The Poorly Timed Punchline
The Epic genre is associated with grand heroic stories that define their ages, filled with didactic lessons and large scale battle scenes. Yet, what often gets swept under the carpet is the abundance and importance of comedy in these Epics, particularly Vergil’s Aeneid. A less obvious feature than the heroic battles, or visits to the underworld, but by no means less important, it plays a crucial role in maintaining the engagement of the audience for the duration of the narrative. The resourceful use of humour can help the understanding of the serious matters at hand, or simply to laugh at human failings. However, this does not mean that the Aeneid is a comic piece of literature, in fact the opposite is true and this has repercussions on the style of Comedy Vergil utilises.
Comedy generally occurs after or during a section which is tragic or sombre, and is often short and subtle so as to not disturb the overall flow of the narrative. Perhaps the most uniquely accessible to both the modern and the ancient reader would be Vergil’s use of Schadenfraude in Book 5, as well as the incongruous characterisation of Charon the ferryman in Book 6. These are merely two examples but two of the funniest and most accessible to those that both have a good knowledge or no knowledge of classical culture.
Book 5 follows the tragedy of the death of Dido at the end of Book 4 and therefore, was always going to be lighter in tone, to allow the audience not to be too overwhelmed and have some respite from the tragic events. The somewhat farcical comedy is a direct opposition to the tragedy of the previous book, this creates a somewhat cathartic experience for the audience as they are purged of their depression from book 4 through the farce of Book 5. One occasion being where Gyas, during the boat race, throws his helmsman Menoetes into the sea, and Vergil explains ‘The Trojans had laughed as he fell and as he swam and they laughed as he spewed up waves of salt water from his stomach’. Therefore, if we treat the Trojans watching as a reflection of Vergil’s Roman audience, we can assume that the Romans found just as much entertainment from Schadenfraude as we do in the modern day, as it is a feeling that both the ancients and modern readers can associate with very easily, laughing at the misfortune of others. This style of comedy becomes a theme throughout Book 5 and the rest of the Aeneid, as it is an easy form of comedy to understand and it can easily punctuate the narrative without detracting from the plot.
Charon is one of the most fascinating characters in the Aeneid, in my opinion, as the first impression we get of him counter acts preconceived ideas about him as a hard and scary god from the underworld. The Sibyl in this encounter is an excellent foil to Charon as her confidence in the Underworld perfectly mirrors the distress of Charon in a place where he should have control, and obviously does not. Vergil interestingly depicts him as a bumbling old man scared of a living woman and a man as they approach his boat, commanding them to ‘speak from where they stand, take not another step’. This fear, coming from a character who is traditionally the subject of fear, not the object, is incongruous as it goes against all traditional characterisations in previous epic poems, which makes the comedy patently obvious for the audience. Therefore, as the Roman audience were so well versed in the Epic tradition, they would have immediately noticed this difference, and would have appreciated the incongruity of this characterisation, Lloyd even states that Charon’s characterisation is a ‘masterpiece’. This doesn’t mean the modern reader can’t appreciate the image of a god in the underworld being scared of two people doing nothing more than walking towards him, because it is not a contextual image as modern audiences are familiar with occasions where preconceived perceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a clear point that the images created by Vergil show the similarities between the comedy of the everyday Romans and everyday modern people, making the comedic interval in Book 6 accessible to both the romans and modern audiences.
Hopefully, one would see from reading this that there is a specific purpose to Vergil’s use of humour and that it is surprisingly still very accessible 2,000 years later. This brief insight was meant to whet the appetite of those well initiated into the verses of Vergil, or those with a mild interest in Classical Literature, to explore themes and features lying beneath the surface and not so easily seen, and to find more ways he seeks to surprise his audience and maintain their intrigue in his storyline. There are many more examples of comedy used to great effect in the Aeneid, where Vergil uses Schadenfreude and incongruity to create the relief or catharsis from the intense narrative and self-reflection encouraged by Vergil. I would hope that this shows that there is a place for comedy in all genres of entertainment no matter the message behind it, as this poem which seeks to morally educate, has brief scenes of humour throughout which do not take away from the overall message just maintain the audience’s interest for the duration of the poem. Which, at the end of the day is all a poet wants for people to experience and enjoy their works.
Vergil, Aeneid, Trans: D.West, (London, Penguin:1990)
Lloyd.R.B, (1977), Humour in the ‘Aeneid’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 72, No. 3, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3296901
Wilner.O.L, (1942), Humour in Vergil’s Aeneid, The Classical Weekly, Vol. 36, No.8, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4341588