Comedy and tragedy are more similar than most people believe (at least when Aristotle’s definitions are applied). Tragedy involves the fall of a paragon, while comedy involves the rise (and marriage?) of a worse-than-real individual.
William Shakespeare is arguably the best playwright who ever lived. He wrote both comedy and tragedy during his life–though not comedy as most know it today. Tragedy and comedy are actually two very similar genres-most of the differences lie in the main characters. While comedy shows the ascent of a common or sub-average person from misery to prosperity, tragedy shows the fall of a heroic, high-born character from prominence to misery and often death. Despite these differences, both genres have one major thing in common-the protagonist must undergo many hardships and trials. While these trials destroy the tragic hero, they shape the comic hero into a better person.
Tragedy in theater began in the 500’s B.C. Aristotle, the accepted authority on the definitions of theater genres, defined tragedy as being serious and dignified. He also stated that, in a tragedy, the protagonist is a great, idealized, heroic character who experiences a ruinous change in fortune. The reversal of fortune can be caused by many different things, but is usually caused by a mistake or by a character flaw such as pride or greed. Often, this mistake or character flaw (or mistake caused by a character flaw) leads to a chain of unfortunate events that leads to the character’s downfall. This downfall is usually death-not only the main character’s death, but the deaths of all of those whom he loves, and often all of those whom he hates as well. It is ironic that, in tragedy, there is hope until the very last moment-sometimes even beyond the last moment-that the hero will prevail. Of course, he never does.
Take, for example, Macbeth. Macbeth, a successful war general, becomes thane of Cawdor-a position of Scottish Nobility. A group of witches prophesied that he would become King of Scotland. Giving in to his wife’s urgings (and to his own pride) he kills King Duncan and assumes kingship. Macbeth, the heroic character, starts out above the common man and rises still higher-he has wealth, and he is king of a nation. Soon, however, the ghost of a man he killed appears to Macbeth, and he teeters on the brink of insanity. He has the family of Macduff, the only person Macbeth thinks can oppose him, killed. Macduff, in response, helps to raise an army to defeat Macbeth and bring his tyrannical, unstable rule to an end. In the end, Macduff personally slays Macbeth in battle by removing his head. Macbeth’s early rise to kingship is crushed by a mistake-killing the family of Macduff. Thus, a character who started out far above the common man-a hero, an idealization of a man-falls all the way to death. As such, the story of Macbeth is a tragedy.
While Macbeth, a tragic protagonist, was a noble hero, the protagonist of a comic work is an ordinary, often likable, man. Comedy, which began about half a century later than tragedy, is typically more lighted-hearted than tragedy, though this is not always the case. Comedies show the inherent weakness of man-and man overcoming this weakness. Family tensions, social tensions, and mistaken identity are oft-used themes in comedy. Comic protagonists possess many small weaknesses that often land them in trouble, but most characters achieve happiness of some form by the end of the story. The plotline of a comedy is often far more complex than that of a tragedy-there are many, many small plots woven in among the main plotline. With every new plot comes at least one new character, resulting in a tangled web of characters and stories. This web often ends in marriage or in some other happy outcome for one or more of the characters.
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. It is, in the way of comedy, filled with an intricate web of plots. One of the major plots focuses on Bassanio, an ordinary person who is deeply indebted to many people. He wishes to marry a young, rich, beautiful woman named Portia, but he needs money for gifts and transportation to her abode on the island of Belmont. He goes to his best friend, the almost-fatherly figure Antonio, for a loan. Unfortunately, all of Antonio’s money is tied up overseas. So Antonio goes to Shylock, a Jew, for a loan. He gets the loan for Bassanio, and, after a minor test (on which he was assisted by Portia) Bassanio and Portia are betrothed and Bassanio’s servant, Gratiano, is betrothed to Portia’s servant, Narissa. Antonio, after a series of unfortunate events that nearly leads to his death, forgives all of Bassanio’s debts to him, and Bassanio can use Portia’s money to pay off the rest of his debts. Bassanio, who begins in debt, ends in prosperity, thus the story is a comedy.
But Bassanio’s is not the only story in the Merchant of Venice-the story of Shylock is far more tragic. In a paradoxical way, comedy relies on tragedy; in both comedy and tragedy, the best laid plans always go awry. Tragic and comic characters undergo many trials. Bad things happen, people die, love is lost, and fortunes disappear. Both are filled with deception, prejudice, alienation, and rejection-but in a tragedy, the hero eventually succumbs to these adversities, while in comedy, the hero manages to rise above these things and to become a better person as a result. Shylock faces the unfair prejudices of most Venetians, as he is a Jewish money lender. He is very wealthy and successful, despite this prejudice. By the end of the story, however, he has lost his wealth, his daughter, and his religion-he was forced to convert to Christianity. His decidedly tragic story is an integral part of the Merchant of Venice-a comedy-proving that tragedy is an essential part of comedy.
Shakespeare was a brilliant writer who understood both comedy and tragedy very well. He understood that one could truly not exist without the other. Tragedy-the fall of a hero to some unfortunate demise-and comedy-the rise of an ordinary person from poor circumstances to happiness-are integral parts of each other. Tragedy can have some lighthearted moments, while comedy does not need to elicit a single laugh. Shylock is a vital part of the Merchant of Venice, but one would be hard-pressed to laugh at the things he endures in the story.