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Burlesque is a style of literature that mocks its subject. Burlesque writers represent their subjects using irony and obviously outrageous imagery. 

These examples of short stories, novels, and plays are meant to be funny. Comedy is at the heart of a writer’s depiction of their subject. It’s common to find examples of burlesque literature that include mocking language. This may manifest itself as mimicry of subjects, genres, specific authors or stories, and more. 

The word “burlesque” comes from the Italian “burlesco,” meaning to joke or ridicule. 

Burlesque pronunciation: buhr-lehsk

Burlesque definition and examples

Burlesque Definition

Burlesque literature represents its subject in a way that makes it humorous. It is used to mock or mimic a subject, such as a social problem, a specific person, another literary work, or author, through ridicule and outrageous imagery.

Comedic depictions of the subject are crucial for burlesque writers. Sometimes, the word “parody” is used instead of “burlesque.” But, the former is actually an example of the latter. There are several different types of burlesque. They can be explored below. 


Types of Burlesque 

High Burlesque 

This genre of burlesque consists of parody and mock-heroics. The latter mimics the form of an epic poem. These are long poems that present insignificant subjects, like an argument between a husband and a wife, in a dramatic, sophisticated style

Parody is created based on an already existing work in order to make fun of it. A writer might parody a popular play or novel by changing important details to change the meaning. 

Low Burlesque 

A travesty is the main form of low burlesque. It is a lewd or sexual suggestive imitation of a work of the subject. It ignores the importance of the subject or literary work and mocks it in a demeaning way.

Examples of Burlesque Literature 

“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift 

In Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” the writer uses sarcasmsatire, and wit to create a memorable plan to improve the famine in Ireland. He suggests that the poorest families sell their children as a source of food for the wealthy English. Throughout, he uses his wit to mock and parody the English who pretend to care about the crisis but never do anything about it. Consider this quote from the literary work:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

Swift is not seriously proposing that people eat children. But, by creating such a shocking work of literature, he’s able to draw attention to the issue of poverty and famine in Ireland, as well as to those who have the ability to do something about it but refuse to. 

Read Jonathan Swift’s poetry.

Tale of Sir Thopas by Geoffrey Chaucer

The “Tale of Sir Thomas” is one of the stories published within The Canterbury Tales in 1387. It is a famed example of parody. The story follows the adventures of Sir Thopas as he attempts to win the affections of the elf-queen. 

This story is told by Chaucer himself, within the context of the broader Canterbury Tales. The story is long, slow, and uses an obvious rhyme. The story is interrupted before he concludes because the host dislikes it so much. Within the story, Chaucer appears to be mocking his own literary style, a clever example of metafiction in the 14th century. 

Explore Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry

Virgile Travesti by Paul Scarron 

This interesting piece of literature is a parody of Aeneid by Virgil. The former was written in 1648 and is a prime example of French burlesque literature. The author mocks the divine providence of the heroes and their exaggerated speech. Scarron places these famous men and women in very different situations than those they found themselves in Aeneid. 

Why is Burlesque Important? 

Burlesque is important because it is an extension of comedy that focuses on creating commentary. It’s existed for years as a way of passing judgment on people, social issues, and literature. Burlesque often uses humor to attract the audience’s attention to a problem. For example, creating a parody of a politician’s speech in order to show listeners how untruthful and absurd it is. 


Why do authors create burlesque?

Authors create this genre of literature when they want to make fun of, mock, or draw attention to a subject, literary work, or person. These examples of literature use humor to attract the reader to a problem the author sees with their subject

What is the difference between parody and burlesque?

Parody is a type of burlesque. It is concerned with mocking a subject through mimicry, while burlesque is a broader genre that considers its subjects in different ways.

What is a farce

Farce is a genre of comedic literature. It uses exaggerated and outrageous situations to create humor and make the audience laugh.

What is a burlesque performer?

A burlesque performer is a stage performer who acts, dances, sings, or does some other act within a 19th-century drama. These performances are different from the literary genre burlesque. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Parody: created based on an already existing work in order to make fun of it.
  • Wit: a writer uses wit in their work they’re attempting to provoke laughter by mocking someone or something.
  • Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
  • Sarcasm: a type of verbal irony that expresses contempt, mocks, or ridicules.
  • Irony: occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is very possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.
  • Verbal Irony: occurs when the meaning of what someone says is different from what they actually mean.
  • Situational Irony: occurs when something happens that’s different from what’s expected.
  • Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.

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