Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Comedy (Greek, literally, village-song). Like tragedy (q.v.), comedy arose in connection with the worship of Dionysos (Bacchus). At the village festivals of Bacchus in early Greece, especially at the vintage, bands of revellers used to stain their faces with the wine-lees and go about jeering and mocking at everyone they met. With excitable, imaginative people like the Greeks, this involved much expressive gesture and impersonation. This spontaneous revelry in course of time acquired a regular plan. We hear of a rudimentary comic drama in Sicyon in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., and somewhat later in Megara (in both these towns there was bitter political feeling between nobles and people, which found expression in their comedy); and in Sicily at Syracuse about 500 B.C., where, as the existence of a despotism prevented political satire, parodies of the myths and sometimes of the doctrines of philosophers (e.g. the Pythagoreans) seem to have been in vogue. Athens' comedy was originally derived from that of its neighbour Megara. As tragedy (q.v.) developed comedy imitated it, adopting its structure, its metres (to a great extent), and its chorus; and, being especially an amusement of the masses, it grew with the growth of democracy after the Persian wars. Of Crates, Cratinus, and Eupolis (456-420 B.C.) we have only fragments Our knowledge of the Athenian comedy of this - its first and best - period is derived almost wholly from Aristophanes (q.v.), whose first play was produced in 427, his last in 388 B.C. His attacks are chiefly on the democracy of Athens, the "new learning," and the new subversive notions in philosophy and religion. During the troublous times at the end of the Peloponnesian war political satire was dangerous, and his last play, the Plutus, deals with a social subject - the desire for wealth. Moreover, the increasing poverty of Athenian society had made it difficult to mount the plays properly or furnish choruses. The example set in the Plutus was followed in other plays, which collectively are classed as the Middle Comedy, and seem to have satirised social types rather than persons - the miser, the timid man, the swaggering warrior, and so on. Fragments only are left. Literary education and ethical speculation had probably disposed society for this sort of satire. As political interest decayed in Greece (after Alexander's conquests), this type passed into the New Comedy or Comedy of Manners, of which Menander, imitated by Plautus and Terence in Latin, is the best known writer. A kind of rustic Roman comedy, the fabula Atellana (originally written in the Oscan dialect), was probably suggested by Sicilian comedy. The Roman regular comedy of Plautus and Terence was almost a direct translation from the Greek; by its side, however, were the "Atellane fables "and the mimes. The latter, probably a purely native institution, are farcical representations, often decidedly broad in character, of some ludicrous incident. They had fixed characters - a clown, a heavy father, "chatterboxes," etc., but the dialogue was largely extempore. Probably, while there was little regular comedy written after 100 B.C., representations akin to the mimes continued in Italy through the later Roman Empire and the Middle Ages until the Renaissance.

"Mimi" and "joculatores" (jongleurs, jugglers) are mentioned both in England and abroad by mediaeval authors, and the popular commedia dell' arte of Italy, with its fixed characters (harlequin, columbine, pantaloon, etc.) and improvised dialogue, the parent of our pantomime, is probably derived from this mediaeval comedy. But the comedy proper in modern times begins about the end of the 15th century. Farces were written during the Middle Ages, and a French one (long afterwards revived as L'Avocat Patelin) was produced in 1490. In Germany, too, there were farcical "carnival plays," of which Hans Sachs is the best known author. But both in Italy and Spain at the Renaissance dramatists began to give to these popular farces the conventional structure and characters of Plautus and Terence. The earliest modern comedy, according to Hallam, is the Calandra of Bibbiena, based on a play of Plautus and produced at Venice in 1508. An early Spanish piece is of about the same date. But Ariosto (1474-1533) may be taken as the parent of modern comedy. Two comedies by him in Italian have the conventional Terentian characters, but one has an original plot. It had long been the custom for schoolboys or University students to perform Latin plays on special occasions; and the first English comedy was written for performance by Eton boys by Udall, while headmaster, between 1534 and 1541. In France - somewhat as in ancient Greece - the rude popular farce was first converted into comedy proper by Moliere (q.v.) in the seventeenth century, who in his verse comedies combined the humour and licence of the farce with the strict versification introduced for tragedy by Malherbe, and who, like the writers of Middle Comedy of Greece, satirised social types. To trace the evolution of modern comedy in England would require a considerable volume; it passes through under the hands of Ben Jonson and Shakspeare, away from the fixed incidents, conventional characters, and dramatic unities that had come down from ancient Rome, to the refreshing licence and endless variety in all these matters that we find, for instance, in the Merchant of Venice; and through the witty but licentious comic drama of the Restoration to the lifelike if somewhat limited work of Goldsmith, Sheridan, and the Colmans at the end of the last and beginning of this century, and latterly to the serious "comedy with a purpose" of would-be dramatic reformers of to-day. Comedy can only be distinguished from farce historically. It has much more plot; the characters vary; each is marked by a special predominance of some one quality; the incidents are run into a knot, which is untied at the close of the play. These characteristics (adapted from Professor Henry Morley's criticism of Ben Jonson) may serve as the basis of a definition. They will not, however, apply to the earliest plays of the Greek comedy.