Difficulty Distinguishing Between Comedy and Tragedy in Shakespeare's Plays

Difficulty Distinguishing Between Comedy and Tragedy in Shakespeare's Plays

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Difficulty Distinguishing Between Comedy and Tragedy in Shakespeare's Plays

Shakespeare’s theatrical works are generally categorized into three all encompassing groups: the uplifting comedy, the lamented tragedy, and the excruciatingly boring history play. However, things can get a little confusing when you end up with a comedy like Measure for Measure or a tragedy like Titus Andronicus. Often we find that many of Shakespeare’s plays do not fit into their ascribed categories, but is it the plays that don’t fit the categories, or the reverse? Are the general groupings of comedy and tragedy really applicable to Shakespeare?
Society generally defines a comedy as a piece a theatre with some good laughs, a problem posed, and a fabulous resolution, after which everyone lives pretty much happily ever after. We run into problems, though, when we try labeling a large group of Shakespearean plays as such. Few of his “comedies” have pretty, tidy little endings, and even fewer are devastatingly funny. Measure for Measure, for example, finishes off with men dying and a would-be nun possibly betrothed to a man she cares nothing about. Though there are some jokes, they’re few and far between. In fact, it would seem that Measure for Measure in today’s terms would be a kind of soap opera on a Friday afternoon: no one knows what will happen, but it sure won’t be good.
The links between Shakespearean “comedies” are rather tenuous. There always seems to be some sort of problem which arises, threatening the lives or the happiness of the central characters. Usually, these central characters are one or more romantically inclined couples who are a little unfamiliar with the ways of the world. Many mishaps occur, plans go awry, and in the end a solution is formed to cope with the characters’ problems. However, this solution tends to bring up different problems for the characters to deal with after the curtain closes. These “comedic” solutions also tend not to end with too many people disemboweled, a trend that is seen in another grouping of Shakespearean works: the tragedies.
In contemporary theatre, a tragedy generally includes death and destruction, a romance gone horribly wrong, the hero or heroine’s total collapse, or any combination thereof. It puts the audience in a depressed, angry, or at least contemplative mood. In some ways, the Shakespearean tragedy does fit this mold: there is almost always an excess of dead people, and you can usually be sure you won’t laugh the theatre laughing.

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Still there is some trouble in grouping all of Shakespeare’s “tragedies” under that title. In general, the tragedy evokes a feeling of great loss – bad things happening to good people, a fallen hero. Yet in several of Shakespeare’s “tragedies”, bad things only happen to the bad people. Titus for one, is a play of continuous blood and gore, with leading characters falling one after the other. The problem is, the audience never really cares that all these people are keeling over because they’re all pretty horrible people. Titus kills his own son, Tamora is an evil wench, Aaron is pure evil and Saturninus is a pompous ass; in fact, the only survivors of the play, Marcus and Lucius, are the only non-despicable characters. What’s so tragic about contemptible people dying?
Shakespeare’s tragedies are easier to sort than are his comedies: if it’s got an excess of body parts and blood, nine times out of ten it’s going to be a tragedy. However, the greater underlying problem of his comedy and tragedy is that the titles simply don’t fit the plays they’re meant for by today’s standards. People today believe that a comedy is funny, a tragedy is sad: these rules simply don’t hold true for Shakespeare’s works.
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