Classics · Shakespeare

Comedy … Tragedy … Tragicomedy?

Comedy. Tragedy. What’s the difference?

In modern terms, you could say they’re two opposite ends of a spectrum, with most works falling somewhere in between. The stories we tell today are often a roller coaster of highs and lows, lighter scenes and tragic ones. The Fault in Our Stars is a tragedy, right? But it has so many uplifting and hilarious moments alongside the grim, realistic ending. On the other hand, Harry Potter grows progressively darker as it goes on, but ends happily. If we were to classify books and movies that are popular now based on the traditional genres of tragedy and comedy, we’d have a lot of trouble making them fit.

Oddly enough, the same could be said of Shakespeare’s later works. While most are easily defined as comedy or tragedy (or history), a few – The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, etc. – blur the lines. Having just finished one of these “tragicomedies”, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a play tragedy or comedy in Shakespearean terms.

You could say that comedies have happy endings and tragedies have tragic ones, but that’s a bit hard to define. Does The Taming of the Shrew have a happy ending by modern standards? You could say that comedies explore the joys of the human experience, while tragedies explore its darker side, but as modern works – and even some of Shakespeare’s plays – prove, these are not mutually exclusive.

I can’t see Troilus and Cressida as anything but a tragedy. Sure, the Greeks and Trojans acting like schoolboys taunting each other is hilarious, but so is the banter between the doomed rebels of Les Misérables. The point is, most of them die not long after. Likewise, the love story between the two central characters seems sweet and light at first, but look how it ends. Romeo and Juliet is less cynical than this: while its two lovers die, the families end their feud. Even King Lear ends with a flicker of hope, however subtle. The image of a world caught in an unending war, one that any viewer knows the more sympathetic characters will lose, and a couple whose love doesn’t last and isn’t enough, is a far grimmer ending in my opinion. And yet, the title characters both survive, and there’s more to laugh at along the way than in any of the standard tragedies.

On the other hand, The Tempest seems like a comedy to me. A dark comedy, certainly. It has betrayal, loss, danger, and (supposedly) forbidden love, just like many of the tragedies. But the story as a whole is hopeful. It’s about people overcoming their struggles and grows progressively more positive as it goes on, leading up to a happy ending where the two lovers are married and the feuding families reconciled. It’s like the opposite of Romeo and Juliet.

I think the key is this: the comedies are about people who overcome adversity. Their characters face difficult circumstances, react with ingenuity, and hold onto hope. This doesn’t just apply to the tragicomedies: even plays as lighthearted as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It could be described this way. Rosalind flees into the forest after being banished from the court, and Hermia to avoid being forced to marry Demetrius. Even in moments that could easily become tragic, the comedies’ characters triumph, with plenty of laughter along the way. The tragedies, on the other hand, are the opposite. Their characters are almost always happy at the beginning, but due to their own flawed natures and their inability to overcome their circumstances, their stories soon turn sour. The two genres move in opposite directions, one from potential tragedy to happiness, the other from potential happiness to tragedy.

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