Shakespearean humor is at once the most difficult to understand, and yet among the most hilarious of all. It should be noted, however, that it need not be difficult to understand if you know what to look for.

Shakespearean humor generally consists of the following elements, ranked from the most blunt to the most subtle.

  • Truly Awful Puns: Shakespeare loves the use of puns. In The Merchant of Venice he averages about 50 per scene. Many of them are used over and over, such as gentile and gentle, one of Shakespeare's favorites to use. Puns are among the most obvious of his humorous talents because you don't actually need to read any of the play to understand them.

    (examples) ANTONIO: "Hie thee, gentle Jew." (Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 3)

    Mercutio: "Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man." (Romeo & Juliet, Act III, Scene 1)

  • Genitalia Jokes: These are usually fairly easy to get as well, though they are slightly more subtle because they can hide very well in context. There are the obvious ones, such as...

    GRATIANO: Well, do you so. Let not me take him, then. For if I do, I'll mar the young clerk's pen. (Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1)

    But they can also be far less obvious, for instance...

    SHYLOCK: My own flesh and blood to rebel!
    SALANIO: Out upon it, old carrion! rebels it at these years?
    SHYLOCK: I say, my daughter is my flesh and blood.(Merchant Act 3, Scene 1)

    In this scene, Shylock is talking about his daughter who has run off with a Christian and stolen his money. The betrayel of his own flesh and blood. Salanio, however, intent upon teasing Shylock is referring to impotence. It becomes more clear when watched. However, Genitalia Jokes are by far another one of the least subtle humors in Shakespeare's Plays because usually someone's crotch gets grabbed in time for the mind to make the connection.

  • Use of Sarcasm: This is the cliff where most of Shakespeare's jokes fail to be grasped by the majority of the audience. The more obvious sarcasm, such as the fat Lancelot Gobbo exclaiming...

    "I am famished in his service! You may tell every finger I have with my ribs." (Merchant, Act II, Scene 2)

    This is blatant sarcastic humor when you see it performed, however if you are merely reading the play, it is considerably harder to catch, as there are only one or two references to Lancelot's size.

    Alas, Shakespeare's caustic wit is quite deep, and some of the ascerbic humor is so obscure that a working knowledge of the political situation in Great Britain during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as well as those of surrounding countries.
  • Interpretive Humor: Finally there is the humor that can never be fully proven. It is entirely dependant upon how the Director interprets the play, how they decide certain characters act, and what motivations are chosen. This is not to say this style of humor is any less valid. There's a good one in one-hundred chance that it is what The Bard himself intended. (I say 1 in 100 because that's how many interpretations there are, minimum, of any given Shakespeare play, and that's just the published critiques). This type of humor requires an astute director who has read the play enough to have memorized most of it, read other critiques of it, seen it performed multiple times by entirely different casts and directors, and generally be well enough educated in each angle of the play that the humor can be pulled off well. Unfortunately it also requires an audience that can understand the final product of this humor type, which is, incidently, rare.

Some Rules to Understand About Live-Shakespeare Humor
  1. The More you Laugh, the Funnier it Gets: Even if you don't understand, laugh. The more you laugh at a cast, the more energy they will feel, the better they will act, and the more likely you are to actually get the joke. If they find joke after joke ending in silence, they will lose energy, and be more concerned about getting off-stage than being entertaining.
  2. There's Far More Drama Going on Backstage than On It: Watch the same play three different times and you are likely to see three different characters for each cast-member. Between the interbreeding, power-struggles, drugs, prima donnas, egos, newbies, and wannabes, it is entertaining enough to know that these people voluntarily put themselves through hell just to get a few laughs from strangers.
  3. Don't Be Afraid to Laugh: If something seemed funny to you and you alone, and no one else is laughing, don't hesitate to burst out laughing. Don't hold it in. Theatre Casts love the unexpected laugh. And it might even cause them to look at that scene in a different way, play it out differently... The audience around you won't care, except worry that perhaps you were better able to follow the play and caught the jokes quicker. They might even join in.
  4. Try a Small, Unknown Theatre Troupe: Large Theatres, such as Broadway have huge budgets, orchestras, huge casts, giant sets, and all they usually have to worry about is backstage-drama and choreography. You don't go to those kinds of theatres to enjoy watching Shakespeare. You go to the large theatres to enjoy people thinking you went to go watch Shakespeare. Small, unknown Troupes, however, must work ten-times as hard for a miniscule return, and usually they work for free. They have no financial backers except the money they scraped up from the last show. In short, the Directors of those Troupes will go to any lengths, as will the actors, to bring in an audience. Which almost-always means a better show (with better seats) for a tenth of the price.
Catholic High School, Freshman English class.
Miss P. (the first year teacher)
Assorted students

Miss P.
Ok, everyone has done their assigned reading? The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet?
(in unison)
Yes Miss P.
Miss P.
Did anyone find anything... 'odd' in there?
(confused looks from the students)
Ok. Class, to properly read Shakespeare, you have to be aware of more than just the words and the meter... Shakespeare was writing as a form of entertainment, and while many of us don't quite get catch the same puns, they are certainly there. Shakespeare was often writing for the most common of the people and would often toss vulgar jokes into his plays to make certain they were enjoying themse... the play.

Casey, would you read the part of Sampson, and Will, would you read Gregory starting from "That shows thee a weak salve"?

Will (Gregory)
That shows the a week salve; for the weakest goes
to the wall.
Casey (Sampson)
True; and therfore women being the weaker vessels,
are ever thrust to the wall; therefor I will push
Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids
to the wall
Miss P.
Hold right there for a moment
(check outside the hallway)
Casey, I noticed you emphasized 'thrust' - why?
It just sounded like the right thing to do.
Miss P.
Indeed it was. However, note the difference in word choice, push from the wall, thrust to the wall. Chances are, the actor would... ahem... grab his crotch then.
(Class breaks out in giggles)
Yes, we are talking about crude jokes here. Continue.
Will (Gregory)
The quarrel is between our masters and their men
Casey (Sampson)
'Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I
have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
maids, and cut off their heads.
Will (Gregory)
The heads of the maids?
Casey (Sampson)
Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.
Miss P.
Hold for a bit again... Does anyone know what they were talking about there?
(class is silent)
(check outside the hall again)
When a woman has sex for the first time, it breaks the (softly and blushing slightly) hymen which is a thin layer of tissue covering the opening of the (pause) vagina. This is often called the 'maidenhead'.
(most in the class are blushing and some giggling is heard)
Ok, continue.
Will (Gregory)
They must take it in sense that feel it.
(class giggle louder)
Casey (Sampson)
Me they will feel while I am able to stand: and
'tis known I'm a pretty piece of flesh.
(class giggling in a near uproar)
Miss P.
Ok, that's enough. (looks in the hallway again). I keep worrying that Sister Regina (aside: the principal) will walk in while I am explaining this section. I do hope that last line doesn't need any further explanation.

You can see the purpose of this? This was to make people laugh, enjoy the play... hopefully stick around for the rest of it.

Yes, this really did happen in my freshman English class... while that was several years ago ('87) I still recall that class well. Fortunately no nuns happened down the hall at the time, nor Miss P. was explaining part of Act 3 Scene 5...

Indeed, I never shall be satisfied
With Romeo, till I behold him -- dead --

and the double meaning of 'dead' (see the little death).

I assure you, I doubt there was an English class since that has enjoyed reading Romeo and Juliet as much as ours did.

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