courtiers, or modern students in an introductory Shakespeare section, the humor personality can be something to agree upon even amidst acrimony over fuller literary judgment.
In assigning As You Like it an Intellectual humor personality, we must emphasize that analysis of humor personality is not meant to be a Procrustean bed, either for Shakespeare criticism or any other criticism. And highly artistic mastery like Shakespeare’s makes inevitable that the personality of any of his plays is unique. The assessment of As You Like It as having an Intellectual humor personality is built on solid foundations typical of a wide range of plays dominated by Intellectual humor, but it is a somewhat oversimplified conclusion and labeling As You Like It as merely Intellectual is not quite sufficient.
As You Like It is more than a puzzle, something out there, engaging our minds yet quite detached from us and our sympathies, precisely because of Shakespeare’s proclivity to sympathy. He is Gentle Will, and he requires that we have certain sympathy with Orlando as dispossessed third son; that we admire Adam as the old, trusted servant finally put to the test he will pass with flying colors; that we respect, admire, appreciate, and sympathize with Celia’s sacrificial love for her cousin.
The uniqueness of Shakespeare’s presentation of Intellectual personality in As You Like It is heavily influenced by the constant intrusion of sympathetic presentations and of subordinated Sympathetic Pain humor, not from flashy one-liners but from a steady undercurrent. Throughout whole acts of the play, we are invited to smile in Sympathetic Pain humor for Rosalind dressed as a boy bringing Orlando up to speed as an adult love. We smile with Orlando’s effusive expressions of love even as we laugh at his bad poetry. And even as we laugh at the body humor of Touchstone’s honestly sensual need for Audrey, we smile with him in his unabashed humanity. The course of love never did run smooth, and the challenges in romance easily create an undercurrent of Sympathetic Pain humor.
The humor personality of As You Like It is, thus, finally tense and complex, but if we must assign it a simple character or personality, it is an Intellectual personality. And that Intellectual personality is appropriate to and reinforcing of the comedic import of the play.
As You Like It’s comedic subject matter is exile, unjust separation from rights of civilization, station, and culture. Orlando’s opening speech is entirely centered on this issue, and the quadruple marriages that culminate the play are still within the forest world of exile. If comedy centers on success or survival, how then can one survive or succeed in exile? Shakespeare’s answer is an intellectual answer, an answer about intellectual activity during exile, and in that sense Intellectual humor is a natural enhancement to the play’s subject matter and to its comedic import.
In a society like Elizabethan England where class distinction is an inherent, indubitable reality, exile for those of the upper classes is something of a suspended animation. Orlando’s class has been suspended for the better part of a lifetime, a suspension in lack of nurture. Because he is an ingénue, he doesn’t resort to Word Play to bide his time. As a result, he antagonizes his brother and almost gets himself murdered.
The duke in the forest is still a duke, his courtiers are still nobles, his fool is still a court jester, but they are all suspended, awaiting circumstances that allow them to become their active selves again. Because they are sophisticates, they endure their exile with especially the Word Play of intellect and await what Providence sends their way.
And in that suspended state of animation, things need to—and may be allowed to—settle out. Duke Senior officiates in this settling out process, gives it its theological-philosophical key as the gracious duke that he is. As much as any Puritanical London alderman, the duke has read the Epistles; he knows that it is the mark of Christian character exemplified by St. Paul to know how to do with little as well as to know how to do with much. He, like St. Paul, is willing to be all things to all men in order to win the more. And in the end, by letting things settle out, he has won both the beauty and truth of the forest as well as his recovered dukedom, his daughter as well as a new dynasty in the image of his old exemplary friend, Roland du Boys.
The key to the Duke’s comedic winning—and society’s winning—so very much is precisely the ability to let things settle out, through long discussion, careful distinction, reflection, acceptance of what is, patience in affliction awaiting a better time—heady matter certainly.
There is a certain poignant longing in As You Like It for a basically agrarian society. It was a rare nobleman in Shakespeare’s England who spent all his time in metropolitan London. Typically, even the highest nobles retreated for a large part of the year to live as lords of their manors in rural England. The practical ideal of society, easily still discernible in the gentry classes of Jane Austen, was to mix metropolitan sophistication with rustic, almost exilic withdrawal. Shakespeare speaks especially through Duke Senior but also through all the material he borrowed from Rosalynde as well as through the humor structure and the texture he employs to that distanced reality and texture with its slower, almost bogged-down tempo which was a major social ideal of the age, an ideal we often speak of as ‘Arcadian.’
Thus we would argue that Intellectual humor personality, with a distinct undercurrent of Sympathetic Pain, is highly appropriate to the themes and comedic import of the play, particularly given the audience before whom it originally was played.
So let us turn now to humor texture, tone, or feel. Apprehending humor texture is always difficult, because like physical texture, it adheres to and is embodied in some vehicle, yet it remains distinct from that vehicle. Think of a very soft robe. We find it extremely difficult to think of the softness as independent of the robe that creates that softness response, extremely difficult to think of the robe as one thing and the apprehended softness as another. The softness ultimately is not in the robe; the softness is in our feeling. The personality of the play and its feel to us, its texture, are two entirely separate though strongly related realities.
Different dramatic humor personalities have different textures, created by their combination of humor-of-the mind sub-forms. For As You Like It, it will be useful to consider first the texture of Word Play, both as it is felt broadly in dramatic works and as it can be felt by distinct audiences.
Plays that emphasize Word Play will as a whole seem, not surprisingly, wordy. If the author slips at all, the wordy texture will move toward slowness, loss of direction, and lack of dramatic action.
Word Play humor normally resides heavily in one-liners. This typically makes for a “flashy,” even brilliant texture. One-liners coming fast on one another’s heels create a “punchy” style. It is easy, however, for a play long on Word Play to have too many punches and to lose a sense of direction in the process, in short, to feel “punch drunk” (and thus an opposite of sober and sensible). If all these points sound vaguely reminiscent of remarks in a wide range of As You Like It practical criticism, we suggest that the remarks are a response to humor texture.
If there is a difference between our position and many of these remarks, it is that we tend to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt concerning artistic quality. If As You Like It seems slow, we do not posit that that slowness must be a matter of some authorial slip. If As You Like It may seem to modern students as losing the forest for the trees in all the footnotes about quibbles, we do not posit that this must indicate that Shakespeare became punch drunk with his own excessive penchant for puns. As You Like It has been recognized as one of the Great Plays for centuries. Great Plays have method even when from some later perspective they may appear at first to have slipped into madness.
We can make a quick check on normal textural features of heavily Word Play-oriented comedy with two films treated much more thoroughly in Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle. Since these two films are separated from Shakespeare by four centuries as well as by the Atlantic Pond, readers can judge for themselves whether there are indeed similarities in humor-textural effects over such a large temporal and cultural distance.
In CTCV, we spent full chapters on Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride and Disney’s Aladdin. In both films, we found, Word Play to be a dominant humor. And in both films, Word Play is heavily concentrated in a single character: in Father of the Bride, Franck, and in Aladdin, Genie (admittedly with significant help from Iago the Parrot). Franck and Genie arguably create the most memorable scenes of their respective films. Similarly, in As You Like It, Rosalind’s flow of words with some help from Touchstone and Jacques, may be all many audiences remember.
Texturally, the Word Play parts of both these movies are wordily extravagant, tour de force. Action stops; style and verbiage become all. In both movies, there is a sense that action has been minimized, probably has been minimized quite objectively, in order to make room for all the words. In Father of the Bride, Martin Short’s Franck threatens to steal the show from Steve Martin. But more significant to the structure and texture of the film, Franck’s verbal pyrotechnics undermine all of Martin’s attempts to control his life and his wallet. The texture of too many words and loss of bearings or direction, so strong in Father of the Bride, transfers to an understanding of George’s ravaged personhood. At the same time, it prepares us for the reentry of meaning and direction in George’s life with Annie’s final phone call back to her dad from the airport. The words are few, simple and decidedly not centered in Word Play. And George’s world starts to turn again.
Aladdin, even more than Father of the Bride, exhibits Word Play scenes stopping the action of the film, fundamentally stopping it every time Genie (and thus Robin Williams) enters. Genie is constantly on the verge of eclipsing the romantic comedy of Aladdin. Genie’s verbal virtuosity is mesmerizing. It is only when Jaffar is master of Genie—and the verbal virtuosity stops—that Aladdin finds himself and his own inner strengths.
Other plays that can be compared for dominant Word Play include Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest and most of Gilbert and Sullivan (Bradley).
Because of its wordiness, its piling one punchy line on another, As You Like It, always seems on the verge of losing all sense of direction, and many modern students in honesty would have to admit that the play finally fails to hold them in. The general texture of wordiness to the destruction of sense eventually attaches most strongly to Orlando who is lost in love from Act I on and finds it easier to live in the noisy nonsense of Rosalind lecturing him on love than to move on. And it is Orlando’s decision that he “can no longer live by thinking” (V.ii.49) that allows the status quo to be broken in favor of a quick deus-ex-machina conclusion.
As all three of these dramatic works show in related but separate ways, extensive Word Play can easily have centrally important artistic purposes, precisely because it can produce a giddy, “punch drunk” texture, a texture that destroys dramatic movement and that implies malaise and discontent. George, Aladdin, and Orlando finally need to escape the mesmerizing effects of Word Play and its concomitant malaise in order to become their true selves.
Thus dominant Word Play humor commonly has a texture that is wordy, punchy, flashy, simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically creating a sense of lugubriousness, loss of direction and malaise.
Additionally, some Word Play textures may be perceived differently by different audiences. Just as wool may feel soft and comfy to one person but itchy and intolerable to another, so Word Play may soothe some audiences and irritate others.
For example, let’s consider the modern student. Our student diligently checks every footnote in the assigned Complete Shakespeare, all the while noticing that checking footnotes every two or three lines makes quite a hash of any sense of dynamic forward movement in the play.
What texture will so much and so consistent Word Play create for As You Like It? Texture can be subtle. In this case, it shouldn’t be in the least subtle. The student will feel the play is frustrating! —though occasionally humorous—and foreign, having been written in a language that no longer exists except through scholarly attention. Moreover, this texture, this sense of the play, will tend to remain long after the play itself is only dimly remembered—the Cheshire smile that remains after the cat itself has vanished.
But, of course, the modern student is hardly the imagined audience for any of Shakespeare’s plays. So now let us consider the texture from the perspective of the Puritanical London alderman, a perspective which Shakespeare quite likely had to continually deal with as an unpleasant fact of his occupation.
We know historically that the aldermen of London were fundamentally opposed to players, playwrights, and theatres. We have already noted that such aldermen were likely to deem As You Like It and particularly its quibbling Word Play to be giddy, frivolous, out of control, in serious danger of perversion and of condemnation. They would judge it to be so intellectually, and they would also feel it to be so by its texture. And thus they would find the play cause for considerable discomfort and consternation.
We do not have to agree with Puritan sensibilities to recognize the indubitable historical reality that the texture was felt and, furthermore, that it prompted or confirmed strong political stances which were, to say the least, inconvenient for both Shakespeare and for the theatrical community of his time. It is easy to deplore such sensitivities or simply to refuse to grapple with them, but the textural issues involved had enormous practical consequences in Shakespeare’s day and should be easily recognizable even today. And again, we suspect that the texture, the feel, the Cheshire smile was what remained to be fought over, rather than the more objective realities of As You Like It. We also have substantial evidence that the majority of aldermen in Shakespeare’s home town, his father’s colleagues, had similar religious concerns, and even that Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, was from such a Puritan background.[v]
So such audience-specific textural features could not have been lost on Shakespeare the man. Thus the real answer to the Puritanical alderman is not simply to “spit in his eye,” refuse to admit such thinking in the slightest degree, or to launch into some counter-sermon on religious intolerance. Word Play creates texture or textures. Great artists like Shakespeare know that humor creates texture, and they use that knowledge to make great art with exquisite texture.
Much more to the artistic point is to recognize that high incidence of Word Play humor creates a textural lack of sobriety for a very wide range of audiences, not just London aldermen. A fully conscious dramatic artist takes that into account, works with it, builds upon it. In short, a master dramatist like Shakespeare is neither giddy nor punch drunk. There is method to his madness, not the least of which is “by indirections to find directions out” artistically.
But now let us consider the texture likely to be sensed by a third audience, the sophisticates in London who were at least aware of, if not participating in flyghting as a way of life. For such an audience, the extensive Word Play of As You Like It would have created a texture of easy, assured sophistication. Rather than consternation over behavior flirting with the edge of moral depravity if not going over that edge, the sophisticates would likely feel a comfort, an at-homeness, a reassurance that social and diplomatic minefields can be handled, skirted, or just plain ignored, at least for the night. And that audience is, of course, far closer to the actual general audience Shakespeare could see in front of him whenever he played on stage than either an imaginary Puritan audience of the late 1590’s or student audience in Shakespeare’s Comedies today.
One final point about the fittingness of Word Play in As You Like It needs to be made. In our empirical research in humor preference, we have found that consistently Word Play is preferred more by women than by men. While we have above analyzed two examples of Word Play delivered by men, in As You Like It the Word Play is almost entirely delivered by women. And particularly flyghting is displayed by women. It is hardly accidental that flyghting was a way of life in the court of the queen, Queen Elizabeth. At a subliminal level, the texture of As You Like It is the texture of Elizabeth’s court, and thus it is a somewhat feminized texture as well.
We can then move on from an analytic sense of the texture created by Word Play to an analytic sense of the texture created by Incongruity. Incongruity humor is the humor of mature thinking Our studies, published in the Humor Quotient Newsletter (HQN), have shown a positive correlation between Incongruity appreciation and critical thinking, presumably mature thinking (Grawe, R. 1997. HQN 3-2). Like Word Play, Incongruity humor creates a certain feeling of emotional detachment but mental engagement which is alive to disparities, inclusive of inconsistencies, tolerant of uncertainties. It is mentally light-footed, ready to adapt to the next ringer that life, or the play, throws at us. Such a texture is highly appropriate for the temporizing comedy of As You Like It.
So far we have been analytically considering the various textures created by extensive use of Word Play and Incongruity within a dramatic work. But we have argued that humor texture is created not only by individual humor sub-forms but also by combinations of dominant humor sub-forms. Given that we have ascribed to As You Like It an Intellectual humor personality, what textures can we expect to be felt from the combination of Word Play and Incongruity?
We would argue that the texture normally created by Intellectual humor personality is hard-finished, detached, and emotionally disengaged. Intellectual humor may also invite us as audience to feel lightly bemused, amusedly intrigued, pleasantly contemplative of the action and dialogue, judicious yet reserving judgment, refraining from attachment or emotional commitment. Intellectual humor is likely to make us feel mentally engaged but emotionally detached.
Of course, tour de force Word Play by itself can easily create a sense of detachment. We as audience become mere observers of a breath-taking, punchy performance. But the addition of Incongruity in As You Like It magnifies that detached sense immensely. How can we get emotionally engaged in a play where a boy is playing a girl who is playing a boy who is playing a girl? How can we become fully engaged with a wooer who publishes bad poetry all over the forest? How can we be emotionally serious or even intellectually serious about a philosopher who contemplates the perspective of his dinner?
Yet it is not merely the addition of Incongruity to Word Play that creates the texture of detachment. The absence of Gotcha creates an absence of bitterness and vindictiveness. And this absence of Gotcha humor has a notable negative effect on texture, on how we feel about the play. There is an absence of envy, and absence of bitterness in the texture of As You Like It, which as a pastoral has moved beyond all such emotions resulting from a fallen world in favor of a return to innocence, beauty, and nature. Rank and station, in Renaissance terms, are mere accidents. The reality of the gift of life, of experience, even the sharp experience of the winter wind and chilling cold, are gifts that are wasted in recriminatory emotions or even in the sense of just deserts that underlies Gotcha humor.
Such detachment is appropriate for an Arcadian escape from court intrigue and betrayal. And as it portrays an escape from dangerous reality into an undefined forest, it simultaneously provides an escape for its audience from the dangers and intrigues that lurk in their real lives. An irresponsible escape from reality, according to the Puritanical alderman. A welcome temporary release to the sophisticates. The better to sleep on.
In CTCV, our exemplar film for Intellectual personality and texture was The Music Man, where we find the same kind of detachment and disengagement that we find in As You Like It. We see the sure-fire pyrotechnics and punchiness of dazzling Word Play of the fast-talking salesman in “Trouble.” We also see the same sense of lack of bitterness or vindictiveness resulting from the near absence of Gotcha humor. However, we do not find the sense of lugubriousness, of stop-action that we find in As You Like It, in large part because much of the Word Play is in song—in music, which has its own lively tempo and its own sense of forward motion. (We are used to musicals stopping dramatic action for a song, though few musicals are as proficient as Music Man in maintaining the sense of dramatic action through the song.) On the other hand, we do find in Music Man a hard finish, which is much less present in As You Like It because of the sense of sympathy and the subordinated Sympathetic Pain humor of the play.
In our earlier establishment of humor personality based on two dominant humor-of-the-mind sub-forms, we noted that while Gotcha was nearly absent from As You Like It, that a consistent undercurrent of Sympathetic Pain humor ran throughout the play. We cannot help but smile at Rosalind’s frustrations in trying to educate Orlando and at Orlando’s juvenile attempts to express a manly love. This humorous undercurrent cannot compete with Word Play and Incongruity for out-loud laughs, but it has a significant effect on humor texture: it blunts the hard finish normally present in Intellectual humor, and it softens the sense of detachment and disengagement. It reminds us that we are watching a production of Gentle Will.
For the present, As You Like It can be quickly characterized as having an Intellectual humor texture, which means, at a minimum, that it feels distanced and disengaging, that it frequently feels wordy and directionless, even frustrating. All these textures interact with a comedic import of success and survival achieved precisely through expedient though frustrating delay and prevarication, through suspended animation and an ability to do with little as well as with much, thus allowing things to providentially progress until animated living can begin again.
[ii] It should not be thought that this Puritan reaction to flyghting indicates a general adversity to Word Play among Christians who study their Bibles diligently. On the contrary, in the early 1990’s empirical testing of humor-of-the-mind preference of an admittedly very small group of six linguists working for Wycliffe Bible Translators resulted in 5 of 6 preferring Word Play and Gotcha of four mental humors. Later testing has only confirmed this finding (Grawe, P. HQN 1-1). [Return to text.]
[iii] In 2006, we administered the HQT at an alumni reunion at Carleton College. Upon learning his personal test results, a classmate of Paul’s commented, “I always thought I was mean-spirited, and now you’re telling me I’m interested in justice!” [Return to text.]
[iv] One very small test at WSU shows how these rubrics have borne out in empirical testing. Six students were asked to choose from these rubrics the one that best fit their personality and then to write a 500-word essay defending why they were most that rubric rather than any other. Five weeks later, they took our Classical Humor test and compared their self-estimates with the humor test results. Five and a half of six answers matched between essay and humor test result. The half point was scored by a foreign student whose humor test score for two leading rubrics was identical. Statistically, even for such a small sample size, this incredibly high rate of matching is something like a million-to-one random result. [Return to text.]