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An introduction to the comparison of comedy and tragedy by william shakespeare

Studies in Shakespeare course at Malaspina University College in British Columbia; it is the best introductory discussion I have ever read on the subject of dramatic comedy and tragedy, and it is especially useful as an introduction to the major themes of King Lear.

The full version of this lecture can be accessed here. Comedy and Tragedy Shakespeare's plays are all about one great general theme: This may sound like a profound statement, but, as we shall see in a moment, it applies equally well to almost all drama. Still, the point is worth stressing, for reasons we shall attend to in a moment, because the major entry into every play we read is going to be an attempt to answer some key questions associated with that notion of disorder: What is the order in this society?

How is that order violated? How do the characters respond to the loss of traditional order? How is order restored? Is the new order at the end of the play something healthy or is it shot through with ironic resonance?

All dramatic stories always involve conflict.

The Main Characteristics of Shakespearean Plays: Comedy, Tragedy, History

Typically, the dramatic narrative will open with some sense of a normal society: In other words, we begin with a society which is held together by shared rules. Many of Shakespeare's plays begin with a large group scene the king and his court, for example in which everyone has a place and knows his or her place.

The scene is offered to us as a symbol of social unity which is about to be broken and will not be restored until the closing scenes e. Then, something unusual and often unexpected happens to upset that normality. The event may be something natural, like a ship wreck as in Twelfth Night or The Tempestsupernatural as in Macbeth and Hamleta decision made by a particular character as in King Lear or As You Like It or a sudden quarrel e.

Often this event which kick starts the action is given very quickly with no attempt to provide a detailed explanation for it or even, in some cases, instantly plausible motivation e. At all events, this upset which typically occurs very early in the action disturbs the normal situation, creates confusion and conflict. Such conflict may be the source of much humour for example, in the various mistaken identities which occur when a set of twins or, as in Comedy of Errors, two sets of twins, unexpectedly get loose in the communityor it may be the source of much political, personal, and psychological torment.

Attempts to understand what is going on or to deal with it simply compound the conflict, accelerating it and intensifying it. Finally, the conflict is resolved. The terms comedy and tragedy commonly refer to the ways in which dramatic conflicts are resolved.

In comedy, the confusion ends when everyone recognizes what has been going on, learns from it, forgives, forgets, and re-establishes his or her identity in the smoothly functioning social group which may return to the original normality or may be setting up a better situation than the one the group started with. Comedies typically end an introduction to the comparison of comedy and tragedy by william shakespeare a group celebration, especially one associated with a betrothal or wedding, often accompanied by music and dancing The emphasis is on the reintegration of everyone into the group, a recommitment to their shared life together.

  • The full version of this lecture can be accessed here;
  • Such conflict may be the source of much humour for example, in the various mistaken identities which occur when a set of twins or, as in Comedy of Errors, two sets of twins, unexpectedly get loose in the community , or it may be the source of much political, personal, and psychological torment.

If there has been a clearly disruptive presence in the action, a source of anti-social discord, then that person typically has reformed his ways, has been punished, or is banished from the celebration.

Thus, the comic celebration is looking forward to a more meaningful communal life hence the common ending for comedies: The ending of a tragedy is quite different.

Here the conflict is resolved only with the death of the main character, who usually discovers just before his death that his attempts to control the conflict and make his way through it have simply compounded his difficulties and that, therefore, to a large extent the dire situation he is in is largely of his own making.

The death of the hero is not normally the very last thing in a tragedy, however, for there is commonly especially in classical Greek tragedy some group lament over the body of the fallen hero, a reflection upon the significance of the life which has now ended.

Some of Shakespeare's best known speeches are these laments. The final action of a tragedy is then the carrying out of the corpse. The social group has formed again, but only as a result of the sacrifice of the main character sand the emphasis in the group is in a much lower key, as they ponder the significance of the life of the dead hero in that sense, the ending of a tragedy is looking back over what has happened; the ending of comedy is looking forward to a joyful future.

This apparently simple structural difference between comedy and tragedy means that, with some quick rewriting, a tragic structure can be modified into a comic one. If we forget about violating the entire vision in the work more about this laterwe can see how easily a painful tragic ending can be converted into a reassuring comic conclusion.

If Juliet wakes up in time, she and Romeo can live happily ever after. If Cordelia survives, then Lear's heart will not break; she can marry Edgar, and all three of them can live prosperously and happily for years to come. Such changes to the endings of Shakespeare's tragedies were commonplace in eighteenth-century productions, at a time when the tragic vision of experience was considered far less acceptable and popular by the general public. Comedy and Tragedy as Visions of Experience But the terms tragedy and comedy refer to more than simply the structure of a narrative especially the ending.

The terms also commonly refer to visions of experience which those structures present. And this matter is considerably more complex than simply the matter of the final plot twist.

Of the two, the comic vision is easier to explain, since, as we shall see, it corresponds to the way most of us think or like to think about life. Stated most simply, the comic vision celebrates the individual's participation in a community as the most important part of life. When the normal community is upset, the main characters in a an introduction to the comparison of comedy and tragedy by william shakespeare will normally have the initial urge to seek to restore that normality, to get back what they have lost.

Initially, they will be unsuccessful, and they will have to adapt to unfamiliar changes funny or otherwise. But in a comedy the main characters will have the ability to adjust, to learn, to come up with the resources necessary to meet the challenges they face. They may also have a great deal of luck.

But one way and another, they persevere and the conflict is resolved happily with the reintegration of the characters into a shared community. Often an important point in the comedy is the way in which the main characters have to learn some important things about life especially about themselves before being able to resolve the conflict this is particular true of the men in Shakespeare's comedies. This form of story, it will be clear, is an endorsement of the value in the communal life we share together and of the importance of adjusting our individual demands on life to suit community demands.

In a sense, the comic confusion will often force the individual to encounter things he or she has taken for granted, and dealing with these may well test many different resources above all faith, flexibility, perseverance, and trust in other people. But through a final acknowledgment earned or learned of the importance of human interrelationships, a social harmony will be restored commonly symbolized by a new betrothal, a reconciliation between parents, a family reunion, and so onand a group celebration feast, dance, procession will endorse that new harmony.

Tragedy, by contrast, explores something much more complex: The tragic hero characteristically sets out to deal with a conflict by himself or at least entirely on his own terms, and as things start to get more complicated, generally the tragic figure will simply redouble his efforts, increasingly persuaded that he can deal with what is happening only on his own.

In that sense, tragic heroes are passionately egocentric and unwilling to compromise their powerful sense of their own identity in the face of unwelcome facts.

They will not let themselves answer to any communal system of value; they answer only to themselves. Lear would sooner face the storm on the heath than compromise his sense of being horribly wronged by his daughters; Macbeth wills himself to more killings as the only means to resolve the psychological torment he feels; Othello sets himself up as the sole judge and executioner of Desdemona.

Tragic heroes always lose because the demands they make on life are excessive. Setting themselves up as the only authority for their actions and refusing to compromise or learn except too latethey inevitably help to create a situation where there is no way out other than to see the action through to its increasingly grim conclusion. Hence, for most of us tragic heroes are often not particularly sympathetic characters not at least in the way that comic protagonists are. There is something passionately uncompromising about their obsessive egoism which will only accept life on their own terms--in a sense they are radically unsociable beings although they may occupy, and in Shakespeare almost always do occupy, important social positions.

The intriguing question is the following: Why would anyone respond to life this way? That question is very difficult to answer. The tragic response to life is not a rationally worked out position.

For any rational person, the comic response to life, which requires compromise in the name of personal survival in the human community or which sees the whole question of personal identity in social termsmakes much more sense.

What does seem clear is that the tragic response to life emerges in some people from a deeply irrational but invincible conviction about themselves. Their sense of what they are, their integrity, is what they must answer to, and nothing the world presents is going to dissuade them from attending to this an introduction to the comparison of comedy and tragedy by william shakespeare sense of worth.

Hence, tragedy is, in a sense, a celebration if that is the right word of the most extreme forms of heroic individualism. That may help to explain the common saying "Comedy is for those who think, tragedy for those who feel.

Most of us do that in terms of social relationships and social activities. In traditional societies, one's identity is often very closely bound up with a particular family in a specific place.

We define ourselves to ourselves and to others as sons, daughters, husbands, wives, members of an academic community or a social or religious group, or participants in a social activity, and so on. In that sense we define ourselves comically not in a funny way but in terms of a social matrix. The tragic hero is not willing or able to do this although he or she might not be aware of that inability at first.

The tragic personality wants to answer only to himself, and thus his sense of his own identity is not determined by others they must answer to his conception of himself. Given that his passions are huge and egocentric and uncompromising, the establishment of an identity inevitably brings him into collision with the elemental forces of life, which he must then face alone because to acknowledge any help would be a compromise with his sense of who he is.

We might also ask why we bother paying such attention to a tragic character. What is there about the tragic response which commands our imaginative respect? After all, many of these characters strike us as very naive and full of their own self-importance in some ways, perhaps, quite childishnot the sort of people one would like to have as next door neighbours or dinner companions.

Incapable of adapting to unexpected changes in life, they often seem so rigid as to defy credibility and curiously blind a key metaphor in many tragedies. Characteristically, they don't listen to others, but rather insist that people listen to and agree with them the pronouns I and me are very frequent in their public utterances--Lear is one of the supreme examples of this tendency.

Why are these people worthy of our attention? We shall have much to explore on this question in dealing with Macbeth and Lear, but for the moment we might observe that we don't have to like these people particularly in an introduction to the comparison of comedy and tragedy by william shakespeare for them to command our attention. What matters is their willingness to suffer in the service of their own vision of themselves.

They have set an emotional logic to their lives, and they are going to see it through, no matter how powerfully their originally high hopes are deceived. They are also, in a sense that we can imaginatively understand, although rarely if ever attain in our own lives, truly free, since they acknowledge no authority other than themselves. Macbeth is a mass murderer of women and children, among others ; no one watching the play will have any sympathy for his bloody actions.

And yet as he faces and deals with the grim realities closing in on him, his astonishing clear sightedness, courage, and willingness to endure whatever life loads on him command our respect and attention. The same hold true for Lear, in many ways a foolish father and king and an inflexibly egocentric man, whose sufferings and whose willingness to suffer inspire awe. Characters in plays, as in life, do not decide to be tragic or comic heroes. What they are emerges as they respond to the unexpected conflict which the opening of the drama initiates.

Their response to the dislocation of normality will determine which form their story will take. To the comic hero, undertaking what is necessary for the restoration of normality is important, and that may well require serious adjustments to one's opinion of oneself, an ability to adopt all sorts of ruses and humiliations disguise, deceptions, pratfalls, beatings, and so ona faith in others, and some compromise in the acknowledgment of others.

Comic heroes and heroines learn to listen to others and respond appropriately. The tragic hero, by contrast, takes the responsibility fully on himself. In his own mind, he is the only one who knows what needs to be done, and if circumstances indicate that he may be wrong, he is incapable of acknowledging that until it's too late. His sense of himself is too powerful to admit of change.

Tragic heroes do not listen to others, only to themselves or to others who tell them what they want to hear.