Mery Talys and Quicke Answeres
April 23, 2014 1:10 PM   Subscribe

Shakespeare Jest-Books: Reprints of the Early and Very Rare Jest-Books Supposed to Have Been Used by Shakespeare.
posted by Iridic (16 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I was reading some of A Hundred Merry Tales the other day. This bit concerning why there are no Welshmen in heaven was particularly beautiful

"amonge olde gestys, how God made Saynte Peter porter of heuen and that God of his goodnes, soone after his passyon, suffred many men to come to the kyngdome of heuen with small deseruyng at whiche tyme there was in heuen a grete company of Welchemen whiche, with theyre krakynge & babelynge, trobelyd all the other. Wherfore God sayd to Saynt Peter that he was wery of them & that he wolde fayne haue them out of heuen. To whome Saynt Peter sayde * Good Lorde, I warrant you it shalbe shortly done * wherfore Saynt Peter went out of heuen gatys, & cryed with a loude voyce * Cause bobe * that is as moche to say as * rostyd chese * whiche thynge the Welchmen heryng, ran out of heuyn a great pace. And when Saynt Peter sawe them al out, he sodenly went in to heuen, and lokkyd the dore, and so sparryd all the Welchmen out"
posted by dng at 1:22 PM on April 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Wow! I'd never heard of this, except for the 100 Merry Tales quote from Much Ado.

This one made me laugh out loud:

¶ Of him that dreamed he fonde golde. xxviii.

¶ There was a man, that sayde in company vpon a tyme, howe he dreamed on a nyghte, that the deuyll ledde him in to a felde to dygge for golde. Whan he had founde the golde, the deuyll sayde: Thou canste not carye hit a waye nowe, but marke the place, that thou mayste fetche hit an other tyme. What marke shall I make, quod the man? S**** ouer hit, quod the deuyl: for that shall cause euery man to shonne the place, and for the hit shall be a speciall knowlege. The man was contente, and dyd so. So whan he awaked oute of his slepe, he parceyued, that he had foule defyled his bedde. Thus betwene stynke and dyrte vp he rose, and made him redy to go forth: and laste of all he put on his bonette, wherin also the same nighte the catte hadde s***; For great stinke wherof he threwe away his couer knaue, and was fayne to wasshe his busshe. Thus his golden dreame tournedde all to dyrte.
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:30 PM on April 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

¶ Of the familie that wouldst be players upon the stage

¶ There was a man, owner of a theatre at Southwarke, who perchance was seated at his bookes conductyng his business. When, lo, in walked a familye, with a father, a mother, a sonne and a daughter. Quoth the theater-owner: Begone, for I booketh not familye-acts. Replied the man: I beseech you, sir, pay heed, for we are no commonplace familye-acte...
posted by PlusDistance at 2:45 PM on April 23, 2014 [28 favorites]

I love these, but are there any versions anyone can recommend with modern spelling? If not, I'll just power through, but I figured I'd ask. I love humor from this era but having to decode on the fly messes with my internal comic timing.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:49 PM on April 23, 2014

The Gentry!
posted by idiopath at 3:50 PM on April 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm terribly sorry, I've ruined your jest. If a mode wants to adjust my timestamp a little, we can fixe thatte right uppe.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:02 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

BRB, changing my name to meryr.
posted by maryr at 4:36 PM on April 23, 2014


I love this post. Jestbooks are, among other things, a vital way of preserving what was essentially Elizabethan stand-up comedy with a bit of music and dance thrown in. The most popular clown in London when Shakespeare first got there was Dick Tarlton, who had the kind of name recognition that, say, Groucho Marx does today. Tarlton died in 1588, and his jests are preserved by his number one fanboy, Robert Armin, a goldsmith's apprentice who, shortly after his master died, left that prestigious and lucrative trade to become a stage clown.

Tarlton's Jests and Tarlton's News Out Of Purgatory are both anonymous, but the latter is pretty much certainly attributable to Armin, and the former is at least possible, since Armin is mentioned in it. Armin is known to have written one other jestbook, a collection of anecdotes about fools and jesters called Foole upon Foole or Six Sortes of Sottes, which he later revised and expanded as A Nest of Ninnies. In that book [pdf link to relevant page], Armin draws the distinction between a Fool Natural (a stupid person who's funny by accident, like Bottom and Dogberry) and a Fool Artificial (an intelligent person who chooses to be a fool, like Feste.)

This all becomes relevant to Shakespeare around 1599 or 1600, when the celebrated clown Will Kempe quits the Lord Chamberlain's Men in order to dance the jig from London to Norwich and publish a book about it (no, seriously). With Kempe gone, Armin becomes the principal comedian in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. So it's thought that, at least from around 1599 onwards, a lot of Shakespeare's theories about fools and jesting, were fuelled by his working relationship with Robert Armin.

Without Armin's keen mind, inventive wit and sharp memory, the jests he recorded would have been lost to Shakespeare as well as to us. (Armin also wrote some comic poems and at least one play, a city comedy called Two Maids of More-clacke which sort of parodies Hamlet.) Between the two of them they may have changed the entire popular concept of what a fool was, which I think is pretty amazing.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:42 PM on April 23, 2014 [15 favorites]

dng: I could follow it until I got to "Cause bobe." Any clues on what this means? Searching for the phrase or the word bobe just produced more references to the word bobe, never an explanation or translation.
posted by treepour at 5:01 PM on April 23, 2014

Caws pobi is Welsh for "baked cheese" (the famous Welsh rarebit).
posted by Iridic at 5:14 PM on April 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Recently there was an article in the Times Literary Supplement about Armin (or half of it was about him).
posted by Kattullus at 5:28 PM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

¶ _Of the ryche man and his two sonnes._ iv.

The punchline is missing :(
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 7:30 PM on April 23, 2014

¶ Of the phisitian Eumonus. xlviii.

¶ A phisitian called Eumonus tolde a sicke man, that laye in great payne, that he coulde nat scape, but he muste nedes dye of that disese. This sicke man within a whyle after, nat by the phisitians helpe, but by the wille of God, guerysshed[215] and was holle of his disease: howe be hit, he was verye lowe and bare[216] broughte. And as he walked forth on a daye, he met the same phisytian, whiche, doubtynge whether hit were the same sycke man or nat, sayd: Arte nat thou Gaius? yes, truelye, quod he. Arte thou alyue or deed, sayde the phisitian? I am deed, quod he. What doste thou here than, said the phisitian? Bycause, quod he, that I haue experience of many thinges, God hath commanded me that I shulde come and take vp all the phisitians that I can get, to him. Whiche sayenge made Eumonus as pale as asshes for fere. Than Gaius sayd to him: drede thou nat, Eumonus, thoughe I sayd all phisitians: for there is no man that hath wytte, that wylle take the for one.

posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 7:52 PM on April 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

"... he put on his bonette, wherin also the same nighte the catte hadde s***..."

Or, as Fat Freddy's Cat put it some 400 years later: "Just wait till he puts on the stereo headphones!"
posted by Paul Slade at 3:38 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

My favourite early modern jestbook is Nicolas L'Estrange's 'Merry Passages and Jeasts', sadly not available online except in a heavily censored Victorian edition which omits the majority of the jokes as 'unfit for publication'. It's a splendid collection of seventeenth-century poop-jokes and fart-jokes, including an anecdote of King James I who 'being a hunting one time, shit in his breeches (according to his usual manner) and so followed the chase, squeezing and churning so long that it wrought out at the top of his collar'. It also includes possibly the earliest recorded example of a Freudian slip, 250 years before Freud:
My Aunt Catlin was carving a Box of Marmalade at the upper end of the Room, and Mr Pricke the minister stood at the lower end, but she had many distributions to make before she could come at him; and observing that he leer'd much that way, she whisper'd to one that was by her, Doe but marke, sayes shee, how the very sight makes Mr Teeth's prick water; instead of Mr Prick's teeth water.
More Shakespearian jestbooks here and here, including Tarlton's Jests, which, as Pallas Athena says, gives us a glimpse of what it might have been like to see that great Elizabethan comedian on stage. Katherine Duncan-Jones's article 'The Life, Death and Afterlife of Richard Tarlton' (abstract only; full text behind paywall), published last year, argues that the gravedigger scene in Hamlet is a tribute to Tarlton, and when Hamlet says 'Alas poor Yorick' the audience would have understood this as a reference to 'Rick' or 'your Rick' (or 'yo, Rick!'). (Not sure I buy this, but it's a nice idea.) She also speculates that Robert Armin might have played the part of the gravedigger.

Tarlton was famous for popping his head out of the tiring-house at the back of the stage, which apparently was so hilarious that the mere sight of his head reduced the whole audience to tears of mirth. (According to Thomas Nashe, 'the people began exceedingly to laugh, when Tarlton first peept out his head'.) We don't know what was so funny about this, but as Duncan-Jones says, it's hard not to think of Eric Morecambe achieving the same effect by lifting his eyebrows and waggling his spectacles.

I wish I'd been there to see Tarlton doing his shtick at the Globe, though I doubt whether I'd have been a fan of Armin's 'melancholy clown' routine, judging by the production of Marston's The Malcontent that I saw last week. Marston rewrote the play in 1603 with an extra character, Pasarello, as a star vehicle for Armin. Frankly the new scenes aren't very good, and I wish he'd left the play the way it was. If Tarlton was the Eric Morecambe of the Elizabethan stage, then Armin was the Hugh Laurie, the comic actor who went on to make it big in serious roles (and I'd have been the annoying fan who gushes: 'oh Mr Armin, I loved your performance in A Nest of Ninnies, it's been twenty years since then but I don't believe you've ever done anything better').
posted by verstegan at 6:07 AM on April 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

My thanks to Pallas Athena and verstegan for their fantastic contributions!
posted by Iridic at 10:14 AM on April 24, 2014

« Older Dedicated "to those who have held the bag on a...   |   "Let’s stop telling Adam and Steve jokes." Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments