21L.021 | Spring 2022 | Undergraduate


Class Summaries

Session 1: Opening

For opening class be prepared:

  • to introduce yourself to your classmates by saying something about yourself and your interest or experience in literature and comedy
  • to read and discuss the syllabus and semester objectives for this class
  • to reflect on a form of comic art—in whatever medium or venue—that you consider a good example of comedy
  • to discuss a brief video clip.

We will also sign up for Annotation Studio, a useful tool for developing and sharing your readings; and in-class presentations.

Session 2: Aristophanes, Lysistrata

Read the entire play, or as much as possible, preferably in print edition, though you may search at the Loeb Classic Library. 

When in doubt, assume a bawdy reading of any innuendo.

In class we will:

  • Draw on discussion forum posts to lay out critical questions and themes in our reading of Lysistrata.
  • Review ritual bases of Greek Old Comedy (Dionysus worship)
  • Learn about dramatic structure that arose from these rituals
  • Look at Aristophanes in the context of Peloponnesian war and political conflict
  • Consider the use in Key and Peele’s “Substitute Teacher” of ritual to express and order conflict. (time permitting)
  • Explore Lysistrata’s “Wool” speech in Annotation Studio.

Session 3: Lysistrata and Chi-Raq

Please return to Lysistrata, noting concepts introduced in Thursday’s discussion: plot vs. performance, invective vs. festive elements in the play; and particularly the staging of anagnorisis. In class we will focus on how comic recognition in Lysistrata takes place: what gets recognized, how does recognition happen, why is it essential for resolving conflict.

Use the discussion forum to post responses to what you found striking at the forum or in class discussion, respond to other people’s posts, or raise questions and observations of your own.

Viewing Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq, based on Lysistrata, will bring these issues into relief. In class, we will look at a clip to focus discussion on ritual and its relationship with conflict. 

We will also view and discuss in Annotation Studio passages from the ending of Lysistrata. You are free to annotate before class; that activity is optional. In class we will focus on the festive, performance elements of the conclusion.

Session 4: Plautus, The Two Manaechmuses

You can get a sense of the broad-stroke changes in comic forms as Greek Old Comedy (Aristophanes’ forte) evolves into New Comedy, then Roman Comedy. Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) is often viewed as the epitome of Roman Comedy, and you will see both continuities and differences from Aristophanes. 

With Plautus we encounter farce, a comic mechanism that intensifies the effects of comic transgression in Aristophanes.

We will focus on a different version of comic masking in this play; varieties of dressing, undressing, and cross-dressing; gender jokes; and the complications (comedy of errors) rooted in an ancient plot about twins. Shakespeare loved Plautus and adapted this play for his own Comedy of Errors.

You will also observe the comic roles of subordinate and lower-caste characters–especially Peniculus the Sponge (or hanger-on) and Messenio the clever “slave.” Both of these are stock characters, types that appeared in ancient comedy again and again.

The humor of men dressed as women is a staple of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and we will continue our discussion of gender comedy next week with that film.

Session 5: Plautus and Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot

In today’s class we will return to our discussion of farce and look more closely at the ending of Plautus’ The Two Menaechmuses for insight into the way he handles comic recognition/unmasking and resolution of the play’s conflicts. Then we examine Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) as twentieth-century film farce, with many elements we have seen in Plautus, though significant differences as well. If you have not commented on Menaechmuses, please post at the Plautus discussion forum; you will find a separate forum on Wilder. (Clarification: you should post on Plautus if you have not already done so; Wilder is one of the several films you can post on during the semester to get to at least ten posts.)

Session 6: Research Workshop

For this class, you need to have selected a topic and date for your in-class oral report and be ready to locate reference and scholarly materials in the workshop. We welcome questions about the research process. 

Session 7: Writing Workshop

We will use class time to practice skills of peer review, working with writing partners and discussing critical writing issues. You will have until midnight to hand in your final draft—enough time to make minor adjustments but not to undertake a full revision, for which you will have a separate assignment. Please bring your draft in a form you can share.

Session 8: Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

For your reading of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, you can use any print edition or the digital one available through MIT. Please read the Induction and Acts I-II and post at the discussion board.

We will be considering this play in relation to ancient Greek and Roman comedy, thinking back to Aristophanes (with revisions of Essay 1 in mind) and questions about gender reversals, ritual, invective and festive elements, and breaking social norms and restoring social order; and to Plautus (and Wilder) with interest in farce, mistaken identity, and sexual and physical comedy. We will also be looking ahead to Shakespeare’s development of these themes in Twelfth Night and to a comedy centered more visibly on romantic love.

A film version (dir. Zeffirelli) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is optional and highly enjoyable. Supplementary reading in the module is also optional.

Session 9: Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew (cont.)

For this class, please finish The Taming of the Shrew (Acts III-V), post at the discussion board if you have not done so, and continue thinking about themes proposed and addressed in the last class. We will view a clip from Zeffirelli’s version of the play and discuss different readings of Petruchio’s final wager and Katherine’s closing speeches.

Session 10: Revision Workshop

As in our first Writing Workshop, we will work on drafts to develop skills of peer review and discuss particular challenges of a revision. Bring as complete a draft as you can, as well as your questions and insights.

Session 11: Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

As with your reading of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, you are free to use any print edition for Twelfth Night or the one available through MIT. Please read Acts I-III and post at the discussion board before class.

We will be thinking about Shakespeare’s so-called “green world” or festive comedy (see Northrop Frye’s chapter, “The Argument of Comedy,” in “Comedy Resources/Theories of Comedy” for further background): the use of farce in sometimes uneasy conjunction with romantic love plots (developed more fully than in Shrew); Plautine twinning and Elizabethan Fools; dressing, undressing, and fluid gender roles and sexuality; the language of courtly love and its relationship with servitude and the (again Plautine) reliance on clever servants; verbal wit and Shakespearean “quibbles”; and/or other connections or innovations you notice.

A film version (dir. Trevor Nunn, 1996) with Imogen Stubb and Helena Bonham Carter is optional.

Session 12: Aphra Behn, The Rover

Please read Aphra Behn’s “Prologue” and Acts 1-3. The print copy is preferred, but you can find a digital text at Gutenberg (read Part 1, which was a separate play, not Part 2, the sequel). Or you can use the Internet Archive text.

In our discussion, we may take up Aphra Behn’s remarkable life and her emergence in a culture that valued (while also denigrating) women’s roles in the worlds of performative and literary arts; Behn’s development of comic types and tropes we have seen; new developments in farce, sex comedy, and transgressions against patriarchal order; an interest in the economics of the marriage market, reminiscent of Shrew but envisioning radical alternatives to it as well; and the use of witty dialogue, trans-gender and -class disguise, and the mobility carnival affords to achieve some of the radical transformations Shakespeare delivers in his festive, green-world, or magical comedy.

The supplementary reading from Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World explains European carnival traditions.

Session 13: Aphra Behn, The Rover (cont.)

For this class, please finish reading The Rover (Acts IV-V) and post at the discussion if you have not already done so.

Since the next essay will give you an opportunity to think about endings, we may focus on the way Behn’s both satisfies and challenges what we have come to expect in marriage plots. We will continue our discussion of carnival and its associated freedoms of speech and action, of wit (again, in both language and action), and of violence, which takes new forms here, with the comic death and resurrection of the male Rover and an unexpected version of sexual violence for Florinda.

I have posted some scholarly articles (optional) that address the issues of rape and violence in the play. Do search for your own!

Session 14: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Austen’s novel was published in 1813 in three volumes. The Oxford print edition ordered for the class retains that structure, and we will discuss each volume separately in class. The Oxford edition also offers a good introduction and timeline of Austen’s life, as well as supplementary materials on “Rank and Social Status” and “Dancing.” Not to be missed!

If you are using an online edition such as Project Gutenberg or a print edition that runs the volumes together, the first reading assignment will cover chapters 1-23, the second chapters 24-42, and the last chapters 43-61.

We cannot read Austen without attending to questions about gender roles, marriage and courtship practices, class, wealth, and property, and why people in her novels spend so much time talking. I will post some articles on these topics, and you will undoubtedly find others on your own, which you can post at the discussion, if so inclined.

For the purposes of our developing understanding of comedy, I would also like to focus on wit, continuing a discussion that has occupied us since we read The Taming of the Shrew and that has shaped plot and character in that play and in Twelfth Night and The Rover. What are the costs and benefits, the limits and affordances of wit? How does wit work for women or men, for people of high status and those with fewer advantages? How does verbal wit relate to risk, pleasure, and success? And in these works, what is the life story of wit itself? Does it undergo trials like those that assail the comic hero in other works? Does wit undergo ritual sacrifice and rebirth, comic recognition and festive celebration as characters do? If so, can we observe when wit fails or breaks down in Pride and Prejudice? Does it recover?

Session 15: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (cont.)

For this class, please read Volume 2 (chapters 24-42) of Pride and Prejudice and post to the discussion, if you have not already done so.

Session 16: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (cont.)

For today’s class, please finish reading the book, to the end of Volume 3 or Chapter 61. In class we will continue our discussion of wit and self-recognition, with special attention to the ending.

The 1940 film version of the novel is optional and very different from the more recent versions you might have seen: generally more comic!

Session 17: Essay 2 Workshop

As with Essay 1, we will meet to exchange papers or sections of them and discuss writing issues. Be prepared to share your draft or elements of your writing process with the class.

For this assignment, essays focus on literary endings; our workshop will pay attention to conclusions of your papers. If you do not have a conclusion before class time, don’t worry! the workshop may offer new ways to think about it.

Session 18: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

You will find the text for Melville’s Moby-Dick at Melville Electronic Library. Select “Editions,” then Moby-Dick “Reading Text.” Read Chapters 1-23, the so-called “land chapters,” in which Ishmael prepares to go to sea. Framing the whaling voyage that follows and moves into epic and tragedy, these chapters display many comic patterns we have encountered before. They also set up themes and situations we will find in readings by Wilde and Bechdel. It would be hard to call Moby-Dick a comedy, but it provides many examples of the comic. What did you find?

Session 19: Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Ernest

Please read as much of the play as you can, at least Acts 1-2, being alert to Wilde’s wit, use of farce, treatment of romantic love and sentiment, the role of landed gentry and aristocracy, education, and reading, and other themes we have seen in the class so far.

Along with these concerns, we will also pay attention to Wilde’s use of code-switching, as his characters play different roles and shift parts.

Session 20: Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Ernest (cont.)

Today we will finish our discussion of Wilde’s play. Please read to the end, and post to the discussion if you have not already done so.

In class we will view a clip from the Anthony Asquith 1952 version.

Session 21: Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times

In this class, we will review Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece, Modern Times, within the framework of early 20th-century theories of laughter (Henri Bergson) and jokes (Sigmund Freud). Please view the film and submit a post to the discussion.

Session 22: Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

For this class, read as much of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as you can and write a discussion post for Thursday’s or Tuesday’s class.

This book, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” does not strictly fit the comic forms and patterns we have identified; but they also provide useful frameworks for reading Bechdel’s text, which is, after all, modeled on the “comic book.”

In class we will grapple with technical features of comic book form, so do pay attention to Bechdel’s use of visual effects: frames, panels, splash panels (these take up a full page, often with titles), grids, gutters, thought balloons and narrative text, sounds, uses of color and ink. These often provide a festive counter-text to a narrative filled with stress and sadness.

Session 23: Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (cont.)

For this class, please finish and post in the discussion on Bechdel’s book, if you have not already done so.

As you will see, this section brings Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to the fore and will remind us of theater, themes, and issues we have seen before: of gender and sexuality, disguise and revelation, appetite, social class, inversion and repetition, and possibly, the effeminacy of the female protagonist’s father!

Session 24: Reflection

In this class, we will share drafts of the Reflection essay, due by midnight.

We will also view stand-up clips by Andy Kaufman and Hannah Gadsby that use metacomic technique to reflect on comedy as well.

Posts at the discussion forum on reflection will also enrich our discussion of how we view comedy in this culture, time, and place.

Session 25: Festive Conclusion

In this class, we will discuss essays and perhaps do an abbreviated peer review workshop, depending on class preferences.

Please bring something festive to share for a comic conclusion to the semester: a joke, video clip, song, story, or whatever might produce celebratory vibes for all. If you would like to work with other members of the class to produce your contribution, that’s fine. Our goal will be to enjoy ourselves—and perhaps come to some conclusions about the comic spirit.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2022
Learning Resource Types
assignment Written Assignments