COMEDY - TRAGEDY MASKS
[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 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.
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