English R1B

Reading and Composition: Obscene Comedy

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
16 Fall 2021 Ripplinger, Michelle
TTh 5-6:30 104 Wheeler

Book List

Boccaccio, Giovanni: The Decameron; Chaucer, Geoffrey: The Canterbury Tales; Kempe, Margery: The Book of Margery Kempe; Shakespeare, William: All's Well That Ends Well


We commonly use the word “obscene” to describe sexual and excremental parts and functions of the body, whether it be a double entendre or explicit scatological reference. But like its Latin root obscenus, which means filthy, repulsive, and possessing the power to stain or contaminate, the word also carries a distinctly moral valence. The idea of the obscene not only rests on the assumption that these body parts and functions are dirty and shameful. It suggests that the words that describe them or artworks that represent them are dirty and shameful as well. In spite of such concerns, we laugh at ribald talk and dirty jokes precisely because they violate these social taboos; at least part of the pleasure lies in witnessing the exposure of something that should supposedly remain hidden.

In this course, we’ll consider how medieval and early modern authors grappled with the tension between obscenity’s ability to offend, revolt, and shock us, on the one hand, and to amuse, delight, and entertain us, on the other. Our readings will include a tale that is an elaborate fart joke (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales); a riddle whose answer could be either an onion or a penis; medieval manuscript images, including a nun picking penises from tree; and a play whose plot hinges on an elaborate bed-trick (Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well). Along the way, we’ll consider such topics as: the relationship between obscenity and the prevailing social order (i.e. whether it is emancipatory or a tool of social control); the ethics of representation, including the place of obscenity and pornography in feminist thought; censorship; gender, sex, and power; interpretation and the role of the reader; erotic desire and the grotesque; and more.

While obscene comedy will be our primary subject, the underlying object will be to grow as critical readers and to learn to write more clearly and persuasively about difficult and complex topics. This course will teach you how to pose analytical questions, develop complex arguments supported by evidence, and build research skills applicable to other college writing as well as writing outside the university. The course will consist of three assignments: a short paper of literary analysis, a more substantial research paper, and a final creative project. In this final creative project, you will have the opportunity to place this history of ideas about obscenity and the ethics of representation in conversation with the present, and to consider what potential it might hold for us now.


Please Note: While some of the readings will be in Middle English, no prior knowledge of Middle English is required to take this course.

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