Comedy like tragedy also began at the festival of Dionysus. The worship of Dionysus, once extremely popular in both cities and villages, survived only in villages. The original Greek word for village is Komai. A band of revelers in villages gave birth to comedy. The word may mean revel or village songs. Aristotle depicts comedy as phallic songs. Phallus is the human organ that sows seeds in a woman. It is therefore a fertility rite. For Dionysus is as much a god of drama as of the fertility of the soil. The Athenians as well as the Megarians claim to have invented comedy. Several writers have their own views over the invention of this comedy. It is paradoxical that at a subsequent stage it was Athens that created the greatest comedies in ancient Greece. There are so many comic playwrights who preceded Aristophanes and whose works are amiable too. Dinolonus, Phormus, and Epicharmus these are the names of such great personals who took active part in making comedy successful. It is now admitted on all hands that Epicharmus was the greatest playwright of old comedies. His comedies include The Cyclops, Busiris, Prometheus, The Odyssis, The Chirones, The Sight-seeds and The Rustic.
Greek comedies can be divided into three divisions namely the old, the middle, and the new. Old comedy ridicules every institution, mirth and laughter was its only concern. The old comedy swings between 460-390 B.C, whereas the middle comedy lies on the base of social philosophy. Middle comedy writers raised comedy to a high level. The middle comedy lies between 390 and 320 B.C. the real fragrance of character and manners was the outcome of the new comedy which existed between 320 and 250 B.C.During the middle of the 5th century B.C the greatest comedians were Cratinus and Crates. We will not be wrong saying them as the creators of the Old comedies. They had their originality but they also took inspiration from their predecessors. Cratinus was influenced by Archilochus, Semonides and Hipponax, while crates turned to Epicharmus, Aristophanes was indebted to all these writers at one stage or the other. Aristophanes is the greatest comic playwright of the 5thcentury. He has left eleven complete plays and parts of a twelfth. By making his audience laugh, he hoped to teach them a lesson. He opposed the Peloponnesian war, not because he was a pacific, because he thought it unnecessary. In Lysistrata the women sexually denied themselves to their husbands until the men made peace. Through this comic play we can see the structure of the Greek comedy. A situation like war which is very serious has been portrayed and even the solution by means of sex strike is really very remarkable.
Drama was of course only one form the Greek poetic genius took. From the earliest days the Greek were also the masters of lyric poetry. Among the most celebrated are poems of love by the poetess Sappho, of war by Spartan poets in the very early days, and of triumph in the Olympic Games by Pindar. The death of Aristophanes marks the end of old comedy. Another form of comedy took birth, popularly known as middle comedy. With the changing phase of time society was also changing. People were turning their back on different segments of life. The middle comedy was the comedy of love. Old comedy was conspicuous by the total elimination of love. Man cannot live by bread alone. He had the natural urge for love. In the middle comedy love is there, but the Romantic element is not so well pronounced. From the artistic point of view middle comedy marks an advance upon old comedy. The link between different scenes in old comedy was loose whereas in middle comedy it is nicely connected. The most remarkable writers of the middle comedy are Menander, Antiphanes and Alexis. Pointing out the basic difference between old comedy and the middle comedy Katherine Lever observes:-
“in the old comedy the chorus was the distinctive element which gave form and tone to the whole. Dressed in the fanciful costumes of wasps, birds, clouds and so forth, it participates actively in the dramatic conflicts in the interludes of action, songs, and lyrics of natural beauty or of obscure as satiric jesting, spoke in the parabasics directly to the audience for the poet, giving the audience advice about the management of the city and defending life and art. It was a satiric, political, literary, fantastic, allegorical, witty, farcical, ribald and operatic comedy…”
One thing which was very important about the middle comedy was the fact that the middle comedy never aspired to bring about social and political reforms, the avowed objectives of Aristophanes. Wealth race were more admired in the middle comedy. Thus we can say that the middle comedy is the comedy of consumerism. Meritocracy, aristocracy and democracy had gone with the wind. Plutocracy , avarice and insatiable lust for wealth became the motto of the age. Middle comedy is the drama of degeneration. The lofty ideals of Aristophanes were totally obliterated.
The Beginning of Regular Comedy
These early experiments in play-writing are of great importance historically because they provided a kind of ‘Dame School’ for English dramatic genius, and did much to prepare the way for the regular drama. It was, however, under the direct influence of the revival of learning that English comedy and tragedy alike passed out of these preliminary phases of their development into the forms of art filled with enthusiasm for everything belonging to pagan antiquity, men now went back to the classics for inspiration and example in the drama as in all other fields of literary enterprise, though it was the work of the Latin, not of the Greek playwrights, that they took as their models. At first the comedies of Plautus and Terence were acted at the Universities, and on special occasions elsewhere, before audiences or scholars. Then came Latin imitations, and in due course these were followed by attempts to fashion English plays more or less precisely upon the patterns of the original. In such attempts English writers learned many valuable lessons in the principles of dramatic construction and technique. Our first real comedy “Roister-Doister”, was written about 1550 by Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Eton, for performance by his schoolboys in place of the regular Latin play. It is composed in rhyming couplets, divided into acts and scenes in the Latin style, and deals in an entertaining way with the wooing of Dame Custance by the Vainglorious hero, his various misadventures, and the pranks of Matthew Merrygreek the jester. Though greatly indebted to Plautus and Terence, it is everywhere reminiscent of the older humors of the miracle plays and the moralities.
The New Comedy
The new comedy is a significant departure from the old comedy as well as the middle. The new comedy of ancient Greece and the last plays of Shakespeare, popularly known as Dramatic Romances, have a striking resemblance. The new comedy appeared as something strikingly new. The characters were drawn from the Athenian aristocracy. They lived in posh environments. Thinking and speaking about Romantic love; they had no worldly worries, which haunt the characters of Arthur Miller. Aristotle has also drawn a distinction between comedy and satires. The function of comedy is to expose human follies and provoke laughter, while the function of satire is to break out into personalities. Comedy is more universal than satire. The poet constructs the plots on the lines of probability, and then gives characteristic names. The writers of the new comedy looked upon Euripides as their chief modal. It is, however not the Euripides of Medea, but the Euripides of Ion, for Medea is a tragic play.
The structure of Elizabethan comedy was also built on the basis to extract the hidden facts from the society. In this period Romanticism was also circulated widely in culture. William Shakespeare marks this period like a twinkling star showing way to his followers. Shakespeare’s As You Like It falls in the period known as that of his ‘mature comedies’. It was probably written around 1599 which was the period of political and literary unrest. On the Literary front, an order passed on June 1st, 1599 suppressed the formal satires of a number of authors. These authors were named and they were prohibited from printing any further epigrams or satires. However led by Ben Johnson, dramatists created a form of comedy which allowed them to circumvent this order so that the satiric spirit could not be fully suppressed. Shakespeare saw upheavals in his professional life as well. Will Kemp, for whom Shakespeare had created several comic roles including that of Dogberry, left the lord Chamberlain’s men. Robert Armin, whose style of comedy was very different from Kemp’s succeeded him. Armin was a more melancholic character and critics feel that the role of Jacques in As You Like It was written for him. As You Like It falls in the literary tradition of the pastoral, which was very popular at that time. Thomas Mcfarland writes for Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy-
“Shakespeare’s involvement with pastoral, as a historical phenomenon, reflects a pervasive Elizabethan pre-occupation with shepherds and shepherdesses, and with a highly benign and highly artificial environment in which such characters might move. Accordingly, on one level at least, he doubtless employed pastoral simply to exploit a taste that was current in his day. In doing so, however, he came upon a device that gave to comedy a profoundly meaningful symbolic extension.”
These lines clearly reveal the objective of the Elizabethan comedy. Although there was certain political unrest but still that was depicted through device like comedy. Serious problems were shown with a very vivid solution through this device of comedy. The character like ‘Touchstone’ brings about the consequences of a true society based on the social politics. He emphasizes the importance of a licensed fool, is to critic on the society. He seems much motivated by the melancholic character Jacques. Licensed fool here means that he has the right to critic over anyone present in the society in a very comic way such that nobody could feel the hurt, but can be cured in a comic way. And this was the instinct of comedy in the Elizabethan period. Apart from this of course there was the flow of Romanticism.
In modern comedy also, the perspective of comedy was same that is to bring about the truth and extract the hidden ideology of the society in a comic way. Among the modern comic plays Fiddler on the Roof focuses about the problem of a father willing to find suitable bachelors for his daughters. Father of the five daughters comes across several phases only to see his daughters to be married anyhow. On the other hand daughters were willing to marry according to their own choices. There are so many ups and downs in the story but ultimately daughters are depicted as married, but with their own choices. Readers can find this play very interesting as it brings forward some serious issues which we can confront in our real life. Thus there is a sense of realism in modern comedy. There are hardly any tragic scenes in the comedy but we can find scenes from the agrarian society which is more close to nature. This play was first enacted in 1894. Modern comedy was started from eighteenth century. In some other comedies of modern era we can find serious political issues debated in a comic style. Thus after all we come to a conclusion that from old comedy to Greeks to the modern comedy the elements of comedy passed from several phases, but up to the whole we find a similar ideology that is to represent a society in a more real way.