Definition of Parody
A parody is an imitation of a writer, artist, subject, or genre in such a way as to make fun of or comment on the original work. Parodies are often exaggerated in the way they imitate the original in order to produce a humorous effect. While parodies are generally intended to amuse, they are not always comedic in nature and sometimes take on fairly serious subject matters. Parody, whether in literature, art, music, or other forms, find something to ridicule within the original, whether lightly or harshly.
Aristotle identified the ancient Greek writer Hegemon of Thasos, who lived around 400 BC, as the father of parody. Hegemon was the first to take well-known poems of his day and alter the wordings slightly so that the sublime became ridiculous. Indeed, the word and definition of parody come from the Greek word parodia, which was a narrative poem that imitated the style of the ancient Greek epic poems, but dealt with mock-heroic or light subjects.
Difference Between Parody and Satire
There is a great deal in common with parody and satire, as they are both used to comment on and/or ridicule something in a culture that already exists. Satire, however, is broader in that in can deal with a wider range of problems in society and has at its disposal many different literary devices with which to ridicule those problems, such as double entendre and sarcasm. Parody treats with one author, style, or genre in which it subtly uses and then distorts or subverts the conventions of the original. An audience must understand the original off which a parody is written to fully “get the joke.” Still, many satires make use of parody to produce their witty or biting effect.
The famous novelist Vladimir Nabokov described the difference between the two concepts thus, “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”
Common Examples of Parody
There are many examples of parody in music, movies, television, and video games. Here are some famous examples:
- Charlie Chaplin impersonated Hitler in the film The Great Dictator.
- The British group Monty Python parodied the tradition of King Arthur stories in their movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
- “Weird Al” Yankovic is a musician who has made a career creating parodies of popular songs by changing the lyrics to humorous ones. Here is an example of original lyrics by Coolio for his song “Gangsta’s Paradise,” followed by the parody lyrics by Weird Al in his song “Amish Paradise”:
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there’s none left
‘Cause I’ve been brassing and laughing so long that
Even my mamma thinks that my mind is gone
As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain
I take a look at my wife and realize she’s very plain
But that’s just perfect for an Amish like me
You know, I shun fancy things like electricity
Significance of Parody in Literature
Parody has been popular in literature for thousands of years. Authors use parody for many reasons, including to comment on styles they find ridiculous or overly stale. At times, however, parody is in fact a form of homage to a greater writer. Some obscure or beginning writers may try to take on the style of a famous author both to get a little more attention or even practice in the art of writing. Thus, they may use the conventions of a famous writer not in order to criticize or mock, but simply in recognition that these conventions exist. Some authors also use parody just to make their readers laugh.
Examples of Parody in Literature
FOOL: Why? For taking one’s part that’s out of favour. Nay, an thou
canst not smile as the wind sits, thou’lt catch cold shortly.
There, take my coxcomb! Why, this fellow hath banish’d two on’s
daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will. If
thou follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb.- How now,
nuncle? Would I had two coxcombs and two daughters!
(King Lear by William Shakespeare)
It has been noted by some scholars that the character of the Fool in William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is, in fact, a parody of the king himself. We see this is the way the Fool is introduced. In this introduction the Fool presents his coxcomb, an imitation of King Lear’s crown. His role in the play is to combat the conventions of the day with truth, though in a way that he can be laughed at instead of seeming threatening. The Fool is important to King Lear in that he is endlessly faithful, and is also the only one can tell the king the truth, via parody.
Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.
(Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes)
Cervantes’s famous Don Quixote is an interesting example of parody because the entire epic work is based off of the tradition of the knight-errant. This was a popular tradition in Cervantes’s day, and in the opening to Don Quixote we can see the beginnings of this parody. A man originally known as Alonso Quixano, takes on a new identity—that of “Don Quixote”—and sets out on a quest with his lance, ancient shield, skinny nag, and his friend Sancho Panza. His quests are mostly ridiculous, such as the famous scene in which he fights windmills. Cervantes used this parody to help usher in a new era of literature and rebrand these old chivalric tales as out-of-date.
He did not want to compose another Quixote —which is easy— but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
(“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges)
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges created the concept of a parody in his short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” In the story, Borges imagines a writer who reconstructs Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote word for word. Yet, due to the author’s differing life experiences and era in which he’s writing, the new Quixote is not a mere copy, but a far richer parody, full of meaning due to the time which has passed since the original Quixote was published. Borges’s story is interesting in the way he examines what is truly “original,” what is an imitation, and how parody can take on far more shades of meaning in the way that it comments on the original.
It is to be observed, that these ambassadors spoke to me, by an interpreter, the languages of both empires differing as much from each other as any two in Europe, and each nation priding itself upon the antiquity, beauty, and energy of their own tongue, with an avowed contempt for that of their neighbour; yet our emperor, standing upon the advantage he had got by the seizure of their fleet, obliged them to deliver their credentials, and make their speech, in the Lilliputian tongue. And it must be confessed, that from the great intercourse of trade and commerce between both realms […] there are few persons of distinction, or merchants, or seamen, who dwell in the maritime parts, but what can hold conversation in both tongues.
(Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift)
Jonathan Swift was famous for his satires and parodies. In this excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver comes upon a group of warring neighbors, the Lilliputians and the people of Blefuscu. These two groups stand in for England and France, and thus are a parody of the endless rivalries between those two countries. In a broader way, however, the entire novel is an excellent parody example, as it uses the conventions of travel narratives common in Swift’s day.
Test Your Knowledge of Parody
1. Choose the correct parody definition from the following statements:
A. A harsh, biting attack on a more famous author.
B. A work that imitates the style of another work or author, often for comedic effect.
C. A critique of government officials or current events in a piece of literature.
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2. Which of the following statements is not a reason an author might choose to use parody?
A. To mock or ridicule another author’s style.
B. To pay homage to a more famous author by imitating his or her style.
C. To change an original work so entirely that it’s no longer a clear influence on the parody.
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3. How is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes an example of parody?
A. Cervantes was using and subverting the popular conventions of the knight-errant tales to create a humorous work of his own.
B. Cervantes wrote two volumes, the second of which was published a decade after the first.
C. Don Quixote is often called one of the first novels ever written, and a founding work of modern literature.
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