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Some Views on Comedy

  • This is the difference that marks tragedy from comedy: comedy is inclined to imitate persons below the level of our world, tragedy persons above it. . . . Comedy is, as I have said, an imitation of lower types; though it does not include the full range of badness, nevertheless to be ridiculous is a kind of deformity. The causes of laughter are errors and deformities that do not pain or injure us; the comic mask, for instance, is deformed and distorted but not painfully so. . . . The next best plot, which is said by some people to be the best, is the tragedy with a double plot like the Odyssey, ending in one way for the better people and in the opposite way for the worse. But it is the weakness of the theatrical performances that gives priority to this kind, when poets write what the audience would like to happen, they are in leading strings. This is not the pleasure proper to tragedy, but rather to comedy, where the greatest enemies in the fable make friends and go off at the end, and nobody is killed by anyone. —Aristotle, The Poetics
  • Comedy is poetry that transmutes a sad beginning into a happy ending. —Vincent De Beauvais, (13th Century)
  • But our comedients think there is no delight without laughter, which is very wrong, for though laughter may come with delight, yet cometh it not of delight, as though delight should be the cause of laughter; but well may one thing breed both together. Nay, rather in themselves they have, as it were, a kind of contrariety: for delight we scarcely do but in things that have a conveniency to ourselves or to the general nature; laughter alone ever cometh of things most disproportioned to ourselves and nature. Delight hath a joy in it, either permanent or present. Laughter only a scornful tickling. —Sir Philip Sidney, “The Defense of Poesy” (1595)
  • Mrs. Suzanne Langer, in her brilliant and suggestive book Feeling and Form has called comedy the image of life triumphing over chance. She declares that the essence of comedy is that it embodies in symbolic form our sense of happiness in feeling that we can meet and master the changes and chances of life as it confronts us. This seems to be to provide a good description of what we mean by “pure comedy,” as distinct from the corrective or satirical comedy of Jonson. The great symbol of pure comedy is marriage by which the world is renewed and its endings are always instinct with a sense of fresh beginnings. Its rhythm is the rhythm of the life of mankind, which goes on and renews itself as the life of nature does. The rhythm of tragedy, on the other hand, in the rhythm of the individual life which comes to a close, and its great symbol is death. —Helen Gardner, “As You Like It” (1959)
  • The action comedy is based on some deviation from normality in incident, character, or thought. The deviation, however, must not pose a serious threat to the well-being of the normal, and a comic (or “in fun”) mood must be maintained. There is no subject, however, trivial or important, which cannot be treated in comedy, provided that it is placed in a framework which exploits its incongruities. —Oscar G. Brockett, The Theatre (1964)
  • Broadly speaking, there are in the Renaissance two comic traditions, which may be called “critical comedy” (or “bitter comedy”) and “romantic comedy” (or “sweet comedy”). The former claims, in Hamlet’s words, that the “purpose of playing . . . is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn, her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” or as Sidney phrased it, “comedy is an initiation of the common errors of our life, which he representeth in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be; cause it aims to hold a mirror up to the audience, its dramatis personae are usually urban citizens — jealous husbands, foolish merchants, and the like. These are ultimately punished, at times merely by exposure, at time by imprisonment and fines or some such thing. The second kind of comedy, romantic comedy, seeks less to correct than to delight with scenes of pleasant behavior. It does not hold a mirror to the audience; rather it leads the audience into an elegant drama world where charming gentlefolk live a timeless existence. —Albert Gilman, “As You Like It” (1971)
  • One way of distinguishing between comedy and tragedy is summarized in Horace Walpole’s aphorism, “This World is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” Life seen thoughtfully, with considerable detachment, viewed as it were, is an amusing pageant, and the comic writer gives us something of this view. With Puck we look at the antics in the forest, smile tolerantly, and say with a godlike perspective, “Lord what fools these mortals be!” But in tragedy we are to a greater degree engaged; the tragic dramatist manages to make us in large measure identify ourselves with the hero, feel his plight as if it were our own, and value his feelings as he values them, so that with Othello we must say “The Pity of it.” Yeats noticed this when he said, “Nor when the tragic reverie is at its height do we say, ‘how well that man is realized, I should know him were I to meet him in the street,’ for it is always ourselves that we see upon the [tragic] stage.”
    One consequence of this distinction between tragedy and comedy, between looking-at and feeling-with, is that the comic plot is usually more intricate than the tragic plot, and less plausible. The comic plot continues to trip up its characters, bringing them into numerous situations that allow them to display their folly over and over again. The complex comic plot is often arbitrary, full of the workings of Fortune and Chance, and we delight at each new unexpected or unlikely happening. In tragedy, Fate or Necessity rules, there is the consistency and inevitability, the “remorseless working of things,” that has already been mentioned. —Sylvan Bamet, “Comedy and tragedy” (1971)

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