“Come, come,” said Tom’s father, “at your time of life,
There’s no longer excuse for thus playing the rake.
It is time you should think, boy, of taking a wife.”
“Why, so it is, Father—whose wife shall I take?”
—Thomas Moore, “A Joke Versified”
Thomas Moore wrote these ironic lines at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They illustrate a paradoxical aspect of our views of adultery. On the one hand, it is supposedly a very serious affair, a major sin, and a cause for outrage and retribution. On the other hand, it’s incorporated into the jokes and wisecracks of everyday life in such a way as to suggest that it’s not really all that serious.
People laugh at the prospect of adultery in ways they do not (yet) laugh about things they regard as more beyond the pale, such as child abuse or incest. “Do you suppose,” the comedian wonders, “if infants have as much fun in infancy as adults do in adultery?” “A man can sleep around, no questions asked,” quips Joan Rivers, “but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes, she’s a tramp!” Marty, a comic, reports a conversation with his friend Art. “Your wife is gorgeous! Tell me, is she faithful?” asks Marty. “My wife is too good to be true,” replies Art. And Rodney Dangerfield jokes, “I have good-looking kids. Thank God, my wife cheats on me.”
The ubiquity of humor about adultery suggests that it is quite a commonplace occurrence, in actual fact as well as in fantasy. It implies an ambivalence about it which softens the sense of prohibition.
It does not matter whether or not you happen to find jokes about cuckolds and horns funny. What is significant is that adultery is often seen as being, literally, a joking matter.