COMEDY

AND TRAGEDY IN SHAKESPEARE’S AGE

 

Comedy and tragedy are included in the word drama ; it is the form of literature intended to be performed in any kind of theatre: drama comes to life when it is interpreted in the performance of actors, who adopt the roles of the characters and speaks the dialogue, along with appropriate actions, all of which have usually been invented for them by a playwright.

The meaning of the word “comedy” is dated as far back as the fifth century b.C.; it derive to the Greek term “komodia” that means the song which Greek used to sing during the procession in honour of Dionysius. Most often this word is used with reference to a kind of drama which is intended primarily to entertain the audience, and which ends happily for the characters.

Comedy is also a major form of drama in which the principal characters ordinarily begin in a state of opposition to one another or to their world-often both. By the end of the play ,their opposition is replaced by harmony.

The main purpose of comedy is to amuse people and its main traits are: humour, comic plot and flat characters.

Humour is the main ingredient because this is what makes people laugh. There can be different kind of humour in a play:

-verbal humour, in the witty interchanges between characters;

-behavioural humour, when characters behave in an incongruous or absurd way;

-situational humour, when situation are incredible or highly unlikely to occur in reality.

Comic plot consists in a sequence of difficult, intricate or improbable situation in which the main characters find themselves in trouble: but problems are always overcame and the end is always happy. Love and variations on this theme are the most frequent subject matter of comedies. The events of a comic plot follow one another at such a fast pace that the audience has no time to wonder at the improbability of the story. They accept it as a convention of comedy and enjoy the play.

Another typical convention of comic plot is the privileged position of the audience who often know more than the characters on stage.

In comedy, characters are not usually developed in depth . They are usually flat characters because the witty dialogue and the skilful handling of comic situation are what matters most. They are much important than the observation or development of a character’s personality. Characters can represent human types, such as the miser, the rough diamond and the coquette. Or they can portray social types, such as the unspoiled peasant, the snobbish aristocrat and the rich bourgeois. Or they can be the stock characters frequently found in comedies, such as the clever servant, and the bossy wife. Humour may range from the subtly comic, and make people smile, to the hilarious and make people roar with laughter. Comedy may assume different names according to the function of humour and what other ingredients are mixed with it. Sentimental comedy plays on the audience’s sympathy, feelings and emotions by trying to make people cry as well as laugh; many Hollywood films are examples of sentimental comedy, often at its worst. Romantic comedy focuses on a love story the comedy of manners portrays and satirised the weaknesses and modes of behaviour of a social class. Finally farce aims at producing laughter by exaggerated effects of various kind. Surprises and coincidences abound; comic situations are rather crude.

The second major traditional form of drama is tragedy.

Generally we associate whit the word “tragedy” the feeling of unhappiness, notion of pain and great suffering, and perhaps the idea of death; but there is more to it than that. Tragedy is the other major form of drama, besides comedy. It can be defined as a play in which “the hero and his world begin in a condition of harmony which disintegrates, leaving him, by the end of the play, in a state of isolation”. (Scholes and Klaus).

Tragic plots and tragic hero and heroines have specific features of their own. A tragic plot always involves a reversal of fortune: The central action is the fall of the protagonist/s from a condition of wealth and honour to unhappiness and death. It usually develops through the following stages:

  • Introduction, the presentation of hero/ine.
  • Development, the hero/ine’s rise to power or happiness.
  • Climax, the high point of the hero/ine’s fortunes.
  • Crisis, the turning point in the hero/ine’s fortunes
  • Decline, deterioration in the hero/ine’s situation.
  • Catastrophe, the hero/ine’s fall, often to a condition of degradation and humiliation, and death.

An essential ingredient of tragic plot is the presence of a hostile fate. The incidents of the plot are mainly unfortunate events which drag the protagonists to their fall. They are doomed from the beginning; this is usually shown by a series of premonitions of death in the characters’ speeches.

In Greek tragedy the plot strictly observed the unities of time and place; this meant that the story occurred in one place only and covered a period of twenty-four hours. This increased the sense of the protagonists’ impending doom. Another important convention of plot in Greek tragedy was the chorus, which consisted of a small group of actors standing on the stage throughout that performance. Their role was to comment on the theatrical action and, in a sense, to express the audience’s feelings and reaction to what was going on the stage. In Elizabethan tragedies the chorus was sometimes used but as a single anonymous speaker. For example, a chorus speaks a prologue at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet which announces the gist of the play the audience is going to watch.

The Elizabethan theatre was the product of a perfect fusion of traditional and classic elements; in spite of the classical Seneca, there was not observance of the three unites (time, place and action), perhaps owing to the influence of medieval drama, where they were likewise ignored. The language in that period was affected by the concept of hierarchy. To compare a monarch to the sun (as in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) or to a l’ion (as in Shakespeare’s Richard III) not only meant stressing his power, but above all underlined his precise, unique, irreplaceable role; the use of metaphors was widespread. Moreover writers used a dramatic convention in their tragedies: the soliloquy. It can have the same function as a dialogue but in addition:

-it shows the private side of the character, his innermost feelings and thoughts

-it supplies a commentary on other characters and events.

In this passage, soliloquy fulfils a double function:

-it carries the plot forward

-it shows the character’s feelings and thoughts.

Soliloquy is a very convenient device, often used in tragedies, for conveying directly to the audience information about the character’s motives and intentions, state of mind and feelings.

An example of soliloquy written during the Elizabethan period is “Doctor Faust” by Christopher Marlowe ; the play is based on the medieval legend of a man who sold his soul to the devil.

Marlowe belongs to the flower of the Elizabethan age, he had a native sense of dramatic action. His characters were titanic, larger-than-life figures and prepared the way for Shakespeare’s tragic heroes.

Another of Marlowe’s great achievements is to have introduced blank verse to British drama, showing what a flexible tool it could be for the English language. One of his contemporary writers was Shakespeare , who was not a scholar like Marlowe, but he read such works as Seneca’s and Plautus’ tragedies. Shakespeare followed Marlowe in the employment of blank verse. He was an extraordinary playwright; “he was not of an age, but for all time” as Ben Jonson, a contemporary dramatist said. Jonson was the third important playwright at that time. He made progress in the theatre and achieved success as a writer of plays and masques. Upon the accession of James I, Jonson’s masques won him the king’s favour, and he was appointed Poet Laureate, a title given to a poet appointed by the English monarch to compose verse for official occasions. Jonson wrote comedies like Volpone and The Alchemist in which were expressed criticism and distaste for the world and seemed to enjoy exposing the vices and follies of men; in fact Jacobean comedies were not romantic, as Shakespeare had been, but satirical.

Jacobean tragedies were all full of shocking details, images of blood, torture and violent deaths. Some of Shakespeare’s later plays, written in this period, have scene of violence: for example, in Macbeth the protagonist emerges from Ducan’s room with blood dripping from his hands. Jacobean drama derived its name from King James I, thought it is sometimes also loosely used to include plays written under his successor Charles I. Jacobean drama shows a tendency to exploit to an extreme that taste for horror and sensationalism which had been more controlled feature in Elizabethan plays.

 

THE INFLUENCE OF CLASSICISM

The writers in Shakespeare’s age were mostly influenced by Plautus and Seneca.

Plautus

Plautus was of Italian origin, in fact he was from Umbria, exactly from Sarsina.

He was probably born in 250 b.C. and died in Rome in 184 b.C. Someone collected 130 Plautus’ comedies, but probably there where a lot of false in them.

There are some different types of comedy written by Plautus:

  1. The hoax’s comedy
  2. The most part of his comedies present the joke in the plot. Nevertheless with “hoax’s comedy” we intend the plays in which the character speak and act only with the intent of make the people laugh.

  3. The fiction’s comedy
  4. In this kind of comedy Plautus added the adventure at the theme of the hoax. He inserted elements of amusement

    that created suspense in the spectators.

  5. The similar’s comedy
  6. This sort of comedy is constituted of the added of adventure and the exchange between two people who looks like each other.

  7. The caricature’s comedy

Plays in which the characters are drawn in surface. The purpose of this introspective analysis is not moralistic but caricaturist.

Seneca

Seneca was of Spanish origin and was probably born in the I century b.C and when he was a child he went with his family to Rome; that’s why in Seneca there where collisions between the classic tradition and the new idea of Christianity. He attended to theatre besides politics. His tragedies are shown like a choice of the most macabre, sanguinary and violent myths; his tragedies were in fact destined only to reading.