Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 30.

James Robson, Humour, Obscenity and Aristophanes. Studien zum antiken Drama und zu seiner Rezeption. Tubingen: Gunter Narr, 2006. Pp. v + 215. ISBN 3- 8233-6220-8. EURO54.00.

Roosevelt Rocha
Departamento de Linguística, Letras Clássicas e Vernáculas,
Universidade Federal do Paraná, Brazil

What is humour? Why do we laugh when we hear or read a joke? What is the relationship between humour and obscenity? And more specifically why do we still find amusement in the comedies of Aristophanes? These are the basic questions for which Robson tries to find some answers in his book. This a revised version of Robson’s PhD thesis which he wrote under the supervision of Professor Michael Silk at King’s College, in London. The contents include acknowledgements, an introduction, Section A: Humour, Section B: Obscenity, Section C: Aristophanes, an Appendix about the text and the rhythms of Peace 819-921, a bibliography, an index of passages cited, a subject index and, finally, an index of Greek words and phrases.

In the introduction (pp. 1-3), Robson presents a plan of the book and announces the differences between his approach and those of Henderson (‘Freudian and Ferenczian’) and of the the American humour theorists such as Raskin and Attardo (‘cognitive, essentialist’).[[1]] According to him, when he started the research that gave birth to the book, in 1990, there was a lot of work to be done: 'in questioning the communis opinio that had taken hold in the discipline of humour studies; in re-examining the subject of Aristophanic obscenity and, also, in looking at Aristophanes as a writer of humorous drama' (p. 1). And, in a certain way, these are the tasks that Robson will try to realize in his text.

Section A, Humour (pp. 4-69), is divided in two chapters and presents a new definition of verbal humour which Robson test in the next chapter when analyzing some extracts of Aristophanes’ plays. In the first chapter, entitled ‘The Perception of Humour: The Modal Theory of Text Classification’ (pp. 4- 38), the author outlines that definition and, in doing that, he attempts to map the intuitive processes by which a listener decides whether or not the text read or heard is humorous, rather than adopt an essentialist approach. Robson proposes that each listener or reader makes this decision on a pretheoretical, intuitive basis. Then Robson investigate the process by which this decision is made, based on concepts taken from the works of other scholars that have written on this field, such as ‘unitary discourse’, taken from Mulkay[[2]] and ‘cooperative principle’ and ‘maxims’, taken from Grice.[[3]] But Robson does not only takes these concepts from other authors' works. He adapts and expands these notions to his purposes. As a result of this investigation, Robson proposes a ‘modal theory of text classification’, and in this model humour is one of four modes into which a listener or reader can intuitively categorize a text.[[4]]

In Chapter Two of Section A, ‘Humour in Aristophanes’ (pp. 39-69), this theory is put to the test and its implications for the study of Aristophanic comedy are considered. Robson discusses in this chapter specific problems which a listener may find in classifying Aristophanic texts. How does someone know if a character is speaking seriously or not in a play by Aristophanes? And how can the model proposed by Robson explain the listener’s ability to perceive humour in that context? To help finding answers to these questions, Robson analyses some humorous passages from the Aristophanic corpus, showing their possible relationship to the model of text classification. In doing that, Robson tries to portray the more common devices used by Aristophanes to create humour in his plays, such as frame abuse (tragic parody, register changes, stereotypical character-types, for instance) and maxim violation. Concerning this last device used by Aristophanes, Robson argues that the excerpts analysed can potentially be classified as humorous owing to presence of at least one violation of a maxim of speech, in the terms of the author’s revised version of Grice’s maxims.

Section B, Obscenity (pp. 70-94), has only one chapter, entitled ‘Obscenity, Humour and Laughter’. In this part of the book Robson tries to explain more closely how humour is related to obscenity. The author offers a different point of view to that of Henderson, according to whom the obscene language is a substitute for physical violence, a kind of sublimation, in Freudian terms. Robson suggests that obscenity can also have a cohesive and relaxing effect on a group, combining historical and ahistorical approaches to obscenity and relying on concepts taken from psychoanalysis and humour theory. Robson examines Greek attitudes towards obscenity and humour and compares with modern examples of obscene language to help explain its possible function in Old Comedy.

In Section C, Aristophanes (pp. 95-186), which is also divided into two chapters, Robson outlines a system of textual analysis which he uses latter, in the next chapter, to examine some verses (819-921) of the Peace, by Aristophanes. Robson states that, in this section, the interest is in the micro-level of the text. So, in Chapter Four, ‘Textual Analysis: A Methodology for Aristophanic Verse’ (pp. 95-131), the author tries to propose answers to the following questions: how we might establish the tone and register of lexical features and the way in which given sound effects may strike the listener? For this, he presents a systematic textual analysis to take into account as many of the factors that can affect a listener’s classification of the text. One of the most important factors is ‘collision’, the juxtaposition of words and phrases of different registers. Other factors are diction (choice of lexemes), which will include register, standard usage and unusual language and flavour; syntax and aural features (metre and rhythm, alliteration, assonance and rhyme), to cite the most important in my viewpoint.

In Chapter Five (pp. 132-186), the second of Section C, Robson puts his model of textual classification to use and, at the same time, provides a discussion of a cross-section of the problems found by the listener / reader in classifying an Aristophanic text. While Robson’s model is tested once more at the micro-level of the verses, the reader can make a proper appreciation of the constantly changing and playful nature of Aristophanic lines, and that is fascinating, according to Robson. I agree with him and think this part is the most interesting of the book, specially because of his analysis of the relationhsip between the metrical / rhythmical aspect of the text and semantic level. Very interesting is Robson’s conclusion on the use that Aristophanes makes of metrical elements to prepare his public for the delivery of humour.

To complement his analysis on the aural features of the text under consideration, Robson presents an Appendix with the ‘Text and Rhythms of Peace, 868-921 (pp. 187-189).

This is an ambitious book. Some people would say that it is more difficult to make someone laugh than to make someone cry. And maybe it is more difficult to understand humour than to understand other modes of speech. Perhaps that’s why this issue stayed out of the researchers’ scope until the 80’s of the last century. Robson tries to include in his interpretation every contribution that each discipline can give. The role of Psychology, Linguistics, Humour Theory, Semantics and Classical Philology, is very important. But I felt that an anthropological approach could be useful for this kind of study and Anthropology is a great absence in this book. I think it is significant to note that the way the ancient Greek people apprehended humour is different from the way we understand humour nowadays.[[5]] But this information seems not to be important to Robson. After reading his book, one has the impression that the Greeks laughed in the same way that we do. However, this is not necessarily true. This is a field in expansion and there is a lot more to be said about humour.[[6]]


[[1]] See Henderson, J. The Maculate Muse (Oxford 1991[2]); Attardo, S. and Raskin, V. ‘Script theory revis(it)ed: joke similarity and joke representation model’, Humor 4 (1991) 293-347.

[[2]] Mulkay, M. On Humour: Its Nature and Its Place in Modern Society (Cambridge 1988).

[[3]] Grice, H. P. ‘Logic and Conversation’, in Cole, P. and Morgan, J. L. (eds.) Syntax and Semantics, vol. 3: Speech Acts (New York 1975) 41-58.

[[4]] The other modes are the serious mode, the paradoxical mode and the nonsense mode.

[[5]] As an example of how Anthropology can contribute to the interpretation of Humour, see Oring, Elliot ‘Humor in Anthropology and Folklore’, in Raskin, Victor (ed.) The Prime of Humor Research (Berlin-New York 2008) 183- 210.

[[6]] The book, in general, is well edited, but I have found many typos. I will not list every one. Some of them are: in page 64, second paragraph, line 7, there is an excessive ‘an’ that shouldn’t be there; in pages 71-72, notes 2 and 6, the date of von Wilamowitz book is 1935, not 1995; in page, note 18, the date of Dover’s article included in the volume edited by Andreas Willi, The Language of Greek Comedy, is 2002, not 2003; in page 86, there is an ‘is’ missing before ‘O’Higgins’, in the first line; in the same page, in line 17, of the first paragraph a ‘can’ is missing between ‘arouses’ and be ‘seen’. These are just a few examples. It would be helpful for the reader to have a list of errata.