"THE REAL STATE OF SUBLUNARY NATURE": CAN TRAGEDY AND COMEDY BE SO NEATLY DIVIDED? (AND HOW THE THEY MAKE OR UNMAKE THE WORLD?)
The distinctions between tragedy and comedy have always been somewhat blurred. Institutionally, Greek tragedy opened itself up to intertextual allusion and parody, to the satyr play finale after three tragedies, and to grotesque moments in the tragic plays themselves, while Shakespeare famously eluded generic categorization, his plays being (according to Samuel Johnson) ‘not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies’. In terms also of the audience response, or what might be called the ‘tragic’ or ‘comic’ sense, I would claim that clear-cut distinctions cannot be drawn. Henri Bergson drew our attention to laughter’s ‘absence of feeling’ and self-dividing effect: ‘I do not mean that we could not laugh at a person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even with affection, but in such a case we must, for the moment, put our affection out of court and impose silence upon our pity’. Laughter, of course, has played a long and important role in tragedy, making more complicated and ambiguous the forms of tragic response (pity and fear) identified by Aristotle. But more than this, Bergson’s remark points to moments of aporia, repression, silence and division in the viewing process, which testify to the uncertainty of interpretation - and the sense of the gap between event and meaning - inherent in both the tragic and comic vision.
Jennifer Wallace is a lecturer in English and Comparative Drama at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. Her books include The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy (2007), Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination (2004), Shelley and Greece: Rethinking Romantic Hellenism (1997) and the forthcoming The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, 1790-1880 (2015). She has published many articles and essays on tragedy including, most recently, "Tragedy and Laughter", Comparative Drama, 47.2 (2013) and "Tragedy in China", The Cambridge Quarterly, 42.2 (2013), and "Tragedy, Photography and Osama Bin Laden: Looking at the Enemy", Critical Quarterly, (2015, forthcoming).