One popular method of distinguishing between a comedy and a tragedy has always been by virtue of whether a play or film has a happy or tragic ending. Today, however, it is largely considered that a tragedy can be comic in parts, and need not necessarily result in an unhappy ending or death (Thorndike, p.2-3) Similarly, although comedies are widely defined as humorous entertainment, evoking a great deal of laughter and amusement, it does not necessarily follow that there are no serious, underlying messages. Thus, it is evident that types or genres of drama are intended to be categories that are not firm and that many plays may fit into a number of categories simultaneously. Indeed, the preceding observation is certainly true of many of Shakespeare's plays: "Shakespeare -- uses comedy in tragedy and tragedy in comedy...difficult to categorize." (Trumbull, 2002) It is the purpose of this paper to identify one characteristic of comedy and two characteristics of tragedy and thereafter, demonstrate their application to scenes from four plays, which are considered to be among the greatest tragedies ever penned: Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. The scope of this paper will also include a discussion on two films, Pretty Woman and The Path to War, as examples that epitomize comedy and tragedy respectively.
Although several characteristics are used to distinguish between a comedy and a tragedy, only three have been identified for the purposes of this paper. The singular characteristic of comedy that will be discussed is the exaggerated or wry manner in which human folly or foolishness is underscored (Trumbull, 2002), while the two characteristics of tragedy, which will be explored, are the struggles or suffering of the protagonist over moral issues and the raising of questions about the meaning of human existence (Trumbull, 2002).
Perhaps the most appropriate starting point for demonstrating that a comedy and tragedy are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though they have long been considered to be the main divisions of drama (Thorndike, p. 4-5), is Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, although Romeo and Juliet is hailed as one of the greatest love tragedies ever written, it, almost deceptively, appears to be a comedy for the most part. In fact, had Shakespeare not used the prologue to announce that the play was about star-crossed lovers; the audience may well have been completely deceived in expecting or hoping for a happy ending, particularly since the opening scene itself is a witty one that mocks human foolishness through a dialogue between Sampson and Gregory from the house of Capulets.
Filled with quick repartee, the opening dialogue between Samson and Gregory evokes much hilarity over the typical posturing of many humans. For instance, when Samson threatens that he "strikes quickly, being moved," Gregory retorts by pointing out that he is a man who is not "quickly moved to strike." Even when Samson attempts to defend himself by remarking, "a dog of the house of Montague moves me," Gregory is unrelenting and continues to poke fun at Samson and human behavior: "To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand: / therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn'st away."(1.1. 5-8)
The fact that Gregory's wit is very much intentioned to underscore Samson's foolish posturing is confirmed when the two shortly meet Abraham and Balthasar, two serving-men from the house of Montagues. At this juncture, it is evident that Samson's boasts are, indeed, mere posturing, as evidenced by his urging Gregory to pick a quarrel: "My naked weapon is out: quarrel; I will back / thee." (1.1. 31-32) In fact, all doubt over Samson's cowardice is removed when he, thereafter, backs out of picking a quarrel: "Let us take the law of our sides; let them begin." (1.1. 36) Ultimately, even though it is Samson who challenges the Montague men to draw their sword, it is obvious that he does so only to impress his master's kinsmen who approach the scene, thereby further underscoring human folly in acting to impress rather than to live up to the strength of conviction.
Of course, Shakespeare seems to have set the whole mis-en-scene to establish the utter foolishness of the long-standing family feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. Indeed, this is apparent when old Capulet calls for his sword and Lady Capulet points out that he should be asking for a crutch. In doing so, Shakespeare also effectively raises a question about human affairs and the meaning of existence. For, inevitably it is the tragic inability of the Capulets and the Montagues to overcome negative emotions such as pride, which turns the love affair of Romeo and Juliet into a tragedy. Indeed, this is precisely what Prince Escalus points out, in the final scene, as the cause of the tragic deaths of the two, young lovers:
Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven find means to kill your joys with love.
And I, for winking at your discords, too,
Have lost a pair of kinsmen. All are punished." (5.3.291)
Thus, the central message of Romeo and Juliet is that negative emotions such as hate and pride will inevitably lead to tragedy. It is also hard to escape the irony in the Prince's missive to old Capulet and Montague: "That heaven find means to kill your joys with love." (5.3.293) For, in the final analysis, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet lies in not just the needless deaths of two, young lovers, but in that it took their deaths to bring their parents to their senses: "O brother Montague, give me thy hand: / This is my daughter's jointure, for no more / Can I demand." (5.3. 296-8) In effect, Shakespeare points out that the meaning of human existence lies in working towards love and peace, and when people fail to do so, fate will intervene to drive home that lesson.
Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth are, without doubt, plays that fall more into the genre of tragedies. Yet, even these plays are not without comic relief in the form of parodies that underscore human foolishness. For instance, in Hamlet, in Act 5.1, Shakespeare uses dark humor to drive home not just the foolishness of humans who spend a lifetime in pursuing power and wealth, but in doing so, he also succeeds in exploring the meaning of human existence. For, as Hamlet observes, it all comes to naught since death becomes the great leveler:
why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the scone with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a great buyer of land...."
The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?(5.1. 93-106)
Although Hamlet's observations are in a philosophical tone, there is nevertheless distinct comedy in the scene, which is provided by the witty dialogue between the two grave diggers, and indeed, between Hamlet and the character called the "first clown." Take, for example, the clown's response to Hamlet when he inquires about the person the grave is being dug for. The clown answers, "Mine, sir.... You lie out on't, sir, and therefore it is not yours: / for my part, I do not lie in't, and yet it is mine." (5.1. 113-118) It can also be inferred that Shakespeare uses the clown to underscore the human folly of vanity and pride among the living. This is implied in the clown's jocular parrying with Hamlet, when the latter once again asks who the grave is being prepared for: "For no man, sir / What woman, then? / For none, neither / Who is to be buried in't? / One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, / she's dead." (5.1.124-129)
In fact, Shakespeare's incorporation of the grave digging scene raises the inference that perhaps the playwright deliberately inserted the scene and dialogue in order to use the phenomenon of death to mock human kind's conflicts in life, which is a central theme of the tragedy. If there is any merit in this inference, it is then also rather ironical that Hamlet is often regarded as one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies because it is timeless in its preoccupation with the dilemmas and the uncertainties that are at the heart of life (Hibbard, p. 2). Indeed, it is Shakespeare's rendering of the internal conflicts in Hamlet's soul, which turn him into one of the world's most revered tragic figures.
Hamlet's struggles and suffering is caused because he is torn between the need to avenge his murdered father and the personal desire to appease his own conscience. And the scene where his agony is most evident is the one just before the players are scheduled…