Comedy: Definition & Meaning in Drama

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What is Comedy?

      In the late Middle English period, comedy was meant for a genre of drama, also denoting a narrative poem with a happy ending, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It originates from the Old French comedie, via Latin from Greek kômôidia, while kômôidos means ‘comic poet’. It is a play, book or film which is intentionally funny either in its characters or in its action.

      Comedy is a literary genre and a type of dramatic work that is amusing and satirical in its tone, mostly having a cheerful ending. The objective of this dramatic work is triumph over unpleasant circumstance by which to create comic effects, resulting in happy or successful conclusion for the purpose of amusing the audience. Comedy concerns itself with the follies and foibles, flaws and imperfections of mankind. Comedy has multiple sub-genres depending upon source of humor, context in which an author delivers dialogues, and delivery method, which includes farce, satire and burlesque.

      The Greeks and Romans confined their use of the word comedy to descriptions of stage-plays with happy endings. Aristotle defined comedy as an imitation of men worse than the average, where tragedy was an imitation of men better than the average. However, the characters portrayed in comedies were not worse than average in every way, only in so far as they are ridiculous, which is a species of the ugly. The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, that excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain.

      A comedy is opposite to a tragedy which ends with a painful conclusion in the life of the dramatic characters that are traditionally of high social status. On the contrary, a comedy is chiefly written to amuse its audience, with characters mostly taken from everyday life. The plot in a comedy usually ends happily. In the Middle Ages this term was seen as the complementary to tragedies. In a narrative tragedy the heroes fall from wealth to wretchedness, while in a narrative comedy characters climb from wretchedness to wealth/happiness. The two together make up the wheel of fortune, a major symbol of human fate. Tragedies and comedies can be compared on several grounds, by setting up opposites as those of death and love, solitude and company, punishment and reward, etc., but these comparisons cannot really be generalized.

Ingredients and Forms of Comedy

      The fundamental ingredient for making a drama comic is the arousement of laughter in the audiences or readers through the exploitation of words, gestures, appearances, wit, humor, satire, prevention and so on. Incongruity or the contrast in the object is one of the most important traits for a play to be sufficiently comic. The phenomena connected with laughter are incongruity or contrast in the object, and shock or emotional seizure on the part of the subject. It has also been held that the feeling of superiority is an essential factor: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) speaks of laughter as a “sudden glory”. Modern investigators have paid much attention to the origin both of laughter and of smiling, as well as the development of the “play instinct” and its emotional expression. Comedy may employ variations on the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, repetitiveness, and the effect of opposite expectations. For example, a comedy written on political theme uses political satire ironically to portray persons or social institutions as ridiculous or corrupt thus alienating their audience from the object of humor. But a romantic comedy chooses the love and such things as its ingredients.

      For a comedy to work there must be an established set of cultural, human and societal norms, mores, idioms, idiosyncrasies, and terminologies against which incongruities may be found. Such norms may be internal or external. Internal norms are those which the author has provided in the script. External norms are those which exist in the society for which the script was written. The greatest incongruity is the violation of societal taboos. This violation can provoke the greatest laughter. In American society, the greatest taboos are discussions of sex, death, and biological functions. These are all subjects which society has decreed. These should be discussed seriously, discreetly, and euphemistically, if discussed at all. It is from these taboos that much humor is derived. The idea of incongruity is that we laugh at things that surprise us because they seem out of place. It is funny when clowns wear outrageously large shoes, people have especially big noses or politicians tell the truth. In the same way, comic elements are funny because they involve ideas that run against our expectations. The incongruous elements cause sudden surprise, which in turn makes results in laughter. This laughter is first and foremost target of a comic dramatic genre.

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