Tragedy and Comedy

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Various ideas have been associated with the term tragedy and the term comedy over the centuries, including tragedy that is not tragic, in the sense of "sad" or "disastrous," and comedy that is not comic, in the modern prevalent meaning of "amusing." The modern English meaning of comedy as a synonym for humor is largely a twentieth-century development.

Greek Origins

Tragedies are first heard of, as stage plays, in the Dionysiac celebrations in Athens at the turn of the fifth century b.c.e., and comedies appear as a contrasting type of play a century later. Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) said that tragedies dealt with spoudaia (serious matters) and comedies with phaulika (trivial subjects). Tragedies aimed at arousing and then purging emotions such as pity and fear. Effective tragedies need not end in disaster; he gives highest praise to the happily resolved Iphigenia among the Taurians of Sophocles, and, among narrative poems (since staging is not essential to tragedy), he considers the Odyssey to have a tragic story as well as the Iliad, though he notes at one point that the effects of such a double-plotted story (good end for the good, bad for the bad) are more appropriate to comedy.

Aristotle's treatment of comedy has not survived, and his analysis of tragedy was not cited in antiquity. His chief disciple, Theophrastus (c. 372c. 287 b.c.e.) also dealt with tragedy and comedy, and his definitions were cited by the Latin grammarian Diomedes (4th century c.e.). They can be rendered as follows: "Tragedy deals with the fortunes of heroes in adversity," and "Comedy treats of private deeds with no threat to life." Diomedes adds that tragedies usually move from joy to sadness, comedies the opposite.

Meanwhile, Horace (658 b.c.e.) had discussed the genres in his Ars poetica. He explains the meaning of "tragedy" as "goat-song," so called because the winning players were rewarded with a cheap goat. He does not define the forms and deals mainly with questions of style, that is, tone and diction. The complaints of tragedy should not readily be mixed with the privata carmina (domestic verse) of comedy. Ovid (43b.c.e.17 c.e.), too, has style in mind when he says that tragedy is the gravest form of writing (Tristia 2.381). It consists of sublime verse, as opposed to the lighter forms of elegy (used for love poems) (Amores 3.1.3942).

Another influential grammarian of the fourth century, Aelius Donatus, considers Homer the father of tragedy in the Iliad and the father of comedy in the Odyssey. He attributes to Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) a definition of comedy as "the imitation of life, the mirror of custom, the image of truth," which is later reflected in Hamlet's discourse to the players.

The chief Greek authors of tragedies were Aeschylus (525456 b.c.e.), Sophocles (c. 496406 b.c.e.), and Euripides (c. 484406 b.c.e.). Comedy was divided into old, middle, and new. Aristophanes (c. 450c. 388 b.c.e.) straddled the old and the middle periods, while Menander (342292 b.c.e.) represented the new. The Latin playwrights Plautus (c. 254184 b.c.e.) and Terence (186 or 185?159 b.c.e.) specialized in adapting Greek comedies from Menander's period. As for tragedy, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 b.c.e.?65 c.e.) is the only known playwright whose works are extant. Plautus claimed that one of his plays, the Amphitruo, was a combination of comedy and tragedy, not because it used an elevated style, but rather because it introduced characters proper to both genres, kings and gods on the one hand and slaves on the other.

The Latin World

By Seneca's time, plays may have largely or entirely ceased to be performed by actors and, at most, been presented only by public recitations. The term tragedy was also used for pantomime productions, tragoediae saltatae, and also for citharoediae, in which a tragic protagonist sang and accompanied himself on the lyre.

The most important treatment of tragedy and comedy in the early Middle Ages was that of St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560636). In book 8 of his Etymologies, he cites Horace's etymology for tragedy, taking it to mean that the poets were originally held in low esteem, but that later they became highly regarded for the skill of their very realistic stories. Tragic poets deal with public affairs, the histories of kings, and sorrowful matters, whereas comic poets recite the deeds of private persons and emphasize joyful things. However, the new comic poets, like Persius (3462 c.e.) and Juvenal (c. 55 or 60in or after 127 c.e.), are called satirists, and they expose vice. Both tragic and comic poems consist entirely of the dialogue of characters.

In book 18 of his encyclopedia, Isidore takes up tragedy and comedy again, this time as theatrical pieces. Comic and tragic (or comedic and tragedic) poets sang their poems on the stage, while actors and mines danced and made gestures. Thanks largely to this account, classical dramas were regarded in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance as having been recited by the poet himself, that is, Seneca, Plautus, or Terence (except that in Terence's case a stand-in was used); while he declaimed the lines of all of the characters himself, actors would mime their words and actions.

In addition to "theatricizing" tragedy and comedy in book 18, Isidore now gives a darker account of the subject matter of the two forms (there was some hint of this with regard to comedies in the account of the satirists in book 8). Here he says that the comedians sang not only of private men, but specifically of "the defilements of virgins and the loves of whores," and tragedians sang of the "sorrowful crimes of wicked kings" (18.4546).

Just as influential as Isidore's accounts was a passage written a century before him by Boethius (c. 480c. 524). In the Consolation of Philosophy, he portrays Lady Philosophy as inviting Lady Fortune to give an account of herself, and at one point she says, "What does the cry of tragedies bewail but Fortune's overthrow of happy kingdoms with a sudden blow?" (2 pr. 2). Subsequent commentators on the Consolation offered definitions of both tragedy and comedy. Notably, William of Conches, writing around the year 1125, says that tragedy begins in prosperity and ends in adversity, whereas in comedy the situations are reversed.

Medieval Contributions

The most important medieval writer of comedy was Dante (12651321), and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 13421400) was the most important author of tragedy. Dante does not seem to have known either the comedies of Terence and Plautus or the tragedies of Seneca. The latter had recently been discovered and were being studied in Padua during Dante's time, notably by Albertino Mussato, who considered tragedy to be a genre of elevated subject matter, consisting of two subgenres: those dealing with disasters (like Seneca's works and his own Ecerinis ) used iambic verse, and those dealing with triumphs, like the works of Virgil (7019 b.c.e.) and Publius Papinius Statius (c. 4596 c.e.), used dactylic hexameters.

Dante's own definitions of comedy and tragedy in De vulgari eloquentia are not connected to ideas of misery or felicity. He agrees with Mussato in considering tragedy to use elevated subjects. It also uses the best syntax, verse forms, and diction. Comedy on the other hand is a style inferior to that of tragedy, using both middling and humble forms. He cites lyric poems, including some of his own, as examples of tragedy. In Inferno (20.113) he has Virgil refer to the Aeneid as "my high tragedy." He may have based his ideas on Papias's definition of comedy in his Elementarium (c. 1045), repeated in the Catholicon of John Balbus of Genoa (1286): comedy deals with the affairs of common and humble men, not in the high style of tragedy, but rather in a middling and sweet style, and it also often deals with historical facts and important persons.

Dante's commentators did not know of the De vulgari eloquentia, and most of them, including Guido da Pisa and the author of the Epistle to Cangrande (which purports to be by Dante himself), follow definitions similar to those of the Boethian commentators; thus they explain Dante's choice of title by the fact that the work begins in misery (hell) and ends in felicity (heaven). They hold that Terence's comedies follow the same pattern, and that Seneca's tragedies trace the reverse movement (hardly true in either case). Some readers, like Dante's son Piero, followed the rubrical tradition that designated Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso as three comedies, and found an upbeat conclusion to all of them: each ends with a reference to the stars.

Chaucer, for his part, like Dante's commentators, was influenced by the Boethian tradition. He translated the Consolation and used glosses derived from the commentary of Nicholas Trivet (1258??1328). But whereas Trivet repeated Conches's definition of tragedy and added to its iniquitous subject by repeating Isidore's statement about the crimes of the wicked kings, the gloss that Chaucer received and translated removed all such reference: "Tragedy is to say a dite [literary composition] of a prosperity for a time that endeth in wretchedness" (pp. 409410). He thus restored the concept to its Boethian context by removing the suggestion that all tragic falls are deserved and punitive. Chaucer wrote tragedies of this sort himself, on the model of the narratives of Giovanni Boccaccio's (13131375) De casibus virorum illustrium (Boccaccio himself did not consider these stories to be tragedies) and later assigned them to the Monk in the Canterbury Tales. In the meantime, he wrote an extended tragedy, Troilus and Criseyde. John Lydgate (c. 1370c. 1450) subsequently applied Chaucer's idea of tragedy to The Fall of Princes, his translation of the De casibus, and it was adopted in its sixteenth-century continuation, A Mirror for Magistrates. Thus Chaucerian tragedy was transmitted to the age of Shakespeare.

The Renaissance

Shakespeare (15641616) himself does not say what he means by comedy and tragedy, but one can deduce from his characters that comedy has the general meaning of a pleasant or mirthful play, and that tragedy more often refers to an event than to a play, and more often concerns the downfall of an innocent than a guilty person. This is in contrast to formal discussionslike Sir Philip Sidney's (15541586) Apology for Poetry that tend to restrict the subject of tragedy to bad men coming to bad ends, thereby "making kings fear to be tyrants." This is a kind of plot that received very low marks from Aristotle.

By Sidney's time, Aristotle's Poetics was available in an accurate form (before the sixteenth century it was chiefly known from the commentary of Averroës [11261198], who understood comedy to refer to poems reprehending vice and tragedy to poems praising virtue). But it was mainly cited on minor points, or distorted through assimilation to Horatian concerns. Aristotle's insistence on unity of action was made equal to the newly invented unities of time and space.

Tragedy became an elite genre, in which only the best tragedies were thought worthy of the name of tragedy. In England this concept can be seen in Thomas Rymer's Short View of Tragedy (1692), when he speaks of "the sacred name of tragedy." Such an understanding is widely accepted and practiced in modern times, allegedly with the backing of Aristotle: the criterion that Aristotle gives for the most effective tragedy (the fall of a good man through a flaw) has been smuggled into the definition of and made a sine qua non for tragedy. Now there is no such thing as a bad or mediocre tragedy. For Aristotle, on the contrary, everything that was called a tragedy or fitted general criteria was a tragedy, but some were better than others.

Problems of Definition

There have been dozens of attempts to define tragedy, understood as supreme tragedy, radical tragedy, pure tragedy, and the like. Most of these understandings are intuitive and personal to the definers and are based on a favorite example of tragedy (or a small cluster of favorite tragedies). To give a recent example, George Steiner defines tragedy as "the dramatic testing of a view of reality in which man is taken to be an unwelcome guest in the world"; and the plays that communicate "this metaphysic of desperation" are very few, "and would include The Seven against Thebes, King Oedipus, Antigone, the Hippolytus, and, supremely, the Bacchae " (1980 Foreword to The Death of Tragedy, 1961).

Because of the elevated status of the idea of tragedy, actual tragedies have become a thing of the past, represented by the classical plays, Shakespeare and his contemporary English dramatists and, in France, Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille sometimes extending to Lope de Vega in Spain. The only more recent work that is named a tragedy by its author and acknowledged to be a great work is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's (17491832) Faust: A Tragedy (1808), but it is not usually considered to be a great tragedy or even a tragedy at all. (Whether Goethe himself meant to call Part 2 a tragedy is not clear; but it was published as such, posthumously, in 1832.)

Comedy, in contrast to tragedy, remained a general and amorphous genre, encompassing ineffective as well as effective examples. No comic masterpieces have been singled out as supreme comedies (though Shakespeare's plays are given high ranking), and plays that do not measure up to some classical standard have not in general been drummed out of the genre, though occasionally this sort of qualifying spirit can be seen when a dud is denigrated as "mere farce."

In England in Shakespeare's time, when the action of a play was not amusing but simply avoided the usual final disasters of tragedy, it was given the name of "tragicomedy," which Sidney referred to as a mongrel form. When Plautus invented the term to describe his Amphitruo, it was for a different reason: because it had the characters proper to tragedy (kings and gods) as well as those proper to comedy (slaves, etc.). The term was revived in Spain for yet another reason, by what might well be called a comedy of errors. When Fernando de Rojas (c. 14651541) adapted the twelfth-century Latin "comedy" Pamphilus and published it under the title of The Comedy of Calisto and Melibea (1500), readers complained that its action was not that of comedy but rather of tragedy, and he thought to satisfy them by calling it a tragicomedy. This work, usually called Celestina, gave rise to several sequels, among them Segunda Comedia de Celestina (1534), Tragicomedia de Lisandro y Roselia (1542), Tragedia Policiana (1547), Comedia Florinea (1554), and Comedia Selvagia (1554). During this time, comedy came to mean "any stage play," and the most celebrated adaptation of the Celestina was Lope de Vega's (15621635) great tragedy, El Caballero de Olmedo, which appeared in Part 24 of Vega's Comedias (1641). Comedia also became the general name for theater, a practice found in France, as in the Comédie Française in Paris.

In Italy in the sixteenth century, Dante's Comedy was given the title of The Divine Comedy, seemingly to make the point that it has nothing to do with any of the usual senses of comedy. In France in the 1840s Honoré de Balzac (17991850) gave to his collected works the retrospective title of The Human Comedy, not because of any theory of comedy, but to contrast the mundane world of his novels with the otherworldly actions and interests of Dante's work. The designation of "art comedy," commedia dell'arte, was given to plays performed by professional actors on stereotyped plots with much improvisation. In the eighteenth century in both France and Italy sentimental or "tearful" comedy and "musical" comedy came into vogue.

In the late twentieth century "musical comedy" was shortened to "musical," which was contrasted with "comedy," both being contrasted with "drama" (as in the Golden Globe Awards). The latter category includes all revived tragedies and also modern plays or films that are perceived to have a sense of the tragic.

See also Theater and Performance .


Aristotle. Poetics. Edited and translated by Stephen Halliwell. Loeb Classical Library 199. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981

Boethius. The Theological Tractates. Edited and translated by S. J. Tester. Loeb Classical Library 74. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan 1904. The second edition appeared in 1905, with uncounted reprintings since.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Eagleton, Terry. Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.

Isidore of Seville. Etymologiae. 1911. 2 vols. Edited by W. M. Lindsay. Reprint, Oxford: Clarendon, 1985. For English translations of pertinent passages, see Kelly, Ideas and Forms, chap. 3, sec. 1, 36-50.

Janko, Richard. Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Ideas and Forms of Tragedy from Aristotle to the Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

. Tragedy and Comedy from Dante to Pseudo-Dante. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Nelson, T. G. A. Comedy: An Introduction to the Theory of Comedy in Literature, Drama, and Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Segal, Erich. The Death of Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. New York: Knopf, 1961. Reprint, with new foreword, New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. London: Chatto and Windus, 1966. Reprint, with new afterword, London: Verso, 1979.

Henry Ansgar Kelly