Laughter in Twelfth Night and Beyond: Affect and Genre in Early Modern Comedy

Sabina Zhomartovna Amanbayeva


This essay situates the two plots of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the early modern discourse about the regulation of passions. Combining the framework of historical phenomenology with the emerging field of “affect studies,” the essay shows how early modern perception of laughter as a bodily experience had important implications for the way playwrights wrote comedy as a genre and thought about modeling audience response. The essay’s methodology thus moves away from the New Historicist exclusive preoccupation with politics and power and towards a new consideration of plays as passionate entities, which accomplish “affective” work. The body of the essay demonstrates that Twelfth Night’s division into plot and subplot embodies two early modern regimes of emotional regulation. The subplot focused on the deception of Malvolio critiques the passionate economy advocated by early modern humanists─ the idea that audience laughter should “captured” and used to ridicule social vices, in this case, Malvolio’s vices of arrogance and self-love. The play shows that this regime of emotional regulation is misguided and does not result in social or individual profit. Instead, the main love plot proposes a new model for thinking about passions: it imagines emotion as a space of possibility and an avenue of freedom, which opens up individual bodies and national communites to utopian transformation and change. Affect, rather than the play's social or political agenda, becomes the primary lens through which to read Twelfth Night.




Shakespeare, laughter, affect studies, historical phenomenology

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