21L.421 | Spring 2008 | Undergraduate



Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

Why study comedy? To be able to recognize it? But generally we know comedy when we see it. To learn how to produce it ourselves? But the best comedy often seems unreproduceable. To understand it better? Again, we don’t usually have trouble “getting” comedy, and as with other forms of pleasure, we may suspect that too close analysis will ruin the delight. This class will not help you recognize, understand, or produce comedy more adeptly than you do now.

Rather it considers the history of comedy as a genre and as a tradition in drama, narrative, and film. That history, spreading over 2000 years, tells us a great deal about human modes of expression over time. We will note certain continuities: an interest in the body as object and source of rebellious pleasure, a pattern of transgression against social norms corrected and reordered through laughter, a fascination with the possibilities and limits of verbal play and wit, a concern with identity and mistaken identity, an opportunity for political protest and reform. As the class develops, we will also note the ways writers appropriate and reshape comic plots and structures from the past for their own uses.

This is a HASS-D—CI class. Like other communications-intensive classes in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, it allows students to produce 20 pages of polished writing in four assignments, one of which is a required revision. It also offers substantial opportunities for oral expression, through student-led discussion, class reports, and class participation. The class has a low enrollment that ensures maximum attention to student writing and opportunity for oral expression, and there is a writing specialist available for consultation on drafts and revisions.

This is also an intermediate level class in Literature where you will be expected to meet certain requirements independently and responsibly. Be sure to budget time for the required film showings and conferences with the writing specialist and professor and for meetings with your in-class report team. Note also the rapid pace at which we proceed with the plays in the first part of the syllabus; we will be reading these quickly to identify certain characteristic plots and themes in early comedy more than to pore over details. The essay topics assume experience in reading and writing about literature at the college level.

Schedule of Reading and Writing

[It is crucial that you read the whole text (or as much as possible of a novel or longer work) before the date assigned so as to be prepared for class discussion and able to make decisions about your essay topic before meeting with the writing specialist.]

1 Introduction  
Part I. Classical comedy: the physics and metaphysics of error
2 Aristophanes, Lysistrata  

Aristophanes, Lysistrata (cont.)

Film screening: Some Like It Hot

4 Plautus, The Brothers Manaechmus  
5 Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

Essay 1 (3 pages) due after five days

Library research workshop

Part II. Comic love: sex, violence, and instanity

Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Film screening: Bringing Up Baby

7 Shakespeare, Twelfth Night  

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (cont.)

Film screening: Twelfth Night

9 Molière, The Misanthrope  

Behn, The Rover

Film screening: Ridicule

11 Aphra Behn, The Rover (cont.) Essay 2 (7 pages) due after two days
Part III. Satire and wit in dark times
12-14 Austen, Pride and Prejudice Essay 2 revision (7 pages) due after two days of Ses #14
15-16 Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson  

Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Film screening The Importance of Being Earnest

18 Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (cont.)  
19 Final essay conferences  
20-21 Calvino, Cosmicomics  

Bechdel, Fun Home

Film screening Modern Times

23 Bechdel, Fun Home (cont.)  
24 Conclusion Essay 3 (10 pages) due

Course Expectations

Attendance, Participation, and Oral Communication (30%)

This is a discussion course where your attendance and participation in class are vital to your success and that of the group.

  1. Attendance (10%): You are expected to attend every class and film showing. Do not sign up for this course if you have a conflict with another class, recitation, sports commitment, or job. If you must miss class because of a medical or family emergency, you should notify me of the fact by phone, e-mail, or in person by the time of the class.

You must explain all absences. Two will not be held against your grade, unless they are unexcused. Any absence beyond those two deducts percentage points directly from your final grade (three for the third, four for the fourth, etc): two latenesses count as one absence. Repeated absences will lead to a formal warning and may end in your being dropped from the class.

  1. Class participation (10%): This class is designed to challenge oral communication as well as writing skills. Be prepared to contribute to class discussion, not only by speaking but also by listening and responding well to others. Every student is expected to contribute to class discussion by submitting a weekly comment or question to the class Web site discussion forum. These will provide starting points for group discussion.

  2. In-Class report (10%): Each student, working in a group, will prepare and deliver a 10-15 minute in-class report on one day’s reading. This report should include research, drawing on materials from print and online sources (1-3 of each) and presenting a bibliography, on a handout to be distributed to the class. It should also raise questions and offer ideas for class discussion. You will submit an outline, bibliography, and any supporting materials and will be graded on your content and also on your delivery and ability to generate class discussion.

Written Work (70%)

  1. Essays and revision (10%, 15%, 20%, 25%): Essays are due at the beginning of class on the day assigned. You must hand in something, even if you do not consider it your very best, in order to receive credit for the assignment. Late essays (only with an extension from me) will receive credit, as long as they come in by the following class. After that they will drop a full grade for each day late.

  2. Format: Essays must be typed or word-processed, double-spaced, and adequately margined, should include a title, and need to observe the conventions of grammar and spelling.

  3. Use of sources / Plagiarism: Use of old course essays or notes, Cliff’s or Spark Notes, essays posted on Web sites, or other sources without correct attribution constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism—the use of words, ideas, or efforts of others without acknowledgment—is a serious academic offense and will be brought to the attention of the Committee on Discipline. In this class you will practice research skills and learn responsible uses of information. The essay topics encourage but do not require you to use outside sources; they are critical readings of literary texts, representing your own thinking and developing your own arguments. Use correct MLA Works Cited format.

    The Literature Faculty have stated their policy on plagiarism as follows:

    PLAGIARISM—the use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work.

    For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution (MLA Works Cited format) consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center, and their Web site on Plagiarism.

  4. Conferences: Each student will meet with the writing specialist to go over drafts for essays and the revision; these meetings will be scheduled as soon as possible in the beginning of the term. Students will also meet with the instructor at least once during the term to discuss essays and writing. Other conferences are strongly encouraged, and you may also consult the Writing and Communication Center.


Screenings take place Wednesday evenings outside of normal class time. Attendance is required. If you want to re-view the films, you can check out copies from the Humanities Film Office.

The films screened are:

Some Like it Hot. Directed by Billy Wilder, 1959.
Bringing Up Baby. Directed by Howard Hawks, 1938.
Twelfth Night. Directed by Trevor Nunn, 1996.
Ridicule. Directed by Patrice Leconte, 1996.
The Importance of Being Earnest (earlier version). Directed by Anthony Asquith, 1952.
Modern Times. Directed by Charlie Chaplin, 1936.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples