A Vocabulary for Comedy

The following definitions are taken from Harmon, William & C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 7th ed.

Ballad-Opera: A sort of BURLESQUE opera that flourished on the English stage for several years following the appearance of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), still the best-known example. Modeled on Italian OPERA, which is burlesqued, it told its story in SONGS set to old tunes and appropriated various elements from FARCE and COMEDY. See OPERA, COMIC OPERA.

Burlesque: A form of COMEDY characterized by ridiculous exaggeration and distortion: the sublime may be made absurd; honest emotions may be turned to SENTIMENTALITY; a serious subject may be treated frivolously or a frivolous subject seriously. The essential quality that makes for burlesque is the discrepancy between subject matter and style. That is, a style ordinarily dignified may be used for nonsensical matter, or a style very nonsensical may be used to ridicule a weighty subject. Burlesque, as a form of art, manifests itself in sculpture, painting, and even architecture, as well as in literature. It has an ancient lineage in world literature: an author of uncertain identity used it in the Battle of the Frogs and Mice to TRAVESTY Homer. Aristophanes made burlesque popular, and in France, under Louis XIV, nothing was sacred to the satirist. Chaucer in Sir Thopas burlesqued MEDIEVAL ROMANCE as did Cervantes in Don Quixote. One of the best-known uses of burlesque in drama is Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. In recent use, the term – already broad – has been broadened still further to include stage entertainments consisting of songs, skits, and dances, usually raucous. A distinction between burlesque and PARODY is often made, in which burlesque is a TRAVESTY of a literary form and PARODY a TRAVESTY of a particular work. It has been suggested that parody works by keeping a targeted style constant while lowering the subject, burlesque or TRAVESTY by keeping a targeted subject constant while lowering the style. Because "travesty" is connected to "transvestite," the procedure may be expected to change the clothing, so to speak, or the style of a normally dignified subject.

Caricature: Writing that exaggerates certain individual qualities of a person and produces a BURLESQUE, ridiculous effect.  Caricature more frequently is associated with drawing than with writing, because the related literary terms -- SATIRE, BURLESQUE, and PARODY -- are more commonly used.  Caricature, unlike the highest satire, is likely to treat merely personal qualities; although, like satire, it also lends itself to the ridicule of political, religious, and social foibles.   A work of fiction, history, or biography that traffics in excessive distortion or exaggeration may be dismissed as a caricature.

Comedy of Humour: The special type of REALISTIC COMEDY that was developed in the closing years of the sixteenth century by Ben Jonson and George Chapman and that derives its comic interest largely from the exhibition of CHARACTER whose conduct is controlled by one characteristic or HUMOUR. Some single psychophysiological HUMOUR or exaggerated trait of character gave the important figures in the ACTION a definite bias of disposition and supplied the chief motive for their actions. Thus, in Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (acted 1598), which made this type of PLAY popular, all the words and acts of Kitely are controlled by an overpowering suspicion that his wife is unfaithful; George Downright, a country squire, must be "frank" above all things; the country gull in town determines his every decision by his desire to "catch on" to the manners of the city gallant. In his "Induction" to Every Man out of His Humour (1599) Jonson explains his character-formula thus:

Some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way.

The comedy of humours owes something to earlier vernacular comedy but more to a desire to imitate the classical comedy of Plautus and Terence and to combat the vogue of ROMANTIC COMEDY. Its satiric purpose and realistic method are emphasized and lead later into more serious character studies, as in Jonson’s The Alchemist. It affected his plays (Leontes in The Winter’s Tale is a good example) – and most of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are such because they allow some one trait of character (such as jealousy or fastidiousness) to be overdeveloped and thus to upset the balance necessary to a poised, well-rounded personality. The comedy of humors, closely related to the contemporary COMEDY OF MANNERS, influenced the comedy of the Restoration period.

Comedy of Intrigue: A comedy in which the manipulation of the action by one or more characters to their own ends is of more importance than the characters themselves are.  Another name for COMEDY OF SITUATION.

Comedy of Manners: A term designating the REALISTIC, often satirical, COMEDY of the Restoration, as practiced by Congreve and others. It is also used for the revival, in modified form, of this COMEDY a hundred year later by Goldsmith and Sheridan, as well as for another revival late in the nineteenth century. Likewise, the REALISTIC COMEDY of Elizabethan and Jacobean times is sometimes called comedy of manners. In the stricter sense of the term, the type concerns the manners and the conventions of an artificial, highly sophisticated society. The stylized fashions and manners of this group dominate the surface and determine the pace and tone of this sort of comedy. Characters are more likely to be types than individuals. Plot, though often involving a clever handling of situation and intrigue, is less important than atmosphere, dialogue, and satire. The dialogue is witty and finished, sometimes brilliant. The appeal is more intellectual than imaginative. SATIRE is directed in the main against the follies and deficiencies of typical characters, such as fops, would-be wits, jealous husbands, cox-combs, and others who fail somehow to conform to the conventional attitudes and manners of elegant society. A distinguishing characteristic of the comedy of manners is its emphasis on an illicit love duel, involving at least one pair of witty and often amoral lovers. This prevalence of the "love game" is explained partly by the manners of the time and partly by the special satirical purpose of the comedy itself. In its satire, realism, and employment of "humours" the comedy of manners was indebted to Elizabethan and Jacobean COMEDY. It owed something, as well, to the French comedy of manners as practiced by Moliere.

The reaction against the questionable morality of the plays and a growing sentimentalism brought about the downfall of this type of comedy near the close of the seventeenth century, and it was largely supplanted through most of the eighteenth century by SENTIMENTAL COMEDY. Purged of its objectionable features, however, the comedy of manners was revived by Goldsmith and Sheridan late in the eighteenth century and in a somewhat new and brighter garb by Oscar Wilde late in the nineteenth century.

Comedy of Morals: A term applied to comedy that uses ridicule to correct abuses, hence a form of dramatic satire, aimed at the moral state of a people or a special class of people. Moliere’s Tartuffe (1664) is often considered a comedy of morals.

Comedy of Situation: A comedy concentrating chiefly on ingenuity of plot rather than on character interest; COMEDY OF INTRIGUE. Background is less important than ridiculous and incongruous situations, a heaping up of mistakes, plots within plots, disguises, mistaken identity, unexpected meetings, close calls. A capital example is Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, a play in which the possibilities for confusion are multiplied by the use of twin brothers who have twins as servants. In each case the twins look so much alike that at times they doubt their own identity. A comedy of this sort sometimes approaches farce. Ben Jonson’s Epicoene and Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One are later Elizabethan comedies of situation or intrigue. A modern example is Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. The phrase comedy of situation is sometimes used also to refer merely to an incident, such as Falstaff’s description of his fight with the robbers in Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fourth, Part I.

Commedia Dell’arte: Improvised comedy; a form of Italian LOW COMEDY dating from very early times, in which the actors, who usually performed conventional or stock parts, such as the "pantaloon" (Venetian merchant), improvised their dialogue, though a plot or scenario was provided. A "harlequin" interrupted the action at times with low buffoonery. A parallel or later form of the commedia dell’arte was the masked comedy, in which conventional figures (usually in masks) spoke particular dialects (as the Pulcinella, the rogue from Naples). There is some evidence that the commedia dell’arte colored English LOW COMEDY from early times, but its chief influence on the English stage came in the eighteenth century in connection with the development of such spectacle forms as the PANTOMIME. The commedia dell’arte also influenced the theatrical practice of Shakespeare and Moliere.

Comic Opera: An operetta, or comedy opera, stressing spectacle and music but employing spoken dialogue.  An early example is Sheridan's The Duenna (1775).  The best-known comic operas are those of Gilbert and Sullivan, such as The Mikado, produced in London in the 1870s and 1880s.

Court Comedy: COMEDY written to be performed at a royal court. Love’s Labour’s Lost is a court comedy belonging to Shakespeare’s early period. Before Shakespeare, the Elizabethan court comedy had been developed to a high degree of effectiveness by John Lyly in such plays as Endimion and Alexander and Campaspe. Characteristics include: artificial plot; little action; much use of mythology; pageantry; elaborate costuming and scenery; prominence of music, especially songs; lightness of tone; numerous and often balanced characters (arranged in contrasting pairs); style marked by wit, grace, verbal cleverness, quaint imagery; puns; prose dialogue; witty and saucy pages; eccentric characters such as braggarts, witches, and alchemists; much farcical action; and allegorical meanings sometimes in characters and action. Though some of these traits of the Lylian court comedy dropped out later, court comedy in the seventeenth century retained many of them and was operatic in tone and spectacular in presentation.

Farce: The word developed from Late Latin farsus, connected with a verb meaning "to stuff." Thus, an expansion or amplification in the church liturgy was called a farse. Later, in France, farce meant any sort of extemporaneous addition in a play, especially jokes or gags, the clownish actors speaking "more than was set down" for them. In the late seventeenth century farce was used in England to mean any short humorous play, as distinguished from regular five-act comedy. The development in these plays of elements of low comedy is responsible for the modern meaning of farce: a dramatic piece intended to excite laughter and depending lee son plot and character than on improbably situations, the humor arising from gross incongruities, coarse wit, or horseplay. Farce merges into comedy, and the same play (e.g., Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew) may be called by some a farce, by others a comedy. James Townley’s High Life Below Stairs (1759) has been termed the "best farce" or the eighteenth century. There are elements of farce in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, though not so much in his other comic plays. Brandon Thomas’s Charley’s Aunt (1892), dealing with the extravagant results of a female impersonation, is the best-known American farce, although farce is the stock-in-trade of film and television comedy.

High Comedy: Pure or serious comedy, as contrasted with LOW COMEDYHigh comedy appeals to the intellect and arouses thoughtful laughter by exhibiting the inconsistencies and incongruities of human nature and by displaying the follies of social manners. The purpose is not consciously didactic or ethical, though serious purpose is often implicit in the satire that is frequent in high comedy. Emotion, especially sentimentality, is avoided. If people make themselves ridiculous by their vanity or ineffective by their stupid conduct or blind adherence to tradition, high comedy laughs at them. But, as George Meredith suggests in The Idea of Comedy, care must be taken that the laughter be not derisive but intellectual. Although high comedy actually offers plenty of superficial laughter that the average playgoer or reader can enjoy, its higher enjoyment demands detachment. "Life is a comedy to him who thinks." But the term high comedy is used in various senses. In neoclassic times a criterion was its appeal to and reflection of the "higher" social class and its observance of decorum, as illustrated in Etheredge and Congreve. In a broader sense it is applied to some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as As You Like It, and to the comedies of G.B. Shaw.

Low Comedy: Low comedy has been called "elemental comedy," in that it lacks seriousness of purpose or subtlety of manner and has little intellectual appeal. Some features are: quarreling, fighting, noisy singing, boisterous conduct in general, boasting, burlesque, trickery, buffoonery, clownishness, drunkenness, coarse jesting, wordplay, and scolding. In English dramatic history low comedy appears first as an incidental expansion of the action, often originated by the actors themselves, who speak "more than is set down for them. Thus, in medieval religious drama Noah’s stubborn wife has to be taken into the ark by force, or Pilate or Herod engages in uncalled-for ranting. In the MORTALITY PLAYS, low comedy became much more pronounced, with the antics of the VICE and other horseplay. In Elizabethan drama such elements persisted, in spite of their violation of DECORUM, because the public demanded them; but playwrights such as Shakespeare frequently made them serve serious dramatic purposes (such as relief, marking passage of time, echoing main action). A few of the many examples of low comedy in Shakespeare are: the porter scene in Macbeth, Launcelot scene in As You Like It, and the Trinculo-Stephano-Caliban scene in The Tempest. The famous Falstaff scenes in King Henry the Fourth are examples of how Shakespeare could lift low comedy into pure comedy by stressing the human elements of character and by infusing an intellectual content into what might otherwise be buffoonery. Low comedy is not a recognized special type of play as is the COMEDY OF HUMOUR, for example, but may be found either alone or combined with various sorts of both comedy and tragedy.

Parody: A composition imitating another, usually serious, piece. It is designed to ridicule a work or its style or author. When the parody is directed against an author or style, it is likely to fall simply into barbed witticisms. When the subject matter of the original composition is parodied, however, it may prove to be a valuable indirect criticism or it may even imply a flattering tribute to the original writer. Often a parody is more powerful in its influence on affairs or current importance – politics, for instance – than and an original composition. The parody is in literature what the caricature and the cartoon are in art. Known as a potent instrument of satire and ridicule even as far back as Aristophanes, parody has made a definite place for itself in literature and has become a popular type of literary composition. Parody makes fun of some familiar style, typically by keeping the style more or less constant while markedly lowering or debasing the subject. Thus Dickinson’s:

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—

has been parodied:

The Soul selects her own Sorority—
Then—shuts the Dorm—

(Note that the craft of parody prizes minimal tampering.) The opposite strategy—keeping a subject more or less constant while lowering or debasing style—generates BURLESQUE or TRAVESTY.

Realistic Comedy: Realistic Comedy: Any comedy employing the methods of REALISM but particularly that developed by Jonson, Chapman, Middleton, and other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. It is opposed to the ROMANTIC COMEDY of the Elizabethans. It reflects the general reaction in the late 1590s against extravagance as well as an effort to produce an English comedy like the CLASSICAL. This realistic comedy deals with London life, is strongly satirical and sometimes cynical, is interested in both individuals and types, and rests on observation of life. The appeal is intellectual and the texture coarse. This comedy became especially popular in the reign of James I. The COMEDY OF HUMOURS was a special form representing the first stage of development of important realistic comedy. Jonson’s The Alchemist and Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One are typical realistic comedies. Though in the main Shakespeare represents the tradition of romantic comedy, some of his plays, including the comic subplot of the King Henry the Fourth plays, are realistic. The Restoration COMEDY OF MANNERS, though chiefly a new growth, owes something to this earlier form, and one Restoration dramatist (Shadwell) actually wrote comedy of the Jonsonian type.

Romantic Comedy: A comedy in which serious love is the chief concern and source of interest, especially the type of comedy developed on the early Elizabethan stage by such writers as Robert Greene and Shakespeare. Greene’s James the Fourth, which represents the romantic comedy as Shakespeare found it, is supposed to have influenced Shakespeare in his Two Gentlemen of Verona. A few years later Shakespeare perfected the type in such plays as The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It. Characteristics commonly found include: love as chief motive; much out-of-door action; an idealized heroine (who usually masks as a man); love subjected to great difficulties; poetic justice often violated; balancing of characters; easy reconciliations; happy ending. Shakespeare’s last group of plays, the TRAGICOMEDIES or "serene romances" (such as Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline), are in some sense a modification of the earlier romantic comedy.

Sentimental Comedy: Just as the COMEDY OF MANNERS reflected in its immortality the reaction of the Restoration from the severity of the Puritan code on the Commonwealth period, so the comedy that displaced it, known as sentimental comedy, or "reformed comedy," sprang up in the early years of the eighteenth century in response to a growing reaction against the tone of Restoration plays. Signs of this reaction appeared soon after the dethronement of James II (1688) and found influential expression in Jeremy Collier’s famous Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), which charged that plays as a whole "rewarded debauchery," "ridiculed virtue and learning," and were "disserviceable to probity and religion." Although Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (1696) shows transitional anticipations of the new reformed comedy, Richard Steele is generally regarded as the founder of the type. His The Funeral (1701), The Lying Lover (1703), and The Tender Husband (1705) reflect the development of the form, and his The Conscious Lovers (1722) is the classic example of the fully developed type.

Because of the violence of its reaction, sentimental comedy became very weak dramatically, lacking humor, reality, spice, and lightness of touch. The characters were either so good or so bad that they became caricatures, and plots were violently handled so that virtue would triumph. The dramatists resorted shamelessly to sentimental emotion in their effort to interest and move the spectators. The hero in The Conscious Lovers ("conscious" in the sense of "conscientious") is perfectly moral; he has no bad habits; he is indifferent to "sordid lucre" and superior to all ordinary passions. His conversations with the heroine Indiana, whom he loves but who agrees with him that he must marry Lucinda to please his parents, are travesties. Where the comedy of manners of the proceeding age had sacrificed moral tone in its effort to instruct through an appeal to the heart. The domestic trials of middle-class couples are usually portrayed: Their private woes are exhibited with much emotional stress intended to arouse the spectator’s pity and suspense in advance of the approaching melodramatic happy ending.

This comedy held the boards for more than a half century. Hugh Kelly’s False Delicacy (1768), first acted shortly before the appearance of Goldsmith’s Good Natured Man (brought out in protest against sentimental comedies), and Richard Cumberland’s The West Indian (1771) illustrate the complete development of the type. Though weakened by the attacks and dramatic creations of Goldsmith and Sheridan, who revived in a somewhat chastened from the old comedy of manners, plays of the sentimental type lived on till after the middle of the nineteenth century, though no longer dominant.

Tragicomedy: Tragicomedy: A play that employs a plot suitable to TRAGEDY but ends happily, like a COMEDY. The action seems to be leading to a tragic CATASTROPHE until an unexpected turn in events, often in the form of a DEUS EX MACHINA, brings about the happy DENOUMENT. In this sense Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a tragicomedy, though it is also a ROMANTIC COMEDY. If the trick about the shedding of blood were omitted and Shylock allowed to "have his bond," the play might be made into a tragedy; conversely, Shakespeare’s King Lear, a pure tragedy, was made into a comedy by Nahum Tate for the Restoration stage. In English dramatic history the term tragicomedy is usually employed to designate that kind of play, developed by Beaumont and Fletcher about 1610, of which Philaster is typical. Fletcher’s own definition is useful: "A tragicomedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy, which must be a representation of familiar people, with, such kind of trouble as no life question’d; so that a god is as lawful in this [tragicomedy] as in a tragedy, and mean people as in a comedy" (from "To the Read," The Faithful Shepherdess). Some of the characteristics are: complex and improbable plot; unnatural situations; characters of high social class, usually of the nobility; love as the central interest, pure love and gross love often being contrasted; rapid action; contrast of deep vallainy and exalted virtue; rescues in the nick of time; penitent villain (as Iachimo in Cymbeline); disguises; surprises; jealousy; treachery; intrigue; enveloping action of war or rebellion. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale are examples. Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess is a PASTORAL tragicomedy. Later seventeenth-century tragicomedies are Killigrew’s The Prisoner, Davenant’s Fair Favorite, Shadwell’s Royal Shepherdess, and Dryden’s Secret Love and Love Triumphant.

Travesty: Writing that by its incongruity of treatment ridicules a subject inherently noble or dignified. The derivation of the word—the same as that of "transvestite"—suggests presenting a subject in a dress intended for another type of subject. Travesty may be thought of as the opposite of the MOCK EPIC, because the latter treats a frivolous subject seriously and the travesty usually presents a serious subject frivolously. Don Quixote is a travesty of the MEDIEVAL ROMANCE. In general, PARODY ridicules a style by lowering the subject; travestyBURLESQUE, and CARICATURE ridicule a subject by lowering the style.