Six Comic Theorists of the Classical World

I’m teaching a course on Shakespeare’s Comedies and Romances right now and I’m refreshing my notes on comedy and laughter, especially in the years leading up to Shakespeare.


1. Plato


Plato had no time for drama or poetry, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t really have too much to say about comedy and the comic and that little that he does say is fairly down on the whole thing. Plato’s writing on comedy mostly comes from The Republic, though he touches on it elsewhere, such as in Philebus, and The Symposium.

For Plato, laughter is a kind of spontaneous emotional reaction that overrides reason and self-governance. It is precisely because of this bodily, irrational nature of laughter that Plato rejects it. Laughter is a kind of ignorance or a kind of viciousness. In The Republic, he says that representations of the gods as laughing ought not be admitted.

Speaking about Homer’s representation of the gods laughing at the image of the disfigured Hephaestus bustling around, Plato’s Socrates rejects this altogether as being akin to a lie.


“Then persons of worth, even if only mortal men, must not be represented as overcome by laughter, and still less must such a representation of the gods be allowed. Still less of the gods, as you say,” he replied.

(Book 3)

The rational part of the mind should be able to control the other parts of the mind. Laughter was a kind of eruption, almost like a physical ailment, that tied one to the irrational, animalistic parts of the self.

As regards comedy as a genre… well, for Plato, since lying was totally pointless as well as vicious, AND since acting and literary production were all just various forms of lying, any form of acting was outlawed and any form of laughter was frowned upon.

Of course, if you extend the net a bit and think about all kinds of performance, including games, then Plato has some more to say. In his final book The Laws, he talks about children’s games and he notes that the rules of the games children play always seem to be changing. He ascribes this to some strange innovator who comes in and teaches the children novel ways of playing the game. (He seems completely unaware that children could come up with changing the rules themselves.) This man, Plato says, who changes the rules of traditional games for children is the most dangerous man in the state because he “alters the characters of the young, and causes them to contemn what is old and esteem what is new.”

The point? Not only does Plato hate clowns, sitcoms, and stand up comics… he hates Milton Bradley too!

2. Aristotle

Aristotle 1

Aristotle wrote The Poetics, in which he investigated what it was to be tragedy in some detail. He did not, however, leave behind a book on comedy. Not because he didn’t write one, but because it was lost to history. Although Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose suggests that the treatise on comedy was burned by a mad monk in the middle ages, I’d like to personally think it is still waiting to be found under the Egyptian sands, like a McGuffin in an Indiana Jones film.

What little there is of Aristotle’s thoughts on comedy can be deduced from his writing in The Poetics.  Whereas the subjects of tragedy should be characters who were fine and exemplary in some way, the subjects of comedy ought to be ridiculous.

“an imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind of the ridiculous, which is a species of the ugly”

(The Poetics Book Two)

For Aristotle, all comedy was predicated on laughing at a fault in another, though not all humour was based on the superiority theory. Aristotle recognized that witty language play and inversion, which is aligned with the incongruity theory, was a source of laughter as well. In The Nicomachean Ethics, for instance, he talks about how there is a balance that needs to be struck between the person who cannot resist trying to crack a joke and the person who doesn’t see the humour in anything (Book Two ~1780).

Comic drama, however, emerged out of the sense of superiority the audience felt in relation to the characters on the stage. Despite, or perhaps because of this sense of superiority, as a genre, comedy was marked by its harmlessness. The characters are never in any actual or existential danger. The ridiculousness that was a species of the ugly, for Aristotle, was “a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others.”

Of course, Aristotle was writing before the great emergence of Greek New Comedy. Though Comedy had been performed at the Great Dionysia since at least 486BCE, Aristotle was drawing his conclusions (whatever they were precisely) from the writing of the Greek Old Comedies and playwrights like Aristophanes.

3. Theophrastus

V0005785 Theophrastus. Line engraving.

Disciple of Aristotle and mentor to Menander, Theophrastus is one of those figures in philosophy I never heard of until well after my undergraduate degree was done and dusted. I guess it makes sense, but I still love him. I mean, he’s not exactly the most important figure in Hellenistic philosophy, but he’s certainly not the most obscure either!

Anyhow, he’s mostly known for having written The Characters. This book really is nothing more than about 30 character sketches of different types of individuals. The characters he describes are types who were supposed to exist in Greece at the time. For instance,

  • The Flatterer
  • The Boor
  • The Chatty Man
  • The Grumbler
  • The Coward

His insight was to reorient the main focus of drama from action, which had been Aristotle’s predicate, to character. Rather than action defining character, the character of an individual defines their actions. This would go on to deeply influence ancient Greek New Comedy, which would in turn go on to be the foundation stone for every comedy of Terence and Plautus in the Roman period.

The idea of writing a book of character sketches survived antiquity and you find it really being picked up again by the time you get to the early modern period. Jacobean City Comedy is largely influenced by this character based sense of comedy, for instance. Read Volpone and you really see what I’m talking about. Also, there was a minor genre of character sketch pamphlets that emerged in the early 1600s. One of my favourites is Geoffrey Minshull’s Characters of a Prison, but then I am a sucker for prison stories.

4. Cicero


Cicero’s de Oratore was a manual for budding public speakers that came down very clearly on the side of encouraging orators to use laughter to get their point across. Unlike Plato, who wanted our rational minds to control the irrational, animal-like parts of our souls, Cicero recognized that laughter can be powerfully persuasive. Indeed, it could be so powerful that one has to use it very judiciously for it to have the desired effect.

As an orator, you don’t want to make jokes out of topics that are wholly inappropriate for humour. Jokes about criminal behaviour or about “wretchedness” were just not on. This moderated the ideas of Aristotle, obviously, who could easily have come to be seen as deeply invested in the superiority theory of humor.

For Cicero, the best kind of humor  was “found among those blemishes noticeable in the conduct of people who are neither objects of general esteem nor yet full of misery.”  Further, Cicero was one of the first to distinguish between the two kinds of theories of humor – superiority and incongruence. He actually seems to prefer the latter form of humor (which I have to admit, so do I).

“The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.”

The orator may borrow techniques of impersonation and ridicule from the comic stage, Cicero suggests, but with the caveat that the orator always be aware that his job is to persuade and not merely to entertain. The orator should avoid the excesses (of imitation and gesture) that one finds regularly used by comic actors and pantomimes because such excesses would detract from the essential purpose of an orator – to persuade. Of course, this suggests that the stage, for Cicero, was for entertainment alone rather than the Horatian mode that would become common in England following Sidney’s Apology for Poetry.

5 & 6. Aelius Donatus & Evanthius

Church fathers looking like an army.

I’m putting these two together because for centuries people thought that the essay “On Drama” was by Donatus, but general consensus seems to be that it was actually written by Evanthius, while the essay “On Comedy” is still ascribed to Donatus.

Both of these mid-fourth century AD writers were grammarians whose texts were essential reading for monks of the middle ages learning their Latin. You can feel the bias against comedy coming out in Evanthius’ description of what it is to be comedy:

In comedy the fortunes of men are middle-class, the dangers are slight, and the ends of the action are happy; but in tragedy everything is the opposite – the characters are great men, the fears are intense, and the ends disasterous. In comedy the beginning is troubled, the end tranquil; in tragedy the events follow the reverse order. And in tragedy the kind of life is shown that is to be shunned; while in comedy the kind is shown that is to be sought after. Finally, in comedy the story is always fictitious; while tragedy is often based on historical truth.

Of course, reading this over again makes me think how depressing he must have thought the world to be if comedy was aspirational, yet never exemplary.

Donatus and Evanthius articulated the language of the analysis of drama that would dominate Europe for over a thousand years.  They were the ones who really defined that a comedy should be defined into four structural parts:

  1. Prologue – given before the plot as a preface to the drama. “In this part only is it permissible to say something extrinsic to the argument, addressed to the audience and for the benefit of the poet or the drama or an actor.”
  2. Protasis – defining the terms of the action. In this section a part of the story is told, but usually there will be some part held back from the audience so as to increase suspense and to arouse the audience upon the revelation of such news later.
  3. Epitasis – the complication of the action. This is where the stories end up being intertwined. I always think of Comedy of Errors or the Menaechmi when I think of Epitasis, if only because the stories of the two sets of twins end up just missing each other so many times and that improbable set of events is the essence of complication.
  4. Catastrophe – “the unravelling of the story, through which the outcome is demonstrated”

This way of understanding comedy was what Renaissance writers like Shakespeare and Greene and Marlowe were really working with and working against in their writing of the 1580s and 1590s. By the time you get into the 1600s, the humourial influenced, character based comedy drawn from Theophrastus really becomes ascendant. You can see Shakespeare playing with the categories of Donatus and Evanthius throughout the 1590s, but especially in plays like Love’s Labour’s Lost, which doesn’t really have a Catastrophe, or in Measure for Measure, which is both famously unfunny and whose ending is far too convenient to be believed.


This list is, obviously, not exhaustive. If you can think of any additional thinkers who I should have added to the list, why don’t you add them in the comments below?


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