26 October 2017

The More You Read, The More Jokes You Get

Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948)

A friend of mine once told me that the more you read, the more jokes you get.

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Lying down at OPHELIA's feet. 
No, my lord. 
I mean, my head upon your lap? 
Ay, my lord. 
Do you think I meant country matters? 
I think nothing, my lord. 
That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs. 
What is, my lord? 
You are merry, my lord. 
Who, I? 
Ay, my lord.

Once I was teaching Hamlet, and one of my exceptional, fun students, stopped me when we were discussing Act III Scene ii. There was an editor's note in the text, she said, which pointed out that 'country matters' was an obscene pun. She didn't get it. For a moment I stopped, trying to think of a way to suggest it to her without saying too much. You have to hear it to get it, I told her, and turned away to write on the board. A few seconds passed, in which the tap and scratch of chalk on slate seemed to fill the room. Then I heard her: "Oh..OH!" Recognition murmured its way across the room.

This morning, twenty years after, I was reading Thomas of Erceldoune, and came across an obscene joke that was almost certainly not there, but which I got but because I had read Shakespeare.

'Come lygge thyne hede downe on my knee,
And [þou] sall se þe fayreste syghte,
þat euer sawe mane of thi contree.' (1.194-96) 
Come lie thine head down on my knee,
And thou shalt see the fairest sight
That ever saw a man of thy country.

I don't think this is what my friend meant, but in a November of the soul you take what you can get.

1 comment:

  1. Another Thomas could on no accounts get out of the November of his soul:

    No sun - no moon!
    No morn - no noon -
    No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day.
    No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
    No comfortable feel in any member -
    No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
    No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! -