According to Aristotle Nature of Comedy in Poetics

Also Read


      In the first chapters of the Poetics, Aristotle classifies poetry into two. One is the tragic, developing from the heroic poetry. The other is the comic vein, which probably developed from satire. Aristotle does not elaborate on the stages of development in Comedy; he says that these stages are obscure. But he does not indicate that he is going to deal mainly with tragedy in the Poetics. There is every indication, on the other hand, that he would deal with Comedy and Satire, too. This gives rise to the justifiable idea that a second part of the Poetics has been lost, and, in it was a discussion of Comedy and satiric poetry. As it is, Aristotle's idea of comedy has to be constructed out of the remarks scattered in the Poetics as it exists today. The Objects of Imitation in Comedy At the beginning of chapter 5 of the Poetics, Aristotle makes a general statement about comedy. He avers: "Comedy is an imitation of characters of a lower type-not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.

      An important aspect of this definition is that comedy does not deal with the 'bad' or the lower type in the sense of causing pain or harm of any sort. Thus, bad in the sense of destructive villainy' is removed from the area of comedy. It is different from tragedy because the men it imitates are lower than the ordinary; lower, however, in one aspect, that of the ridiculous. The characters in comedy, therefore, involve caricatures. It is a defect which causes laughter, not pain or Sorrow.

Comedy and the Universal

      Comedy derives from satire, but there is a difference between the two forms, Satire aimed its shafts at individuals, often real living persons. It ridiculed the follies of real persons through invective and Personal raillery', Such personal invective was set aside by comedy. Comedy dealt with the universal. It dealt with follies and foibles, ridiculous and ludicrous aspects of the human race in general. This universality of comedy comes out in the casual remark made by Aristotle, that the comic poet "first constructs the plot on the lines of probability and then inserts characteristic names unlike the lampooners who write about particular individuals". It is from such casual remarks that we have to understand Aristotle's idea of comedy. Universality, however, is an essential aspect of comedy.

      Comedy deals with the basic foibles and follies of human nature. Its subjects are the inconsistencies and eccentricities present in human behavior. Its aim is to induce laughter at such inconsistencies and at the results produced by such ridiculous aspects of human nature and society. If tragedy is concerned with the ennobling the aspects of human nature which deserve to be ennobled, comedy is concerned with those ridiculous aspects of human nature, which deserve to be ridiculed. But these ridiculous aspects are universalized, and not particularised in comedy.

      The names used in comedy indicate a type, not an individual. This has been true of comedy to a large extent, though not at all times. It is part of a tendency to generalize, or to universalize the follies and foibles presented. It has scope for every type of ridiculous. Thus there is the bustling slave, the greedy parasite, the cheat, the foolish man, the sad man, etc. Comedy through the ages will be seen to have characters who are represented through a single trait of personality. The comedy of Humours is a clear example.

A Hypothesis about Comedy along Aristotle's Views

      It is not possible to say with conviction what Aristotle's views on comedy are, since the Poetics as it exists does not elaborate upon it. But we can try and make a guess at the possible views Aristotle might have on comedy. That it would have to have a single action, is quite clear. It is also clear that it should produce the special pleasure of comedy. And the laws of probability and necessity would have to be followed by the poet of comedies, as well as the poet of tragedies. Plot would, here too, gain primary importance. All the elements in comedy should conduct to the production of the pleasure special to it. And the effect special to comedy is necessarily that of laughter. Apparently, the events of tragedy have to be painful and fearful: they have to evoke pity and fear. Comedy would have to have incidents which bring out the ludicrous, or the ridiculous. Comedy certainly does not rule out reversal and recognition (two important elements of tragedy), but these will be in the nature of inducing surprised laughter rather than the awesome sense of destiny and fearful inevitability of tragedy. And in comedy, there is the distribution of reward and punishment - something Aristotle states to be more appropriate to comedy to tragedy.

      The concept of comedy, as that of tragedy, has naturally undergone modifications. Aristophanes' comedies satirized society Plautus and Terence followed in his footsteps; they satirized folies and crimes of human nature. Ben Jonson and Moliere stripped folly to the skin in their plays. Oscar Wilde provided the keenest wit and entertainment and mirth in his comedies. Bernard Shaw's comedies are plays of ideas; his wisdom is couched in wit and laughter. Shakespeare's comedies are a set apart. His poetic imagination makes his comic characters remarkably, 'rounded' figures. His laughter is broad and tolerant, never bitingly satiric. Most of what he wrote is to be termed 'romantic comedy.


      We cannot say categorically what Aristotle's views on comedy were in the absence of actually stated principles. We can merely form a general idea from the scattered remarks in the Poetics as it exists today. We can perhaps refer to what he says in his Rhetoric, that the pleasure that Comedy gives is a certain motion of the soul and a sudden and perceptible settling into one's normal and natural state. This 'motion' would probably be caused by the words and deeds of the characters in a comedy. In the wittiness of Comedy, the soul thus aroused seeks pleasure by seeing through the game and realising the absurdity of the situation.

University Questions

What, according to Aristotle, is the nature of Comedy? Discuss.
Comedy is "an imitation of characters of lower type ... Sports with human follies, not with crimes, and arouses laughter without malice." Discuss.
Elucidate Aristotle's contention that tragedy and epic poetry imitate the nobler aspects of life, while satire and comedy imitate the lower. Do you agree with his views?

Previous Post Next Post