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Comedy: Drama and Theatre in Seventeenth Century England


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Professor Sue Wiseman
  • Assessment: coursework exercise (10%) and two 2500-3000-word assessed essays (45% each)

Module description

What does it mean to laugh at a situation? Can laughter and comedy be radical, and change a situation? Taking the rich example of seventeenth-century dramatic and theatrical comedy, in this module we explore dramatic comedy from William Shakespeare to William Congreve, from Ben Jonson to Aphra Behn.

While the main focus will be on English comedy of the seventeenth century, we will also explore theories of comedy, theories of laughter, and genres and topics including farce, city comedy, gender comedy and carnival. In doing so we will explore some modern comedy (such as that of Joe Orton), some Greek and Roman comedy, and some European models.

The module will follow the main historical contours of the seventeenth century. The first section will examine comedy in the London theatres in the English Renaissance and early seventeenth century, from the comedy of the early playhouses, such as Merry Wives of Windsor, to some of the more experimental later comedies such as Knight of the Burning Pestle. The relationship between London and the social world of comedy will be explored through the question of the 'city' comedy and the role of transgression (in the persons of prodigals, cross-dressers, radicals and thieves) will be explored.

The second section of the module will examine the theatre during the English Civil War and as it was reconvened with the innovative, yet restrictive playing regime at the Restoration of Charles II. The module will explore the new plays with their rakes, wits, radicals and syphilitic wits alongside the playhouses and their personnel - actresses, radicals, wits and workers - to explore the changed social and political stakes of the 'new' and self-consciously 'modern' comedies of Behn, Wycherley, Etherege, Congreve and Centilvre, amongst others.

Learning objectives

By the end of the module you will:

  • understand the genre of comedy and its social role
  • be familiar with the genre of comedy and some of the associated critical questions
  • understand dramatic comedy and its place in seventeenth-century life and culture
  • be able to write about and discuss some of the key questions about comedy and laughter.