1860 Anton Chekhov Born

I know, I know, Chekhov isn’t early modern, but damn I love his work.


Chekhov’s family was impoverished bourgeoise – his grandfather was a serf and his father a small shopkeeper.  That is, he was wealthy enough to study to be a medical doctor, but he was poor enough as a young man to be constantly at the mercy of bankers, creditors, and loan agents (like all of my undergrads!). He came from a small town in the deep South (cue banjo music..or Balalaika music, I guess) where “not a single [shop] sign [was] without a spelling mistake.”  That said, it was a cosmopolitan town as it was on the coast of the Sea of Azov.   As such, all around him growing up there were Turks, Greeks, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kurds… you name it.

Yale Repertory Theatre – Three Sisters

As a child he worked in his father’s shop and went to school, which somewhat hindered his scholastic performance, but he did quite well in Religion and Languages.  In 1876, when Chekhov was 16, his father went bankrupt and took the whole family to Moscow to escape creditors.  Thing is, Anton Chekhov was left behind, making a living as a tutor and sending money to his family.  But the time he was 19, he went to Moscow as well to attend university and become a medical doctor.

While in Moscow, he began to write short stories and it was his short stories for which he was primarily known for the first part of his literary career.  He submitted to journals that were primarily devoted to comic writing, not the literary journals that had restrictions of form and style that would have stifled his talents. So, in the 1880s-90s, he published short story after short story, experimenting with the form and establishing himself as one of the most brilliant short story writers the world has ever known.

Moscow, Red Square, Late 1800s

Throughout this period, Chekhov and his family lived in poverty (6 adults and children crammed into a single room), but he finally achieved success in 1886-7, when he wrote and published his first major collection of short stories and his first play, Ivanov (which isn’t at all like his other plays).

Over the course of the 1890s, Chekhov’s literary reputation increased and his medical practice grew as he went to the provinces.  It is in this period of literary popularity that he met Valdimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.  Throughout this period, however, he was accused of being a chimera of sorts.  He had no unifying theme to his work, nothing in particular to say.  He had no clear outlook.  Mikahilovsky, a critic of the time, said “Chekhov treats everything equally: a man and his shadow, a bluebell and a suicide… here oxen are being driven and there the post is being delivered … here is a man strangled and there people are drinking champagne.”

Still thought of primarily as a short story writer, people started to rank Chekhov with the best Russian writers of the 19th C – Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol.

Chekhov visited Tolstoy when Tolstoy was convalescing in the Crimea, near Yalta:

He was still confined to bed but talked a great deal about everything and about me, among other things.  When eventually I get to my feet to make my farewells, he pulls me back by the arm, saying: “Kiss me!” and after giving me a kiss, he suddenly bends over swiftly to my ear and says in that energetic quick-fire old man’s voice of his: “But I still can’t stand your plays.  Shakespeare’s are terrible, but yours are even worse!”

Chekhov thought the reason why Tolstoy hated everyone was because everyone was a child to him, so their works were the works of children.  Shakespeare was an adult who didn’t write like Tolstoy, so Tolstoy hated him all the same.)  Tolstoy later claimed:

“I cannot force myself to read this Three Sisters to the end – where does it all lead us to?”


Bodies in The Second Shepherds’ Play


So, the social world echoed the cosmic world echoed the domestic world echoed the internal world of the individual. This is an example of what can be called allegorical or analogical reasoning.


The medieval and early modern periods understood the world (and of course this is a generalization but it is a justifiable one) in terms of analogy.  The best minds of the day understood the world not necessarily in terms of discrete bits of matter and/or energy interacting but as composed of mutually sympathetic materials that echoed each others states.  That is, if you are a Scorpio, like me, and Mars (which rules Scorpio) is in the House of Cancer (which is a domestic sign, but also a water sign), then today might be a good idea to take on some plumbing tasks around the house.  The sympathy between my birth sign, the element of water, the association of domesticity all come together to create an auspicious relation for the early modern mind.  Because they understood the world in terms of analogy, relations between the cosmos and the individual, the astronomical and the microscopic, the domestic and the international were fundamentally aligned in ways that we might not recognize today.


In this play, the representation of the body, and in particular of Mak’s body, is informed by an interpretive system that saw any particular body as being an analogy to the cosmic or transcendent body of Christ. That is, given the immense importance of the body of Christ within medieval culture and within the Feast of Corpus Christi specifically, we really have to pay attention to how bodies are shown in this play. What happens to them? What can bodies do? How do bodies act?


When we ask these questions, we start to see how Mak/Mak’s body as the representation of all that is wrong with the fallen world,  and the body of the sheep, as symbolic of Christ as sacrificial figure, are almost grotesque or cartoonish figures of the need for redemption in the world.


How to read Mak’s body is put front and centre in the play when he arrives on the scene as Mak initially tries to pass himself off as one of the functionaries of a landowner or yeoman of the kind that the first shepherd talked about in his opening monologue. Mak speaks with a “southren tooth” (215); that is, at this time in England the accent in the south, around London, used “ich” for “I” and used “-eth” endings for what are now “-es” endings. When Mak appears around line 200, he is misrepresenting himself as a southerner.


What! Ich be a yeoman, I tell you, of the king;

That self and the some, sent from a great lording,

Und sich,

Fie on you! Goeth hence!

Out of My presence!

I must have reverence.

Why, who be Ich? (201-207)


The shepherds are immediately able to read Mak’s body and identify him as the local ne’er-do-well, Mak, but that sequence centres our attention on bodies and how they signify in this play. Mak, rather than being a rich southerner, is in fact a poor man. The fact that the shepherds share a meal immediately before Mak’s entrance suggests that Mak, perhaps, is unable to afford to join them in their meal. That is, Mak is hungry and poor, yet tries to present himself as a nobleman. He tries to make his body signify in ways contrary to its “natural” signification, though the shepherds see through his subterfuge.


Later, when Mak has stolen the sheep and Gill is pretending it is their child, the shepherds still see through Mak and Gill’s attempt to re-coordinate the signification of the body of the sheep. The implicit comparison between Mak and Gill’s sheep-baby is with the reality of the coming Christ within the Nativity sequence, of which this scene was a part. The sheep Mak stole is a stand in or an uncanny double of the coming Christ, who was called the Lamb of God. Both the stolen sheep and the newborn Jesus in the play are called “little day-star” (577 and  727). Even the suggestion Gill makes about eating the sheep-child is an oblique reference to the ceremony of the Eucharist where Christians were expected to eat the literal body of their saviour.


In other words, the body of the sheep, like the body of Mak, is presented as a complex signifier. Whereas Mak’s body is subject to punishment (like Jesus), this is a world where the punishment doesn’t take the form of crucifixion, but tossing Mak around in a blanket, like a carnival game. Whereas the sheep is explicitly and implicitly compared to Jesus as the Lamb of God, in this world, the sin of the theft of the sheep is righted by the coming presence of God. The presence of God, which could be felt for every Christian in the Eucharistic wafer that was at the heart of the Corpus Christi feast.

Twelfth Night and Shakespeare’s Career

In 1599, after the lease on the ground upon which The Theatre had expired and the landlord refused to renew it, Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, just decided to do the obvious thing. They tore down the building and carried everything – nails, planks, costumes and all – across the river to a new site on the South Bank. There they constructed The Globe Theatre out of the salvaged bits of The Theatre. Shakespeare, along with his partner Richard Burbage, who probably played Orsino in Twelfth Night, was becoming an impressario.

How Shakespeare began in the theatre industry is lost in the realm of myth (there is the story that he began by holding the horses of the more well-to-do patrons), but by the early 1590s he was an actor and jobbing writer, working corporately (that is, with other playwrights) on several plays including all the parts of Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, and possibly Love’s Labour’s Lost. Then, when he became a founding member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1593, he was in a position unique among playwrights of the time. He was the only playwright who was actually a sharer (a kind of stockholder or owner) of a playing company. Everyone else worked contract by contract, but Shakespeare had the luxury of writing for a specific group of actors whose skills he knew and whose expertise he could play to.

At this point in his career, Shakespeare was known primarily as a comedian who had written some particularly good poems, though what we today consider his great tragedies were to come in the next few years. We know this because there is a reference in a book called Palladis Tamia from 1598 where the author, Francis Meres, describes Shakespeare as “honey-tongued” and lists his great comedies and several of his histories as examples of his excellence. Shakespeare had clearly done well by playing to the strengths of his actors in his plays.

By 1599, however, Shakespeare’s company was undergoing a few changes, not least of which was the move to Southwark I mentioned. They were about to lose their resident comedian, Will Kemp, who specialized in acrobatic physical comedy – a loss that you can see literalized in Hamlet from 1600/01 in Yorick’s skull. The company replaced Will Kemp with the comedian Robert Armin, whose style was based on wordplay and song. This you can see Twelfth Night (from around 1601) in the character Robert Armin played, Feste – he is a singer and a wit, not an acrobat.

It is around the turn of the century that Shakespeare’s plays change in terms of tone. For one, it is following this move to Southwark that Shakespeare writes the great tragedies – Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth – and the romances – Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest. Also, at this time, his comedies begin to strain against the bounds of generic prescription. That is, they don’t really look or act like what we think comedies should be. Measure for Measure, for instance, is notoriously problematic in terms of the bleak tone of what is structurally a comedy. Twelfth Night comes at that crux moment, just before Shakespeare starts pushing the genre to the edge of what it is to be a comedy.

Emma Smith actually argues that the play that Twelfth Night is most closely related to from Shakespeare’s canon is Hamlet, and I have to admit that I agree. It is certainly the case that both Hamlet and Twelfth Night were written around the same time, but more importantly, the central hinderance to the plots of both plays is grief and the ways in which we can get over grief. In the case of Hamlet, the tragic vision has it that obsessive performance and reperformance of grief ends up with the culminating atrocity of the fifth act and a questionable justice attained through horror. In the case of Twelfth Night, grief is overcome through love, but importantly not through erotic desire. “Love” here is kind of companionate love, a divine or agapic love (from the term “agape” which the Greeks considered the highest form of love).

This has led to some people suggesting that these plays, Hamlet and Twelfth Night, are Shakespeare’s responses to the death of his only son, Hamnet, in 1596. Though this is certainly possible, I strongly discourage you from investigating this too much for this class insofar as you can never possibly provide any direct or unequivocal evidence for the state of mind of a writer. As Plato pointed out, writers lie. That’s what they do. It’s literally their job. To say that Twelfth Night’s investigation of grief stems directly from Hamnet Shakespeare’s death is to commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc or after the fact therefore because of the fact. A playwright can investigate grief, after all, and not have it be a personal psychodrama.

So, by the time Shakespeare is writing Twelfth Night, he is at the top of his career. He’s about to write the great tragedies and is a sharer in the most profitable playing company of his day. He is well-respected at court and by writers like Frances Meres. So if he is so well respected… why is this play so dirty?

York Mystery Cycles

So I did a bad thing.  The other day, a blizzard hit southern Ontario.  I was supposed to teach that day but there was no way on God’s green earth that I was going to make it through the total white out conditions, without possibly killing myself in the process. I cancelled class.

Thing is, cancelling class is not something I do lightly.  I know that students don’t generally care about cancelled classes. So many of them are still in the high school mode that dictates a cancelled class is a good thing that they don’t necessarily see that they are paying an inordinate amount of money for an education that was cheated of them. I don’t like cancelling class because it feels like I’m the one who is doing the cheating.

Unless it is for a strike, an act of a vengeful God, or an unforeseen zombie apocalypse, I feel it is my obligation to teach.  They are paying – I provide.

Compound that with the fact that we are already behind in the class and I was in a bit of a quandry about what to do in order to make it up to them.  Compound THAT with the fact that, although I don’t have to, I record my lectures and put them online, yet my recording device failed me twice in the past bit. So really, all across the board, I’m not fulfilling my duties as an instructor.


So what have I done? Precisely what they asked me to do.  I put the question to them – what do they want me to do to make up for it.  They wanted YouTube videos of the lectures where the audio was missing.  That is exactly what I have done.

The material below is my stuff on the York Mystery Cycles.  It’s a lot of material, so if you are hoping for the Coles’ Notes version (do they still have those?) then you are SOL.


The Limits of Humour

I’m teaching a course on Comic Drama in the Winter Semester at WLU and so I’ve been thinking in the past few days about the nature of humour/comedy/genre/farce/absurdity, etc.  Heck, I still don’t even have a reading list together, so if anyone has any suggestions, I would be more than happy to entertain them.  Just drop me a line.

Begging for help with my course is not why I am writing this, however.  

One of the ideas that I had regarding course delivery was to start off each class with a relevant joke or reading or something.  Whether it be a knock knock joke when we are talking about structure, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” when we are talking about dated humour, or describing a situation like what I will get into below… I want to start off each class with an example, then move into the theory and the plays.

Yesterday, as I was basking in the post defense hangover, I watched as twitter blew up with discussion of a few interrelated stories.

  1. Daniel Tosh, comedian, told a crowd of people in regards to a female heckler: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”  The defense offered for publicly suborning assault?  There are “awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.”
  2. Anita Sarkeesian, feminist writer and cultural critic who started a kickstarter campaign to get funding to study gender in video game culture had a video game made about her where the whole point is to beat her to a bloody pulp.  The defense offered for the hate-speech game?  It’s just a game…

There’s no real point in my going on at length about how and why these particular cases are seriously problematic.  Indeed, Tosh looks like he is liable to lose support from his network and the twitter account of the man who created the Sarkeesian game has been mysteriously suspended.  I join the condemnation of these acts, of course, but I’m wondering how I am going to insert them into my class on comic drama.

Tosh’s stance on “awful things in the world” is a position that I have heard time and again in recent months, especially following the whole debacle a few months back.  Individuals claim that they can make jokes about anything they want, without consequences, because they have the seemingly God-given right to make those jokes.  The smarter ones cite George Carlin for some kind of evidence that white, privileged men can make jokes about violence, race, money and it can be funny.

Thing is, they are stepping on a few questions of privilege and comedy without thinking about what they are doing.  Are there jokes that are funny?  Certainly.  Humour seems to be largely a social construct, but it does seem to be the case that there is some kind of a concept of humour across cultures.  This seems to be a part of the general human condition.  There are also jokes that are simply not funny.  Either they are not told well, they are offensive, or they lack structure (or something else), but there are certainly jokes that are not funny.  Are there jokes that are so offensive that they are inherently unfunny?  Here we step away from a philosophy of aesthetics and into ethics.

  1. A joke can be immoral itself, or 
  2. It can be told for immoral reasons.  

That is, a joke suborning rape (an immoral joke) can be told by someone as an illustration of rape culture without the expectation that anyone will find it funny (say, in a classroom), or that same joke can be told for immoral reasons (for example, to actually dehumanize and degrade another person).  There are very few jokes that are structurally immoral, I think.  Think, for instance, of what the philosopher Noel Carroll calls “moron jokes,” which are jokes that defame or degrade a social out-group.  In Canada, Newfie jokes are the prime example of these.  I’m not sure if these are structurally immoral in the sense that you can swap out the “moron” group of the joke.  They are unpleasant, they are derisive, but they rely on an interchangability and basic humanity of the other in order for the joke to make any sense.

This is the basis of Plautine humour.  Plautus, the Roman playwright, knew that though we claim we want to see edifying and cultural drama, we really go in large numbers to see people falling on their arse.  More people would come to see Homer Simpson give a public talk than Professor Frink, both in the fictional Springfield and in the real world.  Making fun of other people is not structurally immoral in the sense that, if done right, you recognize that you are liable to be the person who is the butt of the joke next.  It puts all humanity in the same place: a buffoon incapable of doing the simplest of tasks.

There are jokes that are structurally  immoral, however, and the distinction is when there is no possibility of switching out the roles.  That is, as I just spent the past five years of my life talking about, one of the primary discoveries of feminism of the past 50 years was that the way that we gender in society is through certain narratives where men take on certain roles and women take on other roles.  Men are the active agents of narrative, women are the passive acted upon objects.  One of the logical conclusions of this narrative structuring of gender is that rape in particular works to gender us.  Men rape.  Women are raped.

Now we have recognized that this is how gender works, we can undermine the binary and men who have been raped by their partners or by strangers can come forward and give a name to their experience.  The work can happen now, but it was only possible through the recognition that the structure of rape is such that it feminizes the person who is being raped.  It forces that person into a certain gender position of victimhood and dehumanization.

So to come back to the joke.  If the narrative rape is structurally about the gendering of bodies, such that femininity is in part defined by the ability to be raped,then rape jokes can’t swap out individual groups and thereby make a claim to general human fallibility.  It merely reinscribes privilege.

The counter argument that I find particularly fascinating about the Tosh case is, IF he really wanted to make a joke about rape in order to test the boundaries of what can and cannot be joked about – then why didn’t he talk about being raped himself?

Why didn’t he say: “Wouldn’t it be funny if [I] got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped [me]…”?
There’s another possible counter to what I have just said and that is encapsulated in the video by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay “Thank You Hater!”
There, the tone is everything.  There we have moved into sarcasm, which upsets the structure of the rape joke altogether.  Part of what it is to be rape (an essential quality of it) is that it is an enforced dehumanization and an enforced feminization.  You can’t want it.  You can’t desire it.  Once you do, it ceases to be rape.  Indeed, to seek out objectification is a very complex position vis-a-vis one’s sexual identity (think BDSM).  In Fay’s song, she expresses regret that she won’t be raped in the eyes by the internet troll, and she plays with the gendering that comes with rape by presenting herself in a mid-1950s costume and song.  This is… to put it mildly, a bit more “meta” than what Tosh did.  Further, though it is related to Plautine humour where the interchangability of the object of derision is the point, this complicates that position by insisting on the humanity of the people who are putting themselves out there online.  The humour offered by the trolls is dehumanizing, while this song insists of feminine agency through irony.  (Can you tell I like this video?)

Structurally, rape jokes told by privileged white men against women… not funny.  Immoral.  Predicated on dehumanization and violence.

What about the other point noted above?  A joke can be told for an immoral reason?  In the case of Tosh, I wasn’t there and I don’t really want to get into specifics of supposed “context.”  Similarly, in the case of the Sarkeesian video game, I haven’t played it and I don’t want to.  So, does that undercut my position?  Not at all.

Even if we grant that the video game and what Tosh said are jokes or analogous to jokes, then you merely have to look to the larger cultural position to recognize that the work the jokes are doing is to dehumanize and assault a particular group.  If we would be (rightfully) upset at a joke that posited that it was funny to lynch a black man, why would we possibly accept that an analogous joke about a woman was somehow ok?

The cultural argument is, in some ways, the more obvious one to me, though undoubtedly there will be people out there who don’t see it.  North American culture is a culture/is a network of cultures that is/are biased against women acting as fully independent human beings.

So, I doubt anyone has read this far, but at least I got some of my thoughts down on “paper.”  Now, if anyone has any comments, please let me know.  Also, if you have any suggestions for my Comic Drama course, please drop me a line.

The links below are just a smattering of what I have found in the past few moments.  There’s a lot out there for you to learn more about this, if you are so inclined.
Tosh Links

Sarkeesian Links

Analyzing Misogyny Makes It In Popular Culture

Cracked.com is one of my guilty pleasures.

They’ve mastered the art of writing for the internet where readers tend to only process short, sharp chunks of data that are filled to the brim with hyperlinks and visuals.  They also tend to be relatively funny, and, from time to time, fairly insightful.

Today’s article 5 Ways Modern Men are Trained to Hate Women is fascinating.  Don’t get me wrong, I think there are serious problems with the logic of the article (#3 in particular), but that is not why I am recommending you go and read it.  It is a comedy article, not a doctoral thesis, so I’m not exactly holding it to a high standard of intellectual rigor.

No, what I find amazing about the article is the timeliness of it.  Given the all-but-officially-declared war on women that is going on in the United States and the recent incidents here on campus, I am overjoyed to see that the pervasiveness of misogyny is getting airplay in popular culture.

Misogyny shapes how all of us think.  It shapes our actions, our words and our lives.  Even comedy websites see this, so why is it such a hard thing for so many in our culture to understand?