That’s Not Funny: Comic Forms, Didactic Purpose, and Physical Injury in Medieval Comic Tales

That’s Not Funny: Comic Forms, Didactic Purpose, and Physical Injury in Medieval Comic Tales

By Mary E. Leech

LATCH: A Journal for the Study of the Literary Artifact in Theory, Culture, or History, Vol. 1 (2008)

Abstract: Comedy, though often seen by the ancients as a lesser form of art, has a certain form and structure that audiences expect. Comedy serves an important social function. It alleviates social fears, draws a community together by defining its values, and often works as a critique of a culture in a non-threatening manner. The main way comedy is able to do this critique is by distancing the audience from actual pain and violence.

However, one comic tale, the French “The Castrated Woman,” breaks many of these comic structures, in some ways almost working directly against the normal social goals of comedy. Part of the shrew-taming tradition, this tale presents violence that is unusually graphic. The masculine order within this tale is often subverted, calling into question the very foundation of patriarchal ideals. This study examines how this tale violates comic sensibilities, and what purpose these deviations may serve.

The purpose of comedy and the exact constitution of the comic have been queried by rhetoricians, artists, philosophers, and psychologists, from Aristotle down through Freud and Jung. In the ancient world, rhetoricians considered comedy the lowest form of rhetoric, a careful balancing act of creating pleasure in laughter without being offensive or vulgar. Since rhetoric and poetry were seen by the ancients as having a didactic purpose, comedy was not usually the main concern of high or liberal art, primarily because comedy was seen as emphasizing the less appealing aspects of the human character. Because of this view of comedy, the content of comic works could be used for social commentary and criticism without fear of serious repercussions. In modern culture, comedy is presented as light entertainment, with dramatic stories and tragedies seen as the more serious form of art. Yet the satire of comedians such as George Carlin and Jon Stewart provides strong criticism of social standards. In this way, the comedy still challenges the audience to examine what it values and become more thoughtful about its principles.

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