This is the second edition of A Banquet of Jests, a popular jestbook (or joke book) first published in 1630. The book was so successful that it was reprinted 16 times during the 17th and 18th centuries, often with additions and revisions.
Jokes in early modern England
Jestbooks started to appear in English from the early 16th century onwards, coinciding with the growth of commercial printing. As A Banquet of Jests advertises on its title page, jestbooks typically contained an array of ‘modern jests, witty jeers, pleasant taunts, merry tales’. Many were borrowed from older sources, including folklore, medieval secular writing and classical stories and fables. The majority of jokes were narrative in style, and relied on verbal wit to convey humour. The purpose of a jestbook was to provide readers with anecdotes and clever quips to repeat at social gatherings and banquets.
Witty repartee was a key feature of the early modern court and professional society. Verbal dexterity and the ability to invent pithy one-liners was a source of much admiration and could even advance your career if overheard by the right audience. The jest ‘Of two gentlemen vying wits together’ (pp. 45–46) demonstrates the competitive role of wit in social situations.
Jestbooks and the theatre
Echoing their origins, jestbooks were recycled and absorbed within later forms of writing, such as commercial plays.
In William Shakespeare's play Much Ado About Nothing (1600) Benedict accuses his verbal sparring partner and later love interest Beatrice of stealing witticisms from ‘The Hundred Merry Tales’ (2.1.514) – an invented title for a jestbook based on existing books popular in the 16th century.
With She Stoops to Conquer (1773) Oliver Goldsmith aimed to reimagine the verbal comedy of Renaissance theatre, and he drew on jestbooks for the play’s fast-paced spoken exchanges and farcical episodes. There is a clear parallel between ‘Of a countryman and his hogge’ (pp. 57–58) and Act 3 Scene 1, in which Tony Lumpkin steals his cousin’s (Constance Neville) jewels from the keeping of his overbearing mother (Mrs Hardcastle). Unaware of Lumpkin’s plan, Constance asks Mrs Hardcastle to see the jewels. In order to cover his tracks, Lumpkin advises his mother to pretend to Constance that the jewels have been mislaid and promises to back her up as witness. Hilarity ensues when Mrs Hardcastle finds that the jewels really are gone:
MRS HARDCASTLE My dearest Tony, but hear me. They’re
gone, I say.
TONY By the law, mamma, you make me for to laugh,
ha, ha. I know who took them well enough, ha, ha, ha.
MRS H Was there ever such a blockhead, that
can’t tell the difference between jest and earnest. I tell
you I’m not in jest, booby.
TONY That’s right, that’s right. You must be in a bitter
Passion, and then nobody will suspect either of us. I’ll
Bear witness that they are gone. (3.1.224–33)
- Article by:
- Diane Maybank
- Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism, Gender and sexuality, Theatre and entertainment
Oliver Goldsmith published several critiques of audiences and playwrights before writing a laughing comedy that was the triumph of its season and that continues to be performed today. Diane Maybank introduces She Stoops to Conquer, which uses satire to explore divisions between city and countryside, men and women, and rich and poor.
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