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History of Italian Literature 101: Classical Era I - the Greek Origins of Comedy


The grotesque domain unveils a complex connection with human belief systems, folklore and “subcultures”, evoking a sense of macabre fascination. Within this series, we shall delve into the deep interplay between grotesque aesthetics and comic discourse, always keeping an eye out for comedy and satire. The captivating evolution of grotesque crosses multiple historical eras, each one bearing distinct comical genres that reflect the societies from which they emerged. By scrutinizing the historical contexts, we aim to discern the pivotal role they play in shaping humorous expressions, with a particular emphasis on the literary grotesque and its association with comedy in folklore. This series belongs to a course of Italian literature. Our focus shall concentrate on Italian comic literature, clarifying its intricate connections to its Latin and Greek origins.

Additionally, we venture into the realm of fables, timeless narratives that transcend cultural boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on our perception of humor. Both folktales and fables contribute to our collective understanding of how hilarity should be portrayed, providing enduring narratives that continue to resonate until now. Our exploration reveals that the quest for laughter remains a universal pursuit, intimately woven into the fabric of humanity and its literary creations.

This 101 series will be composed of seven articles, as follows:

  1. History of Italian Literature 101: Unraveling the Grotesque in Comedy and Satire

  2. History of Italian Literature 101: Classical Era I - the Greek Origins of Comedy

  3. History of Italian Literature 101: Classical Era II - Latin Comedies and Satire

  4. History of Italian Literature 101: Medieval Times - Introducing the Obscene

  5. History of Italian Literature 101: Medieval time - Carnival and Dante

  6. History of Italian Literature 101: The Renaissance - The success of the Commedia dell’Arte

  7. History of Italian Literature 101: The Folk-tale and its figures

History of Italian Literature 101: Classical Era I - the Greek Origins of Comedy

Laughter is a strictly human phenomenon. It is a well-known concept since ancient times, in fact, Aristotle defined it as the faculty that separates the human being from the animal world (Halliwell, 2008). However, it is crucial to understand its historical and social context, which was quite far from the vision of nowadays, as it is portayed of it as extremely civilised and neat. Still, it is known that laughter and comedy are linked to the feeling of uneasiness and the shattering of the norm. Ancient Greeks used to break social norms, at least during festivities, in a quite naïve way. Here Aristotle might help us out again, as he described humans as social animals (Politics I, 2, p. 1253a). Within this particular meaning, it can be observed the occurrence of the grotesque in the Greek theatre, the topic of this article.

At its core, Greek comedy sought to entertain and amuse audiences through laughter and levity. The performances were staged during various festivals, most notably the Dionysia, which celebrated Dionysus, the God associated with wine, fertility, and excess (Guidorizzi, 2002).

In Ancient Greece, comedies had a major role in the cultural landscape, captivating audiences with their wit, satire, and humour. Defined as theatrical performances, Greek comedies served multiple purposes that extended far beyond mere entertainment (Seaford, 2006). The comedies were rooted in the traditions of festive celebrations and religious rituals, as they were woven into the fabric of society. It is important to underline that Dionysus was associated with the Satyrs. The next paragraphs will focus on this grotesque figure, the Satyr, who exemplifies clearly why the grotesque holds a major role in the definition of Greek comedy.

Figure 1: The ancient theatre of Epidaurus, one of the most well preserved Greek theatres.

During these festivities, theatrical competitions took the stage with playwrights in search of the adoration of the audience, considered as the real heart of the polis. These theatrical plays served as a form of communal celebration, fostering a sense of unity and shared experience among the citizens. The comedic nature of these plays offered a welcome respite from the realities of everyday life, providing catharsis and a release of brownout among the audience. Cathartic laughter is another key point for our article, as it carries a vital meaning for the way laughter is perceived and the Grotesque (Halliwell, 2008).

The comedic portrayals often involved exaggeration and absurdity, they carried a kernel of truth that resonated with the spectators, prompting self-reflection and introspection. The comedic plays offered a reflection of the prevailing social norms and values of Ancient Greek society. By employing humour to explore gender dynamics, class distinctions, and cultural idiosyncrasies, playwrights like Aristophanes provided a mirror through which the audience could scrutinize their own behaviours and beliefs (Rocconi, 2007).

Beyond their entertainment value, Greek comedies held a profound significance in their ability to address political and social issues of the time. The performances often employed satire to mock figures and institutions, using humour as a powerful tool for societal critique.

Now the question becomes evident: within such a neat way of making theatre and social satire, where is grotesque, and why does it hold such an important role in this comedic approach?

The Religious Context

From Aristotle to minor deities, to the name itself of comedy. The word comes from the ritual of kōmos and then aoidos meaning “singer”. It was a ritualistic drunken procession, dedicated to Dionysus (Seaford, 2006).

In the historical and religious context of Ancient Greece, comedies emerged as an essential part of festive celebrations, permeating these events with a distinct sense of celebration. These comedic performances were associated with religious rituals, finding particular significance in festivities dedicated to the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and theatre. As people gathered to honour the deity, Greek comedies took place captivating audiences with their humorous portrayals and satirical flair. While comedy during festivities offered positive aspects, some celebrations, particularly those forbidden and hidden from the public eye, acquired a sinister and grotesque connotation.

Within these clandestine rituals, minor deities grew, and their significance amplified during the events of forbidden festivities (Nisetich, 1989). These lesser-known divine figures often personified the wild and original aspects of human nature, embracing the grotesque and the unconventional. Minor deities were patrons of the grotesque, intertwining the humorous and the absurd in a dance of unregulated celebration. Comedies not only entertained but also delved into the depths of human experience. The intersection between the human and animal worlds in Greek comedies became a captivating element, reflecting the blurred boundaries and innate connections between the two realms (Taplin, 1993). It was through this fusion that Greek comedies drew upon the primal and instinctual facets of human nature, blending them with the uncanny and the grotesque to create a theatrical tapestry that resonated with audiences across time.

Dionysus and the Satyr

In Ancient Greek mythology and theatre, the satyr is a fascinating creature deeply connected to Dionysus. Satyrs were mythical, enigmatic beings with a complex nature, often depicted as half-humans and half-goats, playing a significant role in the Dionysian festivities and the evolution of theatre, intertwining the themes of the grotesque and the comedic in the cultural fabric of Ancient Greek population (Guidorizzi, 2002).

Figure 2: A Satyr and a goat on a ceramic vase (520 BC). Here is evident how satyrs are imagined.

Their cult’s origin is obscure, and similar figures can be traced back to the very birth of Indo-European mythology. These figures tend to be tricksters, a particular ethnological figure that combines the spirit of free choice and mischief, as their name clearly states. A trickster, like the satyr, is a mischievous and cunning figure often found in mythology and folklore. They are known for their playful and sometimes deceitful behavior, using their wits to outsmart others and create chaos. In the case of the satyr, they embody this archetype through their half-human form, engaging in unpredictable actions that blur the lines between human and animal instincts. They add a layer of irreverence to Dionysian celebrations while infusing stories with an element of subversion and bringing a sense of dynamic energy to narratives (Miceli, 2000).

As companions of Dionysus, satyrs were closely associated with the god's ecstatic celebrations. Dionysian festivals, such as the Dionysia and the Rural Dionysia, were marked by processions, singing, dancing, and performances of both tragedy and comedy. During these festivities, with their playful and lascivious nature, the satyrs would engage in merriment alongside the god and his followers. Their inclusion in these celebrations brought an element of spontaneity and disorder, reflecting the untamed aspects of Dionysian worship and the blurring of boundaries between the sacred and the profane (Seaford, 2006).

One of the captivating narratives in Ancient Greek mythology that features a satyr is the story of Marsyas. Marsyas, a satyr with exceptional musical prowess, became embroiled in a legendary musical contest with the god Apollo. Challenging Apollo, the divine patron of music, Marsyas skillfully played the flute, while Apollo played the lyre. The contest represented a clash between the rustic and primal music of Marsyas and the refined melodies of Apollo.

As the competition reached its culmination, Apollo emerged as the victor, displaying not only his musical mastery but also his divine authority. In some versions of the tale, the judgment was made by the Muses themselves, who favored Apollo's harmonious melodies over Marsyas' wild tunes. However, the aftermath of the contest took a tragic turn. Apollo, in his victory, decreed a harsh punishment for Marsyas. The satyr was flayed alive as a consequence of his audacity to challenge a god. This brutal punishment not only underscored the boundary between mortal and divine but also exemplified the perils of hubris and the consequences of attempting to rival the gods.

The tale of Marsyas embodies the complexities associated with satyrs – their boldness, their connection to music, and the stark contrast between their earthly nature and the divine order. This story further enriches the intricate relationship between satyrs, Dionysian festivities, and the profound themes of both the comedic and the grotesque in Ancient Greek culture (Guidorizzi, 2002).

Figure 3: A statue of Bacchus, the Roman name of Dionysus (Michelangelo, 1497).

Theatrically, satyrs had a profound impact on the development of drama in Ancient Greece. The satyr play, a unique genre of dramatic performance, featured a chorus of satyrs engaging in humorous and often grotesque interactions. These plays were performed as a part of the dramatic competitions during the Dionysian festivals, providing a stark contrast to the more solemn tragedies. Satyr plays blended comedy, music, and dance, offering a boisterous and irreverent counterpart to the grandeur of tragic performances.

The grotesque played a central role in the satyr plays, as they often portrayed the satyrs engaging in absurd and comedic antics. The goat-like appearance of the satyrs and their uninhibited behaviour allowed for a wide range of comedic and grotesque elements to be explored. The satyrs' hedonistic and primal tendencies led them to humorous interactions with other characters and even the gods themselves. The grotesque was showcased through physical humour, exaggeration, and playful irreverence, reflecting the Dionysian spirit of transgression and liberation (Seaford, 2006).

The connection between the satyrs, Dionysus, and the festivities of theatre exemplified the Greeks' reverence for both the comedic and the grotesque aspects of life. These mythical beings embodied the dualities of human nature, embracing both the divine and the animalistic. Their uninhibited and playful presence in the Dionysian celebrations brought a sense of liberation and catharsis, allowing individuals to immerse themselves in the primal and transformative power of theatre.

The Cathartic Laughter

Catharsis is a concept rooted in ancient Greek philosophy and literature, particularly associated with Aristotle's theory of tragedy. It refers to the purging or cleansing of emotions, primarily fear and pity, through experiencing and witnessing intense artistic or dramatic works. The process of catharsis aims to bring about emotional release and psychological transformation in the audience or individual (Guidorizzi, 2002).

In the context of tragedy, catharsis occurs when the audience becomes emotionally engaged with the characters' struggles and ultimately witnesses their downfall or suffering. This emotional identification allows the spectators to confront their fears, anxieties, and empathetic responses in a controlled and safe environment. By vicariously experiencing these emotions, individuals are believed to achieve a sense of relief, cathartic release, and even a degree of emotional healing. Catharsis can lead to a greater understanding of human emotions, a heightened self-awareness, and a renewed perspective on personal challenges. The aim of this chapter however is to link this concept to laughter (Halliwell, 2008).

In Ancient Greece, laughter held a profound significance as a multifaceted tool for catharsis, a concept illuminated by Halliwell's exploration in Greek Laughter (2008). Laughter was more than mere amusement; it served as a means of purging and cleansing the human psyche. In the context of Greek drama and society, the role of laughter extended beyond entertainment, offering a therapeutic release for suppressed emotions and tensions. Halliwell's comprehensive analysis underscores how laughter was strategically employed in various forms of artistic expression, such as comedy and satire, to confront societal norms, challenge authority, and navigate complex moral dilemmas. Through the lens of catharsis, the ancient Greeks harnessed the power of laughter to engender a transformative emotional release, fostering a deeper understanding of human nature and the intricacies of the human condition.

Figure 4: Low relief representing Ancient Greek actors and their masks (3rd Century BC).

In the context of cathartic laughter in ancient Greece, the perception and interpretation of laughter extended beyond human boundaries. While Aristotle famously wrote that humans were the sole laughers, different perspectives existed. Xenophon (430-355 BC) noted "smiles" on dogs' faces, Aelian (2nd Century BC) referred to oxen's smiles, and literary works like Aesopic fables attributed laughter or smiles to animals. This imaginative assimilation of animal behavior with laughter was common, reflecting a blurred intersection between human and non-human expressions (Halliwell, 2008). The Greeks appreciated laughter's cathartic role, exemplified by instances like Aristophanes comparing a character to a court case involving a triumphant crowing dance and a chorus of frogs. The concept of grotesque laughter found expression in portraying animals' laughter-like sounds, echoing a deeper contemplation of the boundary between human and non-human emotional expression in Ancient Greek culture.

On the other hand, it's important to emphasize that the use of masks was equally vital to facilitate catharsis. The presence of fixed characters, as we'll delve into more deeply in the article dedicated to Latin literature, enabled the audience to identify with the characters and, through their experiences, achieve a form of purification, no matter how absurd those experiences might have been (Bravi, 2002).

Aristophanes’ Comedies

In the history of Ancient Greek comedy, the most important author is Aristophanes (446-386 BC), considered a master of satire and playwriting of the Athens Golden Age in the V Century B.C. Renowned for his sharp wit and fearless critique of the political élite, Aristophanes stands as the father of political satire, wielding the power of comedy to expose the follies and contradictions of his time.

Among his notable works, Frogs (405 BC) is the one that will be analysed in detail in this article, as it stands as a remarkable exemplar of Aristophanes' comedic genius, and within its comedic brilliance lies the interplay of the grotesque, a powerful element that intensifies the satirical impact.

During the Athens Golden Age, the city-state reached its cultural peak: arts, philosophy, and democracy were flourishing like never before. This period provided fertile ground for the rise of dramatic arts, and Aristophanes emerged as a leading comedic voice, utilizing the platform to engage with the tumultuous political landscape of his era (Taplin, 1993).

Aristophanes' Frogs, encapsulates the essence of his comedic approach, featuring a fantastic journey to the underworld by the god Dionysus. In this play, Aristophanes satirizes the contemporary playwrights of his time, mocking the declining state of Athenian drama. The decline of Athenian drama during the 5th century BC can be attributed to several historical, social, and political factors. One significant factor was the impact of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), a long conflict between Athens and Sparta, along with their respective allies. The war led to a series of setbacks for Athens, including economic strain, loss of resources, and a decline in political stability. These factors had a ripple effect on the cultural and artistic spheres, including dramatic productions. People then enjoyed the more lively plays, without the social depth that the comedies had before.

Aristophanes, in order to portray this moment, chooses to amplify the grotesque elements in Frogs. He creates a realm of absurdity and exaggeration where the boundaries of reality and the fantastic blur (Rocconi, 2007). The portrayal of Dionysus, the god of theatre, as a bumbling and inept character adds to the humour while highlighting the perceived degradation of dramatic art. The grotesque emerges as a mechanism through which Aristophanes dismantles the pretensions of the literary establishment and challenges the audience to ponder the value and purpose of artistic expression (Bravi, 2002).

Moreover, the grotesque is vividly displayed in the comedic portrayal of the underworld. As Dionysus descends to Hades to bring back the deceased playwright Euripides, he encounters a macabre menagerie of mythical creatures and grotesque figures. This surreal landscape serves as a canvas for Aristophanes to explore the darkest aspects of human nature and the absurdity of existence. By infusing the comedic journey with the grotesque, Aristophanes creates a theatrical experience not only entertaining but also provoking introspection, delving into the existential questions that underpin human life (Nisetich, 1989).

Figure 5: A bust representing the play-writer Aristophanes (1st Century AD).

In Aristophanes' comedic play, Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, embarks on a journey to the Underworld aboard a magical and whimsical boat. Disguised as Hercules, Dionysus navigates the river Styx, encountering various humorous challenges and engaging in a spirited debate between the great playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus. The play, while entertaining, offers a satirical commentary on the importance of theater in society and the artistic rivalry between prominent playwrights of ancient Greece (Guidorizzi, 2002 and Rocconi, 2007).

In this play, Aristophanes' use of grotesque satire extends beyond the exploration of aesthetics and delves into the nature of governance. The chorus of frogs, which serves as a pivotal element in the play, offers a satirical parallel to the Athenian political system. Through their cacophonous croaking and lack of unity, Aristophanes criticizes the chaotic state of Athenian politics. The grotesque depiction of the frogs as representatives of the Athenian citizenry serves as a potent symbol of the disorder and lack of cohesion within the body politic, a stark reminder of the fragility of democratic governance.

The grotesque satire of Aristophanes in Frogs encapsulates the essence of his comedic brilliance, intertwining humour with social critique. By employing the grotesque, Aristophanes transcends the limitations of conventional humour, delving into the realms of the surreal and the existential. His comedic approach challenges the audience to confront the complexities and contradictions of human nature and the societies they construct. Amid laughter, the grotesque reveals profound insights, leaving an indelible mark on the legacy of Ancient Greek theatre and the enduring power of satire in illuminating the human condition. Aristophanes' Frogs remains a timeless testament to the enduring relevance of grotesque satire and its vital role in shaping the comedic traditions that follow (Rocconi, 2007).

Semonides and the Satire

The literary genre of satire in Ancient Greece was characterized by its use of humor, irony, and wit to critique and mock societal, political, and cultural aspects of the time. While it's true that Ennius (239-169 BC), a Roman poet, is often credited with laying the foundation for later Roman satire, the roots of satirical elements can be traced back to Greek literature and theater.

In Ancient Greece, satire wasn't a distinct and well-defined genre as it became in later Roman literature, as will be discussed in the next article. Instead, elements of satire were present in various forms of artistic expression, including drama, poetry, and rhetoric. Satire in ancient Greek culture often served as a means of social commentary, challenging established norms and shedding light on human behavior and institutions through humor and exaggeration.

Dramatic performances, particularly comedic plays, incorporated satirical elements. Aristophanes as well is renowned for his comedies since he used satire to mock political figures, intellectuals, and societal trends of his time.

Another form of satire in Ancient Greece was found in the works of philosophers, such as Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BC), who used sharp wit and humor to criticize social conventions and challenge the values of his contemporaries. Diogenes, known for his eccentric behavior, employed satire to provoke thought and prompt self-examination, often through public displays that defied societal norms (Shea, 2010).

While Ancient Greek literature contained satirical elements, the formalization of satire as a distinct genre is more closely associated with Roman literature, especially with Ennius and later satirists like Horace and Juvenal. Ennius is credited with creating a more structured and defined form of satire, laying the groundwork for the satirical tradition that flourished in Roman literature.

In summary, while the formal genre of satire was more fully developed in later Roman literature, the roots of satirical elements can be traced back to Ancient Greece. The works of playwrights like Aristophanes and the unconventional approaches of philosophers like Diogenes laid the groundwork for the satirical tradition that would evolve and thrive in subsequent literary periods.

In the realm of Ancient Greek satire, Semonides' "Types of Women" takes center stage as a noteworthy example of the intertwining between the grotesque and comedic elements. This satirical poem, attributed to Semonides of Amorgos (7th-6th Century BC), offers a vivid and often comically exaggerated depiction of various female archetypes, exploring the nuances of womanhood through a lens of humor and satire. Written in the form of a diatribe against women, the poem classifies women into different categories, each characterized by specific traits and behaviors. Semonides' verses use a mix of exaggeration, absurdity, and witty wordplay to highlight the foibles of these imagined women (Lefkowitz, 1977).

The poem, composed of 118 verses, describes the ten different types of women who exist and is one of the most important examples of misogyny in Ancient Greece. Women are portrayed as animals, elements and the final is a bee. Only the last one is considered to be “a good wife”. Semonides compares women to donkeys, foxes, and apes (Guidorizzi, 2002).

The grotesque is subtly woven into the fabric of "Types of Women," as Semonides employs vivid and exaggerated imagery to portray the various female archetypes. Through his descriptions, he evokes both amusement and discomfort, presenting a satirical mirror to societal norms and expectations. The poem's depictions often exaggerate physical traits, behaviors, and personality traits, creating a sense of distortion and caricature that aligns with the grotesque tradition. This deliberate distortion serves to magnify the perceived flaws and peculiarities of each woman type, exposing the absurdities of their behavior and the inherent contradictions within societal expectations.

Semonides' use of the grotesque also serves as a tool for social commentary. By employing humor and exaggeration, he directs his audience's attention to prevailing gender roles, exposing how societal norms shape and limit women's identities (Taplin, 1993). The poem challenges conventional notions of femininity, revealing the societal pressures and expectations that women navigate. Through the grotesque lens, Semonides encourages his audience to question and reflect upon the constructed nature of these roles, which he supports, inviting them to consider the broader implications of societal categorization and judgment.

Figure 6: Detail from a Terracotta lekythos, showing two women spinning wool into yarn and two women working at an upright loom (550–530 BC).

In his poem, the grotesque serves as a transformative vehicle, inviting laughter and introspection in equal measure. Semonides' satirical exploration of the complexities of womanhood underscores the power of the grotesque to provoke thought, disrupt norms, and illuminate societal contradictions. As with other forms of Ancient Greek comedy, the role of satire in challenging and reshaping cultural perceptions is evident. It offers a testament to the enduring capacity of the grotesque to navigate the intersection between the human and the societal, the familiar and the unsettling. In the tapestry of Ancient Greek literature and theatre, "Types of Women" stands as a testament to the profound and intricate interplay between satire and the grotesque, shaping not only comedic traditions but also providing insights into the multifaceted nature of human existence (Lefkowitz, 1977).

The intertwining of the grotesque and the comedic in Ancient Greek culture serves as a fascinating lens through which the complexities of human nature, societal norms, and the transformative power of art can be explored. As a distinctly human phenomenon, laughter has deep historical and social roots that stretch back to the ancient world. While modern perceptions of comedy may portray it as a refined and civilizing force, the comedic tradition of Ancient Greece reveals a more primal and multifaceted aspect of humor.

The festivals and celebrations dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and theatre, provided a fertile ground for the emergence of Greek comedy. Often laced with satire and exaggeration, these performances were not just sources of entertainment but served as communal rituals that fostered unity and offered catharsis to the audience. Through cathartic laughter, the Greeks engaged with the absurd, the subversive, and the grotesque, allowing them to confront and release suppressed emotions and tensions in a controlled and transformative manner (Seaford, 2006).

In essence, the marriage of the grotesque and the comedic in Ancient Greek culture reveals the inherent duality of human experience. Through laughter, exaggeration, and subversion, the Greeks navigated the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, the human and the animalistic, the familiar and the unsettling. In doing so, they crafted a legacy that continues to resonate, reminding us that humor, satire, and the grotesque remain powerful tools for understanding and engaging with the complexities of our world, both then and now.

Bibliographical References

Aristofane, (2008). Gli Arcanesi - Le Nuvole - Le Vespe - Gli Uccelli. Garzanti.

Bravi, L. (2002). A margine di un recente studio sulla commedia antica. Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica, 72(3), 135–138.

Guidorizzi, G. (2002). Letteratura greca. Da Omero al secolo VI d.C.. Mondadori Università.

Halliwell, S. (2008). Greek Laughter, A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity. Cambridge.

Lefkowitz, M. R. (1977). [Review of Females of the Species: Semonides on Women, by H. Lloyd-Jones]. Signs, 2(3), 690–692.

Miceli, S. (2000). Il demiurgo trasgressivo. Sellerio editore.

Nisetich, F. J. (1989). Greek Comedy and the Discourse of Genres. Cambridge University Press.

Rocconi, E. (2007). Il canto delle rane in Aristofane, “Rane” 209-267. Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica, 85(1), 137–142.

Seaford, R. (2006). Dionysos. Routledge.

Shea, L. (2010). The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Taplin, O. (1993). Comic Angels And Other Approaches to Greek Drama Through Vase-paintings. Clarendon Press

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Alessandra Cipolloni

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