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That reverend vice : a study of the comic-demonic figure in English drama and fiction Levenson, Geraldine Bonnie


One of the most puzzling thematic patterns prevalent in the literature of almost every culture is the recurrent association of the devil and clown; both in myth and art, there is a discernible relationship between the spirit of comedy and the dark, destructive forces of the demonic realm. It is the purpose of the dissertation to examine the comic and demonic forces which are interfused in the literary representations of a number of clown-demons, to explain the nature of what may be termed "diabolical humour," and to demonstrate why, in the words of Baudelaire, "the comic is one of the clearest tokens of the Satanic in man." This investigation is approached from the vantage point of a figure widely popular in English medieval and Tudor drama, namely the jesting Vice of the morality and interlude, in whom the elements of the comic and demonic converge. While the first half of the dissertation examines the relationship between comedy and evil in light of the origins and dramatic characteristics of the Vice, the second half attempts to demonstrate that this figure can serve as a kind of prototype for a number of similarly morally ambiguous characters in both drama and fiction, characters whose double-visaged natures would otherwise appear somewhat inexplicable. The first three chapters are mainly historical, concentrating on the development of the comic-demonic figure in early English drama and establishing a sociological foundation upon which further discussion of the relationship between evil and comedy can be based. The following chapters are largely analytical in nature, focusing upon five problematical figures in English literature--Falstaff in "Henry IV", Volpone in Jonson's play by that name, Becky Sharp in "Vanity Fair", Fagin in "Oliver Twist" and Quilp in "The Old Curiosity Shop"--and using the comic-demonic attributes of these figures as a threshold through which to enter the dramatic or fictional worlds of Shakespeare, Jonson, Thackeray, and Dickens. In each of the works discussed, not only are the forces of comedy and evil intrinsically related to the major strands of imagery and thematic motifs, but also each writer emphasizes a different aspect of the comic-demonic prototype whose composite features are identified in the first half of the dissertation. In "Henry IV", Falstaff's comic diablerie considerably elucidates the intermediary position within the socio-political framework which Shakespeare is delineating--the amoral, median position between virtue and vice, order and disorder, court and tavern. In "Volpone", Jonson employs the magnifico as a kind of infernal priest whose idolatrous worship of his gold and licentious indulgence of his baser passions take the form of a comic profanation of the sacred, resulting in the temporary ascendency of a demonic, saturnalian world. The discussion of "Vanity Fair" examines a female representation of this figure. In this novel, Becky Sharp emerges as a demonic comic-heroine whose womanhood defines the quality of both the comedy and the evil she perpetrates. And finally, in "Oliver Twist" and "The Old Curiosity Shop", Fagin and Quilp fulfill the traditional Vice-role, acting as aged corrupters of youthful innocence. Both men function thematically as surrogate father-figures whose comic-demonic attributes make them at the same time menacing and attractive to the children with whom they each interact. The conclusion looks at the central question of the moral ambiguity of this figure, his or her simultaneous attractiveness and reprehensibility, from the wider perspective of the interaction between the comic and demonic domains. The study closes with the assertion that the forces of comedy and evil function in a complementary manner as both instruments of engagement and distancing devices, and that the comic-demonic figure will be represented in literature as long as there continues to be a relationship between the spirit of comedy and the dark, hidden impulses of mankind.

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