Middle Class Problems: Shakespeare's jokes were never that funny ... so why do those buffoons guffaw on hearing them?


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The Independent Online

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the canon shall not be criticised. Austen, natch; Dickens, in spite of the ridiculous coincidences; and, of course, the Bard, Mr Globe, the Elizabethan elegist, the odious odist. That's right: odious.

Big Willy is, of course, the man behind the first "Knock, knock" – though it wasn't terribly funny at the time, given it was embroiled in treason, murder and politics in Macbeth. Still, it kills compared with some of his "jokes".

"A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind."

"Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind."

A FART JOKE! In The Comedy of Errors! Error's right…

"It becomes me well enough, does't not?" prattles Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night about his hair, to which Sir Toby Belch replies:

"Excellent; it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off." Which is obviously a gag about syphilis.

Boom and, if you will, tish.

The thing is, when reading these plays, one can take some joy from the cleverness of the puns. So is it acceptable to knock our national poet off his pedestal? No, probably not – but what about going to see one of his comedies. Aye, as the Sweet Swan himself wrote, there's the flippin' rub. Because the experience is ruined by buffoons who guffaw on hearing those lines. Number one, the jokes were never that funny; and number two, no one could understand Elizabethan English that readily – unless, that is, they prepared by reading a CliffsNotes guide, the phony blowhards.