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Tragedy and Comedy

The Renaissance

Shakespeare (1564–1616) himself does not say what he means by comedy and tragedy, but one can deduce from his characters that comedy has the general meaning of a pleasant or mirthful play, and that tragedy more often refers to an event than to a play, and more often concerns the downfall of an innocent than a guilty person. This is in contrast to formal discussions—like Sir Philip Sidney's (1554–1586) Apology for Poetry—that tend to restrict the subject of tragedy to bad men coming to bad ends, thereby "making kings fear to be tyrants." This is a kind of plot that received very low marks from Aristotle.

Scene from Shakespeare's As You Like It, starring Cloris Leachman (left) and Katherine Hepburn (right). Shakespeare, arguably the most famous dramatist in history, wrote numerous comedic plays, although he did not specifically explain what his criteria was for a play to be considered a comedy. © JOHN SPRINGER COLLECTION/CORBIS

By Sidney's time, Aristotle's Poetics was available in an accurate form (before the sixteenth century it was chiefly known from the commentary of Averroës [1126–1198], who understood comedy to refer to poems reprehending vice and tragedy to poems praising virtue). But it was mainly cited on minor points, or distorted through assimilation to Horatian concerns. Aristotle's insistence on unity of action was made equal to the newly invented unities of time and space.

Tragedy became an elite genre, in which only the best tragedies were thought worthy of the name of tragedy. In England this concept can be seen in Thomas Rymer's Short View of Tragedy (1692), when he speaks of "the sacred name of tragedy." Such an understanding is widely accepted and practiced in modern times, allegedly with the backing of Aristotle: the criterion that Aristotle gives for the most effective tragedy (the fall of a good man through a flaw) has been smuggled into the definition of and made a sine qua non for tragedy. Now there is no such thing as a bad or mediocre tragedy. For Aristotle, on the contrary, everything that was called a tragedy or fitted general criteria was a tragedy, but some were better than others.

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