Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

David Lee Miller


This study focuses on the workings of humor in 16th-and 17th-century England, particularly in its proximity and deployment around death. Through Early Modern theoretical discussions of humor as well as utterances, historical tracts, poetry, and drama of the time, humor’s role in interrupting or breaking up particular modes of interpretation can be seen. Surveying Castiglione and Puttenham, records of martyred Catholics and Protestants, the poetry of Spenser and Donne, and the dramatic works of Shakespeare, I argue that humor operates as a sort of short-circuiting of a given audience expectation that allows for a potential divergence from previous assertions or articulations. The view of humor as fundamentally a function of incongruity is behind this reading, but jesting and mirth are less positive or static utterances than they are an alchemy of rhetorical savvy, audience receptivity, and timing. Humor, it has been often noted, is a force that can be marshalled by ruling powers or by rebelling insurgents. That variableness is, I believe, less a positive function of humor itself than it is a chaotic and fundamentally interactive nature. To appeal to a joke or jest is to set oneself up as much as one’s target; proper management of the audience and situation can be as poignant as it can be hilarious. That dynamic circulates throughout writing of this period, and various speakers, poets, and dramatists have offered variations on the syncopated rhythms of jesting. This manuscript is not a survey of all of the various uses of humor; it is rather an attempt to see the common footprint that jesting leaves in many of the major media of Early Modern England.