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Tragedy and Comedy

Problems Of Definition

There have been dozens of attempts to define tragedy, understood as supreme tragedy, radical tragedy, pure tragedy, and the like. Most of these understandings are intuitive and personal to the definers and are based on a favorite example of tragedy (or a small cluster of favorite tragedies). To give a recent example, George Steiner defines tragedy as "the dramatic testing of a view of reality in which man is taken to be an unwelcome guest in the world"; and the plays that communicate "this metaphysic of desperation" are very few, "and would include The Seven against Thebes, King Oedipus, Antigone, the Hippolytus, and, supremely, the Bacchae" (1980 Foreword to The Death of Tragedy, 1961).

Because of the elevated status of the idea of tragedy, actual tragedies have become a thing of the past, represented by the classical plays, Shakespeare and his contemporary English dramatists and, in France, Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille sometimes extending to Lope de Vega in Spain. The only more recent work that is named a tragedy by its author and acknowledged to be a great work is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's (1749–1832) Faust: A Tragedy (1808), but it is not usually considered to be a great tragedy or even a tragedy at all. (Whether Goethe himself meant to call Part 2 a tragedy is not clear; but it was published as such, posthumously, in 1832.)

Comedy, in contrast to tragedy, remained a general and amorphous genre, encompassing ineffective as well as effective examples. No comic masterpieces have been singled out as supreme comedies (though Shakespeare's plays are given high ranking), and plays that do not measure up to some classical standard have not in general been drummed out of the genre, though occasionally this sort of qualifying spirit can be seen when a dud is denigrated as "mere farce."

In England in Shakespeare's time, when the action of a play was not amusing but simply avoided the usual final disasters of tragedy, it was given the name of "tragicomedy," which Sidney referred to as a mongrel form. When Plautus invented the term to describe his Amphitruo, it was for a different reason: because it had the characters proper to tragedy (kings and gods) as well as those proper to comedy (slaves, etc.). The term was revived in Spain for yet another reason, by what might well be called a comedy of errors. When Fernando de Rojas (c. 1465–1541) adapted the twelfth-century Latin "comedy" Pamphilus and published it under the title of The Comedy of Calisto and Melibea (1500), readers complained that its action was not that of comedy but rather of tragedy, and he thought to satisfy them by calling it a tragicomedy. This work, usually called Celestina, gave rise to several sequels, among them Segunda Comedia de Celestina (1534), Tragicomedia de Lisandro y Roselia (1542), Tragedia Policiana (1547), Comedia Florinea (1554), and Comedia Selvagia (1554). During this time, comedy came to mean "any stage play," and the most celebrated adaptation of the Celestina was Lope de Vega's (1562–1635) great tragedy, El Caballero de Olmedo, which appeared in Part 24 of Vega's Comedias (1641). Comedia also became the general name for theater, a practice found in France, as in the Comédie Française in Paris.

In Italy in the sixteenth century, Dante's Comedy was given the title of The Divine Comedy, seemingly to make the point that it has nothing to do with any of the usual senses of comedy. In France in the 1840s Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) gave to his collected works the retrospective title of The Human Comedy, not because of any theory of comedy, but to contrast the mundane world of his novels with the otherworldly actions and interests of Dante's work. The designation of "art comedy," commedia dell'arte, was given to plays performed by professional actors on stereotyped plots with much improvisation. In the eighteenth century in both France and Italy sentimental or "tearful" comedy and "musical" comedy came into vogue.

In the late twentieth century "musical comedy" was shortened to "musical," which was contrasted with "comedy," both being contrasted with "drama" (as in the Golden Globe Awards). The latter category includes all revived tragedies and also modern plays or films that are perceived to have a sense of the tragic.


Aristotle. Poetics. Edited and translated by Stephen Halliwell. Loeb Classical Library 199. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981

Boethius. The Theological Tractates. Edited and translated by S. J. Tester. Loeb Classical Library 74. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan 1904. The second edition appeared in 1905, with uncounted reprintings since.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Eagleton, Terry. Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.

Isidore of Seville. Etymologiae. 1911. 2 vols. Edited by W. M. Lindsay. Reprint, Oxford: Clarendon, 1985. For English translations of pertinent passages, see Kelly, Ideas and Forms, chap. 3, sec. 1, 36-50.

Janko, Richard. Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Ideas and Forms of Tragedy from Aristotle to the Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

——. Tragedy and Comedy from Dante to Pseudo-Dante. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Nelson, T. G. A. Comedy: An Introduction to the Theory of Comedy in Literature, Drama, and Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Segal, Erich. The Death of Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. New York: Knopf, 1961. Reprint, with new foreword, New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. London: Chatto and Windus, 1966. Reprint, with new afterword, London: Verso, 1979.

Henry Ansgar Kelly

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