Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wither Shakespeare? Part X: What's the Difference Between Tragedy and Comedy in Shakespeare?

When I was studying literature in university, we told this joke:  What's the difference between tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare?

1.  Tragedies are longer;
2.  At the end of a tragedy, there are more bodies lying dead on the stage than standing; and
3.  Comedies end with a wedding.  Tragedies start with one.

The joke was obviously a warning, but I began to wonder:

Are these statements true?

Yes, tragedies are generally longer:
  1. Hamlet          The longest of all of Shakespeare's plays at 4024 lines.  TRAGEDY
  2. Coriolanus     The second longest at 3824 lines.  TRAGEDY
  3. Cymbeline     The third longest:  "Tragedy looms but never strikes."
  4. Richard III     The fourth longest  HISTORICAL TRAGEDY
  5. Antony and Cleopatra    The fifth longest  TRAGEDY
  6. Othello          The sixth longest  TRAGEDY
  7. King Lear      The seventh longest  TRAGEDY
  8. Romeo and Juliet  is still in the top 50% of longest.
  9. HoweverMacbeth, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and Titus Andronicus are among the shortest.

A tragedy ends with more bodies dead on stage than standing? 

This probably refers to Hamlet, more than any of the other plays.

Of the characters in Hamlet who had spoken lines, the only one left alive at the end is Horatio.  Fortinbras arrives to see the bodies of Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, and Gertrude.  Every other important character in the play, including Polonius and Ophelia are already dead.

I'd rephrase difference #2 like this:  Tragedies end with much death and often have death and murder throughout.  I would add 

Cordelia dead

  • the more sympathy you have for a character, the more likely that character dies at the end
  • both the good guys and the bad guys die violent deaths (Macbeth, Othello, Richard III)
  • and if your name is the title of a Shakespearean tragedy, you will be dead by the end; if your name shares the title one or both of you will be dead.

A comedy ends with a wedding?

A lot of comedies start with longing.
Lucentio upon first seeing Bianca:

I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio, 
If I achieve not this young modest girl
  - The Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1

Hermia, upon hearing that her father is forcing her to marry Demetrius:

I would my father look'd but with my eyes.
  - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 1, Scene 1
Orsino in love

The Duke, Orsino:

. . . when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!  
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.
  - Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1

A wedding at the end relieves this longing at least for some of the characters:

Come, Kate, we'll to bed 
We three are married, but you two are sped.  
  - Petruccio, The Taming of the Shrew Act 5, Scene 2  

And yes, many of the comedies, and even the problem plays and romances, end with a wedding or at least permission for the lovers to marry.  These include As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Love's Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Tempest and others. 

Some of these marriage scenes show an awareness of a dark side to marriage.  The Merchant of Venice suggests some tension between Lorenzo and Jessica

 and two of the three newly married couples at the end ofThe Taming of the Shrew already have issues.

 A tragedy starts with a wedding?

Hamlet begins with the wedding of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and his father's murderer, Uncle Claudius.

Othello begins with Brabantio, a Venetian senator, discovering that his daughter has eloped with Othello.  Iago puts it somewhat more graphically:

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

Macbeth does not start with a wedding.  It starts with a gaggle of witches, news of a battle, then more witches.  However, not long into Act I, we meet Lady Macbeth and soon after we see Macbeth and his wife together.  We see a married couple in a conversation about their future.

By the end of Scene 2, Richard III, our title character, has won Lady Anne's agreement to marry him. She is mourning her husband and husband's father, both killed by Richard, who says triumphantly:

Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?
Was ever woman in this humour won?   

King Lear divides his kingdom between two of his daughters.  The third, Cordelia, who would not play the game of lying to their father, is quickly married off to the King of France.

By Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, we meet Paris who is seeking Capulet's permission to marry his daughter.  From then on, it's all talk of marriage.  By Act 2, Scene 4, Friar Lawrence leads Romeo and Juliet off to officially marry them. 

I conclude that the joke is mostly true.

When you're hooked on Shakespeare, you love both tragedy and comedy.  Both have wit and wisdom, joy and sadness, heroes, heroines, and villains, and characters with many dimensions to inform our lives.

What's the difference between tragedy and comedy in life?
Perhaps only time.

As author Charles Yu says, "Time is a machine that turns pain into experience," and if you wait long enough, tragedy into comedy.

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