I adore ancient comedy. I love the fact that you can share something as personal and awesome as laughter with people and societies from two millennia ago. I love exploring comedy as social commentary and learning about the ancient world by what made them laugh. I like puns, slapstick and obscure references equally. In short, I like laughing. I like laughing at ancient jokes, and I like laughing at modern jokes. When something combines the two, and I can laugh at jokes about the ancient world, then I am a happy chortling munchkin.

However, I have been thinking a lot about modern jokes about the ancient world recently. Last week’s Now Show is an excellent example. The humour relies upon the audience having a basic knowledge of ancient Greek history and myth and civilisation. Without that knowledge, there is simply no frame of reference for the jokes. The throwaway line that being Medusa’s hairdresser would have been very dangerous, is only funny if you know she had snakes for hair and could turn you to stone with a look.

I went to see Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables last week. It is set in the 50s, in a hotel in Bournemouth which is home to a odd collection of characters. There is a scene in it where two old boys discuss Classics. One is ostensibly an old boy of Wellington, the other spent his life teaching in public schools, where of course everyone was a Classicist. That is where the joke I mentioned on twitter – when talking about a pupil, “He once elided a whole word in his Greek iambics” comes from.* Now this is much more obscure than jokes about Medusa’s hair, and in the play its obscurity serves an important purpose – it is a hint to the audience that one of these men knows a lot more about Classics than the other, something that will later prove important.

However, as an audience member it was clear that there were very few people who got these jokes. Admittedly they needed more than a glancing acquaintance with the Classical world, they needed the sort of knowledge public school boys at the turn of the century had, which now comes from rather extended study. But at the time the play was staged in 1954 most of the audience would have had a more extensive knowledge of the Classical world than audiences now. The playwright uses the characters’ differing levels of Classical knowledge to move the plot onwards and reveal more about them both. The playwright assumes that the references he uses will be within the audience’s frame of references.

But jokes about Greek scansion and misquoting Horace are simply not in the frame of reference of most audience members any more – and this means that there are elements of our cultural heritage that many people can no longer fully access. And that is something that concerns and saddens me. So another element of this blog is about illustrating and illuminating elements of the Classical world that are all around us – because everyone should be able to access the richness of our cultural heritage.

* Greek poetry is written in a variety of rhythms, which means that each line follows a set of rules about the number and length of syllables and their order. An iamb is two syllables, a short then a long (like the word un-known); and iambic poetry is made up of a number of these iambs in each line (e.g. iambic pentameter is five etc). Scansion is when you analyse a line to figure out how the rhythm works. There are all sorts of rules to work out whether a syllable is long or short, which includes the process of elision, which is where syllables run together. Eliding an entire word, as the pupil allegedly did, is not possible, and is the sort of schoolboy error that teachers laugh about in amazement…

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