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Module QXE-1004:
The Literature of Laughter

Module Facts

Run by School of Languages, Literatures, Linguistics and Media

20 Credits or 10 ECTS Credits

Semester 2

Organiser: Prof Sue Niebrzydowski

Overall aims and purpose

This module investigates some of the following questions by means of the study of comic texts from a variety of periods and genres: What is comedy? What do we laugh at, and why? How are laughter, wit and comedy inter-related? Do different literary genres inspire different kinds of laughter? Is laughter therapeutic and/or malicious? To what extent, and why, does the nature of wit change according to historical period, and is laughter therefore culture-specific? Is parody a legitimate sort of literary laughter? What is satire and how does it function? To what extent is laughter beyond words and dependent on the visual humour of cartoon, illustration, or stage and screen action? What are the links between gender and laughter? What are the connections between laughter and anger, and how serious is laughter? Though this course is designed to foster analytical and critical thought, the range of hilarious texts to be read and discussed frequently provokes real laughter and enjoyment among those following (and teaching) the module.

Course content

The module is organised on a chronological basis, moving from Chaucer to Monty Python and beyond, taking in on the way a selection of texts by Shakespeare, Wycherley, Pope, Swift, Austen, Dickens, short stories, and an anthology of comic verse. The lectures place the texts in their historical and cultural contexts, while the seminars and study groups focus on the week’s specified text for close reading and discussion. Both the lectures and the smaller groups are consistently concerned with the module’s over-riding questions about the nature of literary laughter. Concepts such as wit and satire are analysed, along with some of the recurring topics of humorous writing: religion, politics, sex and gender. The major functions of laughter – for stereotyping, for self-defence, for reform, rebellion, or release of tension – are highlighted for both their continuity and their difference in specific literary and cultural contexts.

Assessment Criteria


Typically, work graded D- to D+ (or 40 to 49) will show many of the following qualities: • Unsure and lacking in confidence when discussing ideas • Referring to the subject in question in a superficial manner • Making an effort to provide fairly balanced answers • Some points in the argument irrelevant to the topic • Little evidence of background reading • Some uncertainty over language and syntax • Strengths and weaknesses fairly balanced; occasionally clumsy and unimaginative • In creative work: superficial • Not succeeding in mastering the requirements of the medium


Typically, work graded B- to B+ (or 60 to 69) will show many of the following qualities: • Discusses ideas adeptly • Most of the arguments about a specific field are well-aired • Displays knowledge of the subject in question; the answer is relevant • Shows analytical and clear thought • Gives evidence of relevant reading • Shows accuracy in expression with mastery over language. • A few minor errors here and there. • Signs of creative thought deserve a higher position within the class • In creative work: shows signs of originality, having understood the requirements of the medium • Plans of well-balanced and full answers, despite some gaps


Typically, work graded A- to A** (or 70 to 100) will show many of the following qualities:

• Discusses ideas with confidence and precision • Demonstrates maturity and sophistication • Displays deep knowledge of the subject in question; the answer is totally relevant • Shows independent, analytical and clear thought • Gives evidence of substantial and relevant reading • Shows great accuracy in expression, displaying total mastery over all aspects of the language • Shows occasional signs of brilliance and originality of thought • In creative work: displays considerable originality • Command over medium; may have potential for publication/production

Learning outcomes

  1. Analyse comic texts in English in a variety of genres from a range of periods and settings

  2. Demonstrate critical awareness of the interrelationships of text, genre, literary tradition and cultural context

  3. Participate in an informed way in the critical discussion of literary texts and concepts

  4. Show preliminary mastery of academic writing skills, including scholarly referencing and bibliography

  5. Understand the concepts of laughter and comedy, and of the ways in which they have changed through English literary history from the medieval period through to contemporary writing

Assessment Methods

Type Name Description Weight
ESSAY Mid-term assignment either a critical analysis or a creative piece plus commentary 50
EXAM Final assignment 50

Teaching and Learning Strategy

Private study

Private study involves a variety of related tasks: reading the primary texts set each week; researching them and the key concepts of the module through further primary and extensive secondary reading; answering questions and making notes in preparation for the study group and seminar; researching, planning and writing the two assignments during the semester; and revising for the exam at the end of the semester.


There is a one-hour seminar each week for this module, during which the set reading for the week is discussed. The format is interactive and the focus is on involving all participants in analysing the text, paying particular attention to its comic elements and strategies. The seminar is also the setting where advice is given on written work, both the practice essay and the assessed mid-term assignment.


There are two one-hour lectures per week for this module, introducing concepts, texts, authors, historical periods and literary genres. The lectures are designed to relate closely to the reading of primary texts, linking directly to the particular text set for discussion in the seminar each week.

Study group

In addition to the two lectures and one seminar per week, students also meet in smaller study groups for one hour each week. The purpose of the study group meeting is to prepare for the seminar by carrying out a number of tasks set in advance by the tutor. These can include reading a text, performing or watching a performance of a play, answering a series of questions about the text in relation to the key themes of the module, researching a particular aspect of the work, or preparing a presentation.


Transferable skills

  • Literacy - Proficiency in reading and writing through a variety of media
  • Computer Literacy - Proficiency in using a varied range of computer software
  • Exploring - Able to investigate, research and consider alternatives
  • Information retrieval - Able to access different and multiple sources of information
  • Critical analysis & Problem Solving - Able to deconstruct and analyse problems or complex situations. To find solutions to problems through analyses and exploration of all possibilities using appropriate methods, rescources and creativity.
  • Argument - Able to put forward, debate and justify an opinion or a course of action, with an individual or in a wider group setting


Courses including this module

Optional in courses: