I found myself wondering whether you could draw up a top ten of Shakespeare's best jokes the other night. What I had in mind wasn't the sort of thing that an Elizabethan audience would have identified as a joke – those tedious gags about "the prick o' noon", which have contemporary actors hauling at their crotches so that a modern audience doesn't miss the double entendre.
Nor was it the even more obscure bits of Southwark wordplay that prompt some audience members into the forced guffaw I think of as "footnote laughter", not actually an expression of amusement at all but a boast about superior knowledge. And it certainly wasn't any of the jokes told by the Fool in Lear.
What I meant were the kinds of jokes that still strike an audience directly and almost never fail if the production is even halfway decent. The thought had been prompted, in fact, by a good example of the form, in Ian Rickson's new production of Hamlet at the Young Vic. The line comes after the death of Polonius, when Hamlet – after a lot of riddling speech – has finally revealed where he's stowed the body. As Claudius orders the attendants to go and recover the body, Hamlet calls out after them, "He will stay till ye come."
It got a laugh the other night, and it pretty much always does. That's partly because the whole scene can be funny (it begins with another durably good joke, which turns on our assumption that if a man is at supper he's the diner and not the dinner). But it's also because the comedy isn't in the language, but in the context and delivery. Generally speaking, the actor gets the laugh, here, not the words, which are as flatly plain as you can get in English. There's some humour in that, of course – that Hamlet should react to atrocity in such a matter-of-fact way. But there's also the flash of character in the mordancy of the line, in Hamlet's reminder that you don't have to run to catch a dead man. And one of the significant things about this line is that it's not so joke-like in its form that it can fail, as other Shakespearian jokes regularly do.
Simplicity of expression turns out to be a common feature in the other examples I came up with too. Hotspur's sardonic reply to Glendower, for example, after the former has boasted that he can call "spirits from the vasty deep". "Why so can I, or so can any man/ But will they come when you do call them?" Or Rosalind's cutting remark to Phebe about her marriage prospects in As You Like It: "I must tell you friendly in your ear/ Sell when you can: you are not for all markets". None of these lines require any kind of scholarly gloss in performance and their comedy can (when things go well) strike us as startlingly fresh. In fact, we're complacently inclined to praise such lines as "remarkably modern", which is just another way of patting ourselves on the back for being more knowing than our predecessors. They're not modern at all, they're just funny in precisely the same way they would have been funny to an Elizabethan audience.
Where Shakespeare's verbal comedy survives through a kind of pickling – its taste irretrievably altered by the process – these kinds of jokes are imperishable because they're so dry and spare on the page. In effect, they need reconstituting in performance before they can work at all, and what gets added to reconstitute them is exactly the same now as it was back then, which is our shared knowledge of the frailties of human character. I can't prove this assertion, of course, but I'm willing to bet that when the first audiences to Much Ado About Nothing laughed at Benedick's gloriously self-deceiving concession, "No, the world must be peopled", what struck them as funny was precisely what makes us laugh too now. That would be up there in the top five, surely, a line that actors must love almost as much as they dread the stale puns and laboured wordplay in other speeches. It's virtually impossible not to get a laugh on that line, and nobody's pretending or being polite when they do it.
Why Vic and Bob's fans aren't going to let it lie
I don't know whether the cancelling of Shooting Stars will stand. At the time of writing, various campaigns and petitions have been launched to get the BBC to change their minds and the Radio Times poll on the matter was running at roughly 28 per cent in favour of the decision to 72 per cent against. Twitter commentators were overwhelmingly furious about the announcement (Lee Nelson was being held personally responsible by quite a few of them, for some reason) and the general consensus seemed to be that the BBC had taken leave of its senses. I have a confession, though. I clicked a thumbs-down for the programme on the Radio Times site, partly because it was the only way of finding out what the rolling result was but also because I hadn't actually watched the series for ages. There was something else in there too, as well, which was the sense that it's really not the worst thing in the world for talented people to be prevented from doing what has long become second nature to them. If they own the rights, I'm sure Vic and Bob could sell the format to another channel tomorrow, just as Big Brother was sold on to Channel 5. That would be good news for their distressed fans but I think it might be bad news for them, artistically speaking at least. Who knows what will emerge now that Shooting Stars isn't blocking the exit?
A da Vinci by any other name?
Are you feeling left out by the great Leonardo da Vinci stampede? I wouldn't blame you if you were, since the mechanism of media coverage in such cases is virtually designed to generate a sense of exclusion. First of all a blockbuster show is over-excitedly hyped in a handful of places. That coverage drives early sales, which drives further hype – and then early attenders find it difficult to do anything else but add to the general hubbub of rapture. How can you go and say "meh" to this year's "must-see show"? Soon the critical equivalent of a firestorm has started, sucking in fresh oxygen – and those who find they've left it too late to book tickets just have to warm themselves from a distance. So let me offer a very small consolation. I'm not going to say "meh". It's a pretty special exhibition. But there's also a very telling caption on the wall at one point, to the effect that every Milan Leonardo in the show was at one point attributed to another painter altogether. Think of that. These apogees of human genius were once by some of art's also-rans, and scholarly interest rather than quasi-religious rapture would have been the required reaction. And if they weren't "unmissable" with the wrong name on them it's surely possibly that you can survive without seeing them now.