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Tragedy and Comedy

Greek Origins

Tragedies are first heard of, as stage plays, in the Dionysiac celebrations in Athens at the turn of the fifth century B.C.E., and comedies appear as a contrasting type of play a century later. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) said that tragedies dealt with spoudaia (serious matters) and comedies with phaulika (trivial subjects). Tragedies aimed at arousing and then purging emotions such as pity and fear. Effective tragedies need not end in disaster; he gives highest praise to the happily resolved Iphigenia among the Taurians of Sophocles, and, among narrative poems (since staging is not essential to tragedy), he considers the Odyssey to have a tragic story as well as the Iliad, though he notes at one point that the effects of such a double-plotted story (good end for the good, bad for the bad) are more appropriate to comedy.

Aristotle's treatment of comedy has not survived, and his analysis of tragedy was not cited in antiquity. His chief disciple, Theophrastus (c. 372–c. 287 B.C.E.) also dealt with tragedy and comedy, and his definitions were cited by the Latin grammarian Diomedes (4th century C.E.). They can be rendered as follows: "Tragedy deals with the fortunes of heroes in adversity," and "Comedy treats of private deeds with no threat to life." Diomedes adds that tragedies usually move from joy to sadness, comedies the opposite.

Meanwhile, Horace (65–8 B.C.E.) had discussed the genres in his Ars poetica. He explains the meaning of "tragedy" as "goat-song," so called because the winning players were rewarded with a cheap goat. He does not define the forms and deals mainly with questions of style, that is, tone and diction. The complaints of tragedy should not readily be mixed with the privata carmina (domestic verse) of comedy. Ovid (43B.C.E.–17 C.E.), too, has style in mind when he says that tragedy is the gravest form of writing (Tristia 2.381). It consists of sublime verse, as opposed to the lighter forms of elegy (used for love poems) (Amores 3.1.39–42).

Another influential grammarian of the fourth century, Aelius Donatus, considers Homer the father of tragedy in the Iliad and the father of comedy in the Odyssey. He attributes Scene from Electra by Sophocles, 1908. Sophocles was one of the three most important authors of tragedies in ancient Greece. He wrote more than one hundred plays, but only seven have survived in their entirety. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/ CORBIS to Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.) a definition of comedy as "the imitation of life, the mirror of custom, the image of truth," which is later reflected in Hamlet's discourse to the players.

The chief Greek authors of tragedies were Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.E.), Sophocles (c. 496–406 B.C.E.), and Euripides (c. 484–406 B.C.E.). Comedy was divided into old, middle, and new. Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 B.C.E.) straddled the old and the middle periods, while Menander (342–292 B.C.E.) represented the new. The Latin playwrights Plautus (c. 254–184 B.C.E.) and Terence (186 or 185–?159 B.C.E.) specialized in adapting Greek comedies from Menander's period. As for tragedy, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C.E.?–65 C.E.) is the only known playwright whose works are extant. Plautus claimed that one of his plays, the Amphitruo, was a combination of comedy and tragedy, not because it used an elevated style, but rather because it introduced characters proper to both genres, kings and gods on the one hand and slaves on the other.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Toxicology - Toxicology In Practice to TwinsTragedy and Comedy - Greek Origins, The Latin World, Medieval Contributions, The Renaissance, Problems Of Definition, Bibliography