Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII: Risible Objects - Elements of Criticism, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER VII: Risible Objects - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 1 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 1.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Such is the nature of man, that his powers and faculties are soon blunted by exercise. The returns of sleep, suspending all activity, are not alone sufficient to preserve him in vigor: during his walking hours, amusement by intervals is requisite to unbend his mind from serious occupation. To that end, nature hath kindly made a provision of many objects, which may be distinguished by the epithet of risible, because they raise in us a peculiar emotion expressed externally by laughter: that emotion is pleasant; and being also mirthful, it most successfully unbends the mind, and recruits the spirits. Imagination contributes a part by multiplying such objects without end.
Ludicrous is a general term, signifying, as may appear from its derivation, what is playsome, sportive, or jocular. Ludicrous therefore seems the genus, of which risible is a species, limited as above to what makes us laugh.
However easy it may be, concerning any particular object, to say whether it be risible or not, it seems difficult, if at all practicable, to establish<273> any general character, by which objects of that kind may be distinguished from others. Nor is that a singular case; for upon a review, we find the same difficulty in most of the articles already handled. There is nothing more easy, viewing a particular object, than to pronounce that it is beautiful or ugly, grand or little: but were we to attempt general rules for ranging objects under different classes, according to these qualities, we should be much gravelled. A separate cause increases the difficulty of distinguishing risible objects by a general character: all men are not equally affected by risible objects: nor the same man at all times; for in high spirits a thing will make him laugh outright, which scarce provokes a smile in a grave mood. Risible objects however are circumscribed within certain limits; which I shall suggest, without pretending to accuracy. And, in the first place, I observe, that no object is risible but what appears slight, little, or trivial; for we laugh at nothing that is of importance to our own interest, or to that of others. A real distress raises pity, and therefore cannot be risible; but a slight or imaginary distress, which moves not pity, is risible. The adventure of the fulling-mills1 in Don Quixote,2 is extremely risible; so is the scene where Sancho, in a dark night, tumbling into a pit, and attaching himself to the side by hand and foot, hangs there in terrible dismay till the morning, when he discovers himself<274> to be within a foot of the bottom. A nose remarkably long or short, is risible; but to want it altogether, far from provoking laughter, raises horror in the spectator. Secondly, With respect to works both of nature and of art, none of them are risible but what are out of rule, some remarkable defect or excess; a very long visage, for example, or a very short one. Hence nothing just, proper, decent, beautiful, proportioned, or grand, is risible.
Even from this slight sketch it will readily be conjectured, that the emotion raised by a risible object is of a nature so singular, as scarce to find place while the mind is occupied with any other passion or emotion: and the conjecture is verified by experience; for we scarce ever find that emotion blended with any other. One emotion I must except; and that is, contempt raised by certain improprieties: every improper act inspires us with some degree of contempt for the author; and if an improper act be at the same time risible to provoke laughter, of which blunders and absurdities are noted instances, the two emotions of contempt and of laughter unite intimately in the mind, and produce externally what is termed a laugh of derision or of scorn. Hence objects that cause laughter may be distinguished into two kinds: they are either risible or ridiculous. A risible object is mirthful only: a ridiculous object is both mirthful and contemptible. The first<275> raises an emotion of laughter that is altogether pleasant: the pleasant emotion of laughter raised by the other, is blended with the painful emotion of contempt; and the mixed emotion is termed the emotion of ridicule. The pain a ridiculous object gives me, is resented and punished by a laugh of derision. A risible object, on the other hand, gives me no pain: it is altogether pleasant by a certain sort of titillation, which is expressed externally by mirthful laughter. Ridicule will be more fully explained afterward: the present chapter is appropriated to the other emotion.
Risible objects are so common, and so well understood, that it is un-necessary to consume paper or time upon them. Take the few following examples.
I do remember him at Clement’s inn, like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring. When he was naked, he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife.
Second part, Henry IV. act 3. sc. 5.3
The foregoing is of disproportion. The following examples are of slight or imaginary misfortunes.
Go fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in’t. Have I liv’d to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher’s offal, and to be thrown into the<276> Thames! Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and butter’d, and give them to a dog for a new-year’s gift. The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drown’d a bitch’s blind puppies, fifteeni’ th’ litter; and you may know by my size, that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking: if the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drown’d, but that the shore was shelvy and shallow; a death that I abhor; for the water swells a man: and what a thing should I have been when I had been swell’d? I should have been a mountain of mummy.
Merry Wives of Windsor, act 3. sc. 15.
Nay, You shall hear, Master Brook, what I have suffer’d to bring this woman to evil for your good. Being thus cramm’d in the basket, a couple of Ford’s knaves, his hinds, were call’d forth by their mistress, to carry me in the name of foul cloaths to Datchet-lane. They took me on their shoulders, met the jealous knave their master in the door, who ask’d them once or twice what they had in their basket. I quak’d for fear, lest the lunatic knave would have search’d it; but Fate, ordaining he should be a cuckold, held his hand. Well, on went he for a search, and away went I for foul cloaths. But mark the sequel, Master Brook. I suffer’d the pangs of three egregious deaths: first, an intolerable fright, to be detected by a jealous rotten bell-weather; next, to be compass’d like a good bilbo,4 in the circumference of a peck,5 hilt to point, heel to head; and then to be stopt in, like a strong distillation, with stinking cloaths that fretted in their own grease. Think of that, a<277> man of my kidney; think of that, that am as subject to heat as butter; a man of continual dissolution and thaw; it was a miracle to ’scape suffocation. And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stew’d in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames, and cool’d glowing hot, in that surge, like a horse shoe; think of that; hissing hot; think of that, Master Brook.
Merry Wives of Windsor, act 3. sc. 17.6 <278>
[1. ]Cloth mills.
[2. ]Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), Don Quixote (1605), bk. 1, chap. 8.
[3. ]Act 3, sc. 2.
[4. ]Bilbo: a bar locked to the floor of a prison cell.
[5. ]Peck: a two-gallon vessel.
[6. ]Act 3, sc. 5—both quotations.