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Phaedrus’s Double Dowry: Laughter and Joking in the Fabulae Aesopiae

Kristin Mann

DePauw University

In this paper, I examine instances of laughter and joking in the fable collection of Phaedrus, a Latin poet of the first century CE. I argue that causing laughter has two main purposes in Phaedrus: it shames those who act foolishly and it helps shield the joke-teller from retaliation. Both of these purposes are mentioned in Phaedrus’s first prologue, and both of them inform how we interpret instances of laughing throughout Phaedrus’s collection. This paper takes its cue from Beard 2014 and does not attempt to judge what is or is not funny in Phaedrus. Instead, I concentrate on explicit references either to laughter (risus, rideo, derideo, etc.) or to the attempt to arouse laughter by telling jokes (iocor, iocus). There has not been a specific examination of words for laughing/joking in Phaedrus, but recent scholarship has examined Phaedrus’s identity as a satirist and a follower of Horace (Champlin 2005, Hawkins 2014, Sciarrino 2010). Although humor is a well-known feature of satire, these treatments tend to concentrate more on Phaedrus’s moral stance or specific allusions to Horace, rather than his broader use of joking. This paper roots itself more in scholarship on satiric humor (such as Freudenberg 2001 and Plaza 2006) and on the notion of humor as aggression (Richlin 1992, Corbeill 1996).

I begin with an analysis of Phaedrus’s first prologue. There Phaedrus promises that his fable collection provides a double dowry (1 prol. 3: duplex dos): it causes laughter (3: risum movet) and it instructs life through prudent counsel (4: prudenti vitam consilio monet). The risum movet / vitam monet pun suggests that the two sides of this double dowry are inextricably connected; fables are didactic because they cause laughter. Then, at the end of the first prologue, Phaedrus asserts that no readers should get angry with him because he is only joking (7: iocari nos meminerit). This suggests the other half of the picture: causing laughter is not only a teaching strategy; it also shields the joker from retaliation.

After analyzing the first prologue, I demonstrate how these principles inform the actual fables of Phaedrus. First, I show how laughter is used to shame foolish behavior, using a few key fables. Fable 1.11 suggests that foolishness is inherently laughable, Fable 2.5 that jokes are a tool for public shaming, and Fable 3.6 that Phaedrus’s own fables should be told to ridicule those who deserve it. These fables – and the other fables like them, which I can only mention in passing – demonstrate that laughter humiliates those who act badly and hence teaches them (and the audience) a lesson. This is the type of learning promised by the double dowry in the first prologue. In the final portion of my paper, I show that this aggressive humor does not rebound upon the joke-teller, according to Phaedrus. Phaedrus insists that his own jokes shield him from retaliation, and there are several key fables in which a joking character escapes punishment, despite using humor against their social superiors (1.29, App. 11). In the end, humor for Phaedrus turns out to be both a weapon to punish foolishness and a shield against retaliation. Such is the “double dowry” offered by Phaedrus’s fables.

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Literature of Empire

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