Shakespeare's Jest Books (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Shakespeare's Jest Books (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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by William Carew Hazlitt

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Shakespeare’s Jest Books is an anthology of humorous, often bawdy anecdotes and jokes from late medieval England. Collected in 1864 by the British bibliographer William Carew Hazlitt, the jest books are haphazard in their authorial ascriptions: they have origins in the oral tradition and anthologized the professional foolery of noted clowns

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Shakespeare’s Jest Books is an anthology of humorous, often bawdy anecdotes and jokes from late medieval England. Collected in 1864 by the British bibliographer William Carew Hazlitt, the jest books are haphazard in their authorial ascriptions: they have origins in the oral tradition and anthologized the professional foolery of noted clowns Richard Tarlton and Will Kemp.
Shakespeare’s most notable direct reference to the jest books appears in Much Ado About Nothing, during one of the play’s memorable witty exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick; Beatrice complains to her gentlewoman Ursula of Benedick: “that I had my good wit out of the Hundred Merry Tales—well, this was Signior Benedick that said so.”

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Shakespeare’s Jest Books is a loose anthology of humorous, often bawdy anecdotes, tales, and jokes, most definitively collected in 1864 by the English bibliographer William Carew Hazlitt (1834–1919), the grandson of the eminent English literary critic William Hazlitt.  First appearing in printed form in the early and middle sixteenth century, the jest books predate by decades the rise of the Elizabethan theater that Shakespeare came to dominate.  Haphazard in their authorial ascriptions, the jest books had origins in the oral tradition and anthologized the professional foolery of noted clowns such as Richard Tarlton and Will Kemp.  The jest books were produced for a general readership, although “general” is a relative term in light of the limited scope of literacy in sixteenth-century England, which, according to scholar David Cressy, was confined to about twenty percent of males and five percent of females.  Yet even given the paucity of literate consumers, the jest books were commonly regarded as vulgar, not simply in terms of content but also in terms of audience—not unlike the Elizabethan theater itself.
Thus it was incumbent upon the jest books’ nineteenth-century editors and collectors to bestow a kind of literary legitimacy on the material that it had certainly not enjoyed in its original circulation.  No one would have seemed better qualified to confer dignified status upon such unlikely matter as William Carew Hazlitt, descended from a man commonly regarded as second only to Samuel Johnson as England’s greatest literary critic, especially for his writings on Shakespeare.  William Hazlitt (1778–1830) was at the vanguard of the British Romantic movement, along with his contemporaries Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Charles and Mary Lamb.  An avowed radical critic and journalist, Hazlitt is most famous for his 1825 work The Spirit of the Age, which consists of portraits both laudatory and critical of his fellow Romantics.  The son of the founder of the Unitarian Church in Boston, Hazlitt was expected to become a minister himself but an early love for painting predisposed him to more creative professional aspirations.  Hazlitt eventually chose writing over painting, although talented at both arts.  Like Charles Lamb, Hazlitt published extensively in newspapers, including the Times, the Edinburgh Review, and the Morning Chronicle.  Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817) stands with studies by Coleridge, Lamb, and Keats as epitomizing the English Romantics’ singular exaltation of Shakespeare’s genius.  However, Hazlitt the elder’s radical social and political ideas incurred the indignation of English conservatives, and he died impoverished in 1830, four years before the birth of his grandson and namesake.  

William Carew Hazlitt (1834–1913) came to be accomplished in his own right as a critic and bibliographer.  His works as author and editor include not only Shakespeare’s Jest Books but also A Handbook to the Popular, Poetical, and Dramatic Literature of Great Britain (1867) and its supplements, Essays of Michel de Montaigne (1877), Four Generations of a Literary Family: The Hazlitts (1897), The Letters of Charles Lamb (1886), Memoirs of William Hazlitt (1867), The Lambs (1897), Shakespeare, the Man and His Works (1902), and Faith and Folklore of the British Isles: A Descriptive and Historical Dictionary of the Superstitions, Beliefs and Popular Customs of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (1905).  Although William Carew Hazlitt published well into the twentieth century, his choice in subject matter was influenced by his Romantic as well as familial heritage, which placed Shakespeare at the pinnacle of English literature.           
The Romantic Movement, of course, did not “discover” Shakespeare, but on a certain level one might suggest that it invented him.  The Romantics were arguably the first to elevate the bard to the status of artistic deity possessed of timeless and transcendent genius.  While the eighteenth century’s admiration of Shakespeare was tempered by an ambivalence about his plays’ violations of Neoclassical decorum and their frequent reliance on the fantastical, Romantics saw in Shakespeare’s works the embodiment of their aesthetic ideals of imagination, subjectivity, and the sublime.  The Age of Reason mistrusted Shakespeare’s explorations of irrationality and the supernatural, but Romanticism extolled them.  Having inherited both his grandfather’s and his culture’s passion for Shakespeare, William Carew Hazlitt also participated in the nineteenth-century burgeoning of what many today refer to as “the Shakespeare industry,” the establishment of Shakespeare—and modern (as opposed to classical) literature—as fit subject for scholarship and university curricula.  The Romantic enthusiasm for Shakespeare, sometimes referred to as “Bardolotry,” contributed as well to an avid readership not only for the plays but also for all things Shakespearean, including the jest books. 

Yet in their endeavors to reinforce the literary legitimacy of Shakespeare, the textual scholars of the jest books were confronted by the coarse earthiness seemingly at odds with the lofty Swan of Avon they wanted to canonize.  As literary scholar Ian Munro has shown, the jest books’ nineteenth-century collectors, who included Samuel W. Singer in 1814 and Herman Oesterley in 1866 as well as Hazlitt, were well aware of the rather coarse material’s tenuous linkages to Shakespeare.  Munro remarks on Singer’s explanation of the titular attribution: “Singer’s ascription establishes ownership, but goes out of its way to deny influence.”  This scholarly ambivalence was bound up in the historical emergence of Shakespeare as the preeminent figure in English literature.  Editors both apologized for and on occasion expurgated the jest books’ vulgarity; Singer claims that Shakespeare’s references indicate his contempt for the popular tradition, and Hazlitt attributes the “gross coarseness” of Scogin’s Jests, which he collected in his second volume, to the cruder tastes of an earlier era.  To this extent, these Romantic-era editors were likely influenced by their eighteenth-century counterparts, Neoclassical writers and dramaturges who regarded Shakespeare as a kind of barbaric genius but excoriated his violation of the Aristotelian unities and sought to “regularize” his plays by omitting scenes of crude clownery that they deemed inappropriate.
Shakespeare’s most notable direct reference to the jest books appears in Much Ado About Nothing, during one of the play’s memorable witty exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick; Beatrice complains to her gentlewoman Ursula of Benedick: “that I had my good wit out of the Hundred Merry Tales—well, this was Signior Benedick that said so” (2.1.119 121).But despite the title appended to the collection of jest books, which include the Hundred Merry Tales, by nineteenth-century scholars, it is not known whether Shakespeare actually read or used the books.  As the allusion in Much Ado makes clear, certainly Shakespeare knew of the jest books, invoking the Merry Tales as an example of vulgar humor to contrast with the courtly witticism of his play’s sophisticated lovers.  However, the other echoes in Shakespeare’s opus do not prove an explicit familiarity with the jest books, which themselves were a compendia of bits of popular humor already entrenched in the common currency. 

With a few exceptions, the material collected by Hazlitt under the rubric of Shakespeare’s Jest Books is as uncertain in attribution as it is in intertextual relation to Shakespeare.  It appears clear that the ascription of a number of the texts to such courtly writers as John Skelton, university wits such as poet and playwright George Peele, and even celebrated entertainers such as Tarlton, was designed to enhance the literary and commercial cachet to the jest books, even from the time of their first appearances in print.  Hazlitt addresses the ambiguity of original attribution in his Introductory Notice to the second volume of his Shakespeare Jest Books:
It may perhaps be desirable to observe that neither Skelton, nor Tarlton, nor Peele, nor Hobson, had any concern whatever in the authorship of the Jests or Tales which pass under their name, and which were for the most part the composition of hack-writers, always at hand, then as now, to avail themselves
of the popularity of any name or of any incident to replenish their pockets.  To whom the Editorship of the Merie Tales of Skelton, and of Tarlton’s Jests ought to be given, we have no means of telling; the Jests of Scogan, Scogin, or Scoggin,
as the name is variously spelled, purport to have been collected by  Andrew Borde; and the compiler, or rather inventor, of the Pleasant Conceits of Old Hobson, was the same Richard Johnson, who, in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth, published that famous book, The Seven Champions of Christendom.
Hazlitt was likely correct in conjecturing that the original ascriptions were born of commercial interests.  The names—or lack thereof—were attached to the jest books after the fact; that is, after the jokes, anecdotes, and narratives were already well known from an oral, pre-textual tradition.  By the time they appeared in printed form, these (at a minimum) “twice-told tales” had achieved the status of commonplaces.
In a few instances, however, jest-book authorship and origins have been more clearly established.  Richard Johnson, the English writer of romances, referenced above by Hazlitt, is the likely author of The Pleasant Conceits of Old Hobson. Additionally, it is generally believed that Walter Smith, a servant in the household of Sir Thomas More, wrote the Mery Jests of the Widow Edyth; More’s brother-in-law John Rastell published the jests in 1526.  John Taylor (1580–1654), a boatman and writer self-titled the “water poet,” appears indeed to have been the originator of Taylors Wit and Mirth, and possibly of Certayne Conceyts & Jeasts as well.  However, the frequent attribution of Jests of Scogin to sixteenth-century physician Andrew Borde is widely regarded as tenuous.  The 1630 imprint of Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham also bears the ascription “gathered by A. B. of Phisicke, Doctour,” but references to the folly of the Gothamites appear a good century before, suggesting a long heritage in folk culture; the same may be said of the figure of Mother Bunch.  Most of the collected jest books have been attributed by literary historians to the prolific “Anonymous,” probably an appropriate ascription given the vast majority of the material’s folklore origins.  Explicit authorial attribution was primarily a feature of coterie, not popular, literature and poetry composed for and circulated among an aristocratic elite.  Many Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, including Shakespeare, Marlowe, Peele, and Ben Jonson, thus based their claims for artistic status in the courtly poetry that they wrote under aristocratic patronage.
Print, too, was a relatively new medium.  William Caxton introduced the first movable-type printing press in England around 1475, obviously predating any notion of textual proprietorship or copyright.  From a literary perspective as well, the Renaissance valorization of “invention” was aesthetically understood more in terms of imitation than “originality.”  It has been long established that Shakespeare and his contemporary dramatists borrowed freely from other sources, including prose chronicles, fiction, and other plays.  The same was certainly the case for the original publishers of jest books; as Jim Holt has observed, “Caxton, England’s first printer of books, padded his own translation of Aesop, in 1484, with a sampling of Poggio [Italian humanist Bracciolini]’s jokes, thus creating the earliest jest book in English.”

Holt comments, too, on what strikes most modern readers as the material’s unconventional form of the jests contained therein: “Many more are scarcely jokes at all. Instead of racing toward a punch line, they simply describe some prank, typically played by a wife on her husband, or illustrate a moral. (Preachers frequently inserted jests into sermons to keep their congregations from falling asleep.)”  The ministers’ occasional use of jests to liven up their homilies may seem ironic, as the clergy is often the butt of jest-book jokes.  Yet along with unruly women, cuckolded husbands, overreaching commoners, and clowns far more clever than their social superiors, the foolish and hypocritical clergymen who people the jest books are not only conventions of the genre but also embodiments of what many social historians have called “festive inversion,” comical topsy-turvy that performs a safety-valve function in a culture that is, officially, at any rate, rigidly hierarchical and stratified.  That is to say, the licensing of imaginary challenges to social order, whether in the form of a fool outwitting a learned man, a woman defying patriarchal authority, or a priest disclosing his own venality, was seen as providing a harmless symbolic outlet for unruly sentiments that might otherwise take more direct and political form.  Hence such potentially subversive media as the popular print and the Elizabethan theater were tolerated and even, in the case of the latter, sanctioned, although both genres were frequently censored and suppressed when the authorities deemed they had overstepped the boundaries of licensed and unlicensed mischief. 

The jest books’ liberal use of scatological humor, which prompted Victorian editors such as Hazlitt to replace some of the coarser references with a discreet sequence of asterisks, marks the material’s origins in popular culture but also has courtly precedence.  A good number of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as well as Rabelais’ classic humanist opus bidi-font-style: normal"Gargantua and Pantagruel, exploit to comic effect a host of indelicate bodily functions.  Despite—or perhaps because of—the rise of Puritanism in the sixteenth century and elaborate, quasi-mythical pomp and pageantry centering on the Crown, there is no indication that aristocratic readers and audiences were any more squeamish about earthy humor than were commoners.  As the eminent German sociologist Norbert Elias has shown, the proliferation of etiquette handbooks in the early modern period suggest both an emergent anxiety about social decorum and an assumption that even among the literate minority, no consensus existed about the propriety of pointing out excrement on the street or blowing one’s nose at the dining table.  Even so haughty a thinker as the great Dutch humanist Erasmus found it necessary to advise readers that “It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating.” 

The double genealogy of the early modern English drama—indebted both to the “vulgar” native conventions that inform the jest books and to the classics of Latin antiquity—was controversial even in Shakespeare’s time.  Elizabethan dramatists themselves appear to have harbored markedly mixed feelings about the hybrid nature of their new genre.  Beatrice’s attitude in Much Ado toward A Hundred Merry Tales is far from the only suggestion that the English Renaissance playwrights viewed their form’s jesting heritage with disdain.  An early example of an Elizabethan dramatist’s attempt to distinguish his art from the crude popular tradition occurs in the prologue to Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 play Tamburlaine the Great (Part I):

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war (1 3)

Marlowe explicitly distinguishes his play from the vulgar doggerel and clowning of common entertainments popularized by such jesters as Richard Tarlton and Will Kemp.  Like his fellow “University Wits”—university-educated young men drawn to the London theaters out of dissatisfaction with their other professional options—Marlowe sought to elevate the inchoate genre with the erudition of classical literature.  Shakespeare, though not a university man, seems to have shared Marlowe’s disregard for crass “clownage.”  In Hamlet’s famous exhortation to the players, the prince advises, “And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it” (Hamlet 3.2.38 42). Hamlet’s implication is clear: the crass extemporizing of clowns has no place in the newly exalted realm of the drama. 

Yet with rare exceptions such as Ben Jonson’s Volpone the Fox, Elizabethan and Jacobean plays consistently hybridize elements of high and low culture, “mingling clowns and kings,” earthy humor and lofty intellection.  Certainly part of this complex, often problematic synthesis owes to the heterogeneity of early modern English audiences.  Members of the court, sometimes including the Crown itself, along with the so-called “groundlings,” commoners of widely diverse educational and social backgrounds, patronized the playhouses.  But it is a mistake to assume that the broad humor and crass clowning that is part both of tragedies such as Macbeth and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream were aimed exclusively at plebeian spectators, any more than the cockfights and bear-baitings that also took place at the theater were for the sole benefit of the unlettered.  No less a personage than Queen Elizabeth herself was said to have “delighteth to heare some of the 100 merry tales” on her deathbed.  Conversely, the pamphlet publication of jest books in sixteenth-century England, where the extent of literacy was limited, indicates an at least minimally educated readership that took pleasure in supposedly unsophisticated material.

Shakespeare, with his relatively humble background and “grammar school” education (which nonetheless would have included basic Latin and Greek), would seem the ideal writer to interweave the sophisticated and everyday conventions so characteristic of the drama of his time.  University wit Robert Greene famously derided Shakespeare as an “upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers” in his 1592 diatribe A Groats-worth of Witte. He accused the comparatively unlettered young dramatist of taking advantage of the literary credibility Greene and his fellow university writers had brought to the London playhouses.  But so too did the Elizabethan theater seek to “beautify” itself with the aesthetic legitimacy of such classical forebears as Seneca, Plautus, and Terence while remaining at heart a plebeian, commercial institution.  If its aim of entertainment along with edification could be cast in the Horacian terms of “instruction and delight,” the drama’s debt to its bawdy native lineage underscores its function as a popular culture enterprise.

The Elizabethan clown, a memorable figure in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, is also invested with hybrid ancestry of courtly and common attributes perhaps best emblematized in the person of Richard Tarlton, the most eminent and influential jester in sixteenth-century England, and the ostensible source of Tarlton’s Jests in Shakespeare’s Jest Books.  A seasoned actor who belonged to the Queen’s Men theatrical company, Tarlton was Elizabeth’s preferred jester, as the first of Tarlton’s Court-Witty Jests attests:

The Queene being discontented, which Tarlton perceiving, took upon him to delight her with some quaint jest; whereupon he counterfeited a drunkard, and called for beere, which was brought immediately.  Her Majestie, noting his humor, commanded that he should have no more: for, quoth shee, he will play the beast, and so shame himselfe.  Feare not you, quoth Tarlton, for your beere is small enough.  Whereat Her Majestie laughed heartily, and commanded that he should have enough.   (V. II, p.191)
Tarlton’s performances delighted aristocrat and commoner alike, combining urbane wit with jigs, songs, and extemporaneous quibbles.  Literary critic Robert Weimann writes of Tarlton’s significance:

This remarkable unity of court, city, and country jesting paved the way for the
Elizabethan clown and was of considerable consequence to Shakespeare’s
dramatic method.  The drumbeating, jigging Tarlton, always in touch with his
audience, achieved and sustained this unity: a national (as opposed to corporate orregional) institution, he already enjoyed a certain detachment from the plebeian and rural forms of culture from which he had sprung.  This allowed him to adapt
traditional forms to the needs of a popular Renaissance theater. 
Tarlton, then, stood at the crossroads of residual and emergent culture, incorporating attributes of the Vice of medieval morality plays and the bawdy commonplaces of the early sixteenth-century jest books into an evolving aesthetic of courtly pastime.  It was a double legacy that he bequeathed to Shakespeare’s most famous clowns, although in strikingly different forms: Will Kemp and Robert Armin.  Kemp, like Tarlton an accomplished dancer, originated such roles of Dogberry in Much Ado and Peter in Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Because theatrical companies chose to stage plays highlighting the particular strengths of their various players, it has been inferred that Shakespeare wrote these parts with Kemp’s talents in mind.  These comic roles offer clear indications of Kemp’s clowning style—broad and bumpkinish, closer to the folk tradition of jest-book humor than to the more urbane foolery of courtly entertainments. 

The latter style was most fully realized by Robert Armin, who was, according to Tarlton’s Jests, Tarlton’s protégé and designated comic heir.  In a “ryme” ostensibly composed extemporaneously by Tarlton in response to one written by Armin, then a goldsmith’s apprentice, Tarlton effectively “adopts” the younger clown:

A wagge thou art, none can prevent thee;
And thy desert shall content thee.
Let me divine.  As I am,
So in thy time thou’lt be the same,
My adopted sonne therefore be,
To enjoy my clownes sute after me.  (VII, pp. 216 17)

Regardless of the possibly apocryphal nature of the incident in the jest book, the words attributed to Tarlton seem to have been prophetic.  Armin joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599, and around this point the Shakespearean clown figure seems to shift from the malaprop-prone rube perfected by Kemp to the courtly “licensed fool” of As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and King Lear.  Armin’s fools were witty rather than broadly comical, sophisticated often to the point of acerbic, even cruel.  Tarlton’s apparent endorsement notwithstanding, Armin’s court jesters represented a further distancing of theatrical foolery from its humbler roots.  Unlike Bottom or Dogberry, the Arminian clowns—Feste, Touchstone, Lear’s Fool—are integrated into their courtly worlds, where they are “licensed” to offer sometimes bitter truths, cloaked in the guise of jesting, to their social superiors.  Armin’s clowns are seldom the butts of their own foolery, whereas Kemp’s buffoons elicit condescension from the aristocratic characters.  Armin’s sophistication as well as his talent as a singer was also showcased by the delicate ballads assigned to his fools, including “O Mistress Mine” and “Come Away, Death.”  That Armin was also undisputed author of his own jest books itself testifies to a gradual gentrification of clownage. It is a development toward refinement and “literariness” paralleled by the increasing sophistication of the drama itself, and in turn, of print.   By the early seventeenth century, print was shedding some of its vulgar associations, but the drama had yet to be granted unchallenged literary status.  Ben Jonson was the object of considerable scorn for the audacity of including his plays with his poetry when he published his Collected Works in 1616.   
Thus it may well have been that Shakespeare, who was by all indications a wide and eclectic reader, chose cannily not to foreground specific references to the jest books lest such direct echoes compromise the drama’s aspirations to a nobler form of literature.  Whether Shakespeare intentionally drew on the jest books is ultimately of less significance than their demonstrable value, which is rich, multiple, and intertextual, attesting to the undeniable, sometimes uneasy relationship of the popular comic tradition to the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater.  Similarly, the questions about ascription and attribution are themselves historically embedded.  As both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault have observed, the notion of authorship is a relatively recent invention with an ideological function in the modern era of individualism and property rights.  Foucault writes:
the "author-function" is not universal or constant in all discourse. Even within our civilization, the same types of texts have not always required authors; there was a time when those texts which we now call "literary" (stories, folk tales, epics and tragedies) were accepted, circulated and valorized without any questions about the identity of their author. Their anonymity was ignored because their real or supposed age was a sufficient guarantee of their authenticity.
The fluidity of authorship in the jest books reminds us how comparatively novel the very idea of an “author,” a sole originator of written words, is.  Shakespeare’s Jest Books offers more than a compendium of jokes and humorous tales that shaped Shakespeare’s cultural moment and influenced his comic vision.  The jest books are also a reminder of the intertextuality—the dialectical interplay both between authors and between authors and their culture—that informs all modes of writing.  Not even the “Immortal Bard,” whose timeless and transcendent genius the Romantics were first to extol, created in a cultural vacuum.  Shakespeare’s Jest Books presents modern readers with a glimpse into the raw material on which the English language’s greatest dramatist worked his rough magic.
Karin S. Coddon has published widely on Shakespeare and Renaissance drama.  She has taught at Brown University and University of California, San Diego, and is currently a freelance writer.

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