months ago, and not forgotten yet? Then there’s
hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half
This week we celebrated the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare and so perhaps it’s appropriate to think a bit about theater. Of course, talking about comedy and tragedy as if they were fixed dialectically opposed entities is misleading. They originated in Ancient Greece at separate moments and their functions have changed dramatically over time (according to Classics prof Clara Hardy, ancient tragedies could have happy endings!). Genre studies can occasionally be annoying; as it turns out, every author since time immemorial can be shown to have been combating or subverting the expectations of genre. Especially Shakespeare. Endless volumes have been written about his “problem plays,” but even the ones that aren’t obviously “problematic” still emphatically resist the labels Shakespeare knew would be bestowed upon them. For example, one wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that the only thing that prevents Hamlet from killing Claudius immediately is his unwillingness to fulfill his appointed role in a revenge tragedy. Likewise, the only thing preventing Rosalind from marrying Orlando immediately in As You Like It is her unwillingness to conform to the expectations of a pastoral romantic comedy.
Yet however subversive Shakespeare might be on a deep reading, it’s also true that he’s responsible for crystallizing the conventions crucial to the formation of consciousness in the modern Anglo world. And since we are still to some degree situated within that tradition, it might be useful to attempt to explicate the principles of modern tragedy and comedy. I hope it’s not too tedious (postscript: turns out this ended up pretty tedious but didn’t have time to make it more interesting … sorry : / ).
Comedy, it goes, ends with a spree of weddings; tragedy, with a pile of corpses. Thus, comedy affirms order and harmony and so tends to be conservative. Laugher is the response to those individuals like Malvolio with the pretension of transcending their social role. True, some characters are occasionally allowed to transgress social norms, but only within allowable limits (in Twelfth Night, for instance, Mariah can wed Sir Toby, despite his a much higher social class; however, Antonio cannot be coupled with Sebastian since they’re both men).
Implied in the slew of weddings at the end of comedies is of course the creation of children, and so comedy not only signals the stability of a social order but also its prolongation. It announces a new generation to replace the old, ensuring the survival of the species. As Benedick declares in Much Ado About Nothing, “the world must be peopled.” The logic of comedy suggests that one body is basically equivalent to another. A person is merely an iteration of a member of the political body or species. Hence the comic trope of switching persons. Measure for Measure (whose title draws our attention to the theme of equivalence) contains examples of a “bed trick” (Angelo expects to have sex with Isabella but she’s substituted Mariana instead) and a “head trick.” (Claudio is supposed to be executed but the similar-looking head of a dead pirate named Rogazine’s is presented instead).
If comedy highlights the continuation of a social order, tragedy entails the destruction of the individual. Tragedy is the assertion that there is something irreplaceably beautiful in a specific person and accordingly that something has been permanently lost with that individual’s death. Tragedy is an accusation against the world – against the fact that it is arranged in such a way that the beauty of the dead was not allowed to endure. Thus, it is a call to action, a revolutionary movement that seeks a foundation of a morality or a religion. It’s the insistence that there is something at which one must not laugh. That life is not worth living if X.
According to Nietzsche, the tragic effect is always momentary. “There is no denying that in the long run each of these great teachers of a purpose was vanquished by laughter.” X will always happen and still the species and the world will continue to exist. Macbeth can never get his wish – the universe is never destroyed at the same time his own life is. The stupidity of man will continually assert itself as the will to live despite there being every reason not to. “The short tragedy always gave way again and returned into the eternal comedy of existence; and “the waves of uncountable laughter”—to cite Aeschylus—must in the end overwhelm even the greatest of these tragedians.”
Tragic theater is plagued by the realization that no one actually dies. That is, these noble individuals you pity and mourn over turn out, when the lights go up, to be nothing other than roles played by an interchangeable series of actors in many different places and times.
Furthermore, the fact that an audience can feel fear and pity at the tragic hero’s fate means that what’s unique about them isn’t as unique as first thought (since the audience can sense it too). And the more we mourn the character’s death, the more we affirm the value of their life and in doing so affirm the value of life in general. For these circuitous reasons, Nietzsche says, “Not only laughter and gay wisdom but the tragic, too, with all its sublime unreason, belongs among the means and necessities of the preservation of the species.”
The time during which the German wrote was still “in the age of moralities and religions;.” That is, when “the comedy of existence has not yet ‘become conscious’ of itself.” Some 100 years later, I think it’s fair to say that a comic age has arrived, partly because of changes in thought but also because of changes in demographics. With 7 billion people on the planet, it’s hard not to believe that each individual person isn’t pretty much replicable. That if you don’t take up the boulder there won’t be someone else who will.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera poses to us the question of Oedipus, who, despite having cleanest of souls and consciousness, nevertheless gouged out his own eyes when he found out he had accidentally killed his father and slept with his mother. Are there any Oedipuses left? Is there some X from which we wouldn’t excuse ourselves nowadays with the cry I couldn’t have known any better!”?
This is not to say that morality and religion no longer hold weight (the majority of people in the world belong to a religious community) – only that they are relegated largely to the private sphere. Holding on to one’s tradition or nobility against the cynical logic of modern life becomes a Sisyphean pursuit. Tragedy, stretched to its limits becomes the absurd: insisting on preserving something no sane person can believe will last.
On the other hand, comedy, stretched to its logical limits, is ever in danger of turning into the grotesque. There is something dehumanizing (or, to use Nietzsche’s word, “deindividuating”) about comedy, as comedy converts individuals purely into roles.
“When the proposition ‘The species is everything, an individual is always nothing’ has become part of humanity and this ultimate liberation and irresponsibility is accessible to everyone at all time. Perhaps laughter will then have formed an alliance with wisdom; perhaps only ‘gay science’ will remain.” The political body becomes a kind of monstrous entity, gobbling up everything before it.
Viewed this way, the marriages of characters like Isabella or Beatrice appear not so much as joyous affirmations of life but rather sad instances of beautiful characters buckling to an overwhelming force.
Jonathan Swift said it well: “I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell...”