Holiday Humor

Lenny Gannes

Writer’s comment: Many literature teachers blow the dust from a leather bound book and present untouchable literature. John Boe brought William Shakespeare to life by introducing the class to William the lawn bowler, the actor, the father, and the person. Although William Shakespeare lived in a very different time, his writing is still entertaining and relevant today. I tried to find the relevance his plays had to my everyday life and at the same time be entertaining.
—Lenny Gannes

Instructor’s comment: I based my assignment for the first paper for English 118, Shakespeare for Non-Majors, on an influential work of scholarship, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy by C. L. Barber. I asked the students to write about the holiday impulse (and about holiday language) in Henry IV, Part 1, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. While most of my students had limited experience in English courses (and none of them had read Barber), I was delighted by the intelligence and enthusiasm they brought to the assignment. My favorite paper was by Lenny Gannes, an engineering major. I was fascinated with his illuminating comparison of the Jewish holiday of Purim with holiday in Shakespeare. I was also struck by his ability to talk about Shakespeare’s language as well as his plot, to show how, in language, Shakespeare creates a sense of “holiday.” Despite his lack of literary training, Lenny demonstrated in his paper his sophistication, intelligence, and originality.
—John Boe, English Department

The Jewish holiday Purim celebrates the rescue of the ancient Jews of Persia from certain destruction at the hands of Haman. The fair queen Ester tricks the villain, and Haman betrays himself before the king. Each year the story is read aloud amidst great celebration. The children, and even the adults, dress up as their favorite character in the story. Each time Haman’s name is uttered, everyone makes as much noise as they can to blot out his evil name. According to Jewish tradition, the adults should become so intoxicated on Purim that they can not distinguish Haman from the heroes, Mordechai and Ester. (This is one of the few times that overindulging of this sort is condoned.)
      On the eve of Purim Jews dress up as part of the holiday celebration. Being in costume gives a certain freedom of action because one is not “himself.” This same freedom prevails in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Rosalind dresses up as the male character Ganymede. Hidden behind the costume of Ganymede, she speaks freely with Orlando as she would not be able to in her female role, and Orlando loses his shyness and lack of words. Similarly in Henry IV, Part One Falstaff and Prince Henry play the part of the king. They are putting on a mini-play within a play and are filling roles that are not their own.
      In order to enter the holiday spirit, people must leave their everyday selves and put on a costume. In the modern world, people have their working and studying attitudes and their free-time costume. The costume may not be literal, although it could be in the case of a costume party, but these attitudes are easily put on and taken off to fit the occasion. Prince Henry, after a discussion with Poins about the great jest they will play on Falstaff, changes his speech pattern from prose to blank verse. Hal speaks to himself about when he will eventually become a serious man and “when this loose behavior I throw off/And pay the debt I never promised” (I.ii.205-6). He very easily switches from the free pattern of prose to the more serious blank verse.
      Ester's tricking Haman was more serious than a mere practical joke. However, playing jokes on other people is an integral part of holiday humor. In Henry IV, Part One, the Prince and Poins set up a jest to trick Jack Falstaff. While convincing the prince to take part in this joke, Poins says, “The virtue of this jest will be the incomprehensible lies that this same fat rogue will tell us...and in the reproof of this lives the jest” (I.ii.183-7). Falstaff will be caught in the trap, and all his friends at the pub will laugh at him. Poins and the prince are in a holiday humor, and wish to laugh and be entertained even more, so they set up a practical joke that entraps Falstaff. In Twelfth Night poor Malvolio is convinced that Olivia would like to marry him. But in this case the jest is not disproving Malvolio’s lies, but instead, as Fabian put it, “How he jets under his advanced plumes!” (II.iv.29-30). Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew watch from the side as Malvolio makes a fool of himself. Part of holiday humor is embodied in setting up jests that ensnare friends, so that after the jest is exposed everyone can laugh about it together. The trick played on Malvolio crossed the limits of holiday humor because after the joke was completed Malvolio was still an outsider.
      The language of holiday humor relies tremendously on the double meanings of words. In all three plays the characters will use the secondary meaning of a word. In Twelfth Night Maria tells Sir Toby, “but you must confine yourself within the modest limits of order” (I.ii.7-8). Sir Toby twists the word “confine” to mean his clothing and answers, “These clothes are good enough to drink in, and so be these boots too” (I.ii.9-10). In these three plays the clowns and Falstaff are the epitome of the holiday humor. They represent the fool not bound by the self-imposed time limits of the royalty. They live in their own world of eternal holiday. The clown in Twelfth Night defines himself not as a fool but as a “corrupter of words” (III.i.37). The clown in a sense has defined the language of holiday humor. Words are twisted to mean something different from what the orator meant. In a holiday atmosphere other people and what they say are not taken seriously. This opens possibilities to play with their words.
      The language of holiday humor is also exaggerated. Falstaff fits right in with his bragging account of his attack on the merchants. However, even more important than stretching of the truth is the use of repetitive wording. When Falstaff is playing the part of Hal and Prince Henry has taken the role of the king, Jack describes himself in the following manner: “sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff” (II.iv.480-3). In modern, common speech this is overly repetitive. However, in the context of this role playing, it enhances the merry making. In As You Like It, Rosalind swears to Orlando:

By my troth, and in good earnest, and so God mend me, and by all pretty oaths that are not dangerous, if you break one jot of your promise or come one minute behind your hour, I will think you the most pathetical break-promise, and the most hollow lover, and the most unworthy of her you call Rosalind. (IV.i.185-92)

      Rosalind has stretched what could have been one short sentence into a long list of equivalent words. In a holiday atmosphere the characters use long repetitive phrases because there is no time limit on the merry making. There is no set schedule for parties as there is in everyday life. The participants want the jesting to continue forever. The same sense of holiday humor exists in the Forest of Arden. The Duke Senior says to his noblemen:

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods More free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we not the penalty of Adam. (II.i.2-5)

In the Garden of Eden all things were provided to Adam and he had no worries. The forest releases the noblemen from the duties of court. As Orlando says, “There’s no clock in the forest” (III.ii.302). In the Forest of Arden, as in holiday humor, people are freed from time restraints.
      Purim, with its holiday revelry, comes once a year. In order to prepare for the festivities, Jews shed their everyday garments and replace them with their holiday costumes. Costumes and role playing are also an integral part of holiday humor in As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV, Part One. Costumes give the characters a degree of freedom in their actions because they are not themselves. In these three plays holidays are islands of freedom from the time constraints of court life. Excess time shows itself in the exaggerated holiday speech and in practical jokes played at the expense of others.