In this series looking at how characters in stories are portrayed, in the context of Christopher Booker’s analysis of literary narratives into The Seven Basic Plots, I have reached the fifth of his plots: Comedy.
Earlier this year, I looked at humour and jokes in paintings, in this first article and its sequel. Not only are humorous paintings relatively uncommon, but most rely on visual jokes rather than humorous narrative.
Exceptions include those depicting episodes of Cervantes’ two-volume novel Don Quixote, which by coincidence I’m currently retelling using the paintings and many illustrations made of it, including José Moreno Carbonero’s Don Quixote and the Windmills from about 1900, which shows one of its best-known stories.
Booker doesn’t cite Don Quixote among the literary works of comedy, perhaps because of its length and complexity. One well-known classical comedy which he also doesn’t mention is the story-within-a-story told by the bard Demodocus in Homer’s Odyssey, of the affair between Mars/Ares and Venus/Aphrodite. Vulcan/Hephaistos catches the couple making love in his marriage bed, and quickly forges a very fine but unbreakable net to throw over them. Once they have been made captive by his net, he summons the other gods, who come and roar with laughter at the ensnared couple.
Although a simple story, it was intended as comedy, to cheer Odysseus up when he’s being entertained by King Alcinous. It has also proved popular in paintings, and is the only comedy narrative that I am aware of which has been painted by masters over the last half millenium.
Following a masterly review of nearly three millenia of comedy, Booker’s archetypal plot is unfortunately better-suited to full-length novels or plays than the tale of Demodocus, and he recognises that there’s a wide range of variation. Three phases start with a little world in which people have become shut off from one another by confusion, which worsens, until there’s a revelation bringing a transformation to the joyous reunion of the little world. That’s very different from the story here.
Homer’s story is retold by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the likely source for Diego Velázquez’s The Forge of Vulcan from 1630. This shows Apollo, at the left, visiting Hephaistos (to the right of Apollo) in his forge, to tell him about this infidelity, a marked variation from the original. As shown in the faces, this arouses great shock.
Paintings showing the adulterous couple naked together have long been one of the most risqué themes in art.
Tintoretto’s Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan from about 1545 offers an unusual interpretation: Hephaistos is inspecting his wife, as Ares cowers under the bed at the right. A small dog is drawing attention to Ares’ hiding place, and Aphrodite’s child, Eros, rests in a cradle behind them.
Within this is skilful mirror-play: the circular mirror behind the bed reflects an image of Hephaistos leaning over Aphrodite (below). The artist also shows off his technique in other ways, in a glass jar on the window sill at the upper right, and optical effects in the window glass.
Joachim Wtewael is not only known for his ostensibly unpronounceable surname, but for his remarkably explicit figures. In Mars and Venus Surprised by the Gods from about 1606-10, he gives a full visual account of the story, and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to what the couple were doing, even adding a flush to the cheeks of Aphrodite.
He uses multiplex narrative too: Hephaistos is seen forging his fine net in the far background, and again at the right, as he is about to throw the finished net over the couple. Ares’ armour is scattered over the floor, and there is a chamber-pot under the bed. Behind Hephaistos the other gods are arriving, and laughing with glee at the raunchy scene being unveiled to them.
Corinth’s Homeric Laughter from 1909 is a more obvious platform for humour, this time centred on the age-old jokes surrounding cuckolds and adultery without which Shakespeare’s plays would be dull and dry.
Corinth offers a clue to its reading in the long inscription (originally in German translation):
unquenchable laughter arose among the blessed gods as they saw the craft of wise Hephaestus
together with the reference to Homer’s Odyssey book 8 line 326.
Hephaistos may have been wise and crafty in fabricating the net with which he caught the couple, but the laughter is also on him as the cuckold, something he appears not to realise.
There are also paintings of some of Shakespeare’s comedies, few of which depict any of the humour of the original plays. It seems sad that so few patrons or clients have wanted to see the joke.
Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2