In Greek drama, the eiron (ειρων, self-deprecator)Head-Royce School (2006). [http://ns.headroyce.org/~denelow/Shakespeare/Twelfth%20Night/frye.html Northrop Frye on Comedy (from The Anatomy of Criticism)] ] was a comedic character who succeeded by bringing his braggart opponent, the
alazon, down by making himself seem like less than he actually was. Together with the bomolochus, or buffoon, he formed one of the three stock characters of Greek Old Comedy.
The eiron developed in Greek
Old Comedy, and can be found in many of Aristophanes' plays. Aristotlenames the eiron in his " Nicomachean Ethics", where he says
'η δ' επι το ελαττον ειρωνεια και ειρων (1108a12).Perseus Digital Library (2006). [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Aristot.+Nic.+Eth.+1108a+1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics] ] (Emphasis added)
in the form of understatement, self-depreciation, and its possessor the self-depreciator (1108a12).Perseus Digital Library (2006). [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Aristot.+Nic.+Eth.+1108a+1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics] ]
In this passage, Aristotle establishes the eiron as one of the main characters of comedy, along with the alazon.
The modern term
ironyis derived from the eiron of Greek theatre. Irony is the difference between the actual meaning of a something and the apparent meaning.Dictionary.com (2006). [http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=irony Irony] ] The eiron would frequently triumph over the alazon by making himself appear less than he actually was.
One appearance of the eiron in an Aristophanes play is in "
The Clouds". The character Strepsiades, an eiron, meets Socrates, an alazon. Strepsiades defeats the wise and learned Socrates in a debate by appearing foolish and reducing the debate from a highbrow theocratic issue to a scatological matter:
SOCRATES: These are the only gods there are. The rest are but figments.
STREPSIADES: Holy name of Earth! Olympian Zeus is a figment?
SOCRATES: Zeus? What Zeus? Nonsense. There is no Zeus.
STREPSIADES: No Zeus?
Then who makes it rain? Answer me that.
SOCRATES: Why, the Clouds,
of course. What’s more, the proof is incontrovertible. For instance,
have you ever yet seen rain when you didn’t see a cloud?
But if your hypothesis were correct, Zeus could drizzle from an empty sky
while the clouds were on vacation.
STREPSIADES: By Apollo, you’re right. A pretty proof.
And to think I always used to believe the rain was just Zeus
pissing through a sieve.
As is clear, Socrates is not having the theological debate he had anticipated by the end of the conversation. Strepsiades reduces Socrates to an extremely lowbrow conversation by concealing his own intelligence.Classics Department, Queen's University (2006). [http://www.queensu.ca/classics/clst205/clst205lect4.htm Ancient Humor] ] Note that Socrates himself practiced the "
Socratic irony", asking apparently naive questions from its students to make them reason the answers themselves (see also mayeutics).
References:Abrams, M.H., ed. "A Glossary of Literary Terms." 6rd ed. Harcourt Brace College Publishers: Fort Worth, 1993
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