From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Oh, there's nothing to be hoped for from her! she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile."--The Rivals (1775) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
"I don't think I know what you mean," she said; "you use too many figures of speech; I could never understand allegories. The two words in the language I most respect are Yes and No." --The Portrait of a Lady
"The allegory just related is called Traité des sensations and dates from 1754; for this summary we have made use of the second volume of Bréhier’s Histoire de la philosophie)".--Book of Imaginary Beings (1957) by Jorge Luis Borges
"In Anglo-Saxon poems the like had been done for the Panther as an allegory of Christ, and the Whale as an allegory of the Devil. The Bestiary here given was from the Latin, but with an expansion of the spiritual allegory."--Henry Morley
"In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray Gone from the path direct."--Divine Comedy (1320) by Dante
As a rhetorical device or artistic form, an allegory is a narrative or visual representation in which a character, place, or event can be interpreted to represent a hidden meaning with moral or political significance. Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.
Writers and speakers typically use allegories to convey (semi-)hidden or complex meanings through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, or events, which together create the moral, spiritual, or political meaning the author wishes to convey. Many allegories use personification of abstract concepts.
First attested in English 1382, the word allegory comes from Latin allegoria, the latinisation of the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoria), "veiled language, figurative", from ἄλλος (allos), "another, different" + ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), "to harangue, to speak in the assembly" and that from ἀγορά (agora), "assembly".
Northrop Frye discussed what he termed a "continuum of allegory," ranging from what he termed the "naive allegory" of The Faerie Queene, to the more private allegories of modern paradox literature. In this perspective, the characters in a "naive" allegory are not fully three-dimensional, for each aspect of their individual personalities and the events that befall them embodies some moral quality or other abstraction; the allegory has been selected first, and the details merely flesh it out.
The classical era
In classical literature two of the best-known allegories are the cave in Plato's Republic (Book VII) and the story of the stomach and its members in the speech of Menenius Agrippa (Livy ii. 32). In Late Antiquity Martianus Capella organized all the information a fifth-century upper-class male needed to know into an allegory of the wedding of Mercury and Philologia, with the seven liberal arts as guests; Capella's allegory was widely read through the Middle Ages.
The medieval era
Medieval thinking accepted allegory as having a reality underlying any rhetorical or fictional uses. The allegory was as true as the facts of surface appearances. Thus, the bull Unam Sanctam (1302) presents themes of the unity of Christendom with the pope as its head in which the allegorical details of the metaphors are adduced as facts on which is based a demonstration with the vocabulary of logic: "Therefore of this one and only Church there is one body and one head—not two heads as if it were a monster... If, then, the Greeks or others say that they were not committed to the care of Peter and his successors, they necessarily confess that they are not of the sheep of Christ".
In the late 15th century, the enigmatic Hypnerotomachia, with its elaborate woodcut illustrations, shows the influence of themed pageants and masques on contemporary allegorical representation, as humanist dialectic conveyed them.
The denial of medieval allegory as found in the 11th-century works of Hugh of St Victor and Edward Topsell's Historie of Foure-footed Beastes (London, 1607, 1653) and its replacement in the study of nature with methods of categorization and mathematics by such figures as naturalist John Ray and the astronomer Galileo is thought to mark the beginnings of early modern science.
The modern era
Since meaningful stories are nearly always applicable to larger issues, allegories may be read into many stories, sometimes distorting their author's overt meaning. For instance, many people have suggested that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the World Wars, in spite of J. R. R. Tolkien's emphatic statement in the introduction to the second edition, "It is neither allegorical nor topical.... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence." Where some requirements of "realism", in its flexible meanings, are set aside, allegory can come more strongly to the surface, as in the work of Bertold Brecht on one hand, or on the other in science fiction and fantasy, where an element of universal application and allegorical overtones are common, as with The Chronicles of Narnia.
Examples by genre
Not every resonant work of modern fiction is an allegory. Arthur Miller's The Crucible, for instance, is character-driven historical drama with contemporary relevance, but is not an allegory in spite of its parallels with McCarthyism, linking the hunt for communists in the 1940s and 1950s to the hunt for witches in the late 17th century. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is plot-driven fantasy narrative in an extended fable with talking animals and broadly-sketched characters. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is another example of a work sometimes seen as allegorical yet, as the author explained, is not - rather it is an example of what he referred to as applicability.
Some elaborate and successful specimens of allegory are to be found in the following works, arranged in approximate chronological order:
- Ambrogio Lorenzetti – "Good Government in the City" and "Bad Government in the City"
- Sandro Botticelli – La Primavera (Allegory of Spring)
- Albrecht Dürer – Melencolia I
- Bronzino – Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time
- Artemisia Gentileschi – Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting; Allegory of Inclination
- Jan Vermeer – The Allegory of Painting
- Lady Justice. – Such visual representations have raised the question why so many allegories in the history of art, representing male gendered realities, are of female sex.
- Allegory of the senses, a popular genre of baroque art
- Allegories (Bellini)
- Classical literature
- Aesop – Fables
- Plato – The Republic ("Plato's allegory of the cave")
- Plato – Phaedrus (Chariot Allegory)
- Euripides – The Trojan Women
- Book of Revelation (for allegory in Christian theology, see typology (theology)
- Martianus Capella – De nuptiis philologiæ et Mercurii
- Various Authors (The Holy Bible)
- Mediaeval literature
- Prudentius – Psychomachia
- Christine de Pizan – The Book of the City of Ladies
- William Langland – Piers Plowman
- Dante Alighieri – The Divine Comedy
- Allegory in the Middle Ages
- Allegory in Renaissance literature
- Allegorical sculpture
- Cultural depictions of Philip II of Spain
- Literary technique
- Mythological painting
- Plot device
- Roman à clef
- The symbolical language of ancient art and mythology; an inquiry
- Theagenes of Rhegium
- Folly (allegory)