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Two portraits, A half-length portrait of the seventeenth century playwright, Ben Jonson. and
Left, engraving of Ben Jonson by Robert Seymour and Thomas Mosses, between ca. 1830 and 1836. Right: engraving of William Shakespeare by Samuel Cousins, 1849.

Knock Knock! Who’s There? Metafolklore, Jokes, and Shakespeare

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Knock Knock!
Who’s There?
Heywood
Heywood Who?
Hey, would you believe William Shakespeare invented the knock-knock joke?

Or at least a lot of people in the blogosphere will tell you Shakespeare did! For example, BestLife blog calls “Macbeth,” Act II, scene 3 “The Surprising Literary Origin of the Knock Knock Joke.” The Daily Mirror online is all-in on the Knock-Knock story too, not only calling Macbeth “The Unlikely Origin of the Knock Knock Joke,” but specifically claiming that “most experts believe” that this is the joke’s origin. Even academics have gotten in on the act, with Dr. Oliver Tearle of Loughborough University asking, “Did you know Shakespeare invented the ‘Knock knock’ joke?”

Commonplace Fun Facts connects Shakespeare’s invention of the knock knock joke to other inventions he’s supposed to have made:

William Shakespeare did more than write the most famous plays and sonnets in English literature and contribute more than 1,700 words to the English language. He can also claim credit for inventing one of the most popular forms of humor: the knock-knock joke. The date was 1606, and the venue was ‘Macbeth,’ Act 2, Scene 3.

As longtime readers may remember, though, in a Folklife Today blog post a few years ago, I pointed out that Shakespeare didn’t really coin all those words and phrases he’s credited with. In fact, the latest research shows that only about a fourth of the words once attributed to Shakespeare actually first appear in his works. And of course, a word appearing in the written record for the first time isn’t really evidence that the word was first used in that context; in fact, most words are probably coined in oral discourse and only later turn up in written works. Because of this, there’s no good evidence Shakespeare coined almost any words at all.

Given all this, we might reasonably be skeptical of Shakespeare’s claim to knock-knock primacy. And indeed, my own research suggests we should be. On the one hand, it’s debatable whether the Shakespeare passage constitutes a “knock knock joke” at all. On the other hand, I’ve turned up an earlier passage from a different author that may have a better claim.

Two full length portraits of an actor dressed as a doorman.
Character actor J. Louis Johnson played the porter who says “Knock knock, who’s there?” in the acclaimed 1936 adaptation of “Macbeth” by the Federal Theater Project’s all-black Negro Unit. Nicknamed “Voodoo Macbeth” because of its setting in Haiti and depiction of Afro-Caribbean religious traditions, the production was a critical and popular success that established the reputation of its 20-year-old director, Orson Welles. Find the archival photos at this link. Find the playbill at this link.

To get a sense of the claim for Shakespeare as the creator of the knock knock joke, we might ask ourselves what actually constitutes a knock knock joke. Typically, they’re interactive, featuring two people. One of them begins “knock knock,” the other responds “who’s there?” Then it goes back and forth until the person who originally knocked delivers a joking punchline based on the interaction. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the Shakespeare scene in question and see how well it fits this description:

“Knocking within. Enter a Porter.

PORTER Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the
key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’
th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!
Have napkins enough about you; here you’ll sweat
for ’t. (Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’
other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator
that could swear in both the scales against either
scale, who committed treason enough for God’s
sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,
equivocator. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s
there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for
stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here
you may roast your goose. (Knock.) Knock, knock!
Never at quiet.—What are you?—But this place is
too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had
thought to have let in some of all professions that go
the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)
Anon, anon!”

As you may have noticed, there’s only one person talking. He’s a porter at the castle in Inverness, but is pretending to be the porter in Hell, announcing the arrival of recently dead people. The people he mentions are allegorical to some extent and reference current events of Shakespeare’s day; the “farmer” and “equivocator” both probably refer to Henry Garnet, a Catholic priest who was hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason in 1606. [See note] Given that, although there is some humor to the passage, it seems more cautionary than amusing. It evokes both suicide and a gruesome execution–not exactly a lighthearted moment. It also includes no obvious punchline. Also, the porter initially says “knock knock knock” rather than “knock knock” on two of the three occasions for which the answer is “who’s there?” On one occasion he says instead “Knock Knock! What are you?” This suggests he’s not really following a set “knock knock joke” formula, just dramatizing a series of interactions while he’s walking, without a real door to knock on. In other words, this isn’t really much of a knock knock joke.

Left, a head and shoulders portrait of actor James Swift. Right, a half-length portrait of Swift.
James Swift played the porter in a 1938 Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth for high school students in New York City. See the archival photos at this link. See the playbill at this link.

Maybe for these reasons, some sources stop short of crediting Shakespeare with inventing the knock knock joke. The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, doesn’t mention “knock knock jokes” specifically, but credits Shakespeare with the first use of the phrase “knock knock, who’s there?”  Interesting Facts claims only that “Knock-knock jokes MAY HAVE originated in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth,'” but definitely calls the porter scene “the first known reference to a ‘knock, knock/who’s there’ sentence structure in the context of comic relief.” No Sweat Shakespeare, similarly, suggests it’s not exactly a knock knock joke, but that it IS the “First appearance of ‘knock knock, who’s there?'”

So, given that some commentators only claim Shakespeare originated the phrase “knock knock, who’s there,” I decided to test this assertion on the Early English Books Online database, to see if the phrase is recorded before “Macbeth.” To my surprise, I turned up an earlier “knock knock, who’s there” passage in the writings of another prominent playwright who was a personal friend of Shakespeare’s, several years before “Macbeth.” Moreover, the passage I discovered looks a little more like a knock knock joke than the porter’s speech.

The passage in question is from Ben Jonson’s “The Case is Altered,” which is generally dated to 1597, and cannot be later than 1598, the year in which Thomas Nashe reminisced about having seen it. Since the porter scene of “Macbeth” refers to a trial which occurred in 1605 and an execution carried out in 1606, it must have been written about 8 or 9 years after Jonson’s play. In Act IV, Scene 7 of “The Case is Altered,” the lowly servant Onion wishes to woo the miser’s daughter Rachel, but being somewhat tongue-tied, he brings along his friend, the clever cobbler Juniper, to speak more eloquently than he can. I’ll begin quoting as Juniper and Onion arrive at Rachel’s house:

“JUNIPER: No, I’ll knock. We’ll not stand upon horizons and tricks but fall roundly to the matter. [He knocks.]

ONION: Well said, sweet Juniper. Horizons? Hang ’em! Knock, knock!

RACHEL: [Within] Who’s there? Father?

JUNIPER: Father? No, and yet a father, if you please to be a mother.”

At the risk of over-explaining a joke, I’ll point out what happens in that short exchange: when Rachel answers “Who’s there? Father?” Juniper says that he’s not HER father, but he’s willing to be A father, if she will agree to be a mother; in other words, he proposes [speaking as Onion] that he’d like for her to have his baby. It is, in short, a very quick, witty response to her statement, containing a sexual proposition.

It’s also interesting to note that, although Juniper has already knocked on the door, Onion initiates the interaction by saying the words “knock, knock!” This need to articulate the knock in words despite being at the door is very suggestive of the knock knock joke.

An oil painting of 15 men in Elizabethan garb.
John Faed’s 1851 painting “Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern” shows Ben Jonson sitting next to William Shakespeare at a meeting of the Friday Street Club, a social club organized by Sir Walter Raleigh. Although Shakespeare knew club members and was a business associate of the tavern’s owner, it’s not known whether he attended club meetings. The painting depicts (from left in back) Joshua Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont, (seated at table from left) William Camden, Thomas Sackville, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Robert Cotton, and Thomas Dekker.

This passage was surely understood by Jonson’s audience as a joke, and Juniper’s reply as a punchline. Indeed, Juniper’s reputation as a joker was the main impact of the play in its own time; Thomas Nashe’s reminiscence was specifically about the “merry cobbler’s cut [style] in that witty play of The Case Is Altered.” Moreover, Juniper’s quip initiates a longer comic dialogue filled with puns, malapropisms, and more sexual innuendo:

ONION: Well said, Juniper. To her again; a smack or two more of the mother.

JUNIPER: [Calling] Do you hear, sweet soul, sweet Rhadamant, sweet Machiavel? One word, Melpomone. Are you at leisure?

RACHEL [Within]: At leisure? What to do?

JUNIPER: To do what? To do nothing but be liable to the ecstasy of true love’s exigent or so. You smell my meaning?

ONION: Smell? Filthy, fellow Juniper, filthy! Smell? Oh, most odious!

JUNIPER: How ‘filthy’?

ONION: Filthy, by this finger! Smell? Smell a rat, smell a pudding. Away! These tricks are for trulls. A plain wench loves plain dealing. I’ll upon, myself. Smell, to a marchpane wench!

JUNIPER: With all my heart. I’ll be legitimate and silent as an apple-squire. I’ll see nothing and say nothing.

ONION: Sweetheart, sweetheart!

JUNIPER: And bagpudding. Ha, ha, ha!”

We often think of knock knock jokes as being for kids, but it’s also not uncommon for them to include propositions or pickup lines like Juniper’s. To give a single (clean) example:

Knock knock?
Who’s there?
Wendy!
Wendy who?
Wendy you want to go out with me?

Although they are just a small subset of the knock knock joke genre today, there are many of these flirtatious knock knock jokes. Perhaps more surprisingly, there are also a large number of bawdy or dirty knock knock jokes. This suggests that Ben Jonson’s passage fits within the genre’s parameters in a broad sense.

Ben Jonson, painted by Abraham van Blyenberch, circa 1617. National Portrait Gallery, London. Used with a Creative Commons License.

Could the passage from “The Case is Altered” be the origin of the knock knock joke? Like the porter passage from “Macbeth,” the Onion-Juniper-Rachel dialogue is not a perfect match for the modern knock knock joke. For one thing, it’s missing one of the usual steps, in which the answerer asks for the knocker’s second name. But, as a short, interactive dialogue between two people that begins with “Knock, knock. Who’s there?” and ends with a punchline in which the knocker echoes or comments on the answerer’s speech, it’s a lot closer to a modern knock knock joke than the scene from “Macbeth.”

As I’ve suggested, the idea that Shakespeare invented the knock knock joke is an example of a wider phenomenon: people ascribe many innovations to Shakespeare, who has become a culture hero of English literature. I pointed out in my previous post that these are what Stephen Jay Gould has called “creation myths,” heroic stories about the origins of common phenomena. As a creation myth about a folklore genre, it’s also what I’ve called “metafolklore,” a traditional story told about folklore. Although metafolkloric stories may be true, it always pays to check out claims like this, especially when they’re about Shakespeare, one of the most frequent heroes of English metafolkloric creation myths. What we find is that Shakespeare originated neither the knock knock joke itself, nor the phrase “knock knock, who’s there?”

It may be that we can transfer our creation myth to Ben Jonson, who has a better claim to have invented the knock knock joke. But this is still conjecture; Jonson’s “knock knock” routine may have been original, or it may have been something he found in oral tradition. Both Jonson and Shakespeare were drawing on a deep well of folk culture, which included all kinds of jokes, including topical references, bawdy metaphors, and set dialogue routines. It’s eminently plausible that among those routines was the “knock knock, who’s there” opening that later evolved into modern knock knock jokes.

Note

A note on Henry Garnet and “Macbeth”:  Most scholars believe the porter scene in “Macbeth,” which is often credited as the origin of the knock knock joke, makes reference to the case of Henry Garnet. Garnet was a Catholic priest accused of having had foreknowledge of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot which nearly destroyed the English government. He did not reveal what he knew to the authorities because he only received knowledge of the plot through the religious confession of conspirator Robert Catesby, whose father had been friendly with Shakespeare’s father. At Garnet’s trial, it was revealed that one of his aliases was “Farmer.” He was the author of a “Treatise on Equivocation,” which advocated lying under oath in defense of Catholics, as long as one used lies which had double meanings that were arguably true. Garnet’s 1605 testimony at trial led to his being hanged, drawn, and quartered in May 1606. The “farmer” that “hanged himself on the expectation of plenty” therefore seems to be a reference to Garnet incriminating himself with testimony that he thought would instead exonerate him. The “equivocator” is an even clearer reference to Garnet, who both employed and explicitly defended the technique known as “equivocation.” My former Shakespeare professor, James Shapiro, has further detailed how the plot of “Macbeth” was inspired by the Gunpowder Plot, including the trial of Henry Garnet.

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