Research Stream


Jan Shaw (2016)
The University of Sydney

Laughter and the Horizons of Identity in The Prose Life of Alexander and The Wars of Alexander

Laughter cuts across trajectories of narrative, discourse and feeling. It is a moment of breakthrough of composure, of unrestrained self-expression. This project considers the connection between laughter and the affective shift that it appears to signal in these two versions of the Alexander romance.

Alexander and the Amazons crop.jpg

What is laughter? It is a physiological impulse that might be a response to a relational experience, for example, it might be a reaction to perceived humour or a play signal. It might also be a spontaneous expression of joy or cognitive surprise, or even of embarrassment or shock. Helmuth Plessner argues that a necessary condition for laughter is the capacity for ‘eccentric positionality’. The majority of the time, Plessner suggests, we co-ordinate our subjective bodies and our objective intentions such that this relation works seamlessly; but if this goes awry we blush, swear, swoon, cry, smile or laugh (depending on the situation). These responses evidence a momentary loss of control; we laugh spontaneously, without intention. At the same time, however, we are ‘personally implicated’ in our laughter. In this way laughter cuts across the trajectory of intention.

This project unpicks the meaning of laughter in the fifteenth-century texts The Prose Life of Alexander and The Wars of Alexander. It explores the discursive seamlessness that laughter disrupts, and the lasting affective shift that is the result of this momentary break. It further considers Alexander’s laughter in its relational capacity with the audience. In this sense his laughter is performative as he engages with broader, culturally recognisable characteristics of identity. In this way the project seeks to inform our understanding of how a fifteenth-century English audience might have understood the operation of laughter not only as a quirk of the narrative moment, but also as a behaviour that potentially marks the limits of self and the possibilities of acceptable difference.

Image: The meeting of Alexander the Great and the Amazons - La Vraye Histoire du Bon Roy Alixandre (early 15th C), mage taken from La Vraye Histoire du Bon Roy Alixandre (The Alexander Romance in Old French prose). Wikimedia Commons