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Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now that we've gone through the steps of defining one tragicomedy, here are a few others:
Let's first look at Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well. Shakespeare's title for this tragicomedy perfectly encapsulates the genre's worldview that it's best to take the bad with the good. The play follows the scheming antics of the devoted but low-born Helena as she tries desperately to win the affections of her beloved and noble Bertram. She succeeds in roping him into marriage, but he says he will never accept it until she wears his family ring and bears him a son. To this end, Helena employs a good deal of trickery, including disguising herself as another girl Bertram is after and faking her own death. In the end, Bertram discovers all this treachery, but is so taken by the lengths Helena went to for him that he immediately declares his undying love.
Let's now look at Cyrano de Bergerac. Many playwrights may prefer tragicomedy because they feel it best reflects the mixture of tragic and comedic circumstances in our own lives. And perhaps no play demonstrates this better than Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, which is loosely based on the real-life events surrounding the titular 17th-century playwright. Several of the scenarios depicted in this play have been used again and again in sitcoms and other media, including Cyrano's whispering romantic lines to Christian to help him woo Roxanne. Because of his physical appearance, Cyrano hides his own love for Roxanne and does not let her know that they were his words that won her affection, even after Christian's death. Though at points exceptionally sad (including the end), Cyrano's flamboyance and Rostand's witty wordplay make for many comedic moments throughout the play.
Finally, let's take a look at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In this play, which is perhaps his most notable work, Tom Stoppard examines Shakespeare's Hamlet from a comedic perspective. If you've seen Hamlet, you know that it has one of the bloodier endings in Shakespearean tragedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not excluded. From their point of view, all of the plotting and courtly intrigue surrounding the king and Prince Hamlet are fragmented pieces of paranoid nonsense which these two apparent dullards have no chance of figuring out. There are several cases of mistaken identity, even between themselves, and Stoppard has his own fun with words throughout the play. However, as we all knew they probably wouldn't, things do not end so well for our title characters.
A tragicomedy combines elements of tragedy and comedy into one work. Characteristics of comedy that can be found in the genre include but are not limited to: marriages and/or births, mistaken identity, and a prevalence of puns and other wordplay. Tragic elements might include literal or metaphorical death(s), severe errors of judgment, and irreversible consequences.
Plautus' Amphitruo was the first work to be labeled a tragicomedy around the 3rd century B.C.E. Much of the view in tragicomedy centers on how well the genre's mixture of tragic and comic situations reflects real-life events. Writers of tragicomedies, such as All's Well that Ends Well (Shakespeare), Cyrano de Bergerac (Rostand), and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Stoppard), all have their own approaches to the genre and their own unique ways of merging the tragic and comedic elements.
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Back To CoursePSAT Prep: Tutoring Solution
17 chapters | 173 lessons