Tragedy and Comedy: Definition & Explanation

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      Dobree opens his Introduction to Restoration Tragedy with the remark that if all art is an exploration of life. Comedy is where man inquires into himself as a social animal and Tragedy is where man explores his daring against the overwhelming odds of life, and tests the depth of his acceptance.

      That, in short, is the distinction between the two literary forms. “Tragedy”, said Aristotle, “is an imitation of an action that is serious. “It appears that to Aristotle’s mind tragedy did not necessarily mean a drama ending in death, but only a drama that rendered life seriously. But there are serious plays which are not tragedies; and even the seriousness of tragedy is often mingled with comic relief; that is, its gloom is often relieved by laughter.

      So, we shall accept, perhaps without warrant from that great authority, that tragedy presents the spectacle of human suffering, that it usually ends in disaster, and sometimes in the death of the protagonist.

      Now death in itself is not tragic. Death affects us in many ways, or we react to it not always in the same manner The death of a child is pathetic, not tragic. The death of the martyr who dies happily for a noble cause is not tragic. The death of a villain leaves us indifferent or even satisfied. Death which ‘slaps you in the face’, death that overtakes you unawares, that is death by accident or violence is tragedy only ‘in the newspaper sense’. Tragedy is more than mere death or an unhappy ending.

      The center of interest in a tragedy is neither death nor the unhappy ending, though these may usually go with it. It is the character of the protagonist and his struggle against fate, or circumstance, or his own self. He is a free and conscious agent, more or less, in so far as he makes a moral choice, and his action is ‘willed’. Character becomes destiny in this sense. Tragedy is not all a matter of fate (Fate conceived as an outside force and reducing man to a helpless state of resignation and passive acceptance.)

      But, paradoxical as it may seem, the tragic hero is at the same time ‘doomed’, because he is seen to have a ‘flaw’ which brings about his fall. The tragic hero must not be eminently good or just, said Aristotle. If he is a perfect man, what happens to him will not concern us much; for perfect characters—monsters of virtue—are unreal and their doings and fate have very little bearing on the general human situation. Also, we are filled with a sense of revolt rather than sympathy at the unjust destruction of good.

      Again, if he is already perfect, there is no scope left for his moral regeneration which comes about through the discovery of his own error. The protagonist, in the course of the drama, makes a discovery (what is termed Anagnorisis in Greek); he learns through suffering, and changes for the better. He is ‘redeemed’ through suffering, (Cp. the redemption of Lear). However, this will not change his destiny or reversal of fortune (Gk. Peripeteia). Restoration to happiness is not an end envisaged by Tragedy for its characters. Such reconciliation, even if it comes about, is not to be foreshadowed, for it will weaken the effect of Tragedy (Cp. What is suggested in regard to King Lear and the arguments against a happy ending put forth by Lamb). The tragic protagonist, by his choice, is committed to a course of action which allows no return. He falls fighting the flaw within him, or against the evil whose nature he did not fully know before, or yet against fete which he has offended and which must come down on him relentlessly. Tragedy is never entirely due to external factors. ‘We are undone by what is false within.

      Except lot this tragic ‘flaw’, however, the tragic hero is good and just. He may also be great. Aristotle required that he be a man of high estate, so that his fall may seem all the more terrible, and that tragedy may have its full impact on us. But in these days of the common man, tragedy cannot afford to be snobbish. We must lay stress on the ‘inner aristocracy’ of the hero, his moral stature, rather than his estate or fame. If the protagonist is too weak to offer a meaningful struggle, like Ibsen’s Rosmer, he cannot rise to the dignity of a tragic hero. To show the inner nobility or force of human character—its hidden strength and magnificence—tragedy must present man in isolation. The tragic hero, therefore, is a strong-minded individual, an extremist, and is generally superior to or only different from other men. Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of his essential humanness. He is a normal human being, though the situation in which he finds himself may be unusual and the mental state it induces is also unusual. In his weakness as well as strength he is representative of humanity. And it is because of this representative quality in him that we so wholly identify ourselves with the tragic hero, and feel pity for him at the same time that his fate arouses a sense of terror in our hearts. Hegel objected to pity because it seemed an insult to the hero. But we are doubtless drawn to him in sympathy at the same time as we are put off by his terrible fate (Cp. I. A. Richards’ explanation of pity and terror as ‘the impulse to approach’ and ‘the impulse to retreat’); and we are drawn to him because he is essentially human. L. J. Potts, in his book on Comedy, lays stress on the normality of the tragic hero in spite of his unusualness, in contrast to comic characters, which are abnormal (i. e., cranky or eccentric), yet usual (i. e. ‘usually met with).

      Now coming to the effect of tragedy, Aristotle said that by arousing pity and fear Tragedy effected a ‘catharsis’ of these emotions. The term ‘catharsis’ (which means both ‘purgation’ and ‘purification’) has been the subject of much debate. It is also debated whether ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ are the only emotions involved in this case, and whether catharsis is peculiar to tragedy alone, and does not take place in the case of other literary experiences as well.

      It is agreed that the excess emotions or unhealthy pent-up emotions, which are a burden to the human heart, are purged off through being excited by tragedy. Left to ourselves we might indulge in these emotions too little or too much or improperly But being called upon to pity and fear the right objects, and reasonably, emotional balance is restored.

      It is maintained by some that ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ have a broad connotation and stand for a whole complex of feelings like anxiety, self-pity, unhealthy grief, sadistic and masochistic tendencies.

      Allardyce Nicoll, following Corneille, adds ‘admiration’ to the list of feelings evoked by tragedy. John Gassner, on the other hand, says that a third element which is present in the emotional effect of tragedy is ‘enlightenment’. It is not only the third, but the most decisive, factor in tragedy, says he. The witnessing of tragedy results, and must result, in a ‘clarity of mind and spirit’, in ‘enlightenment’. And it is this that accounts for the effect of exaltation in tragedy.

      Or course, we go to witness a tragedy, not primarily to get an emotional purge nor yet for a banquet of tears, but to widen and deepen our experience. And, as F. L. Lucas puts it, there is in all of us an inner craving for more and more experience, the insatiable urge for knowledge and experience which Tennyson’s Ulysses exhibits.

      The experience of witnessing tragedy, though harrowing, has yet a pleasurable effect. And this, according to F. L. Lucas, is because of the truth of representation and the truth of the tale. We pass through the suffering and remain unshaken by it, because we do so the truth is, tragedy pleases us by exalting us. It is said that tragedy presents the eternal contradiction in human character, between man’s strength and his weakness, his stupidity and magnificence. Against the mightiest powers of the world, he stands unbowed, unbent and dishonored, though his head may be battered and bloody. He may be defeated or crushed, but he will not capitulate (surrender). So at the end of tragedy, the death of the hero does not fill us with a sense of despair or defeat. We are reconciled to the limitations of the world that is. Maybe, in another world, things are better ordained for man. Maybe, this will never be the best of all possible worlds for him. But ‘What though the field be lost?’ we exclaim, and endorse in our hearts of hearts the hero’s struggle and his undying courage.

      Comedy is associated in the popular mind with laughter and a happy ending. Though these may often go with it, comedy is neither the one nor the other Laughter is only a means whereby the comic artist secures his effects. And the ending of comedy in wedding bells is only a time-honoured convention. Even tragedies have laughter but that is only as a device for relieving tension. There is also a brand of tragedy (which is called tragi­comedy) which ends in happiness. (Cp. Melodrama, which overdoes the elements of terror and pity, by introducing scenes of horror and sensational incidents and by using rhetoric (bombast) instead of the restrained yet profoundly moving power of sublime poetry).

      The essence of Comedy is always an idea, an attitude. Just as there is a tragic view of life, there is also a comedy (or comic) view of life. Comedy asserts that life is worth living, in spite of its contradictions, puzzlements and serious entanglements. It is a happy-go-lucky world where there are no harsh judgments, and no absolute values, the violation of which brings punishment or disaster on one, as in tragedy. The laws that one might break in comedy are of man’s own making. There is no wrestling with moral problems, or no confrontation with a moral choice. Conscience and its counsels are, for the time being, put away We gaily participate in a world of man-made laws, of adjustable differences, easy solutions and compromises. Aristotle said that Comedy represents life grotesquely What he perhaps meant was that it is a world of abnormal (though usual) men and women and happy mistakes, pleasant illusions and avoidable folly.

      So the world of Comedy is the world of Society. The characters in a comedy are not alone or isolated, as the tragic hero is isolated and fights single-handed with fate or some weakness within him. The distinction between tragedy and comedy rests upon two opposite impulses, says L.J. Potts The one is an impulse to find ourselves, the other is to lose ourselves. In Tragedy, we discover our own inner worth, our inherent strength. But in Comedy, laughter acts as a solvent and we merge our individual selves (our too great preoccupation with the ego and awkward obsession with self) into the collective identity of the social group (Cp. Bergson who spoke of laughter as social gesture. We laugh with society against the nonconformist. But it may be noted, at the same time, that with Shaw we laugh at the society which is too hide-bound by convention and orthodoxy).

      The characters of comedy, then, belong to the world of everyday reality, the busy social whirl, where individual temperaments and interests clash and these clashes are resolved without serious harm or bitterness for those concerned.

      But this limitation of Comedy to the everyday world and the world of society might seem an arbitrary one. There are other kinds of comedy. Dobree divides comedies into three types: the comedy that deals with social manners or depicts society and purposes to correct folly by ridicule is Critical Comedy. The second variety he calls Free Comedy, where there are no fixed values or standards of conduct. It is a happy-go-lucky world which the characters inhabit (He would class a considerable body of Restoration Comedy in this category). Then there is the third: Great Comedy or High Comedy. Dobree puts under this category such comedies as come very near to tragedy e. g., Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure, Coriolanus and Jonson’s Volpone.

     Dobree does not mention Shakespeare’s romantic comedies under any category, but he would very probably class them under ‘Free (Omedy’. For, the fantasy world of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a world where pleasure is duty and the manners perfect freedom (that is how Lamb described the world of the ‘Artificial’ comedy of the 18th century.)

      For Meredith comedy in any age or moral climate has a social reference. He can only explain away Shakespeare’s comedies, depicting a fantasy world or the romantic loves of young men and women (as in As you Like It or Twelfth Night) as ‘The Poetically Comic’.

      The characters of comedy are not portrayed in depth. Seriousness of purpose or the complexity of human character is beyond the scope of the comic artist. Nevertheless, we have such full-blooded comic characters as Falstaff. But this impression of ‘fullness’ is illusory. Comic characters are portrayed only in length and breadth. The comic artist does not attempt to probe the complexity of human motivation. He does not try to resolve the basic contradictions in human nature. If he deals with human perversity he does so lightly, so as not to leave a scar. Where the comic artist lashes out indignantly against the follies or vices of contemporary society, and the humor is not kindly but savage, the comedy becomes satire. Such satiric comedy sometimes borders on tragedy (e. g. Moliere’s Le Misanthrope and Ben Jonson’s Volpone), in so far as it represents positive ugliness instead of harmless foibles.

      Comedy parallels, and contrasts, with tragedy not only in regard to the view of life it presents and character delineation, but also in regard to its effect on our mind.

      Tragedy affects us and affects profoundly It stirs the very depths of our beings. We are emotionally involved in the tragic situation.

      Admiration may mingle with our pity and terror; enlightenment may be at the basis of the sense of ‘exaltation’ that we experience. But there is no doubt about the profound emotional impact of tragedy; we are stunned by the blow which the hero receives. We are overpowered by pity. We weep for the irreversible march of tragic events. ‘Things should not be so tragically ordained’, we silently utter in our hearts, and shake our heads in disapproval of the logic of destiny. We rage in our hearts against its callousness, and against the waste it scatters. Even so, we are comforted in our sorrow by the assurance that man is great in spite of his littleness. His strength lies in the mighty dome of his will, and the impregnable fortress of his spirit. That is the pride and glory of the human race. This moral reassurance is what accounts for the ‘pleasure in pain’ of tragedy.

      Now, the human situation presented by tragedy, and the fate which the hero’s action meets with, alike call for pity and terror. The triumph of spirit may have its own elevating effect on our minds. But the intellect is not actively involved. Judgment is not called for. It is our hearts that are engaged, whereas in comedy we are called upon to pass judgment on the behavior of our fellow men. Comedy, said Meredith, is thoughtful laughter. We perceive the incongruity between profession and practice, the ideal and the actual and perhaps glory in our implied superiority. Our laughter at affectation and hypocrisy and the illogic of human behavior is perhaps an indication of this sense of our own superiority. Or it is a release of built-up expectation when this expectation is foiled. Our expectation is that the actual agree with our notion of it, that there be no contrast between the actual and the norm. So this process of comparison, implicit though not conscious, is always there in comic laughter. And with this critical activity goes also a sense of detachment. All the while in the theatre, we think we are different, that we are superior. So we do not identify ourselves with the objects of our laughter. We identify ourselves with a Hamlet or a Lear but not with a Falstaff. So there is a distance between comic characters and ourselves. Their behavior and action call for our judgment. Our laughter is itself the judgment. But outside the theatre, on our way home, we perhaps wonder whether some of our own follies were not portrayed in the persons that were put upon the stage. And we begin to see their relevance to us, and thus view our own follies with detachment. But this kind of moral regeneration (which does not concern ethical questions of right and wrong but only questions of propriety or social decency) comes much later. But in either case, our hearts are not engaged. It is only our intellect and judgment that are involved.

      Aristotle spoke of Catharsis only in connection with Tragedy. A possible treatise of his on Comedy has been lost. But Lane Cooper has built up a theory of comic catharsis on the analogy of tragic catharsis. His thesis is that Comedy affects the catharsis of envy and anger. What we call ‘ill humor’ comprises both these feelings. Comedy teaches us out of ‘ill humor’ by making us laugh at objects that usually excite our envy and anger, thereby enabling us to conquer these feelings.

      But the remedy in this instance is not homeopathic, as in the case of Tragedy. These feelings are not aroused in order to be purged. They are cured by an antidote which is laughter.

      A second theory of comic catharsis has also been put forth, which is that comedy through pleasure and laughter affects a catharsis of these emotions. In other words, comedy cures us of the desire to laugh at the wrong things, and at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons, by directing our laughter at the proper objects and through the right channels. Of course, comedy lightens our hearts by the purge of laughter and leaves us better prepared for the serious concerns of life. There is also pleasure in laughter, whether this lie in the sense of superiority or whether it is due to release of momentarily built-up tensions. But this is not all a matter of intellect or reason. Even when we laugh at a comic character, we have a kind feeling in our heart. The sting of envy or malice is alien to the spirit of comedy, though it is proper to satire. So the heart is engaged along with the head. The spirit of humor which is the essence of comedy is sympathetic and kindly but don't our sympathy may be enlisted for the object of language, our heart are not actively involved or profoundly strate. Comedy is a play of intellect it is concerned with judgment with reference to social norms. It is concerned with the role of property reasonable conduct. Its appeal, therefore primarily to the critical intellect, though the heart is not altogether left out or left cold. We do warm towards those whom we laugh at (we like them the better for our laughter.)

      Lastly, Comedy is not the opposite of Tragedy, in the sense that while Tragedy is an affirmation of man’s faith in himself, in absolute values, and the value of the tight (though it issues in defeat), Comedy does not negate these values. Rather, the higher laws of the moral kingdom are not its consent. It just bypasses them. It dwells in an easy world of comfortable illusions, shifting Social values and harmless foibles, not positive ugliness or painful defects or yet moral crimes or villainy. As long as society agrees, to laugh at mothers-in-law and jealous husbands, these are fit subjects for Comedy. But when jealousy becomes a matter of serious concern, there is no room for Comedy. When poverty pretends, it lays itself open to the laughter of Comedy. But poverty that is painful is not the subject of comedy— it is ‘no laughing matter’. Comedy is a point of view. In fact, Comedy and Tragedy represent complementary, rather than contradictory, points of view. They do not negate each other. Only they see life differently for the time being. They are, what Hardy said of fiction, ‘an impression’, not an argument; an expression of a mood, not an ideology; an impulse, not a program. They present life under differing patterns. Comedy asserts that life offers much to an optimistic spirit, that life is eminently livable and capital fun, provided you bring the comic viewpoint to bear. Tragedy accepts life with all its limitations, because it is only these that bring out the innate strength of man, though his power and glory may go unrecognized by the gods that be. Comedy presents life as a matter of minor complications which admit of easy resolution. The sense of compulsiveness and inevitability which carries the tragic hero onward to his doom is absent in Comedy.

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