On Comedy and Tragedy


Here is August Wilhelm von Schlegel on the difference between tragedy and comedy, from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1808), with my comments in between:

“The tragic and comic bear the same relation to one another as earnest and sport.”

Nowadays, we might call earnest sincerity, or seriousness, and call sport play. This initial distinction sounds simple, but of course it isn’t simple at all in practice. Schlegel goes on:

“Earnestness … is the direction of our mental powers to some aim.”

The desire for completion, for achievement–which is an earnest desire–leads to the tragic mode because “reason compels us to fix this aim higher and higher, till we come at last to the highest end of our existence: and here that longing for the infinite which is inherent in our being, is baffled by the limits of our finite existence. All that we do, all that we effect, is vain and perishable.” The shortfall between our aim and our grasp is felt to be tragic, and it motivates the tragic artist.

By contrast, sport is the essence of the comic: “The disposition to mirth is a forgetfulness of all gloomy considerations in the pleasant feeling of present happiness.” For Schlegel, sport is all about the moment; in its purest form, it has no forethought or memory: for this reason, highly comic literature is incompatible with tight plotting. Remember the cowboy and knight that inexplicably appear in the Monty Python skit “Marriage Guidance Counsellor,” whose functions are really to keep the fun going and to prevent us from sympathizing too much with the poor Mr. Arthur Pewtney.

There is a clear relation between Schlegel’s division of earnest and sport and the aspects of plot we discussed a few weeks ago. If we take his system seriously, we might find that all narrative contain elements of both earnest and sport, though some have much more of one than the other. Recall that in our discussion of beginnings, middles and ends, we talked about the tension between the forward drive towards the end (which Freudian critics like Peter Brooks associate with the Death Drive) and the momentum-stopping obstacles which defer the end (associated with the libido and the pleasure principle); the parallel with the earnest/tragic and sport/comic is more than a surface resemblance. 

Would this mean that the typical romcom, which is so obviously end-directed, or pornography, which is similarly end-directed, are tragic genres? Well, no. I don’t think that’s quite Schlegel’s point. But it does seem significant the he thought that Old Comedy (i.e., the satirical tradition associated with Aristophanes) was pure sport, while the New Comedy wasn’t. So perhaps the plotted, end-directed nature of the romantic comedy can be considered a sign of mixing of earnest into the sport. Thinking in these terms also helps explain the importance of comic relief (relief meaning both a temporary break and a varied topography) in many tragedies (for example, the gravedigger scene in Hamlet or some of the really nasty sexual joking in Othello).


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