Burlesque (Ital. burlesco, from burla, a joke, fun, playful trick), a form of the comic in art, consisting broadly in an imitation of a work of art with the object of exciting laughter, by distortion or exaggeration, by turning, for example, the highly rhetorical into bombast, the pathetic into the mock-sentimental, and especially by a ludicrous contrast between the subject and the style, making gods speak like common men and common men like gods. While parody (q.v.), also based on imitation, relies for its effect more on the close following of the style of its counterpart, burlesque depends on broader and coarser effects. Burlesque may be applied to any form of art, and unconsciously, no doubt, may be found even in architecture. In the graphic arts it takes the form better known as "caricature" (q.v.). Its particular sphere is, however, in literature, and especially in drama. The Batrachomachia, or Battle of the Frogs and Mice, is the earliest example in classical literature, being a travesty of the Homeric epic.
There are many true burlesque parts in the comedies of Aristophanes, e.g. the appearance of Socrates in the Clouds. The Italian word first appears in the Opere Burlesche of Francesco Berni (1497-1535). In France during part of the reign of Louis XIV., the burlesque attained to great popularity; burlesque Aeneids, Iliads and Odysseys were composed, and even the most sacred subjects were not left untravestied. Of the numerous writers of these, P. Scarron is most prominent, and his Virgile Travesti (1648-1653) was followed by numerous imitators. In English literature Chaucer's Rime of Sir Thopas is a burlesque of the long-winded medieval romances. Among the best-known true burlesques in English dramatic literature may be mentioned the 2nd duke of Buckingham's The Rehearsal, a burlesque of the heroic drama; Gay's Beggar's Opera, of the Italian opera; and Sheridan's The Critic. In the later 19th century the name "burlesque" was given to a form of musical dramatic composition in which the true element of burlesque found little or no place. These musical burlesques, with which the Gaiety theatre, London, and the names of Edward Terry, Fred Leslie and Nellie Farren are particularly connected, developed from the earlier extravaganzas of J.R. Planché, written frequently round fairy tales.
The Gaiety type of burlesque has since given place to the "musical comedy," and its only survival is to be found in the modern pantomime.