It is interesting how words evolve over time. Words like tragedy and comedy are used differently today than how they were used in a more Classical setting.
We associate the word comedy with humour, however, way back in, say, Shakespeare’s time, it was used to denote a story in which the protagonist finishes in a better place from when they started. A tragedy, of course, was the opposite of this. To achieve this, the protagonists are usually mirror opposites of each other too. For example, the comedic protagonist was beneath the average man, but not for reasons such as being malicious, they would make mistakes or be physically deformed in some ways. This is because the only way is up for them, whereas the tragedy’s protagonist are usually at the top of their game by the time the story starts, see Othello or Macbeth.
It’s only later that comedy came to include the laughter elements that we know it as today. That does not necessarily mean it was lauded quite like tragedy is/was. There’s always been a slight suspicion cast on comedy and whether it is realistic, or deep, or whatever. Elitists are quick to turn their noses up at it as something less than, especially compared to its literary cousin, tragedy. This is forgetting that comedy also includes elements such as satire, which in itself revels in picking apart the vices and follies of society to shame it—with success in bringing forth improvements.
It reminds me of asking which outlook is better: optimist or pessimist? Which is better: comedy or tragedy?
The answer is simple: both.
A world with only one would suffer. It would be a world without gradation, ripples, valleys and peaks. No shadows and no sun.
Tragedy is still quite similar to its original designation, though not necessarily following the trials and tribulations of a well-off protagonist losing his grip on his life (though this is quite common in eastern story-telling). It is drama that evokes a catharsis through human suffering. It is said to cause a paradoxical feeling of pleasure, but I’ve never read a tragedy that hasn’t resulted in me feeling really downtrodden for days.
Way back when, Aristotle was getting busy discussing literature as a mimesis—an imitation of life—and he decided that comedy is the most divorced (though not completely divorced, keep that in mind). While he was dumping on comedy, he also stated that tragedy is the truest mimesis (epic poetry and lyrical poetry are in the middle, but we’re not here to talk about those).
Growing from this, Elizabethan’s definition of comedy is simply a story that has a happy ending. To some people, this is unrealistic. This is where cultural pessimism starts to get to work, but I’m here to slap those thoughts down. Why? Because some people do have happy endings. Some marriages don’t fail. It isn’t as unrealistic as storytellers or the media or whatever would like us to believe. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Comedy does not necessarily mean unrealistic. You cannot deny that life has it’s humour. Just type ‘Florida man’ into Google to see what I mean. I remember at some periods when I was a teenager, when my friends and I were enjoying a moment and something absurd happened that would take our breath away with laughter. If you were to take any moment of a person’s life, and ended the narrative at the right moment, it could be considered a comedy in the classical sense. Maybe someone was training for a spelling bee and, despite upsets, eventually won? It doesn’t matter what happens in that person’s life outside of that snapshot. It’s how things are framed. For example, take that same person but zero in on ten years later and they’re struggling to adjust outside academia (a very real issue!) and turn to self-medication. I personally know too many academically gifted people who could not do as well in vocational fields.
At the same time, however, it works the other way too; tragedy does not equal realism. I will say here and now: this is where grimdark as a genre can get ahead of itself. Critics of the genre have pointed out the excessive use of rape as a plot element, and defenders will usually cry out that it is realistic (there is also, often, a lack of people of colour in these very same books and ‘realism’ is the defence there too, despite being inaccurate). I have only ever read the phrase ‘torture porn’ in relation to grimdark or tragedy tales, where the rate of putting someone down brutally appears excessive. I remember reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles and before I even reached chapter 6 I was thinking how unbelievably unlucky the titular Tess is. I refuse to finish the book (we read it in class, so I know how it ends, and it isn’t well).
Both tragedy and comedy have their extremes, as does pessimism and optimism. The beauty in both of these forms of literature is that they both serve a purpose. They’re both excellent at teaching lessons on self-worth and hubris, and of exploring the world in a way that brings discussion to the forefront of societal consciousness.
And here’s the thing: they also don’t have to. They don’t have to be realistic at all, at least not on the surface, and still manage to discuss the flaws and redeeming qualities in humankind. Let’s take tragedy: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a tragedy, but while it was conjured in retaliation to the advances of science at the time, there weren’t men creating men from other men’s corpses. There is a lot of the fantastical in Mary Shelley’s novel, and yet, without slapping you over the head with it, it does discuss morality, ethics and obsession—all very real things. Victor Frankenstein’s lesson can be translated over into real life conversations, such as ‘is it okay to genetically engineer people to remove hereditary diseases?’ Meanwhile, Adam (the monster), has his own narrative of being brought into the world and left to fend for himself, and the ache of living and dying alone. His circumstances bring out empathy for those who struggle to fit into society, and the tragedy is how it all could have been avoided if his creator, the titular Frankenstein, had better control of his actions and taken responsibility for them. Interestingly, Adam would have been suited for the role of a comedic protagonist in Ancient Greece…
Now, at the other end of the spectrum: Disney’s Big Hero 6. There are tragic moments in this movie, such as protagonist Hiro Hamada’s brother, Tadashi, dying in a fire that could have been avoided if it weren’t for the villain’s desire for revenge. There is a moment, in anger, where Hiro asks for his robot companion to kill the villain, which I thought was really dark. Yet, the movie itself is about grief and how we, as people, deal with it. You can either ruminate and grow bitter and angry on your own, like the villain, or open up to friends to talk through the feelings you’re experiencing—ultimately, how you can choose to be either constructive or destructive in your expression.
I’ve spent a lot of this essay in comedy’s corner, but I rather dislike it when people turn their noses up at different artforms. It’s all relative and relevant. There’s a place for both—sometimes literally in the hybrid genre, tragicomedy—and that’s great! I’ve also failed to mention here, but I actually enjoy a good tragedy every now and then, but I’ve often felt like there aren’t very many great modern ones. A lot of the endings of my work are ambiguous, and I sense that comes from a place of uncertainty in my own future (though I do love leaving endings to audiences).
And that is my final stop on this journey: what are your views of the future? Tragedy and comedy can be great ways of conveying one’s thoughts and ideas on the future. Dystopian novels are often brought about during times of unrest and discomfort, where the idea of the future can feel pretty bleak and one’s freedoms feel challenged. There’s a desire to fight the feeling by living vicariously through characters in the extreme scenarios.
That said, up-lit (uplifting literature) can also peak during these times due to the fatigue that comes with so many downers. People start actively seeking out the light in the darkness, and that can come with authors wanting to present something better to the world.
That’s not to say that if you solely write tragedy you’re a pessimistic, terrible person. What would that say about people who write horror? Or grimdark? And what would it say about people who write comedy?
I hope this small dive into comedy and tragedy has given you something to think about. I know it has made me think more about the kind of stories I want to write and the worth their words have.
Best wishes and good luck!
© 2020 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.