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Anatomy of Tragedy #5: Comedy

written by the Judge


As we go towards the end of these meditations, a few words must be said on the subject of comedy. Comedy stands to tragedy in the same way that epic poetry stands to lyric poetry: it is the diametrical opposite, but in its true nature it is not as widely appreciated or understood by criticism.

If we start from the precept that comedy is the opposite of tragedy, it seems natural to look at the parable of its protagonists to make a comparison. Unfortunately, this is a topic on which comedies are frequently misleading: the character most central to the narrative (sometimes the one who gives the comedy its title) is not the equivalent of the tragic hero. Think of Shakespeare’s The Jew of Malta. Anyone would agree that Shylock is the most memorable character in the play, and maybe the most important. It is also possible to recognise in his parable the downfall of a tragic hero, and some modern renditions of the play have attempted to give it an accordingly serious, sombre slant.

This line of thinking only leads to confusion. The ‘protagonists’ of comedies are usually anti-heroes – old men who are rich and / or powerful, corrupted in their value-systems, trying to use their leverage to bend someone else to their repulsive will. The typical set-up sees one of these old men trying to marry a girl whom another character, a young man, happens to be in love with. It is this ‘young man’ who is the actual equivalent of the hero, having to fight for his individual love against unfavourable social forces, while the old man, as a representative of power, money and law, is the chorus (as often as not he is also the younger man’s father, thus standing in also for familial responsibility, history and heritage).

There are alternative set-ups, of course. One of the most popular consists in having a titular character who is not an old man, but a sly, witty, low-born servant who drives the plot forward with his clever tricks, such as Figaro or Scapin. This makes for another choral figure, because the servant represents the lower classes, in contrast to the play’s actual protagonists who are always of higher and more distinguished birth. Yet it does not change the actual structure of the play – the servant is normally there to help develop the same conflict between some grumpy aged bureaucrat and a younger hero. 

This structure has led a number of commentators to describe comedy as a type of story in which a young generation prevails over the old. This is historically true, but the question of age is of course not strictly necessary to develop a comic drama. Strepsiades, the real hero of Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds, is in fact an old father who is trying to educate his son (in this case the anti-hero figure is played by Socrates, the misleading, pompous head of the philosophers). Strepsiades ends the play in the most active condition it is possible to imagine, as he is single-handedly smashing down and burning the school of the philosophers with an axe, while Socrates cries out O signifiers in his final line, ‘Ah! ah! woe is upon me! I am suffocating!’

The above example reveals the true difference between tragedy and comedy. Though the structure is the same for both genres, the dynamics are reversed. At the end of comedies, the chorus figures close on signifiers of the O, that is to say, on equality and peace:

KING: All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.
(All’s Well That Ends Well).
CLOWN: But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.
(Twelfth Night).

DAKE: Proceed, proceed: we will begin these rites
As we do trust they’ll end in true delights.
(As You Like It).

In tragedy, the hero goes through a lyric transition (I to O) while the chorus draws an epic parable (O to I). In comedy, it is the other way round: the anti-hero, who is the chorus figure, goes through a lyric movement, while the young man, who is the actual hero, lives through an epic. The young man starts from a condition of passivity, being subject to the laws and the will of the old man (especially when the latter is framed as his father), and by the end of the comedy gets to marry the girl he desires – thus starting his own family, achieving economic independence and becoming his own self-subsistent pater familias. The old man, by contrast, goes from being in a position where he may enforce his will, to being compelled to surrender it. This does not make of him a tragic hero, on the contrary: we are able to empathise with a tragic hero because he represents the I, which is what allows us to identify with him. But the comedic anti-hero represents the O, and when he makes a lyric speech, the social values he defends or expresses are repressive (and not assertive) of the individual, such that we are pleased to see them undone. This is the lyric monologue that Molière’s Harpagon enounces at the end of the fourth act of The Miser, after his money has been stolen:

Ah! I’ve seized my own self. My spirit is troubled, and I ignore where I am, who I am, and what I do. Alas! My poor money, my poor money, my dear friend! They have deprived me of you, and since you have been taken from me, I have lost my support, my consolation, my joy; all is finished for me, and I have nothing else left in the world: without you, it is impossible for me to live. It’s finished, I can’t take it any longer; I die, I am dead, I am buried.
Some rhetorical subtleties aside, this speech is not qualitatively different from those made by tragic characters. The difference between Harpagon’s speech and that of someone like Romeo is that Harpagon is appealing to a social construct – money – that we are not able to identify with; the fact that we may desire money does not mean that we are willing to define it as our identity. Romeo, on the other hand, is speaking for an individual, internal will – in this case, his love for Juliet – that we can instantly make our own.

The result is that Harpagon’s speech is met with social rejection by the audience, in the form of laughter. Laughter is originally a mechanism developed for the expression of social allegiance: we laugh with the people we like, and at the people we dislike. By contrast in a tragedy, the lyric speech is made by someone the audience is siding with, and the result is that we suffer together with him.
In both tragedy and comedy, we walk out with a feeling of existential satisfaction, as though the order and harmony of the universe had been re-established. The difference between the two genres is rather subtle, and it is defined by the way they cross over the lyric and epic effect. If we agree that in the lyric we experience a dissolution, a gentle dissipation of the self, while in the epic we experience its affirmation, then here is how they are crossed over in drama: in tragedy, we identify with the hero as he dissolves lyrically, and with the chorus as it assumes the ideal of the hero (by picking up the I which he has relinquished). Thus, we are effectively dissolving into an ideal. We may be disappearing, but we are disappearing into something greater, more noble – and that’s why the tragic is uplifting even as it is sad. In comedy, we identify with the hero as he wins an epic struggle for his own individual agency, and with the chorus as it surrenders its active agency to the hero. In this case it is the hero who is picking up the mantle of a social collectivity or a social rule – that is why his victory is normally expressed through the group ritual of marriage. In comedy, we are being named, born, individualised, accepted as we truly are, by and into a group that is larger than we are, namely society. Our own individualism is defined and supported by the social context in which it subsists, while in tragedy it is society which marches on under the banner of the fallen hero’s individual values. This is not a ‘philosophical’ difference; you could argue that the two things are really the same thing, at least in terms of what they mean and imply. It is, rather, an aesthetic difference: even if we can’t pin down tragedy and comedy in terms of an ideological distinction, we feel the difference between them, we experience it fully on an emotive level, much like we feel the difference between an epic and a lyric poem even if they are both, say, about a religious poet’s love for God.
Thus a genuine comedy does more than simply make you laugh. Unlike satire, parody, common jokes or desecrating humour, which can be just as funny as anything in the above classical format, you will walk out of a comedy with a harmonious feeling that more elementary humour cannot give to you: it’s like knowing that the world is beautiful.

Final part coming along next week, fellas, with a look at tragedy in the world of film. See you then!

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