What is Parody: Definition, characteristics and examples

Parody (Gk meaning ‘beside, subsidiary or mock song’) is the imitative use of the words, style, attitude, tone, and ideas of an author in such a way as to make them ridiculous. This is usually achieved by exaggerating certain traits, using more or less the same technique as the cartoon caricaturist. It is a kind of satirical mimicry. As a branch of satire, its purpose may be corrective as well as derisive.

The origins of parody are ancient. Aristotle refers to it in his Poetics and attributes its invention to Hegemon of Thasos who used an epic style to represent men as being inferior to what they are in real life. Hegemon was supposed to have been the first man to introduce parody in the theatre, in the 5th c. BC. However, the 6th c. poet Hipponax has also been credited with this. Aristophanes used parody in the Frogs where he took off the style of Aeschylus and Euripides. Plato also caricatured the style of various writers in the Symposium. Lucian used parody in his Dialogues. In the Middle Ages parodies of the liturgy, hymns and the Bible were fairly frequent. One of the first and best known English parodies was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas (c. 1383), a skit on some of the more absurd characteristics of medieval romances (Chaucer was, in turn, to be well parodied by Alexander Pope and W. W. Skeat).

Late in the Renaissance period, Cervantes parodied the whole tradition of medieval romances in Don Quixote (1605, 1615). Erasmus in Moriae Encomium (1509) and Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel (1534, 1532) turned scholasticism upside down. Shakespeare parodied the euphuism of John Lyly in Henry IV, Pt I (1597), Marlowe’s bombastic manner in Hamlet (c. 1603), and the general style of Thomas Nashe in Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595). Later Sir John Suckling took off Donne splendidly as a love poet, and in 1701 John Philips parodied Milton very cleverly in The Splendid Shilling. In 1736, Isaac Hawkins’s A Pipe of Tobacco created a precedent because it was the first collection of parodies of various authors’ supposed attempts on a single subject. Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1741) was a complete parodic novel at the expense of Richardson’s Pamela (1740). R.B.Sheridan’s The Critic (1779), was a successful parody of sentimental drama and the malicious literary criticism of the period.

The Romantic period and the 19th c. provided a succession of ample targets for literary iconoclasts. In 1812, James and Horace Smith published Rejected Addresses in which Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Dr. Johnson, and others were parodied very successfully. Thereafter, Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, Poe, Longfellow, Tennyson, Browning, William Morris, the Rossettis, Swinburne, Southey, Whitman, Hopkins, and Kipling were quite frequently parodied, often by writers equally distinguished. For example, Keats on Wordsworth, Byron on Wordsworth, James Hogg on Wordsworth, Swinburne on Tennyson, C. S. Calverley on Browning, Lewis Carroll on Swinburne, Hogg on Coleridge – and so forth. The favourite victims were Southey, Wordsworth, Browning and Swinburne.

Max Beerbohm refined parody to art, and his collection of his own parodies in A Christmas Garland (1912), which includes pieces in the manner of Kipling, Galsworthy, Hardy, Arnold Bennett, Edmund Gosse and others is generally agreed to have set a standard which may never be surpassed. James Joyce was a gifted parodist, some of whose best efforts can be found in the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ episode of Ulysses. A classic parody of the 1930s was Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm(1932), a clever caricature of the primitivism of Mary Webb’s novels – and also, for that matter, of the primitivism of Thomas Hardy, J. C.Powys and D. H. Lawrence. More recent instances are C. Day Lewis’s parodies in Part V of An Italian Visit, Cyril Connolly on Aldous Huxley, Paul Jennings on Resistentialism, Kenneth Tynan on Thornton Wilder – plus a whole school of American parodists much of whose work has appeared in The New Yorker. The best known of these are Robert Benchley, Peter De Vries, Wolcott Gibbs, S. J. Perelman, Frank Sullivan, James Thurber, and E. B. White.

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