The UVic Writer's Guide


The term humour is used to refer to anything comical in literature; in terms of characters, it includes their appearance, behaviour, and speech. The humorous differs from the witty mainly in that wit applies to speech alone; moreover, humorous language is not artfully phrased, and the amusement it arouses can be unintentional.

For instance, in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (1604) Constable Elbow is unintentionally comical because he confuses similar-sounding words (see malapropism ):

ELBOW: I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honor two notorious benefactors.
ANGELO: . . . Are they not malefactors?
ELBOW: . . . precise villains they are, that I am sure of, and void of all profanation in the world that good Christians ought to have. (2.1.48-56)

In the medieval and renaissance periods, "humour" referred to the four major qualities of the human body, corresponding to the four elements, which determined human personality (choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine).

(See also comedy, irony, and satire.)

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 23, 1995