In the European dramatic tradition, the aside has a lengthy pedigree; versions of the device may be found in Greek Old Comedy. In these originary days, asides were part of a broader style of metatheatre in the Old Comedy. The most important example of this is the parabasis; asides, however, punctuate many plays, often deflating and ironizing moments of tension. The basic function of the device is to weaken the dramatic illusion and to remind the audience--if it needed reminding--of the festive and communal occasion of the drama.
Roman New Comedy continues the technique without, however, going so far in the direction of breaking the dramatic illusion. In the work of Plautus and Terence, the aside above all bears the burden of explaining motives that, in plays dominated by quick action and complicated, often hidden machinations, are often far from obvious. As important to note, the Roman model uses asides to develop character rather than break it. Although the device depends on the unrealistic convention that such asides, though vocalized, cannot be heard by other characters, they present some space for the representation of "interior" psychology. In addition, the device was a serviceable vehicle for dramatic irony; many of these asides still draw laughter in modern productions for that reason.
The rebirth of drama in Europe at the end of the medieval period saw a natural revival of the aside, derived not from emulation of classical models but rather from a recrudescence of similar theatrical conditions. The open staging of, for instance, the early Tudor interludes, and their festive occasions, were conducive to the same kind of metadramatic joking so common in Aristophanes. Early on, certain figures such as the Vice became strongly associated with the device; thus, already by the mid-1500s, the Vice as a character type appears to have been a crowd favorite, a protean and anarchic figure not bound by the rules that governed most of the other characters, and seemingly possessed of a special relationship with the audience.
As the Elizabethan drama developed, the aside changed in a manner similar to that it had undergone in the development of New Comedy; in this case, of course, the similarity is more clearly an instance of emulation, as is most clear in plays such as The Comedy of Errors that are revamped Roman stories. Strikingly, however, the syncretic Elizabethans did not confine the device to comedy. Indeed, some of the best-remembered instances of the device are from tragedies such as Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi. In its tragic uses, the aside tends to highlight a mood of suspense or paranoia. One late play, James Shirley's The Cardinal, is conducted in asides for large stretches of the action.
Jacobean dramatists continued to employ the device, at times ironically: in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, a hapless judge is overheard making an aside, highlighting both the crowdedness of the stage at that point and the absurdity of a dramatic convention when viewed realistically.
The slow growth of a naturalistic impulse in European drama signalled an equally slow decline in the role available to the aside. While a similar device is still on occasion found in modern plays, it has not, and seems unlikely ever to, regain the ubiquity it had in Renaissance drama.
Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits.
The flighty purpose never is o'ertook
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to the edge o' the sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool;
This deed I'll do before this purpose cool.
But no more sights! -Where are these gentlemen?
Come, bring me where they are.
Asides are also used in novels. For instance, in The Scarlet Letter, Roger Chillingworth has at least one aside:
"It is as well to have made this step," said Roger Chillingworth
to himself, looking after the minister, with a grave smile.
"There is nothing lost. We shall be friends again anon. But see,
now, how passion takes hold upon this man, and hurrieth him out
of himself! As with one passion so with another. He hath done a
wild thing ere now, this pious Master Dimmesdale, in the hot
passion of his heart."
This technique was also utilized judiciously in the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off.