ENG200.002 -- Introduction to Literary Study

Prof. Eileen Joy

Spring 2010

SHORT PAPER #2: Genre as "Vision of Experience"

Figure 1. poster for Scotland, PA (2001)

Comedy is for those who think; tragedy for those who feel.

According to Ian Johnston, the difference between tragedy and comedy is partly STRUCTURAL--meaning, in terms of plot (and speaking in somewhat simplistic terms), in a tragedy things go badly and a lot of dead bodies often litter the stage by the end, whereas in a comedy, everyone lives "happily ever after." A comedy may contain many of the same plot twists as a tragedy, in which danger and death may be threatened at every turn, but the key difference is something like this: in a tragedy, Juliet does not wake up in time to stop Romeo from killing himself; in a comedy, she wakes up and she and Romeo get married. But again, this is only looking at the two genres from a structural (and perhaps from an overly superficial) level. Johnston argues that comedy and tragedy, on a deeper level, speak to modes and visions of experience--whereas tragedy explores "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," comedy "celebrates the individual's participation in a community as the most important part of life." Further, as regards the tragic protagonist, "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."

In Billy Morrisette's film adaptation of Shakespeare's play Macbeth, Scotland, PA, we have the same tragic STRUCTURE as in Shakespeare's play: "Mac" becomes a murderer, "Norm" Duncan and "Banco" are killed, "Mac" and Pat both "lose it" it in different ways (he sees ghosts; she can't get the feeling of the fryer burn off her hand), Macduff goes after and catches "Mac," both "Mac" and his wife still end up dead, etc., but the narrative is presented as a comedy (perhaps as that weird hybrid, the "tragi-comedy" or the "comi-tragedy," or as the "black comedy"). And yet, the characters of Macbeth and "Mac" retain a high level of symbiosis with each other: in both play and film, these two characters wrestle with supernatural forces, with bonds with friends and wives, with morality and guilt, and with their "inner selves" over the "right" and "wrong" way to, let's say, "get ahead." By taking Shakespeare's tragedy and turning it into a black comedy, while leaving most of the narrative structure and even characterization intact, Billy Morrissette "twists" the original, while also tapping into the meanings that are always already there in Shakespeare's play, but .... for what purposes? In other words, on the deeper level of genre, what "vision of experience" is Morrissette presenting us with here? Is everything, even murder and death, just more funny in our contemporary era, or is something else going on here?

In a short paper, thinking about both Shakespeare's play and Morrissette's adaptation, offer your own ideas regarding the "visions of experience" offered by both Macbeth and Scotland, PA. How does Scotland, PA shed light on the deeper meanings of Shakespeare's play and vice versa? Taken together, even, what larger story do they tell about human nature and human experience (that they could not tell apart from each other)? Another way of putting this would be to ask: what is the Shakespeare-Morrissette "vision of experience"? What happens when tragedy and comedy collide, in relation to the meaning(s) we might derive from the trajectory of Macbeth's story?

Give me 2-3 double-spaced & typed pages. Include as many specific details as possible from both play and film (and also direct quotations from play where they help to illustrate a specific observation or point you want to make). Demonstrate that, whatever ideas you have, you have paid close attention to both the play and the film and their inter-relations.