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Reviewed by:
  • Humour in the Arts: New Perspectives ed. by Vivienne Westbrook and Shun-liang Chao
  • Emma Sullivan (bio)
Humour in the Arts: New Perspectives. Edited by Vivienne Westbrook and Shun-liang Chao. New York: Routledge, 2019. 230 pp.

This collection is an unusually coherent and well-managed collection of articles, suggesting a clear editorial vision and close collaboration between the editors and their contributors. Given the ambition of the book—"to demonstrate the usefulness of reading texts through a framework of humour—culturally and historically, from antiquity to modernity" (1), this coherence is fortunate. The introduction argues for the necessity of examining "the role of humour in cultural expression through the ages" (4), and the subsequent chapters cover an impressive historical range: the classical period, Anglo-Saxon and medieval England, Shakespeare and the Reformation, the English Restoration, G. E. Lessing and the Enlightenment, Emerson and the transcendentalists, Victorian Britain, and surrealism. The essays are mostly of a very high quality and attend closely to the book's brief in revealing humor as "cultural practice" (4) in specific eras. The other aspect of the book's stated purpose is to provide a historical development of humor, and in this, it is perhaps less successful. "Development" implies tracing threads and connections, causes and effects, that is difficult in a multiauthored collection, even one as consistent [End Page 221] as this. It is probably in recognition of this challenge of presenting a historical trajectory that the introduction offers a more than usually comprehensive preview of the chapters, stressing for example the pivotal role of the Enlightenment as a catalyst for humor with a moral purpose. Another minor reservation concerns the rather blandly generic title, which doesn't do justice to the book's ambition and clarity of purpose. Unfortunately A Cultural History of Humour has already been taken (a volume edited by edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenberg and published in 1997), but something in that line would better evoke the scope of Westbrook and Chao's project.

To take the essays in the chronological order in which they appear, Robert S. White's "Humour in English" is not so much "a short cultural history," as its subtitle states, but rather a brief overview of comic theory followed by an equally brief survey of mostly British writers (but a couple of Americans: Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker) known for their humor. His outline offers effective, pithy summaries, but inevitably there are omissions, particularly of women comic writers (Jane Austen is mentioned but not Barbara Pym or Muriel Spark). This lacuna is important because it perpetuates the old saw about women not being funny.

"Humour in the Classical Period," by R. Drew Griffith, locates the stock characters that are so significant for classical humor (sycophants, suckers, and quacks, for instance) in everyday social practice. However, the passages he uses as illustrative of these social dynamics and exemplars of "how humour worked" in both Greek and Roman societies (43) are not sufficiently unpacked and remain somewhat obscure, thus effectively proving his dislike of any analysis of "the mechanics of the humour," which, for Griffith, kills a joke (43). The final excerpt, a story called the "Widow of Ephesus," from a romance by Petronius, does get close to illustrating some of the dynamics Griffith outlines initially and evokes an intense flavor of Roman gallows humor.

Jonathan Wilcox's chapter, "Understatement and Incongruity: Humour in the Literature of Anglo-Saxon England," undertakes the analysis of those topics very successfully. He expertly unpacks several instances that reveal humorous strategies or tendencies that demonstrate an amusing, sardonic aspect to Anglo-Saxon tastes, as well as a relish for the absurd. Wilcox's insights are particularly exciting given that humor has "rarely been a major focus of Anglo-Saxon studies," prized for "its bleakness of tone" rather than "its potential for amusement" (60). [End Page 222]

While the humor in Middle English texts is more commonly acknowledged, Anne M. Scott's chapter on the period looks beyond The Canterbury Tales for other clues about the humor of the time, providing examples that range from the winsome to the cruel. Her work on the comic representation of devils is particularly...