Comedy and Tragedy

The two major forms of Greek drama were the tragedy and the comedy.

According to Aristotle, these elements define a tragedy:

  • The major characters in a tragedy are not average. They are heroes, kings, and gods.
  • The conditions of a protagonist(s) life goes from good to bad.
  • A "tragic flaw" in the protagonist brings about his (or her) downfall.
  • The fate of many people is tied to the protagonist, so his or her downfall is a catastrophic event.
  • The purpose of a tragedy is catharsis, which cleans the soul of “fear and pity” that most people carry within themselves.
According to Aristotle, these elements define a comedy:
  • The major characters in a comedy are average people.
  • The conditions of a protagonist(s) life goes from bad to good.
Not everybody agreed with Aristotle.
Plato, who was Aristotle’s teacher, used the rhetorical definition of comedy and tragedy.
According to the rhetorical definition:
  • Comedy is a form of fiction that, although untrue, seems like it could be true.
  • Tragedy is a form of fiction that is not true, nor does it seem like it could be true.

Modern literary definitions of comedy and tragedy are mostly based on Aristotle’s idea, although the definition has been simplified. There are two ways to look at it.

One way is to say that a comedy is a story that treats characters and situations in humorous way and ends happily for the protagonist, and that a tragedy is a story that ends unhappily for the protagonist.

Another way is to look at it in terms of the protagonist. If the protagonist succeeds in his or her goal, the story is a comedy, and if the protagonist fails it is a tragedy.

This last definition is my favorite because it cleans up a lot of messy situations. For instance, Cyrano de Bergerac is considered a comedy, but consider the ending. Cyrano is poor. He is murdered in a cowardly fashion by his enemies. Roxane has withdrawn from life and is living in a convent. So how is this a comedy? Cyrano has accomplished his two goals. First, in spite of tremendous pressure, Cyrano has stayed true to his principles. His enemies were never able to break him and make him bow under pressure. Second, Cyrano has confessed his love to Roxane, and she comes to realize that she has loved him her whole life.

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