What Is Caricature?

Caricature comes from the Italian verb caricare, which means “to load.” As a technique, caricature is defined by an exaggerated description of a person or thing, very often used in drawing and painting, usually with the aim of creating a comic or satiric effect. For example, in the image below, the caricature of Mr. Bean exaggerates his facial features, such as the eyes, nose, eyebrows, lips, and ears.

Caricature of Mr. Bean

In literature, caricature can be used to exaggerate a character’s personality traits as well. For example, Charles Dickens is renown for the creation of uniquely eccentric characters by using this literary technique. Miss Havisham, one of the characters in Great Expectations, shocks the readers through her caricatural appearance, bordering on the grotesque: Imagine a fifty-something-old lady who was left at the altar some twenty years back and is still wearing her wedding dress, keeps the wedding cake on the table, with mice crawling in and out of it, and stopped all the clocks in the house at twenty minutes to nine, the time when she had received her fiance’s letter announcing her that he would not show up. Moreover, Dickens goes beyond physical appearance and uses caricature to define Miss Havisham’s purpose in life, that is, to take revenge on all men and make them suffer, regardless of whether these men happen to be represented by a nine- or ten-year-old boy, Pip.

Miss Havisham

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Caricature Examples

Caricature in a Sentence

  • “His hair was long and encompassing as a cape that would cling to his ankles when the wind became more than a breeze, making him fall flat on his flat nose.” – We can hardly imagine a person whose hair is so long as to trip him over. This exaggeration, with both comic and satiric effects, is known as caricature.
  • “His bulgy eyes almost jumped out of their sockets when I told him the news. He began sputtering and turned his back on me, leaving trails of saliva behind.” – This caricatural description makes us imagine a man resembling a snail.
  • “The girl dragged her feet toward the blackboard, as slow as a condemned person might walk his way to the electric chair, her eyes sheepish and as round as saucers, begging for mercy from the teacher and for help from her classmates: ‘I don’t know how to solve the equation.’ ” – The feelings of a school girl are caricatured in this sentence by exaggerating her fear of going to the blackboard and solving a mathematical problem.

Caricature in Poetry

Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

 “The MILLERE was a stout carl for the nones;

The MILLER was a stout fellow indeed;

Ful byg he was of brawn, and eek of bones.

He was very strong of muscle, and also of bones….

Ther was no dore that he nolde heve of harre,

There was no door that he would not heave off its hinges,

Or breke it at a rennyng with his heed.

Or break it by running at it with his head.

His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,

His beard was red as any sow or fox…

Upon the cop right of his nose he hade

Upon the exact top of his nose he had

A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys,

A wart, and thereon stood a tuft of hairs,

Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys;

Red as the bristles of a sow’s ears;…

His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys.

His mouth was as large as a large furnace.

The characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are all typologies, as illustrated by the names under which they appear: the Knight, the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Monk, the Friar, the Host, and so on. The most exaggerated features are those of the peasants. The Miller represents the stereotypical peasant physiognomy the most clearly, being round and ruddy and with a wart on his nose. The Miller appears rough and, thus, suited for hard, simple work. Caricature is evident in Chaucer’s description of the Miller as a man who could take any door out of its hinges or break it with his head and in the comparison of the Miller’s beard with the bristles on a pig.

“Tower” by William Butler Yeats

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…”

In the poem “Tower,” William Butler Yeats uses caricature to describe old age. By referring to old people as worthless “things” and shabby coats on sticks, the poet also makes use of self-caricature since he was in his late years when he wrote the poem.

Caricature in Literature

Caricature was a preferred technique in the comedy of manners, a witty form of dramatic comedy that depicts and satirizes the manners of the society and is, thus, more concerned with whether or not the characters meet certain social standards than with the plot. This type of comedy reached its peak in the English-speaking world during the Restoration period, with playwrights such as Ben Jonson, William Congreve, William Wycherley, Sir George Etherege, Oliver Goldsmith, and later, with Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Somerset Maugham, Philip Barry, and S.N. Behrman.

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson

Jonson’s The Alchemist, for example, features characters whose names contribute to their caricature: the sensualist, Sir Epicure Mammon; the hypocritical Puritan, Tribulation Wholesome; the con men, Subtle and Face; and Abel Drugger, a small-time tobacco dealer ambitious for commercial success. The characters are flat, that is, they are uncomplicated and do not evolve throughout the play. Drugger’s main characteristics, for instance, are stupidity and greed. Thus, he is easily made to believe that he will achieve success if, by following astrology-based advice, he sets the shelves in his shop in a certain way. In act III, Face says about Drugger that “he has no head/ To bear any wine,” which exemplifies that caricature can be realized through other characters’ words as well.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s use of caricature in The Importance of Being Earnest allows readers to view the true essence of the characters. The main character of the play, Lady Bracknell, is representative. Her interview with Jack, who was in love with her daughter Gwendolen, focuses on Jack’s status and material possessions, mainly containing questions such as: “What is your income?” “In land, or in investments?” “A country house! How many bedrooms? … You have a town house, I hope?”

It’s also Lady Bracknell who exclaims, “A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her.”

Wilde’s use of caricature leaves the readers think that Lady Bracknell, a representative of Victorian society, is overly shallow and materialistic.

“Rain” by Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham reduced his characters to caricatured types and stereotypes in circumstances in which they act in accordance with or against their natural inclinations, treating individuals as typological characters governed by fate functioning within the narrow boundaries of necessity. In the short story “Rain,” Davidson, a zealous missionary, recounts his success in civilizing the tribes of the barbaric South Sea Islands during one of his missions:

“ ‘When we went there they had no sense of sin at all’, he said. ‘They broke the commandments one after the other and never knew they were doing wrong. And I think that was the most difficult part of my work, to instill into the natives the sense of sin.…You see, they were so naturally depraved that they couldn’t be brought to see their wickedness. We had to make sins out of what they thought were natural actions.…I made it a sin for a girl to show her bosom and a sin for a man not to wear trousers.’

‘How?’ asked Dr Macphail, not without surprise.

‘I instituted fines.’ ”

The missionary’s moral authority is backed up by his legal authority, imposing fines and banning the islanders from participating in the coconut oil trade, which “meant something very like starvation,” as Davidson notes with satisfaction. In his self-blinding self-righteousness, the missionary is entirely proud at his economic and legal blackmail of the islanders into accepting customs and morals that are not their own. In this story, by caricaturing the Davidsons, Maugham illustrates his own indignation at the misguided and stubborn authorities who tend to turn people’s natural instincts into crimes and sins.

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Caricature, however, was not aimed only at societal typologies, in general, but sometimes targeted specific individuals. Robert Shallow is a fictional character who appears in Shakespeare’s plays Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. He is a wealthy landowner and justice of the peace, a thin, vain, and often self-deluding individual, whom Falstaff and his comrades victimize by killing his deer, beating his men, and breaking into his lodge. Shallow may have been a caricature of Sir Thomas Lucy, a justice of the peace and member of Parliament from Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace). According to an undocumented account, Sir Lucy prosecuted Shakespeare for stealing a deer from his land.

The picture below illustrates Shallow inviting Falstaff to stay for the night.

Shallow inviting Falstaff to stay

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