The History of Parody

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Parody in Ancient Greece

From its etymological roots embedded in the rich soil of Ancient Greece to the myriad forms of satire we enjoy today, the art of parody has long been a means of both entertainment and social commentary. The term itself, hailing from the Greek words “para” (beside) and “ode” (song), suggests a narrative sung in counterpoint or juxtaposition. Almost like a historical echo, the early forms of parody weave through time, turning the solemn tunes of epic poetry into playful and comedic refrains, where heroes could stumble and gods could jest.

The ancient Greek cleaved to parody in their literature with a cunning expertise, crafting humorous imitations within their plays that were to send the audiences into fits of laughter. It was a fusion of witty critique and entertainment, where playwrights such as Aristophanes churned out characters and narratives that mirrored, mocked, and magnified the societal and political fabrics of their time. This adroit blend of mockery and mimicry served more than just to amuse; it was a mirror held up to society, a jester’s critique that was as sharp as it was comedic, directed at the foremost dramas and epic tales of the day. Parody was both a scalpel and a paintbrush in the hands of the Greek dramatists, dissecting the flaws in human nature while colorfully illustrating the absurdity woven into the tapestry of everyday life.

Examples of Ancient Greek Parodies

  • Aristophanes. The Frogs. Translated by Matthew Dillon, University of California, 1993. The Frogs is a comedy by Aristophanes, written in 405 BCE. It parodies the famous tragedians Euripides and Aeschylus and the god Dionysus. The play humorously critiques the state of Athenian drama and the societal issues of the time.
  • Aristophanes. The Clouds. Translated by William James Hickie, 1853, Project Gutenberg, In The Clouds (423 BCE), Aristophanes satirizes the philosopher Socrates and the Sophists, portraying Socrates as a ridiculous figure running a “Thinkery” where he teaches flawed reasoning and immoral behavior.
  • Lucian of Samosata. A True Story. Translated by A. M. Harmon, Harvard University Press, 1913. Lucian’s A True Story, written in the 2nd century CE, is often considered one of the earliest science fiction stories. It parodies travel tales, presenting an outlandish journey including a trip to the moon and encounters with fictional creatures.
  • Homer. Batrachomyomachia (The Battle of the Frogs and Mice). Translated by A. E. Stallings, Penguin Classics, 2007. Batrachomyomachia, attributed to Homer but likely written by another author, is a short epic poem that parodies the style and language of Homer’s Iliad. It humorously describes a war between frogs and mice, mimicking the epic battles of Greek mythology.
  • Xenophon. Symposium. Translated by O. J. Todd, Harvard University Press, 1922. Xenophon’s Symposium is a Socratic dialogue that parodies Plato’s Symposium. While Plato’s work is a serious philosophical discussion about love, Xenophon’s version includes more humorous and less philosophical content, presenting a lighter and more playful banquet scene.

Roman Parody

With its origins deeply rooted in Greek literature, the art of parody was seamlessly adapted by the Romans. Influenced by the works of Homer and other Greek predecessors, Roman writers embraced parody as a means of both entertainment and social commentary. However, the transition from Greek to Roman culture saw evolutions in both style and content.

Evolutions in Style and Content from Greek to Roman Times

The Romans were known for their society that both mirrored and diverged from the Greeks. When it came to parody, they took the comedic foundations laid by the Greeks and instilled their own sensibilities and cultural elements into it. As a result, Roman parodies were often bolder, more direct, and sometimes even crude, reflecting the brasher aspects of Roman entertainment.

  • The wit and subtlety of Greek parodies were supplanted by a clearer and more forceful brand of humor.
  • Roman satirists, such as Horace and Juvenal, added a layer of moral critique to their parodies, a reflection of Roman concerns with ethics and virtue.
  • Poets like Ovid took the concept of parody and pushed it into the realm of the gods, creating mock-epic poems that both honored and poked fun at the epic tradition.
  • The use of parody as a form of political commentary became more pronounced, mirroring the tumultuous nature of Roman politics.

Through these evolutions, Roman parody became a rich genre that both entertained audiences and provided sharp insights into society and politics, thereby securing its place as a formidable successor to the Greek tradition and shaping the future of literary parody.

Examples of Roman Parody

  • Horace, Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Satires. Translated by A. S. Kline, Poetry in Translation, 2005. Note: Horace’s Satires are a collection of poems in dactylic hexameter. They parody various aspects of Roman society, including the behavior of the aristocracy and the corruption in politics.
  • Petronius, Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Satyricon. Translated by A. R. Allinson, Wordsworth Editions, 1994. Note: The Satyricon, attributed to Petronius, is a Latin work of fiction believed to be a parody of the epic genre. It humorously depicts the adventures of its protagonist, Encolpius, and his companions.
  • Juvenal, Decimus Junius Juvenalis. Satires. Translated by Susanna Morton Braund, Oxford University Press, 2008. Note: Juvenal’s Satires are a collection of 16 poems in dactylic hexameter. They offer a parody of Roman society, critiquing its moral decay and the folly of its citizens.
  • Lucian of Samosata. True History. Translated by A. M. Harmon, Harvard University Press, 1913. Note: Although Lucian was a Syrian writer, his work True History is a significant example of parody in the Greco-Roman world. It parodies travel tales, presenting an outlandish journey to the moon and other fantastic locations.
  • Apuleius, Lucius Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Translated by E. J. Kenney, Penguin Classics, 1998. Note: The Golden Ass, also known as Metamorphoses, is a novel by Apuleius. It parodies various literary genres, including the epic and the platonic dialogue, through its story of a man transformed into a donkey.

Parody in the Middle Ages

Despite the solemn atmosphere often associated with the Middle Ages, parody held a significant place in the era’s literary landscape. This period, marked by feudalism, chivalry, and the overarching influence of the Church, might seem an unlikely setting for the sprouting of humor and satire. Yet, the medieval society embraced parody with a particular zest, intertwining it with religious and moral commentary in fascinating ways.

Example of Medieval Parodic Literature

The essence of parody during the Middle Ages was characterized by a clever subversion of norms veiled behind the guise of respectability. Far from the overt comedic displays of later periods, medieval parody often took the form of playful imitation of the sacred and the profound. The jesting was subtle, laced within the fabric of popular narrative forms such as chivalric romances, moral fables, and religious texts.

One of the prime examples of medieval parody can be seen in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, particularly his famed “The Canterbury Tales”. These narratives used irony and satirical tones to mock societal norms, the clergy, and the nobility, all while engaging in storytelling that appealed to the masses. Another noteworthy example is the “Roman de Fauvel”, a 14th-century French poem filled with satiric allegory, criticizing the church and state corruption through the tale of a fallacious horse risen to prominence.

  • “The Vision of Piers Plowman” by William Langland – A satirical allegory critical of ecclesiastical failings and societal injustices.
  • “Goliardic poetry” – Verse composed by clerics that often ridiculed the Church and its teachings from within.
  • “Carmina Burana” – A collection of satirical songs poking fun at the sacred, reflecting a more humanistic attitude.

While humor in the Middle Ages might appear hidden under a cloak of earnestness, its role within the culture was distinctly palpable. The legacy of parody from this period shows an intelligent and nuanced form of criticism, one that resonated with people across various strata of society. It’s a testament to how parody has always found its path, even during times when seriousness pervaded the public consciousness.

Parody in the Renaissance

With the advent of the Renaissance, an era renowned for its explosion of art and ideas, came a rebirth of the literary art form known as parody. This period saw an invigorating leap in the use of parody as a technique not just to amuse, but also to engage in shrewd cultural and political commentary.

The reawakening of classical knowledge and culture during the Renaissance provided fertile grounds for intellectual satire and transformative creativity. Scholars and artists revisited the works of ancient Greece and Rome, and these sources became the canvases upon which they playfully crafted their parodic masterpieces. By imitating the stylistic elements of established genres, creators of parody during the Renaissance managed to forge a delicate balance between reverence and ridicule.

Influential works such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” exhibited the innovative spirit of the era. These works borrowed elements from respected traditions and repurposed them, adding layers of irony and social critique that challenged prevailing norms.

The scale and celebrated effervescence of the Renaissance allowed parody to be deftly used as a tool for critique and satire. Artists and writers exploited its humorous potential to convey dissent, to question authority, and to reflect on the human condition, embracing the conviction that laughter could be both a source of joy and a weapon of intellectual engagement.

  • Erasmus of Rotterdam utilized sharp wit in his work “The Praise of Folly” to satirically criticize both the Church and society’s foibles.
  • Parody was harnessed by Thomas More in “Utopia,” where he delivered a subtle societal critique through his description of an idealized society.
  • Moreover, William Shakespeare himself engaged in literary parody through his use of comedic devices to take aim at the bombast and melodrama common in the theatrical productions of his time.

In essence, the Renaissance period marked a shift in parody from a simple tool of entertainment to a powerful mechanism for reform and discourse. Its legacy in this domain has influenced countless generations, ensuring that parody remains a dynamic strand in the fabric of literature.

Age of Enlightenment Parodies

The Age of the Enlightenment marked a pivotal era in the intellectual history of the Western world. The period was characterized by a surge in philosophical thinking, scientific exploration, and the pursuit of rationality. It is within this context of intellectual ferment that parody found fertile ground to flourish, often being used as a potent form of social commentary and a vehicle for scrutinizing contemporary mores.

Enlightenment literature teemed with examples of parody as a literary device. Authors like Jonathan Swift and Voltaire became masters of the craft, adeptly employing parody to expose and criticize follies and vices of their time. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for instance, parodies the travel narratives popular in his day, using fictional lands and ludicrous customs to satirize various aspects of British society, politics, and science. Meanwhile, Voltaire’s Candide is rife with parodic elements, ridiculing the rampant optimism and philosophical idealism of the day through its exaggerated tales of woe and misadventure.

  • Jonathan Swift: Utilized irony and exaggeration in Gulliver’s Travels to critique political institutions and social practices.
  • Voltaire: Employed parody in Candide to dissect and challenge the prevailing philosophical optimism of the Leibnizian school of thought.
  • Laurence Sterne: In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Sterne parodies the then contemporary trend of novel writing, playing with narrative structure and digressive storytelling.

During the Enlightenment, parody became a powerful means of critiquing deep-rooted traditions and entrenched class structures. By holding up society’s norms to ridicule, authors could question the validity of established beliefs and instigate intellectual discourse. Parody was not merely for entertainment—it was an influential form of social criticism that could undermine power structures, lampoon pretension, and contribute to societal change by prompting readers to reflect on their beliefs and behaviors.

The wit and humor that underlined these parodic works were not mere escapism but a reflection of the changing views on what could be openly discussed and criticized. In the hands of these acerbic authors, parody transitioned from a simple literary device to a formidable tool of social and political discourse.

Parody in the 19th Century

The expansion of parody in the 19th century was unmistakable, with parodic material veering into uncharted territories. An abundance of new literary forms, including novels, operas, and poetry provided fresh ground for the seeds of parody to flourish. Authors and artists relished in the wealth of subjects at their fingertips, infusing parody into every crevice of the cultural fabric with unmatched creative vigor.

During this period, parody had become a clandestine messenger, adeptly conveying the multifaceted perspectives and critiques of society through artfully contorted mimicry of existing works. It was through this mischievous lens that parody offered a reflective surface to the rapidly evolving world, mirroring the nuances of the new industrial age.

Whether it was the satirical bite of poking fun at aristocratic decadence or the veiled criticism of governmental policies, parody proved to be a formidable vehicle for dissent and discourse. As nations trembled on the brink of revolutions and reforms, parodic works adeptly encapsulated the pulsating desire for change that ebbed through the streets.

  • Social Critique: Parody offered a subversive critique on societal norms, class struggles, and the distorted vision of the so-called ‘civilized society’.
  • Political Satire: Governments and public figures found themselves in the crosshairs of parodic works, with playwrights and novelists ingeniously skewering political blunders and missteps.

Examples of 19th-Century Parodies

  • “Don Juan” by Lord Byron (1821)
    Byron, George Gordon Byron, Baron. Don Juan. Thomas Davison, 1821. Don Juan is a satirical poem by Lord Byron, where he parodies the legendary romantic figure Don Juan. Instead of portraying him as a seducer, Byron reverses the roles, making Don Juan the object of seduction.
  • “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen (1817)
    Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. John Murray, 1817. This novel is a parody of Gothic novels, which were very popular at the time. Austen uses humor and irony to critique the melodramatic and unrealistic aspects of these novels.
  • “The Water Babies” by Charles Kingsley (1863)
    Kingsley, Charles. The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby. Macmillan and Co., 1863. This novel parodies various aspects of 19th-century British society and the scientific debates of the Victorian era, including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
    Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Translated by George Madison Priest, Princeton University Press, 1932. Originally published in the early 19th century, Goethe’s “Faust” is a reworking of the traditional Faust legend and includes satirical elements that parody aspects of contemporary society and the Romantic movement.

Further Study

  • “The Oxford Book of Parodies,” edited by John Gross, Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • “Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern,” by Margaret A. Rose, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman, HarperCollins, 2003.
  • “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, Penguin Classics, 1884/2002.
  • “Discworld and the Disciplines: Critical Approaches to the Terry Pratchett Works,” edited by Anne Hiebert Alton and William C. Spruiell, McFarland, 2014.

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