Tragicomedy: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Tragicomedy
  • 0:56 Comedy Characteristics
  • 1:24 Tragedy Characteristics
  • 3:05 Tragic and Comedic Examples
  • 3:51 Examples of Tragicomedies
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that made you laugh and cry? Chances are it was a tragicomedy. Keep reading to find out more about this unique form of drama and read about a few examples.

Definition of Tragicomedy

Probably most of us recognize the emotions in the masks of tragedy and comedy, but if there were a third for tragicomedy, it would undoubtedly have quite the bewildering expression. We can tell just from the name that a tragicomedy is a dramatic work containing both tragic and comedic elements, but how do these elements combine to create something altogether different from tragedy or comedy?

The term first appeared around the 3rd century B.C.E. when the Roman comedian Plautus used the Latin tragicomoedia to refer to his play Amphitruo. To get a better understanding of how tragicomedy works, let's first take a look at some characteristics of comedy and tragedy, then we'll see how they mesh in Plautus' work.

Comedy Characteristics

  • Historically, comedic drama tends to end either with a marriage or a birth. Either way, there are typically some romantic or erotic aspects present.
  • Much of the comedy from ancient Greece to Shakespeare is what is known as comedy of errors, which generally uses devices such as mistaken identity and slapstick for comedic effect.
  • Comedies are usually rich in puns and other forms of wordplay.

Tragedy Characteristics

  • There is typically at least one death (real or metaphorical), and there are frequently tragedies in which one or more of the characters are dead by the end.
  • Errors are a big part of tragedy as well, but they and their consequences are much more severe. Most tragic errors are a result of some human vice, such as pride, anger, or irreverence of divine authority (hubris).
  • Many tragic consequences are not only irreversible but also applicable to future generations (i.e., via curses, failed treaties, or military campaigns, etc.).

With these characteristics in mind, let's see if we can't figure out what makes Amphitruo a tragicomedy. In the play, Jupiter, king of the gods, falls in love with the mortal Alcmene, who is married to the farmer, Amphitryon. In order to share her bed, Jupiter disguises himself as Amphitryon and comes to Alcmene while her husband's back is turned. The farmer eventually finds out that his wife has been unfaithful when she ends up pregnant, and he threatens to publically disgrace her. Jupiter quickly intervenes and tells Amphitryon the truth, saving Alcmene from certain doom. In the end, they all celebrate the birth of Jupiter's son by Alcmene, Hercules. Plautus also uses a wide variety of puns and wordplay in this play. Any number or type of characteristics from either genre may be combined to form a tragicomedy, but let's take a closer look at the synopsis to see which ones Plautus chose.

Tragic Example

Committing marital infidelity would have meant social death for Alcmene, and, as a woman, she would have most likely met her own physical demise as well, because she wouldn't have been able to provide for herself.

Comedic Example

This is certainly a case of mistaken identity, since Alcmene is convinced that Jupiter is her husband. The error in this case would have been the unforgivable breach of the marriage oath; however, because Jupiter intervenes, the error and its consequences are reversed. This makes what could be potentially fatal, a harmless mistake. Also, the story ends in characteristically comedic fashion with the birth of Hercules, and the use of puns adds to the comedic quality.

Examples of Tragicomedies

Now that we've gone through the steps of defining one tragicomedy, here are a few others:

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