Carnival: In popular parlance, a festival or a traveling amusement show (with rides, clowns, games, etc.) or the extravagant celebrations held in the Christian world on Mardi Gras, the “Fat Tuesday” that precedes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. As a literary term, carnival is associated with Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin and with dialogic criticism, a method of literary criticism based on Bakhtin’s theories.
In the book Rabelais and His World (1940), Bakhtin used the term carnival to refer not only to sanctioned festivities such as Mardi Gras — celebrations during which not only commoners but also the more privileged classes were temporarily free to transgress all kinds of written and unwritten social and ecclesiastical laws — but also to manifestations of “low” or popular culture, such as fairs and spontaneous folk dramas (including puppet shows). The discourse of carnival, as Bakhtin understood it, is infused by the down-to-earth priorities and values of the underprivileged or plebeian “second world” of commoners, or folk. Because that world is necessarily concerned with basic issues of survival, with the sustenance and reproduction of life, the language of carnival is substantially concerned with the body, eating, sex, and death and typically involves sensual imagery. In carnivalesque discourse, matters of the body are treated with a kind of profound humor — neither simply funny as we might say about a situation comedy, nor serious as we expect a high drama to be, but something in between. This doubleness produces an ambivalent or grotesque quality that contrasts starkly with the official discourse, the language of power and propriety. As Bakhtin wrote, “carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.”
Both dialogic critics and practitioners of other contemporary approaches have followed and expanded upon Bakhtin’s concept of carnival. For instance, in “Funeral Bak’d Meats: Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet” (1994), Michael Bristol argued that the scene in which William Shakespeare’s gravedigger reminisces about a fool named Yorick is carnivalesque, and that Claudius, who murdered his brother to gain the throne, functions as a carnivalesque Lord of Misrule, as evidenced by his statement that he has “taken to wife” the Queen, “with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage.”