The delights of mischief

Alex Moran in aeon:

Now let it work, mischief, thou art afoot.
Take thou what course thou wilt!
— from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act III, Scene II)

One of the stranger sights on the University College London campus is the clothed skeleton of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Stranger still is that a waxwork head sits on its shoulders, where Bentham’s own head should be, as per his will. Meanwhile, his preserved head is elsewhere – his friends thought it looked too grotesque for display, and commissioned the waxwork one instead. Legend has it that Bentham’s real head was stolen by some students from King’s College London as a prank against their University College rivals, and a ransom demanded for returning it. Apparently, this was eventually paid up, and the head was returned.

Apocryphal or not, such tales of mischief are amusing, and apt to elicit in us a certain kind of sympathy. But there is something curious about this. Mischief is essentially a form of misbehaviour, and its practitioners are generally met with punishment and reproach rather than praise, at least when they are caught. Why is it, then, that tales of mischief so often elicit in us such a positive response? Could it be that there is something virtuous about mischief, and something noble about mischievous people, considered as a type?

More here.