2 minute read

Tragedy and Comedy

Medieval Contributions

The most important medieval writer of comedy was Dante (1265–1321), and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342–1400) was the most important author of tragedy. Dante does not seem to have known either the comedies of Terence and Plautus or the tragedies of Seneca. The latter had recently been discovered and were being studied in Padua during Dante's time, notably by Albertino Mussato, who considered tragedy to be a genre of elevated subject matter, consisting of two subgenres: those dealing with disasters (like Seneca's works and his own Ecerinis) used iambic verse, and those dealing with triumphs, like the works of Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.) and Publius Papinius Statius (c. 45–96 C.E.), used dactylic hexameters.

Dante's own definitions of comedy and tragedy in De vulgari eloquentia are not connected to ideas of misery or felicity. He agrees with Mussato in considering tragedy to use elevated subjects. It also uses the best syntax, verse forms, and diction. Comedy on the other hand is a style inferior to that of tragedy, using both middling and humble forms. He cites lyric poems, including some of his own, as examples of tragedy. In Inferno (20.113) he has Virgil refer to the Aeneid as "my high tragedy." He may have based his ideas on Papias's definition of comedy in his Elementarium (c. 1045), repeated in the Catholicon of John Balbus of Genoa (1286): comedy deals with the affairs of common and humble men, not in the high style of tragedy, but rather in a middling and sweet style, and it also often deals with historical facts and important persons.

Dante's commentators did not know of the De vulgari eloquentia, and most of them, including Guido da Pisa and the author of the Epistle to Cangrande (which purports to be by Dante himself), follow definitions similar to those of the Boethian commentators; thus they explain Dante's choice of title by the fact that the work begins in misery (hell) and ends in felicity (heaven). They hold that Terence's comedies follow the same pattern, and that Seneca's tragedies trace the reverse movement (hardly true in either case). Some readers, like Dante's son Piero, followed the rubrical tradition that designated Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso as three comedies, and found an upbeat conclusion to all of them: each ends with a reference to the stars.

Chaucer, for his part, like Dante's commentators, was influenced by the Boethian tradition. He translated the Consolation and used glosses derived from the commentary of Nicholas Trivet (1258?–?1328). But whereas Trivet repeated Conches's definition of tragedy and added to its iniquitous subject by repeating Isidore's statement about the crimes of the wicked kings, the gloss that Chaucer received and translated removed all such reference: "Tragedy is to say a dite [literary composition] of a prosperity for a time that endeth in wretchedness" (pp. 409–410). He thus restored the concept to its Boethian context by removing the suggestion that all tragic falls are deserved and punitive. Chaucer wrote tragedies of this sort himself, on the model of the narratives of Giovanni Boccaccio's (1313–1375) De casibus virorum illustrium (Boccaccio himself did not consider these stories to be tragedies) and later assigned them to the Monk in the Canterbury Tales. In the meantime, he wrote an extended tragedy, Troilus and Criseyde. John Lydgate (c. 1370–c. 1450) subsequently applied Chaucer's idea of tragedy to The Fall of Princes, his translation of the De casibus, and it was adopted in its sixteenth-century continuation, A Mirror for Magistrates. Thus Chaucerian tragedy was transmitted to the age of Shakespeare.

Additional topics

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