William Shakespeare might be one of the greatest writers in Western literature, but you sure as hell wouldn't want him to roast you at your bachelor party. Even by the low standards of the 16 th century-when, keep in mind, poking bears with sticks was considered the pinnacle of hilarity-the Bard's fumbling attempts at humor were cringe-worthy. Here's a gem from Hamlet:
Hamlet : Whose grave's this, sirrah?
First Clown : Mine, sir.
Hamlet : I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in't.
See, because you lie in a grave, but also-wait for it-the clown is lying. That sound you just heard was your sides splitting.
Still, just because poor Will never got the hang of a punchline doesn't mean you should lump all literature together as joyless slogs. Below, we've outlined a few of the funnier classics in the canon that'll get a chuckle out of you. Forsooth!
A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press; 416 pages; $14.
A schizophrenic masterpiece of a novel, Confederacy of Dunces focuses on the pompous, bombastic Ignatius J. Reilly-a fat, flatulent blowhard who lives with his mother, masturbates frequently and considers himself the intellectual superior of pretty much everyone around him. (Think of him as the Godfather of Internet Nerds.) More a series of inter-connected stories than a single plot, Confederacy loosely chronicles Ignatius's botched, waddling attempts to find love, get a job and lead a violent one-man revolt against the Modern Age. Around him swirl a group of twisted supporting characters as flawed and unique as Ignatius himself.
A large cult following surrounds Confederacy, due partly to the strange, off-putting charisma of its lead character-you'll never know anybody quite like Ignatius, we promise you-but also because of the tragic life and death of the book's creator, John Kennedy Toole. Unable to find anyone interested in publishing his masterpiece, Toole committed suicide in the late '70s. Only after his death would his mother finally get someone to read Confederacy. It was published in 1980 and praised unanimously as a work of comedic genius. Toole would be posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, and Confederacy would go on to sell more than 1.5 million copies in 18 languages.
Letters From The Earth
Harper Perennial Modern Classics; 336 pages; $14.
As anyone who's read Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, where the author suggests Irish families selling their children to be eaten as a way to fix poverty, can tell you, writers are no strangers to using heavy sarcasm to make a point. Twain takes the irony ball and runs it to the end zone in Letters From The Earth, a collection of dispatches from Satan himself, in which the most evil guy in the universe complains at length about what stupid, mean-spirited little lunatics human beings are.
Published posthumously in 1962, Twain's Letters is a scathing, often side-splitting indictment of the various contradictions us idiot humans live our lives by-from organized religion to law-making to morality, the Lord of Darkness finds himself continually stunned by our short-sightedness and all-around stupidity. Considering this was written in 1909, Letters is a sometimes funny, often frightening look at how little we've changed since.