Course: What’s So Funny? Ancient Comedy

HC 221H

Professor: Corinne Bayerl

This seminar will consider what comedy tells us about the sense of humor of a given society and its deep-rooted hopes, fears, and convictions. We will explore why writers choose to create comedies to deal with ‘deadly serious’ problems in their societies, and how their comedies relate to the ethical values, cultural practices, and political ideas of their time. To this effect, we will first explore how, in the Western world, comedy evolved from its ritual origins into a highly sophisticated form of political and cultural satire. We will first read texts by Aristophanes, a Greek playwright well-known both for his obscene language as well as his sharp comments on politics. We will then treat ourselves to Roman comedies by Plautus and Terence, exploring the ways in which comedy supports or transgresses social norms and gender roles within the Roman world.

Are we always able to understand what is considered funny in other cultures? Is there anything like a universal 'essence' of comedy? Or does comedy have a different role in societies across space and time? Reading a 13th-century Chinese comedy will put these assumptions to the test, and also open up our understanding of the cultural status of laughter and comedy in Non-Western societies. Towards the end of our class we will explore why comedy reappears in Europe in the late Middle Ages under the guise of farces, and how Shakespeare richly exploits the tradition of farce in “The Comedy of Errors.”

The main goal of this class is to practice and improve your reading and writing skills. You will have ample opportunity to share and discuss your writing, both serious and funny.