What is Burlesque Literature?

An Overview with Examples

Burlesque Literature
Alexander Pope derivative work/Wikimedia Commons

Burlesque literature is a form of satire. It is often and perhaps best described as “an incongruous imitation.”  The purpose of burlesque literature is to imitate the manner or the subject matter of a “serious” literary genre, author, or work through a comic inversion.  Imitations of manner might include the form or the style, whereas imitation of matter is meant to satirize the subject being explored in a particular work or genre.

 

Elements of Burlesque

While a burlesque piece may aim to poke fun at a particular work, genre, or subject, it is most often the case that burlesque will be a satire of all of these elements. What is important to consider about this mode of literature is that the point of the burlesque is to create an incongruity, a ridiculous disparity, between the manner of the work and the matter of it.

While “travesty,” “parody,” and “burlesque” are terms that are often used interchangeably, it is perhaps better to consider travesty and parody as types of burlesque, with burlesque being the generic term for the larger mode. That being said, it is also important to note that a burlesque piece may employ a number of techniques which fall into the larger category; it is not necessarily the case that all burlesque literature will share all of the same features.

High And Low Burlesque

There are two primary types of burlesque, the “High Burlesque” and the “Low Burlesque.”  Within each of these types, there are further divisions.

These sub-divisions are based on whether the burlesque satirizes a genre or literary type, or, instead, a specific work or author. Let’s take a closer look at these types.

High Burlesque occurs when the form and style of the piece are dignified and “high,” or “serious” while the subject matter is trivial or “low.”  The types of high burlesque include the “mock epic” or “mock-heroic” poem, as well as the parody.

A mock epic is itself a type of parody.  It imitates the generally complicated and elaborate form of the epic poem, and it also imitates that genre’s rather formalized style. In so doing, however, it applies this “high” form and style to rather ordinary or insignificant topics. A significant example of a mock epic is Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714), which is elegant and elaborate in style, but which, on its surface, has only a lady’s curl as its subject.

A parody, similarly, will imitate one or many of a variety of characteristics of a piece of high, or serious, literature.  It might mock the style of a certain author or the features of an entire literary genre. Its focus might also be an individual work.  The point is to employ those same features and characteristics, at a high or serious level, and exaggerate it while simultaneously employing a low, comic, or otherwise inappropriate subject. Parody has been the most popular form of burlesque since the early 1800s.  Some of the best examples include Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) and A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (1990).  Parody predates these, however, appearing in such works as Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding, and “The Splendid Shilling” (1705) by John Phillips.

Low Burlesque occurs when the style and manner of a work are low or undignified but, in contrast, the subject matter is distinguished or high in status. The types of low burlesque include the Travesty and the Hudibrastic poem.

A travesty will mock a “lofty” or serious work by treating the high subject in a grotesque and undignified manner and (or) style.  One classic example of a modern travesty is the film Young Frankenstein, which mocks  Mary Shelley’s original novel, (1818).

The Hudibrastic poem is so-named for Samuel Butler’s Hubidras (1663).  Butler turns the chivalric romance on its head, inverting the dignified style of that genre in order to present a hero whose travels were mundane and often humiliating. The Hudibrastic poem might also employ colloquialisms and other examples low style, such as the doggerel verse, in place of traditionally high style elements.

The Lampoon

In addition to High and Low Burlesque, which include parody and travesty, another example of the burlesque is the lampoon.  Some short, satirical works are considered lampoons, but one might also find the lampoon as a passage or insert into a longer work.  Its goal is to make ridiculous, often via caricature, a particular person, usually by describing the nature and appearance of the individual in an absurd way.

Other Notable Burlesque Works

  • The Comedies of Aristophanes
  • "Tale of Sir Thopas" (1387) by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Morgante (1483) by Luigi Pulci
  • The Virgile Travesty (1648-53) by Paul Scarron
  • The Rehearsal (1671) by George Villier
  • Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay
  • Chrononhotonthologos (1734) by Henry Carey