Tragicomedy in Literature

Tragicomedy in literature is defined by critics as a dramatic genre in which the tragic and the comic coexist to produce mixed tragicomic response. The term was coined by Roman playwright Plautus (254 BC to 184 BC) in the prologue to his play Amphytryon as an excuse for mixing in it slaves and gods, since according to the tenets of classical drama gods and kings belonged to tragedy and ordinary people to comedy.

During the Renaissance, tragicomedy developed as a deviation from the classical tragedy. The term was used to define a play in which the action moves towards a tragic climax but an unexpected turn of fortune brings about a happy ending. The plot is built around unexpected reversals, averted catastrophes, mistaken identities and timely recognitions which prevent killings. Sometimes serious actions alternate with comic situations, but humor is not a standard ingredient. Because of its blending of comedy and tragedy, tragicomedy is referred to as a hybrid or mixed form. This kind of form can be seen in the plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) such as Measure for Measure (1623) and The Merchant of Venice (1600).

The first to define tragicomedy as a unique genre on its own ground was Italian poet and dramatist Battista Guarini (1538-1612) in his Compendium of Tragicomic Poetry (1601). The theoretical work was prompted by a debate which his pastoral tragicomedy Il pastor fido (1590), caused. His masterpiece was criticized for mixing two fundamentally distinct classical genres. In response, Guarini defended the autonomy of tragicomedy by arguing that it is neither tragedy nor comedy but a genre combing tragic elements with tempered laughter to bring purgation. In his work scenes provoking pity and sorrow are juxtaposed with comic situations or lightened by touches of humor.

Guarini's controversial play became popular across Europe and was an inspiration for the dramatists of his time. Guarini's model of mingling tragedy and comedy into a whole was emulated by English dramatist John Fletcher (1579-1625) in his pastoral tragicomedy The Faithful Shepherdess (1609) and the plays he wrote in collaboration with Francis Beaumont, in particular Philaster (1609). Although their tragicomedies had their English peculiarities, they followed Guarini's formula of keeping the audience in suspense by entangled romantic triangles, pending dangers, surprising turns of fortune from bad to good.

The 18th and the 19th century witnessed the development of a number of mixed dramatic genres blurring the distinction between tragedy and comedy, such as serious drama, romantic drama, the problem play and melodrama. Melodrama served as a bridge to modern tragicomedy, which emerged in the late 19th and the early 20th with plays such as The Wild Duck (1884) and Ghosts (1881) of Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and The Cherry Orchard (1904), by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The advent of realism in literature and its focus on the evils of society gave a tragic intensity to the mundane and melodramatic. While describing human unhappiness writers of tragicomedies introduced elements and techniques of comedy, poetic images and symbolism into serious realistic action and thus heightened its tragic impact.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) once said: "Ibsen was the dramatic poet who firmly established tragicomedy as a much deeper and grimmer entertainment than tragedy." Moving into the 20th century, tragicomedy gained ground as the most moving and serious of the dramatic genres with the masterpieces of American writer Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), Irish playwright Sean O'Casey (1880-1964), Swedish novelist August Strindberg (1849-1912) and Irish dramatist John Synge (1871-1909). While Renaissance tragicomedy has tragic heroes in genial and comic settings, its modern version has reversed the pattern to show comic figures in hostile environment. Realism helps the audience to identify with the characters and feel their suffering, while their comic qualities, antics and foolishness elicit a complex emotional response of laughter, annoyance, sympathy and moral detachment.

Tragicomedy is the form used by post-war dramatists writing in the traditions of the theatre of the absurd. Spurning conventions and realism, playwrights expressed their tragic vision using comic devices. Dramatists such as Irish novelist Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), Nobel Prize-winning English writer Harold Pinter (1930-2008), Romanian-French author Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994) and British playwright Tom Stoppard (b.1937) revealed the contradictions of life by means of the grotesque and absurd. In their works the comic situations arising from human alienation, lack of meaningful communication and irrational behavior emphasize the spiritual emptiness of the modern world.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! English Tragicomedy: Its Origin and History
Frank Humphrey Ristine.
Columbia University Press, 1910
English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare
G. K. Hunter.
Clarendon Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Tragicomedy"
English Drama, 1660-1700
Derek Hughes.
Clarendon Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Five "'A Song Expressing the Change of Their Condition': Tragicomedy and Opera, 1668-1676"
The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion
Patrick Colm Hogan.
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: "Final Hypothesis: The Universality of Romantic and Heroic Tragi-Comedy and Their Derivation from Personal and Social Prototypes for Happiness" begins on p. 98
Catholicism, Controversy, and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660
Alison Shell.
Cambridge University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Jesuit Tragicomedy and the Lessons of Exile" begins on p. 187
The John Fletcher Plays
Clifford Leech.
Harvard University Press, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Tragicomedy"
The Multiple Plot in Fletcherian Tragicomedies
Bingham, Mark E.
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1993
Where Laughter Stops: Pinter's Tragicomedy
Bernard Frank Dukore.
University of Missouri Press, 1976
Radical Royalism: Strategy and Ambivalence in Dryden's Tragicomedies
Coltharp, Duane.
Philological Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 4, Fall 1999
Giving and Taking in Massinger's Tragicomedies
Turner, Robert Y.
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 35, No. 2, Spring 1995
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