All of us in our own way know what a comedy is and yet the definition of comedy is not exactly an easy thing. The books on tragedy do not have to refer to novels and other non-dramatic works in their discussion. But take any standard work on comedy and you will find a number of non-dramatic works cited to illustrate certain points.
This very fact leads to the inescapable conclusion that tragedy is a clearly defined form of literature but comedy is not exactly easy to define. From the earliest days two distinct forms of drama have been in the field. Thanks to Aristotle the tragedy as a form has been very clearly defined, and it has been illustrated by the plays of the great Greek masters like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. So the easiest course to name a comedy was:
“Whenever a play was not a tragedy, it could safely be called a comedy.”
And right down to our modern times the confusion regarding the norms of the comedy, persists. Yet, surprisingly enough everyone knows a comedy when he sees it on stage or reads it in a book.
What then is a comedy?
The avowed purpose of comedy is clear. It aims at entertainment. If incidentally it satirizes social evils and thereby corrects them, it is purely incidental; comedy wants its spectators to be entertained. The audience must laugh.
Laughter thus is inextricably interwoven in the strands of comedy. L.C. Knight in his Notes on Comedy considers all attempts at defining a comedy as ‘profitless generalisations’. He adds, ‘Comedy is essentially a serious activity’.
Whatever be the approach of the critics or for that matter of theorists, the general reader looks for entertainment in a comedy. If laughter is mixed with tears, and if a serious purpose haunts the superficial glitter and smiles, the reader does not grumble. But if the author simply cuts out all entertainment, no amount of serious activity will convince the reader that it is a comedy. Bring in all the depth you can, but see that it is properly hidden behind the facade of joy and entertainment and laughter.
We look at the whole question from a different angle. For example, a comedy that verges on tears is also called a tragi-comedy or as Prof. Styan calls it, the dark comedy. But conversely we do not have comic tragedies or light tragedies. This also clearly points to the nebulous character of comedy.
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Comedy has not been given proper critical attention so far and even Aristotle who dwelt on the subject of tragedy at length in his Poetics dismisses comedy with a few cursory remarks. Perhaps he assumed that most of his remarks on tragedy applied equally well to comedy.
But the scant attention paid by him to the comedy form has created a vague impression that comedy is, when all is said and done, a lower type of artistic form, Comedy creates an atmosphere of joy, merriment and laughter; it touches, on the whole, a superficial side of life and naturally the depth and dignity of sorrow can never be matched by gay carefree laughter. All these considerations also led to a feeling that comedy is an inferior form of art.
Comedy, as we know, was never one of the honoured of Muses. To quote Meredith,
“The light of Achilles illuminates the birth of Greek tragedy. But comedy rolled in shouting under the divine protection of the son of the Wine-jar, as Dionysus is made to proclaim himself by Aristophanes.”
Since the main and ostensible purpose of comedy is to entertain the audience and make them laugh, every comedy has scenes which are full of light fun or satire or farce or even horseplay and buffoonery or brilliant wit-scenes which keep the audience smiling or roaring with laughter.
Comedy thus has a sunny and cheerful atmosphere where no evil is expected and even if bad luck dogs the footsteps of the protagonist the audience is quite confident that in the end everything is going to be all right.
Again we have to fall back upon common sense. Comedy lives on laughter, and very often behind this outward laughter, there may be an undertone of sadness or even philosophy. But the touchstone is laughter and the aim is to amuse the audience.
Aristotle defined comedy as
“an imitation of characters of a lower type-not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.”
But it is not applicable to English Romantic Comedies.
Comedy is a drama that ends happily. Divine Comedy was a comedy because it ended happily, but some dramas ending with happy note cannot be called comedy as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well that Ends Well. So, an exact definition of comedy is hard to form.
Characteristics of Comedy
In plain words, it refers to play which has mirth and gaiety as its prime qualities. Some essential features of comedy can be as follows:
1. Comedy deals with familiar and domestic occurrences particularly of the middle class society. It is opposite to tragedy.
2. It deals with the democratic principle of quality of status. One or more characters gain importance over dwarf and other characters. In As You Like It, Orlando and Rosalind, Touchstone and Audrey, Celia and Oliver, Silvius and Phoebe are on the same level in comparison.
3. Comedy deals with types and classes and not with personalities and individuals as happens with tragedy. Comedy writer presents characters in gross who make us laugh. Shakespeare’s Dogherry and Verges suggest the representative of a class whose sense of morality, ethics and law has nothing to do with our own.
4. Comedy features insensibility towards audience. If audience feels sympathy towards character, their sense of mirth and jollity will evaporate. The sympathy can only be aroused when they are presented as living beings and not as types. Shylock was considered tragic hero because Shakespeare presented him to arise our sympathy. Comic dramatists often appeal to intellect rather than emotions.
5. It is a problem free genre of drama. A slight stigma of problem spoils the charm of the comedy. All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida are not pure comedies because they deal with complication of human life.
6. Presentation of unreality is another feature of comedy. The incidents there are not connected with the daily life. Nicoll says,
“In comedy as personalities are artificialized into types, so the situations are removed so far from the situations of actual life that there is no direct relation established between the two.”
7. Risibility is the last feature of comedy and the true source of risibility is incongruity which excites our laughter. It cannot be called fully comic unless it includes normal behavior, so producing laughter generating characters in an ordinary manner is the risibility in comedy. A. Nicoll says,
“No comedy can be a true comedy unless there is presented alongside of the humorous situation, words or character something that is more or less ordinary. A comedy full of eccentric types ceases largely to be a cause of merriment.”
The Sources of Comedy
According to Aristotle, man is made worse in laughter and becomes the subject of laughter. Ben Johnson said, “What either in words or sense at an author or in the language or actions of men is awry or depraved does strangely stir mean affections and provoke for the west part to laughter.” Degradation, automatism, incongruity and unsociability are the sources of laughter in the drama but incongruity is the last comedy producing clement. We do not laugh on blind and lame man but their ridiculous behavior or dressing arises out laughter. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio‘s ridiculous dresses make us laugh. Along with that mental deformity cannot be underestimated as source of comedy. This deformity is not a vice but a folly. Mental deformation appears in the characters speaking the same phrases again and again.
Importance of Plot and Character in Comedy
Critics made a sharp controversy over the importance of plot and character in the comedy. Aristotle gave great importance to plot than character. For him, plot is a ground where characters enact and prove their significance. Aristotle applied his observation of tragedy to the comedy. But because of the importance of plot, the character cannot be put on second place. The comedy attracts due to its characters because the common spectators go to theater to see incidents more than listening story. Mr. Jones says,
“A mere story, mere succession of incidents, if they do not embody and display character and human nature, only give you something in raw melodrama, pretty much equivalent to the adventure of our old friends.”
The real excellence of a Shakespearean comedy lies not so much in the philosophy that may be gleaned from it, or in the romantic atmosphere he diffuses over it as in characterization, in the unity and diversity, logic and inconsistency, vividness and incomprehensibility which mark his congruities, disguised and confusions, but all these are used as means to the exploration of character, never as ends in themselves.
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock and Portia are revealed through the bond story, casket story, ring story and Lorenzo Jessica story. Arms and The Man runs through different incidents of change in the characters of Raina and Sergius. So in comedy, the comic action is shaped by the characters only. The main impulse of comedy lies in characters.