chapter  3
31 Pages

An audience for comedy

Stage and audience Sitting alone, reading something funny, we may smile or chuckle. In company, hearing a joke, we may laugh more loudly, sharing the laughter, being infected by it and using it to communicate our own pleasure. Laughter, as we know, depends upon context. Well-funded psychological research into humour and laughter has foundered because the subjects were tested under laboratory conditions: ‘Please sit down, look at this joke, on a funniness scale of one to ten, where would you rate it?’ Humour is precisely that which escapes laboratory conditions. It exists as a function of the human relationships which engender it. In the same vein, dramatic texts - scripts - have their existence primarily in a public context: the moment of meeting between stage and audi­ ence. This is not to say that an audience always creates the conditions which make laughter possible. The very reverse may be the case: sitting in a theatre, seeing something we find amus­ ing, we may suppress a laugh because no-one else is laughing; or else we may be carried away by the hilarity of others, laughing uproariously at something which in another context would have not seemed in the least bit funny. The dimension of the audience in theatre is something which is becoming more clearly under­ stood; in this section I want to look at the experience of Eliza­ bethan theatre-going in order to suggest ways in which it contributes to elements of Shakespearean comedy.