What is Burlesque?- Definition, and Examples

The term “burlesque” derives from the Italian burlesco, from burla. ‘ridicule’ or joke’. Burlesque is a literary, dramatic, or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects.

In burlesque, the serious is treated lightly and the frivolous seriously; genuine emotion is sentimentalized, and trivial emotions are elevated to a dignified plane. Burlesque is closely related to parody, in which the language and style of a particular author, poem, or other work is mimicked, although burlesque is generally broader and coarser.

For the most part, burlesque is associated with some form of stage entertainment. Aristophanes used it occasionally in his plays. The satyr plays were a form of burlesque. Clowning interludes in Elizabethan plays were also a type.

An early example of burlesque in England is the play of Pyramus and Thisbe performed by Bottom and his companions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595). Here Shakespeare was making fun of the Interludes of earlier generations. A few years later Francis Beaumont created one of the first full-length dramatic burlesques – namely The Knight of the Burning Pestle (c. 1607). In 1671 George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had produced The Rehearsal, generally regarded as an outstanding example of a full-scale dramatic burlesque. In it, he ridiculed contemporary actors and dramatists as well as the heroic tragedies of the period.

Italian burlesque of the 15th century attacked the concept of chivalry as a dying aristocratic notion lacking in common sense, and it thus anticipates Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, which is, however, of size and seriousness that takes it out of the reach of burlesque

Later Henry Carey did the same thing with his Chrononhotonthologos (1734). He also burlesques contemporary opera in The Dragon of Wantley (1734). Fielding did much the same thing with Tom Thumb (1730) and his Historical Register for the Year 1736. Samuel Foote employed the same kind of caustic, but his plays and sketches ridiculed people rather than contemporary drama.

One of the most famous works in this genre is Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), in part a burlesque of Italian opera. His work anticipates the kind of entertainment that became popular in the 19th c. in the hands of Gilbert and Burnand. Other dramatic burlesques of note from this period are The What d’ye Call it (1715) by Gay; Three Hours After Marriage (1717) by Gay, Pope, and John Arbuthnot; The Covent Garden Tragedy (1732) by Henry Fielding; Distress upon Distress (1752) by George Alexander Stevens; The Critic (1779) by Sheridan; The Rovers (1798) by George Canning, John Hookham Frere, and George Ellis; and Bombastes Furioso (1810) by William Rhodes.

Burlesque was not confined to drama. In the mid-17th c. the French dramatist Scarron wrote a burlesque in verse called Virgile travestie(1648), and a little later Samuel Butler published Hudibras (1662), a mock-heroic poem ridiculing romance, chivalry, and Puritanism. In 1674 Boileau wrote a famous mock-epic Le Lutrin, in which, with much irony and grave epic decorum he made fun of Classical epic. Dryden burlesqued the animal fable in The Hind the Panther (1687); and, later, Pope showed great mastery of the sibilities of burlesque in his mock-epic The Rape of the Lock (1714) and in The Dunciad (1728, 1742, 1743). From this period also dates an agreeable burlesque by Swift curiosity is William Blake’s fragment An Island in the Moon (originally untitled), which he wrote c. 1784-5, a kind of ‘send-up’ of cultural and scientific pretensions. In fiction, Peacock came close to the burlesque of the Gothic novel with his Nightmare Abbey (1818).

Also read: Lyric poetry,Its definition,and examples