Tragi-Comedy in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

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      The ancient Greek and Roman writers certainly wrote no play which could be termed a ‘tragi-comedy’. They wrote either tragedy or comedy, adhering to a single action. English dramatists, on other hand, often mingle tragic and comic elements. How far is it justifiable to mingle tragedy and comedy? How far is ‘tragi-comedy’ a valid form of dramatic art? Critics have held different opinions. But Dryden for the first time in the history of English criticism defended the form.

      Sidney’s opinion. Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan critic, closely follows the French and Italian critics to severely condemn the practice of mingling the tragic and the comic. He speaks categorically for keeping the two genres separate. The mingling of the comic and the serious, according to him, outrages the grave, dignified and weighty nature and the elevated style of tragedy. Kings and clowns do not go together, and their mingling merely produces the most inept buffoonery. The ancients, unlike the English, did not “match hornpipe and funerals”. Sidney criticizes the English dramatists for disregarding both rules of poetry and honest civility; their plays are neither true tragedies nor true comedies. The rules of poetry, after all, govern tragedy, even if the form is not tied to the laws of history. Sidney’s Defence of Poesy thus presents an almost complete treatise on neo-classical concept of tragedy many years before the age of neo-classicism and Boileau’s Art Poetique.

      Dryden’s liberal outlook. Dryden, as Eliot has observed, at the correct time vindicated the native tradition. He defends the English form of tragi-comedy. Indeed, in an approach which may be termed most unlike neo-classicism, Dryden wonders what is wrong in mingling the tragic and the comic. To some it seems as if here Dryden ceases to be a classicist and goes over to the other camp. However, it is praiseworthy that Dryden is not rigid and bound to rules and regulations to the detriment of art. Of course, it is also true, to some extent, that his critical views are almost always expounded in self-justification.

      In An Essay of Dramatic Poesy Dryden vindicates the English tragi-comedy. To Lisideius’s objections Neander offers arguments in favor of the mingling of the tragic and the comic. Lisideius contends that such mixing is to be condemned because “we cannot speedily recollect ourselves after a scene of great passion and concernment, as to pass to another of mirth and humor, and to enjoy it with any relish’’. Neander asks why he should imagine “the soul of man heavier than his senses”—an argument which was to be developed by Dr. Johnson later. The fact is that contraries set off each other when juxtaposed. Continued gravity tends to depress the spirit, a scene of mirth coming amidst the serious offers welcome relief—and this relief is necessary for a better appreciation of the tragic portion. The scene of mirth, says Dryden, has the same effect on the spectator as does music.

      Neander firmly holds that mirth does not destroy compassion or the serious intention of tragedy, and just as the eye can pass from the unpleasant to the pleasant, so also can the soul move from the tragic to the comic swiftly and without suffering any damage. Neander (and Dryden) feel proud that the English have perfected a form unknown to the ancients but better than anything known earlier. The ancients too, he feels, would have acknowledged the merits of the form had they but realized it, and Aristotle might have devised other rules if it had existed in his times.

      Above all, contends Neander, merely the strict adherence to rules or convention is no test of excellence. What matters is whether the aim of drama, which is to delight and instructs mankind, has been achieved. This aim is well achieved by English drama.

      Dr. Johnson endorses Dryden. Dr. Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare is more or less in agreement with Dryden on the matter of tragi-comedy. He too observes that the mingling of the comic and the serious provides dramatic relief. He also develops a point which Dryden makes only in passing—that tragi-comedy is truer to nature. In nature we find a mingling of good and evil, joys and sorrows; thus tragicomedy reflects truth. Dryden too contends that in its variety of incidents and irregularities, English drama is closer to nature than is the cold formality of the French plays.

      Conclusion. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy is the work of a liberal classicist not bound by a paralyzing reverence for the rules and conventions merely because they have been formulated and practiced by the ancients. Dryden admits the value of the ancients and the contemporary modems from France. But he has the breadth of vision to admit the differences in culture, values, taste and needs of audiences of different times and nations. Thus he contends with critical penetration that tragi-comedy, as practiced by the English dramatists, is a valid and acceptable form of dramatic art.

University Questions

Consider briefly Dryden’s views un tragi-comedy. How are they related to Sidney’s and Dr. Johnson’s views on the subject?
“In his defense of Shakespeare’s mingling of the tragic and the comic, Dryden ceases to be a classicist and goes over to the other camp.” Discuss.

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