The alazon plays the role of an imposter, someone who has an inflated sense of worth and is often boastful to an extreme degree. The alazon is often divided into two categories, the senex iratus, also known as at the angry father, and the miles gloriosus, or the braggart soldier. The latter is commonly used in literature to this day. They brag openly about their deeds, usually exaggerating for effect.
Definition of Alazon
Alazon is a term used to describe one of several stock characters in Greek theatre. They are common within Greek plays as well as in later creations by authors like William Shakespeare. The alazon is arrogant, braggadocios, self-confident, and without the ability to recognize any of those failings in his personality. The character is usually contrasted with the eiron. The latter is known for tricking the alazon by giving them what they want or telling them what they want to hear.
This character, exemplified through Il Capitano in Commedia dell’arte, The Captain, whose title likely doesn’t belong to him, was unsympathetic and annoying. He bragged about his military experiences and pretended to have accomplished more than he did. The word alazon comes from the Ancient Greek meaning “boaster.”
Examples of Alazons
Ancient Pistol by William Shakespeare
Ancient Pistol is one of the best comedic characters in Shakespeare’s plays. He appeared in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V and Henry IV, Part II. He’s described by Falstaff as his “ancient,” or his ensign, and first appears in the Boar’s Head Tavern uninvited. He’s pursued by police in this same play because he assaulted a man who died. He’s also punished along with Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, Part II.
In Henry V, the character returns. He marries Mistress Quickly despite being involved, probably, with someone else. He loses someone he loves, is beaten by Fluellen, and determines to desert and return to England. Here is a quote from Henry V. He’s speaking to the king:
The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold,
A lad of life, an imp of fame;
Of parents good, of fist most valiant.
I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heart-string
I love the lovely bully. What is thy name?
Throughout both plays, he engages in bombastic and over-the-top speeches. He is often, without realizing, the butt of jokes.
Captain Parolles in “All’s Well that Ends Well” by William Shakespeare
Captain Parolles is a deceitful character who brags about his triumphs in war but actually turns out to be a coward. This is one of the most central features of characters known as alazons. He’s abandoned by Bertram in this play, the only person who was willing to trust him. This was despite the fact that other characters had encouraged Bertram not to trust him to begin with.
He falls from whatever remaining good reputation he has by the end of the play and is forced to beg for help. This gets at the heart of his true nature. He’s nothing but talk, and as soon as he encounters a difficult situation, his “bravery” abandons him. Here is a quote from All’s Well that Ends Well:
Use a more spacious ceremony to the
noble lords; you have restrained yourself within the
list of too cold an adieu: be more expressive to
them: for they wear themselves in the cap of the
time, there do muster true gait, eat, speak, and
move under the influence of the most received star;
and though the devil lead the measure, such are to
be followed: after them, and take a more dilated farewell.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Sir Tophas from “Endymion” by John Lyly
Published in 1588, this Elizabethan comedy features another good example of an alazon. This time in the form of Sir Tophas. He’s a knight who is described as pompous and willing to over-exaggerate his exploits. The knight is used as comic relief in the play. In one particularly humorous moment in Act III, Tophas declares his love for Dipsas, a hideous sorcerous. Here is a quote from that part of the play. Tophas is responding to Epiton, who asks him if he’s in love with Dipsas:
No, but love hath, as it were, milked my thoughts and drained from my heart the very substance of my accustomed courage. It worketh in my head like new wine, so as I must hoop my sconce with iron lest my head break, and so I bewray my brains; but I pray thee, first discover me in all parts, that I may be like a lover, and then will I sigh and die. Take my gun, and give me a gown.
Here, readers can get a glimpse of Tophas’ style of speech and how comedic his conversations can be.
Baron Munchausen from Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia by Rudolf Erich Raspe
The character of Baron Munchausen is based on a real-life person who fought for the Russian Empire. He became a celebrity after the Russo-Turkish War. The stories about his character inspired Rudolf Erich Raspe to adapt the man into a literary character. His exploits in the book are fictional. They feature his outrageous achievements and travels, much of which is clearly an exaggeration. Here is a quote from the book:
Some travellers are apt to advance more than is perhaps strictly true; if any of the company entertain a doubt of my veracity, I shall only say to such, I pity their want of faith, and must request they will take leave before I begin the second part of my adventures, which are as strictly founded in fact as those I have already related.
From the reader’s perspective, his stories are comedic and absurd, but for Munchausen, he addresses the topics seriously. Raspe published the book anonymously, and he never admitted to being the author. Today, scholars believe that was likely due to his fear of a libel lawsuit from the real Munchausen
Why Do Writers Use Alazons?
Alazons are usually used as a type of comic relief. These characters are clearly outrageous and admit to absurd deeds the reader, and the other characters, aren’t meant to take as fact. Depending on the character, they may be more or less likable. Someone like Falstaff is incredibly likable, while Pistol may be less so.
An alazon is foolish, boastful, and cowardly even though they brag about their courage. These characters are used as comic reliefs and usually take the form of soldiers. They can overstate their military accomplishments and the travel they’ve engaged in.
Some of the stock characters in Greek comedies are the eiron, bolomochos, agroikos, and alazon. The latter is described above. The first, eiron, is a character who knows they are inferior and embraces it, unlike the alazon. The bolomochos is a buffoon, someone who enjoys a good time. The agroikos is centered in reality and is the opposite of the bolomochos.
The eiron is one of the Greek stock characters. They are the opposite of the alazon, sometimes tricking the latter and showing them to be the fool they truly are.
Shakespeare’s plays often feature characters that meet the characteristics of an alazon. The uses them as comic reliefs in more serious moments and as a way to pass judgment on a particular kind of person who feels a need to talk about everything they’ve done.
One might say: “The alazon in this story is particularly funny.” Or, “Did you hear what he said? He’s like a modern-day alazon.”
Related Literary Terms
- Academic Drama: a theatrical movement that was popular during the Renaissance, in the 16th-century. It was performed in universities.
- Act: a primary division of a dramatic work, like a play, film, opera, or other performance. The act is made up of shorter scenes.
- Aside: a dramatic device that is used within plays to help characters express their inner thoughts.
- Dramatic Monologue: a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond.
- Tragedy: refers to a type of drama that explores serious, sometimes dark, and depressing subject matter.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Watch: Greek Comedy Crash Course
- Listen: A Introduction to Greek Comedy
- Watch: Plays of the Ancient Greeks – Tragedies and Comedies