A handout for my Shakespeare students, late in the game, after we’ve teased a lot of it out in conversation. Trying to draw it together into a sort of whole, without making our thought boxes too rigid.
Toward a Theory of Comedy
In our discussions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, we speculated that for something (a line, a conversation, a play as a whole) to be funny, three things need to be true:
- There needs to be incongruity – two meanings of a word that clash (a pun), or two conflicting desires in a character, or a situation in which we know something a character doesn’t (dramatic irony). An incongruity can be as small as a word or as big as the whole play.
- We need to feel that things will turn out okay. We can tell no one is going to die, and no one we like will end up worse than they started. A play can give us this feeling by invoking certain genre conventions of comedy. For instance, presented with lovers thwarted by a controlling father, we know we’re in a plot typical of romantic comedy. And when the lovers marry at the end, ideally as part of a multiple wedding (wild erotic possibilities set loose in the play, some of them quite transgressive, are here put back in their cages, or on their leashes) that plot structure is completed, and the genre confirmed.
- Our sense of fair play needs to be satisfied – characters will get about what they deserve. Again, genre conventions reassure us here, even when things are going badly for the good guys, and well for the bad.
Interestingly, tragedy differs from comedy mostly on the second point. Tragedy is full of incongruities, and the downfall of the tragic hero feels harsh to us, but not unjust (fair play). But we have a sense of large hidden forces arrayed against the hero and driving the action inexorably forward. This won’t end well and we know it from the first line or two. So the incongruities are mostly not funny, and the justness of the hero’s fate prompts sadness and seriousness, not exuberant good cheer.
Genre Conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy
The major conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy (adapted from Debora Schwartz’s page for ENG 339 at California Polytechnic State):
- The main action is about love.
- The would-be lovers must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being united in harmonious union. The ending frequently involves a parade of couples to the altar and a festive mood or actual celebration (expressed in dance, song, feast, etc.).
- Often it contains elements of the improbable, the fantastic, the supernatural, or the miraculous, e.g., unbelievable coincidences, improbable scenes of recognition/lack of recognition, willful disregard of the social order (nobles marrying commoners, beggars changed to lords), enchanted or idealized settings, supernatural beings (witches, fairies, gods and goddesses). The happy ending may be brought about through supernatural or divine intervention or may merely involve improbable turns of events.
- There is frequently a philosophical aspect involving weightier issues and themes: personal identity; the importance of love in human existence; the power of language to help or hinder communication; the transforming power of poetry and art; the disjunction between appearance and reality; the power of dreams and illusions.
Suspension of Disbelief
Right in front of you, a general named Othello is throttling his wife, Desdemona. Why don’t you call 911? Because you know it’s not real. But if you know it’s not real, why do you feel anything? Check your heart rate, your breathing, your muscle tension – you do feel something.
Drama depends on a suspension of disbelief. We believe and don’t believe that what’s happening is real. We know it’s real and we know it’s not real. We suspend our disbelief but our disbelief is still there. All dramatic forms depend on this paradox to work, but the paradox comes especially clear with tragedy, because the stakes are so high, and because in a theatre, there’s no screen to distance you from the action – only an invisible fourth wall some characters (e.g., Puck, Feste, Hamlet, Iago) may break.
Aristotle on Tragedy
Aristotle asked, why do we like to see things on stage, for instance King Oedipus turned to a beggar with his eyes gouged out, we wouldn’t want to see for real? In his Poetics he suggests two theories –
- Pedagogic. It gives us pleasure to learn, especially when we can learn about misfortune without suffering misfortune. Watching Othello, we can say, “ah, that’s what happens when you give in to jealousy,” or “so, that’s how it goes when you don’t listen to your suspicions about an underling,” or, “okay, that’s what eventually happens to someone from a marginalized group, no matter how well he fulfills the dominant culture’s demands of him.” By this theory, we know more about what it is to be alive, without having had to suffer (much) for the lesson.
- Cathartic. Catharsis means purgation. Tragedy arouses pity and fear in us through the action of the play and then discharges it through the resolution. What we see makes us sadder and wiser, but we also feel a kind of quiet and release. The Greek word katharsis had both a medical sense – purging, i.e., vomiting up something toxic – and a sacral sense, purification, i.e., being cleansed of impurities. Did Aristotle mean we’re purged of pity and fear the way a patient is purged of a poison, or we’re purified of pity and fear the way a religious observant is cleansed of obstructive emotions?
Aristotle said some conditions apply to tragedy, if learning or catharsis is to happen. We’ll leave aside most of them. The two we’ll make use of: the hero of the tragedy needs to be larger than life (“better than ordinary men”) but have a tragic flaw. He needs to be larger than life so we identify with and idealize him. (Catharsis only happens if we see ourselves in him.) He needs to have a tragic flaw so we can feel his downfall is just. (We can only learn from what we see if what we see is rational and understandable.) (It’s always, BTW, for Aristotle, a him, Antigone notwithstanding.)
I’m not saying Othello is an Aristotelian tragedy. I’m asking whether it is one. Is Othello a tragic hero? Is he larger than life? Is he brought down by a tragic flaw? (If you say societal forces outside him – “institutional racism” – are ultimately to blame, then no. If you say that that racism, internalized, is to blame, then – oh, an interesting edge we’re on, there.) Does the play raise pity and fear and then purge them? How are you left feeling at the end of a production of it? Does how you feel depend on the character of the production?
III. Some Notes on Romance
Our final play, The Tempest, is now called a romance, but that term wasn’t in use when the play was written and first performed. It was first published as a comedy. The rest of this section is adapted from Schwartz.
The modern term “romance” refers to a hybrid of comic and tragic elements. Because they combine both tragic and comic elements, John Fletcher called them “tragi-comedies.” According to Fletcher, a tragi-comedy “wants [lacks] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it [death], which is enough to make it no comedy.” Like comedy, romance includes a love-intrigue and culminates in a happy ending. Like tragedy, romance has a serious plot-line (betrayals, tyrants, usurpers of thrones) and treats serious themes; it is darker in tone (more serious) than comedy. While tragedy emphasizes evil, and comedy minimizes it, romance acknowledges evil – the reality of human suffering.
Romance and Tragedy
Tragedy involves irreversible choices made in a world where time leads inexorably to the tragic conclusion. In romance, time seems to be “reversible”; there are second chances and fresh starts. As a result, categories such as cause and effect, beginning and end, are displaced by a sense of simultaneity and harmony.
Tragedy is governed by a sense of fate (Macbeth, Hamlet) or fortune (King Lear). In romance, the sense of destiny comes instead from Divine Providence. Tragedy depicts alienation and destruction, romance, reconciliation and restoration. In tragedy, characters are destroyed as a result of their own actions and choices; in romance, characters respond to situations and events rather than provoking them. Tragedy tends to be concerned with revenge, romance with forgiveness. Plot structure in romance moves beyond that of tragedy: an event with tragic potential leads not to tragedy but to a providential experience.
While tragedy deals with events leading up to individual deaths, romance emphasizes the cycle of life and death. While tragedy explores characters in depth (emphasis on individual psychology), romance focuses on archetypes, the collective and symbolic patterns of human experience.
Romance and Comedy
The “happy ending” of a romance bears a superficial resemblance to that of a comedy. But while the tone of comedy is genial and exuberant, romance has a muted tone of happiness – joy mixed with sorrow. Like comedies, romances tend to end with weddings, but the focus is less on the personal happiness of bride and groom (the culmination of an individual passion) than on healing rifts within the larger human community. Thus, whereas comedy focuses on youth, romance often has middle-aged and older protagonists in pivotal roles.
Compared to characters in a Shakespearean comedy (or tragedy), romance characters may seem shallow or one-dimensional. But they are not meant to be psychologically credible; their experiences have symbolic significance extending beyond the limits of their own lives and beyond rational comprehension. In romance, the emphasis shifts from individual human nature to Nature.
Other Features of Romance
Romance is unrealistic. Supernatural elements abound, and characters often seem “larger than life” (e.g., Prospero) or one-dimensional (e.g., Miranda and Ferdinand). Plots are not particularly logical. The action, serious in theme, subject matter and tone, seems to be leading to a tragic catastrophe until an unexpected trick brings the conflict to harmonious resolution. The “happy ending” may seem unmotivated or contrived. Realism is not the point. Romance requires us to suspend disbelief in the “unrealistic” nature of the plot and experience it on its own terms.