Renaissance literary theorists, highly influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics, consistently propounded a utilitarian aim for comedy, a genre that could instruct readers and spectators as it also pleased them. According to Aristotle, comedy featured ‘a representation of people who are rather inferior’ but not so bad as to be irredeemable: its misguided denizens merely suffer ‘a sort of error and ugliness that is not painful and destructive’.1 Clearly, if more serious error were involved, we would be in the tragic realm, where real pain and destruction abound. Instead, in comedy, laughter is allowed to prevail, but, the commentators agreed, laughter provoked neither for its own sake nor for the abject satisfactions that come with reflexively mocking the vicious. As Philip Sidney maintained, such ‘scornful’ laughter should be considered ancillary to ‘that delightful teaching which is the end of poesy’.2 In order for it to achieve such didactic ends, comedy – so went the theory – needed to attain a certain level of verisimilitude, both in action and character. Concerning the latter, comic characters should not represent historical figures, but should be entirely fictional creations, the type, furthermore, ‘whose actions are quite unknown and never transmitted to posterity or history by oral tradition’.3 This was considered a matter of decorum: for a comedy to be credible, its dramatic events had to be drawn from common life, that is, from the business of ordinary people, not the exalted affairs of kings and generals. Thus, the sheer repetition of age-old comic conventions, via their familiarity, contributed to this sense of the verisimilar, an argument made by the sixteenth-century Italian theorist Alessandro Piccolomini, who remarked that authors had been creating recognisable fictional worlds by resorting over and over to ‘the avarice of old men, the tricks
1 Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Richard Janko, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch (ed.) (New York: Norton, 2001), p. 94.