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A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance

Of all the discussions on comedy during the Renaissance


treatment of comedy in the literary criticism of this period is entirely confined to a discussion and elaboration of the little that Aristotle says on the subject of comedy in the _Poetics_. Aristotle, it will be remembered, had distinguished tragedy from comedy in that the former deals with the nobler, the latter with the baser, sort of actions. Comedy is an imitation of characters of a lower type than those of tragedy,--characters of a lower type indeed, but not in the full sense of the word bad. "The ludicrous is merely a subdivision of the ugly. It may be defined as a defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. Thus, for example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not cause pain."[199] From these few hints the Italian theorists constructed a body of comic doctrine. There is, however, in the critical literature of this period no attempt to explain the theory of the indigenous Italian comedy, the _commedia dell' arte_. The classical comedies of Plautus and Terence were the models, and Aristotle's _Poetics_ the guide, of all the discussions on comedy during the Renaissance. The distinction between the characters of comedy and tragedy has already been explained in sufficient detail. All that remains to be done in treating of comedy is to indicate as briefly as possible such definitions of it as were formulated by the Renaissance, and the special function which the Renaissance understood comedy to possess.

According to

Trissino (1563), the comic poet deals only with base things, and for the single purpose of chastising them. As tragedy attains its moral end through the medium of pity and fear, comedy does so by means of the chastisement and vituperation of things that are base and evil.[200] The comic poet, however, is not to deal with all sorts of vices, but only such as give rise to ridicule, that is, the jocose actions of humble and unknown persons. Laughter proceeds from a certain delight or pleasure arising from the sight of objects of ugliness. We do not laugh at a beautiful woman, a gorgeous jewel, or beautiful music; but a distortion or deformity, such as a silly speech, an ugly face, or a clumsy movement, makes us laugh. We do not laugh at the benefits of others; the finder of a purse, for example, arouses not laughter but envy. But we do laugh at some one who has fallen into the mud, because, as Lucretius says, it is sweet to find in others some evil not to be found in ourselves. Yet great evils, so far from causing us to laugh, arouse pity and fear, because we are apprehensive lest such things should happen to us. Hence we may conclude that a slight evil which is neither sad nor destructive, and which we perceive in others but do not believe to be in ourselves, is the primary cause of the ludicrous.[201] In Maggi's treatise, _De Ridiculis_, appended to his commentary on the _Poetics_, the Aristotelian conception of the ridiculous is accepted, with the addition of the element of _admiratio_. Maggi insists on the idea of suddenness or novelty; for we do not laugh at painless ugliness if it be very familiar or long continued.[202]

According to Robortelli (1548), comedy, like all other forms of poetry, imitates the manners and actions of men, and aims at producing laughter and light-heartedness. But what produces laughter? The evil and obscene merely disgust good men; the sad and miserable cause pity and fear. The basis of laughter is therefore to be found in what is only slightly mean or ugly (_subturpiculum_). The object of comedy, according to the consensus of Renaissance opinion, is therefore to produce laughter for the purpose of rendering the minor vices ridiculous. Muzio (1551) indeed complains, as both Sidney and Ben Jonson do later, that the comic writers of his day were more intent on producing laughter than on depicting character or manners:--

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