Critical engagements with the topic of humour and laughter and literary-historical enactments of their social power are all too easily polarized around the idea that the comic is somehow essentially conservative or progressive. Bakhtin's dream that the carnivalesque was a transforming social force has tended to give way to studies such as those by Mulkay, Billig and Ghose, among others, which emphasize instead how the comic can reproduce the status quo. Excepting Mulkay, such studies typically focus on laughter specifically. This article presents a more nuanced account of the comic in literary politics by developing an approach to humour's rhetoric and politics that draws afresh on the early modern Aristotelian tradition of thinking about the risible and offers an analytical approach to humour as an emotional response to what I will call the unseemly. Such a view of humour illuminates the similarities that might be observed in A Midsummer Night's Dream between Puck's amusement at the lovers in act three and Theseus's amusement at the artisans' play in act five. Such a view of humour emphasizes the evolving values, the seemliness, that can be common to humour and politics by exposing the conditions under which humour becomes available to many as a rhetorical resource. In doing so, the article points both through and beyond A Midsummer Night's Dream to a fresh conception of the constructive role that humour specifically might play in political transformation.
- Moral imagination