Bathos is the effect created when a considered or serious subject matter descends into the trivial or silly. These sudden transitions are often very anti-climactic, and often are used to progress or transition into a more humorous subject matter.

The opposite of bathos is pathos, in which there is a serious appeal to an individual’s emotions.

Why use Bathos?

  • Creating Humour: Bathos is a great way to create humour, not only in that it introduces a comedic element in the first place, but also the transition from seriousness to silliness would emphasise the comic relief, even to the extent of something appearing more comical than it would be in isolation.
  • Change the pace of a poem: Using this technique helps to change the pace of a poem due to the change of content, and is often coupled with an adjustment of a poem’s rhythm to help build the comedic aspect of the line. Similarly, it can also be used as staging and a relief between long-running serious themes so as to help prevent a reader becoming overwhelmed.
  • Shock or surprise: The nature of bathos means that it is highly likely to shock or surprise a reader with the sudden change in subject matter, which can be very effective in poetry and literature at helping to emphasise certain points or ideas.

Examples of Bathos

Bathos is a technique frequently employed by Shakespeare throughout his work, including in ‘Othello’ so as to highlight absurd situations.

In Act 3 Scene 3, war hero Othello comes to believe that his wife Desdemona is being unfaithful to him as a result of the character Iago manipulating him. This prompts Othello to proclaim that he will seek to kill her, but then switches promptly to declaring Iago to be his new lieutenant (a key aim of Iago throughout the play). While this would not ordinarily be comedic, the sudden change in subject to something comparatively trivial is very effective at highlighting the absurdity of the situation.

To furnish me with some swift means of death

For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant.

‘Please Hold’ (Poems of the Decade) by Ciaran O’Driscoll uses bathos to help emphasise comedic ideas.

The poem takes a critical view of modern life through the form of a conversation with an automated telephone system, using comedy to highlight the absurdity of the situation. Bathos is used a lot in the poem to help it descend even further into parody and satire, surprising the reader as to how absurd and ridiculous it becomes.

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