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Category: Jokes and Humor

Two portraits, A half-length portrait of the seventeenth century playwright, Ben Jonson. and

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

Posted by: Stephen Winick

In this post, we discuss the frequently repeated claim that William Shakespeare originated the knock knock joke. The claim is an example of metafolklore, in that it’s a traditional story, or creation myth, told about a kind of joke. The story is based on a passage from “Macbeth” in which a porter declaims a monologue which includes the phrase “knock knock. Who’s there?” After we look at this fun passage from the perspective of the knock knock joke, we present new evidence: an earlier (and funnier) joking use of “knock knock. Who’s there?” in a play by Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson. While it’s possible to conclude that Jonson originated the knock knock joke, we also point out that both Jonson and Shakespeare were drawing on a deep well of folk culture, which included all kinds of jokes, including set dialogue routines. It's eminently plausible that among those routines was the "knock knock, who's there" opening that eventually evolved into modern knock knock jokes.