Definition of Burlesque

The term, burlesque, has its roots in Italian as well as French language in which it was in use during the 16th century. In French, it meant odd or grotesque, while in Italian it meant ludicrous. It is a derivative of burla that means joke or fun.

In literature, it means to ridicule the people to mock the low strata by becoming a low one, or mimic a great person by becoming unlike him. During the 19th century, it was considered travesties and satire on the classic or accepted ideas.

In literary terms, it means to mock or make fun of a subject through imitation, irony, or sarcasm, resulting in comedy. As it is almost equal to parody, parody is also a type of burlesque.

Essentials of Burlesque

A burlesque in literature has following essential elements in it.

  1. It intends to create a disparity that is incongruous and ridiculous.
  2. Parody and travesty are its two important ingredients.
  3. Not all burlesque techniques or strategies are the same in all such literary pieces.

Examples of Burlesque in Literature

Example #1

The R*pe of the Lock by Alexander Pope

And thus in Whispers said, or seem’d to say.
Fairest of Mortals, thou distinguish’d Care
Of thousand bright Inhabitants of Air!
If e’er one Vision touch’d thy infant Thought,
Of all the Nurse and all the Priest have taught,
Of airy Elves by Moonlight Shadows seen,
The silver Token, and the circled Green,
Or Virgins visited by Angel-Pow’ rs,
With Golden Crowns and Wreaths of heav’nly Flow’rs,
Hear and believe! thy own Importance know,
Nor bound thy narrow Views to Things below.

Pope has beautifully used burlesque in this mock epic poem to show how the low are satirized, using initial capitals to present them as proper nouns such as Whispers that hardly means said in a loud voice. The presentation of the people through airy and metaphysical language shows how he intends to present the travesty of the manners and attitudes of the high-ups of his times. In this type of poetic recitation, Pope has tried to satirize the manners of the gentry of his times.

Example #2

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Though her countenance did not denote much natural sweetness of temper, yet this was, perhaps, somewhat soured by a circumstance which generally poisons matrimonial felicity; for children are rightly called the pledges of love; and her husband, though they had been married nine years, had given her no such pledges; a default for which he had no excuse, either from age or health, being not yet thirty years old, and what they call a jolly brisk young man.

Not only the language but also the use of high terms for marriage such as “matrimonial felicity” and twist in the language shows that Henry Fielding is satirizing the marriages of those times. Although he presents Mrs. Debora Wilkins not showing the sourness that comes or creeps into such relations, yet the term Fielding has used for children as “pledges of love” show how he has satirized the high thoughts held by the people about marriage, life and siblings in general.

Example #3

Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt

Since our pleasant and unexpected conversation, I have thought of little else. Is there any way in which it can be resumed, more privately and at more leisure? I know you go out in company very little, and was the more fortunate that dear Crabb managed to entice you to his breakfast table. How much I owe to his continuing good health, that he should feel able and eager, at eighty-two years of age, to entertain poets and undergraduates and mathematical professors and political thinkers so early in the day, and to tell the anecdote of the Bust with his habitual fervour without too much delaying the advent of buttered toast.

The second sentence shows how Michell shows the discovery of the letters of Ash and how he addresses the lady. It presents him as if he has a very important person despite his being a very insignificant in the literary circles of those times. This is a type of ludicrous situation, a sort of parody that Byatt presents to his readers.

Example #4

A Beggar’s Opera by John Gay

PEACHUM. A lazy Dog! When I took him the time before, I told him what he would come to if he did not mend his Hand. This is Death without Reprieve. I may venture to Book him. [writes] For Tom Gagg, forty Pounds. Let Betty Sly know that I’ll save her from Transportation, for I can get more by her staying in England.
FILCH. Betty hath brought more Goods into our Lock to-year than any five of the Gang; and in truth, ’tis a pity to lose so good a Customer.

This conversation between Peachum and Filch shows that John Gay wants to satirize Betty’s habit of senseless ness, howing that even Filch wants not to lose her as a “good customer” that she purchases so much. This shows the funny side of the ladies specially when it comes to shopping and doing other such things.

Functions of Burlesque

Although the major function of a burlesque as a literary technique is to create a situation where it evokes a wry or otherwise smile, it mocks and satirizes the people as well as manners to show the readers how such mannerisms in people make others smile and laugh. However, inwardly, the author is, sometimes, didactic, as he does not want to see such manners in the people. Therefore, such authors, who use burlesque in their writings, often means to correct the people for those little follies and foibles for the betterment of the society.


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