[The following has been excerpted from Ian Johnston's introductory lecture to his English 366: Studies in Shakespeare course at Malaspina University College in British Columbia; it is the best introductory discussion I have ever read on the subject of dramatic comedy and tragedy, and it is especially useful as an introduction to the major themes of King Lear. The full version of this lecture can be accessed here.]
Dramatic Structure: Comedy and Tragedy
Shakespeare's plays are all about one great general theme: disorder. This may sound like a profound statement, but, as we shall see in a moment, it applies equally well to almost all drama. Still, the point is worth stressing, for reasons we shall attend to in a moment, because the major entry into every play we read is going to be an attempt to answer some key questions associated with that notion of disorder: What is the order in this society? How is that order violated? How do the characters respond to the loss of traditional order? How is order restored? Is the new order at the end of the play something healthy or is it shot through with ironic resonance?
All dramatic stories always involve conflict. Typically, the dramatic narrative will open with some sense of a normal society: we see people of all kinds going about their business, and in witnessing this initial state of affairs we quickly ascertain the various ranks of people, the bonds which hold them together, and something about their value system. In other words, we begin with a society which is held together by shared rules. Many of Shakespeare's plays begin with a large group scene (the king and his court, for example) in which everyone has a place and knows his or her place. The scene is offered to us as a symbol of social unity which is about to be broken and will not be restored until the closing scenes (e.g., King Lear, Macbeth, Richard II).
Then, something unusual and often unexpected happens to upset that normality. The event may be something natural, like a ship wreck (as in Twelfth Night or The Tempest), supernatural (as in Macbeth and Hamlet), a decision made by a particular character (as in King Lear or As You Like It) or a sudden quarrel (e.g., As You Like It, Henry IV, Part 1). Often this event which kick starts the action is given very quickly with no attempt to provide a detailed explanation for it or even, in some cases, instantly plausible motivation (e.g., Cordelia's refusal to answer Lear, Oliver's decision to seek Orlando's death). At all events, this upset (which typically occurs very early in the action) disturbs the normal situation, creates confusion and conflict. Such conflict may be the source of much humour (for example, in the various mistaken identities which occur when a set of twins or, as in Comedy of Errors, two sets of twins, unexpectedly get loose in the community), or it may be the source of much political, personal, and psychological torment. Attempts to understand what is going on or to deal with it simply compound the conflict, accelerating it and intensifying it. Finally, the conflict is resolved.
The terms comedy and tragedy commonly refer to the ways in which dramatic conflicts are resolved. In comedy, the confusion ends when everyone recognizes what has been going on, learns from it, forgives, forgets, and re-establishes his or her identity in the smoothly functioning social group (which may return to the original normality or may be setting up a better situation than the one the group started with). Comedies typically end with a group celebration, especially one associated with a betrothal or wedding, often accompanied by music and dancing The emphasis is on the reintegration of everyone into the group, a recommitment to their shared life together. If there has been a clearly disruptive presence in the action, a source of anti-social discord, then that person typically has reformed his ways, has been punished, or is banished from the celebration. Thus, the comic celebration is looking forward to a more meaningful communal life (hence the common ending for comedies: "And they lived happily ever after").
The ending of a tragedy is quite different. Here the conflict is resolved only with the death of the main character, who usually discovers just before his death that his attempts to control the conflict and make his way through it have simply compounded his difficulties and that, therefore, to a large extent the dire situation he is in is largely of his own making. The death of the hero is not normally the very last thing in a tragedy, however, for there is commonly (especially in classical Greek tragedy) some group lament over the body of the fallen hero, a reflection upon the significance of the life which has now ended. Some of Shakespeare's best known speeches are these laments. The final action of a tragedy is then the carrying out of the corpse. The social group has formed again, but only as a result of the sacrifice of the main character(s), and the emphasis in the group is in a much lower key, as they ponder the significance of the life of the dead hero (in that sense, the ending of a tragedy is looking back over what has happened; the ending of comedy is looking forward to a joyful future).
This apparently simple structural difference between comedy and tragedy means that, with some quick rewriting, a tragic structure can be modified into a comic one. If we forget about violating the entire vision in the work (more about this later), we can see how easily a painful tragic ending can be converted into a reassuring comic conclusion.. If Juliet wakes up in time, she and Romeo can live happily ever after. If Cordelia survives, then Lear's heart will not break; she can marry Edgar, and all three of them can live prosperously and happily for years to come. And so on. Such changes to the endings of Shakespeare's tragedies were commonplace in eighteenth-century productions, at a time when the tragic vision of experience was considered far less acceptable and popular by the general public.
Comedy and Tragedy as Visions of Experience
But the terms tragedy and comedy refer to more than simply the structure of a narrative (especially the ending). The terms also commonly refer to visions of experience (which those structures present). And this matter is considerably more complex than simply the matter of the final plot twist.
Of the two, the comic vision is easier to explain, since, as we shall see, it corresponds to the way most of us think (or like to think) about life. Stated most simply, the comic vision celebrates the individual's participation in a community as the most important part of life. When the normal community is upset, the main characters in a comedy will normally have the initial urge to seek to restore that normality, to get back what they have lost. Initially, they will be unsuccessful, and they will have to adapt to unfamiliar changes (funny or otherwise). But in a comedy the main characters will have the ability to adjust, to learn, to come up with the resources necessary to meet the challenges they face. They may also have a great deal of luck. But one way and another, they persevere and the conflict is resolved happily with the reintegration of the characters into a shared community. Often an important point in the comedy is the way in which the main characters have to learn some important things about life (especially about themselves) before being able to resolve the conflict (this is particular true of the men in Shakespeare's comedies).
This form of story, it will be clear, is an endorsement of the value in the communal life we share together and of the importance of adjusting our individual demands on life to suit community demands. In a sense, the comic confusion will often force the individual to encounter things he or she has taken for granted, and dealing with these may well test many different resources (above all faith, flexibility, perseverance, and trust in other people). But through a final acknowledgment (earned or learned) of the importance of human interrelationships, a social harmony will be restored (commonly symbolized by a new betrothal, a reconciliation between parents, a family reunion, and so on), and a group celebration (feast, dance, procession) will endorse that new harmony.
Tragedy, by contrast, explores something much more complex: the individual's sense of his own desire to confront the world on his own terms, to get the world to answer to his conceptions of himself, if necessary at the expense of customary social bonds and even of his own life. The tragic hero characteristically sets out to deal with a conflict by himself or at least entirely on his own terms, and as things start to get more complicated, generally the tragic figure will simply redouble his efforts, increasingly persuaded that he can deal with what is happening only on his own. In that sense, tragic heroes are passionately egocentric and unwilling to compromise their powerful sense of their own identity in the face of unwelcome facts. They will not let themselves answer to any communal system of value; they answer only to themselves. Lear would sooner face the storm on the heath than compromise his sense of being horribly wronged by his daughters; Macbeth wills himself to more killings as the only means to resolve the psychological torment he feels; Othello sets himself up as the sole judge and executioner of Desdemona.
Tragic heroes always lose because the demands they make on life are excessive. Setting themselves up as the only authority for their actions and refusing to compromise or learn (except too late), they inevitably help to create a situation where there is no way out other than to see the action through to its increasingly grim conclusion. Hence, for most of us tragic heroes are often not particularly sympathetic characters (not at least in the way that comic protagonists are). There is something passionately uncompromising about their obsessive egoism which will only accept life on their own terms--in a sense they are radically unsociable beings (although they may occupy, and in Shakespeare almost always do occupy, important social positions).
The intriguing question is the following: Why would anyone respond to life this way? That question is very difficult to answer. The tragic response to life is not a rationally worked out position. For any rational person, the comic response to life, which requires compromise in the name of personal survival in the human community (or which sees the whole question of personal identity in social terms), makes much more sense. What does seem clear is that the tragic response to life emerges in some people from a deeply irrational but invincible conviction about themselves. Their sense of what they are, their integrity, is what they must answer to, and nothing the world presents is going to dissuade them from attending to this personal sense of worth. Hence, tragedy is, in a sense, a celebration (if that is the right word) of the most extreme forms of heroic individualism. That may help to explain the common saying "Comedy is for those who think, tragedy for those who feel."
One way of clarifying this is to think how we construct for ourselves a sense of who we are, of our identity. Most of us do that in terms of social relationships and social activities. In traditional societies, one's identity is often very closely bound up with a particular family in a specific place. We define ourselves to ourselves and to others as sons, daughters, husbands, wives, members of an academic community or a social or religious group, or participants in a social activity, and so on. In that sense we define ourselves comically (not in a funny way but in terms of a social matrix). The tragic hero is not willing or able to do this (although he or she might not be aware of that inability at first). The tragic personality wants to answer only to himself, and thus his sense of his own identity is not determined by others (they must answer to his conception of himself). Given that his passions are huge and egocentric and uncompromising, the establishment of an identity inevitably brings him into collision with the elemental forces of life, which he must then face alone (because to acknowledge any help would be a compromise with his sense of who he is).
We might also ask why we bother paying such attention to a tragic character. What is there about the tragic response which commands our imaginative respect? After all, many of these characters strike us as very naive and full of their own self-importance (in some ways, perhaps, quite childish), not the sort of people one would like to have as next door neighbours or dinner companions. Incapable of adapting to unexpected changes in life, they often seem so rigid as to defy credibility and curiously blind (a key metaphor in many tragedies). Characteristically, they don't listen to others, but rather insist that people listen to and agree with them (the pronouns I and me are very frequent in their public utterances--Lear is one of the supreme examples of this tendency).
Why are these people worthy of our attention? We shall have much to explore on this question in dealing with Macbeth and Lear, but for the moment we might observe that we don't have to like these people particularly in order for them to command our attention. What matters is their willingness to suffer in the service of their own vision of themselves. They have set an emotional logic to their lives, and they are going to see it through, no matter how powerfully their originally high hopes are deceived. They are also, in a sense that we can imaginatively understand, although rarely if ever attain in our own lives, truly free, since they acknowledge no authority other than themselves. Macbeth is a mass murderer (of women and children, among others); no one watching the play will have any sympathy for his bloody actions. And yet as he faces and deals with the grim realities closing in on him, his astonishing clear sightedness, courage, and willingness to endure whatever life loads on him command our respect and attention. The same hold true for Lear, in many ways a foolish father and king and an inflexibly egocentric man, whose sufferings and whose willingness to suffer inspire awe.
Characters in plays, as in life, do not decide to be tragic or comic heroes. What they are emerges as they respond to the unexpected conflict which the opening of the drama initiates. Their response to the dislocation of normality will determine which form their story will take. To the comic hero, undertaking what is necessary for the restoration of normality is important, and that may well require serious adjustments to one's opinion of oneself, an ability to adopt all sorts of ruses and humiliations (disguise, deceptions, pratfalls, beatings, and so on), a faith in others, and some compromise in the acknowledgment of others. Comic heroes and heroines learn to listen to others and respond appropriately. The tragic hero, by contrast, takes the responsibility fully on himself. In his own mind, he is the only one who knows what needs to be done, and if circumstances indicate that he may be wrong, he is incapable of acknowledging that until it's too late. His sense of himself is too powerful to admit of change. Tragic heroes do not listen to others, only to themselves (or to others who tell them what they want to hear). People who tell them they are acting foolishly are simply part of the problem.
Tragic heroes and heroines, in other words, do not answer to community morality; they do not accept the conventional vision of things which reassures most of us by providing a group sense of what is most important in life. For that reason (as I shall mention in a moment) the tragic vision is potentially very disturbing, because we are dealing with a character who is not satisfied with traditional group explanations, with the socially reassuring rules and habits, and whose life therefore tears aside momentarily the comforting illusions which serve to justify life to us as a meaningful moral experience.
For that reason inquiring into the motivations of tragic characters is often difficult. Why do they behave the way they do? Why can't they just be reasonable and act normally? Why doesn't Lear take up his daughters' offer? Why doesn't Othello just ask Desdemona about her "affair" with Cassio? Why does Macbeth kill Duncan? Often we seek simple rational moralistic explanations: Lear is too proud, Othello is too angry, Macbeth is too ambitious. Such simplistic answers (which cater more to our desire for a reassuring reason than to the complex details of the play) are an attempt to cope with the unease which the tragic character can generate.
The critic Murray Krieger has suggested that the comic and tragic visions of experience correspond to the two things we all like to think about ourselves and our lives. Comedy celebrates our desire for and faith in community and the security and permanence that community ensures (if not for us, then for our families). To become cooperating members of the community most of us spend a lot of time educating ourselves, compromising some of the things we would most like in life, and rebounding from disappointments and set backs with a renewed sense of hope (and perhaps some new ways of dealing with things). Tragedy, by contrast, celebrates our desire for individual integrity, for a sense that there are some things which we are not prepared to compromise, even if asserting our individuality fully brings great (even fatal) risks. The tragic hero has this sense to an excessive degree, just as many comic heroes display an astonishing flexibility, adaptability, and willingness to learn and change.
An alternative formulation of this difference (prompted by the writings of Stanley Cavell) might be to characterize it as arising from two different ways of approaching the world we encounter: acceptance or avoidance. The first way accepts the world (including the various explanations of it offered by our culture) and seek to be accepted by it. This response clearly requires us to place ourselves and our thinking within a community (even our challenges to accepted ways of thinking will be directed by how the community allows for such disagreements) and, equally, to limit the demands we make on understanding the world (keeping such demands within conventional boundaries).
The second way (avoidance) is, in some fundamental way, suspicious of, unhappy about, afraid or contemptuous of acceptance, since that means answering to other people, letting them take full measure of us, and limiting our understanding of the world to what is available to us from our surrounding community. This response prompts the individual to powerful self-assertion in a rejection of any compromise in the direction of common social interaction. Hence, this method of encountering the world leads to isolation, suffering, and eventually self-destruction (since the reality of the world can never be known by nor will ever answer to one person's imagination).
Since one of the most common ways of representing acceptance of the world is human love, that experience is a prominent feature of plays which endorse such acceptance (i.e., comedies). For the same reason, it is a marked feature of much Shakespearean tragedy (starting with Richard III) that the hero suffers from an inability to love or else loses that capacity.
This last point introduces a gender differentiation which is important in Shakespeare (and elsewhere) and raises some important questions about contrasting male and female principles, the former associated with the origins of tragedy in some dissatisfaction with the given world and the latter associated with an acceptance of that world. I don't propose to pursue that here, but as you read these plays you will see that characteristically Shakespeare associates the drive to impose order (political or personal) on the world with men and measures the nature of this drive often by the way in which it affects (or arises out of) their ability or, rather, inability to love.
For those interested in psychoanalytic origins of behaviour, this distinction, too, offers potential insight. If the fundamental experience of life in men is a separation from and a desire to repossess the mother (Freud's Oedipal conflict) then we can see in these plays a clear distinction between those who have overcome this separation and integrated themselves into the community happily and those whose life is characterized by a continuing sense of separation from what they sense they most fully need on their own terms. I offer this here as a fertile suggestion which we may take up later on.
By way of clarifying the distinction between the comic and tragic visions further, we might consider the different emotional effects. While the ending of a comedy is typically celebratory, there is always a sense of limitation underneath the joy (how strong that sense is will determine just how ironic the ending of the comedy might be). The human beings have settled for the joys which are possible and are not going to push their demands on life beyond the barriers established by social convention. Hence, comedy, in a sense, always involves a turning away from the most challenging human possibilities. Tragedy, on the other hand, although generally gory and sad in its conclusion, also affirms something: the ability of human beings to dare great things, to push the human spirit to the limit no matter what the consequences. Hence, beneath the sorrowful lament for the dead hero, there often will be a sense of wonder at this manifestation of the greatness of this individual spirit.
This sense of potential sadness or limitation in the conclusion of a comedy may help to account for one of the most intriguing figures in our cultural traditions, the clown with the broken heart, the sad clown, the professional funny man who brings laughter to others because, although he knows that the social order he is serving may be an illusion, it's all there is between us and the overwhelming and destructive mystery of life. The tradition of the sadly wise professional funny man stems from this awareness: settling for the joys that are possible (like shared laughter) is a way of screening from us the tragic suffering at the heart of life. We see this in at least two of Shakespeare's most famous clowns: Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear. We also see it, incidentally, in the sad lives of many other famous clowns, fictional and otherwise (Pagliacci, Rigoletto, Tony Hancock).
The comic vision of experience is common to many cultures. Our traditions of comic drama originated with the ancient Greeks, but the form never really had to be reinvented or passed down, because it is a vital element in most dramatic rituals which communities routinely celebrate on important occasions (in harvest pageants, celebrations of spring, and so on). Any pagan culture based upon the cycles of nature which turns to some form of ritualized drama, usually as part of the celebrations associated with an agricultural or hunting festival, will almost certainly produce some form of comedy.
Tragic drama, by contrast, has a very different history. The ancient Greeks developed the vision and the style in a way unheard of in other ancient cultures. And its unique presence there is a tribute to the way this culture originated a preoccupation with the lives of heroic individuals, whose very greatness brings upon them unimaginable suffering and an early death, something very strong in our Western traditions. The Greek tradition of tragic drama was not available to Shakespeare; he knew some of the stories from various sources other than the Greek originals, but had no direct experience of what tragedy really meant to the Greeks. Hence, he had no inherited sense of the full potential of the tragic vision in drama.