21L.021 | Spring 2022 | Undergraduate


Discussion Prompts

Session 1: Opening

Welcome to Comedy (21L.021)! Please introduce yourself, your interest or experience in this class, any questions about or responses to the syllabus you may have, or examples of comedy you have enjoyed or found striking or meaningful.


  • Your post can be any length.
  • You are welcome to reply to classmates’ posts. Your response to your classmate’s discussion should add to the discussion (i.e. reflecting on their response, asking questions, etc.). 

Remember: Think of your writing here as lending itself to class discussion and allowing you to test ideas in a public space outside of class.

Sessions 2–3: Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Spike Lee, Chi-Raq

Greetings, All! You have a number of options for how to approach Lysistrata, or any literary text we discuss. Keep your response brief and pointed and try to quote from the text.

You may be simply trying to make sense of the reading, in which case someone else probably has the same questions you do. It’s OK to be unsure.

You can respond in strategic ways. One might be to note the areas where you stopped reading: you lost the thread, you were floored with amazement, you ran into a word or concept that seemed unfamiliar; go back to one of those places and try to figure out what caught—or halted—your attention, why that was significant.

Another is to think about the upcoming essay and use this space to consider an example of conflict—and there are many, ranging from the sublime or politically consequential to the ridiculous. Start with a passage or even a single detail that you think might be worth discussing further and see if you can understand how Aristophanes manages conflict here.

A third might be to build on material we explored in class: How, for example, does the play seem to fit with Aristotle’s notion of comedy or with Walter’s Kerr’s essay on the tragic sources of comedy? This approach will take more time, so is more ambitious than others.

You can raise questions, make observations, reflect on your own reading process—anything that allows you to engage with the text and offer something for others to consider. So long as your post is readable and respects the conventions of academic debate, it’s up to you!

NB You can also use this space to record your impressions of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq if you like!

Session 4: Plautus, The Two Manaechmuses

Although you will not be writing on Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) for the first essay, you might return to this play for your revision, and we will see that his use of farce will ground our discussions of it in later works. 

Plautus is an inheritor of Greek comedy; you might look at features of Greek Old Comedy that survive in Roman comedy, whether technical (staging, costumes or masks) or formal (use of actors or chorus, structural elements like prologue, agon, choral interludes, anagnorisis, and kommos or exodos); or you may note absences and innovations.

Think about our discussion of plot vs. performance in Aristophanes, the relationship between elements that forward a conflict to resolution as opposed to those that enact ritual, feature dance or song or the body, seem secondary or even antithetical to the plot’s progress.

We will talk about Plautus’s use of farce to invert social order, generate confusion, and produce laughter.

You may notice differences in characterization here (do any of the characters seem to have an inner life?) and in the treatment of enslaved people (who figure marginally in Lysistrata) and women.

Lysistrata (or possibly the Athenian delegate) calls what happened in the play “mistakes” and warns against letting them happen again. The characters’ transgressions against custom or social order are justified by the serious consequences of warfare. What transgressions take place in The Two Manaechmuses, what are the stakes and outcomes, and how does social order get restored?

Looking forward to our discussions of this play!

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

Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) gives us an opportunity to explore farce and sex comedy in film. The central gag—Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dressing as women–takes us back to both explicit and unacknowledged uses of cross-dressing in ancient comedy. Note that in Lysistrata and The Two Manaechmuses women are played by men, so it’s possible that visual humor like what we see in Hot was already built in, (although we don’t know much about how ancient Greek and Roman actors behaved on stage). Add to that the plot elements that manifestly involve women’s clothes and reversing gender roles–Lysistrata and the women dressing the Magistrate in a woman’s veil, Manaechmus sneaking out of his house in his wife’s garments–and the jokes get richer.

But you may find other parallels as well; I hope that the context of ancient comedy offers a few. Consider the backdrop of gang violence (a critical feature in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq), with the presence of alcohol and guns to suggest not warfare but certainly armed conflict. Sugar Kane, queen of seduction, may recall Myrrhine and Erotium; hapless (or is he pretending?) Tony Curtis may remind us of Kinesias and Manaechmas. The use of song and dance may remind you of lyrical performance in the earlier works. Note also the recognition and ending; we need to pay attention to both!

As always, I offer suggestions, but you are free to explore. There’s lots to play with here.

Sessions 6–7: Workshops

No discussion posts.

Sessions 8–9: Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

As with previous works, you may find a first post on Shakespeare introductory, recording impressions that a second post may develop or depart from. As noted in the assignment, our class discussions this week build on what we have observed in ancient comedy (and may enrich revisions of your first essay on Aristophanes); you may notice reminders of sex comedy and farce that remind you of Aristophanes and Plautus. At the same time, in this early example of Shakespearean comedy, we see Shakespeare laying groundwork for later plays like Twelfth Night, where love, sexuality, identity, recognition, festivity become more complex and nuanced.

Session 10: Revision Workshop

No discussion posts.

Session 11: Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

It is tempting to see Twelfth Night as more contemporary than other plays we have read, and although I have listed in the reading assignment many stock plot patterns and characters Shakespeare relied upon, you will also notice his use of longer speeches, lyrical language, and careful probing of every “degree to love” layering the comedy with rich psychological dimensions. Add to that his use of ritual death to frame the play, rather than being enacted symbolically in the middle as in Aristophanes, and you have a number of innovative effects. You will see others.

This play has more fully developed subplots as well—Malvolio’s story, that of Sebastian and Antonio— seeming to mirror and also rework the main story, in some ways as the Induction does in Shrew, You might observe characters who move fluidly back and forth between these plots and subplots, others who are more stationary; try mapping the play, with its differently gendered kingdoms and and forms of management and rule.

As in Plautus we will notice states of mind–dreams, madness—and the influence of music and poetry: think of the performance elements in Lysistrata when characters sing and dance. But notice too when characters perform certain parts, as Petrucchio and Kate do, or when characters deceive, as we saw with Myrrhine and Sosicles. As in earlier plays, we will see characters noticing when they are not “themselves.” What is the effect of these confusions of reality–in what is clearly already an unreal world?

Give yourself a chance to explore, then follow up on your observations of this wonderfully many-sided play!

Sessions 12–13: Aphra Behn, The Rover

At this point in the semester you have a considerable archive for developing observations of the works we read as well as making comparisons across them. Here are a few topics to get you started in your thinking about The Rover, our first female-authored text and one that speaks from outside the ancient canon we have considered. You might consider issues, characters, themes, or ideas in Rover that connect with Shakespeare’s plays: Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night.

  1. Worlds without fathers produce sexual carnival, men and women free of gender constraints. Brothers are still important, though, in Twelfth Night and Rover
  2. Wit belongs to women. Look for places where repartee or wit breaks down. In Rover men continually break the equilibrium, esp Willmore (courting Angellica, attacking Florinda, outing Belvile, etc.).
  3. Twelfth Night brings characters to marry in the end; Rover mostly does, but on their own terms. Cf Katherina’s speech and Hellena’s (a paper topic!)
  4. Use of anagnorisis: Viola and Hellena remain in men’s clothes at the end (a paper topic!)
  5. Presence of an older marginalized person: Fool, Angellica.
  6. Paired couples: a courtly-love pair (Florinda/Belvile, like Bianca/Lucentio) and a pair of mad and merry pranksters (Hellena/Wilmore, like Katherina/Petrucchio). What did we get in Twelth Night?

Sessions 14–16: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is our first novel, but you will see how much Austen, and the English novel of this period, owe to theater, with, here, tight plotting, use of limited setting, and reliance on witty dialogue.

You might imagine (or have experienced) how this book gets treated in English novel classes, as a precursor of later nineteenth-century bildungsroman: coming-of-age stories or marriage plots about the rise of protagonists through social advancement, financial prosperity, marriage, and growth, often charted as a matter of education and moral or social character development. Love in these works often marks the characters’ achievements of goals that may reflect social necessity but are often framed as personally significant.

Does it change the narrative to place this novel in the context of the comedies we have read? And does addressing this question re-orient our expectations about the love and marriage plot, which literary historians of the Western tradition sometimes associate with the rise of capitalist societies? The comic writers we have looked at so far have often challenged if not downright mocked love and marriage. What happens to our reading of Austen if we think of her as drawing on this tradition, as well as a rich culture of eighteenth-century English satire?

As always, your posts may address any number of points you notice in the text, connections you see with other works we have read, and how you see our glossary of comic terms and strategies developing over time.

Session 17: Essay 2 Workshop

No discussion posts.

Session 18: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

No discussion posts.

Sessions 19–20: Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

With Oscar Wilde, we return to farce in drama and to a world that is less realistic than Austen’s in some ways, though no less concerned with the follies of aristocracy.

Wit plays as important a role here as in earlier works—verbal wit as well as wit of action, using one’s wits. And of course disguise and unmasking are crucial too.

We will pay attention to the relationship or conflict between young lovers and blocking figures and by extension between desire/appetite and ritual/convention as structural and thematic elements in the play.

These elements take on new meaning in the context of Oscar Wilde’s queer aesthetics—a complex issue, since he never declared himself homosexual yet worked strenuously to make what is beautiful—or what he calls in his subtitle for the play, “trivial—-a standard to live by, in defiance of late Victorian social and sexual norms.”

As always, I am interested in the details that struck or puzzled or delighted you.

Session 21: Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times

As in earlier comic forms, Chaplin makes his comic protagonist wittier than other characters. (note that in a silent film “wit” gets expressed through bodily more than verbal expression). But he, the Little Tramp, is also the target of humor and jokes, as someone who, somewhat like Plautus’s or Wilde’s characters, embodies or performs a mechanism for creating laughter. Both Bergson and Freud examine such laughter-producing mechanisms in the context of modernity and changing, i.e. “Modern Times,” with their reliance on factory labor and capital accumulation. How does Chaplin take on those themes using the visual (and musical) affordances of film?

And what did you find striking in the film? Have you seen silent film or works by Chaplin before?

Sessions 22–23: Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

As laid out in the description of class content for this week, you will find, I hope, much in Fun Home to ponder. We will be talking about ways Bechdel, this most literary of graphic artists, draws on literary forms of comedy while also challenging them. You know what to do!

Sessions 24–25: Reflection and Festive Conclusion

As practice or in preparation for for your reflection essay (or as a make-up entry, if you have missed one or replacement for one you are not satisfied with), use this space to think back over the semester and what you have learned: about the topic, theory, and texts of comedy; your own development in critical reading, thinking, speaking and writing; taking a humanities class in these times; the discoveries you have made; or respond thoughtfully to another entry.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2022
Learning Resource Types
assignment Written Assignments