Universality in Comedy: Some Preliminary Concepts and Theory

Updated on November 23, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Comedy and Tragedy: The Dramatic Counterparts

It is quite evident that the genre of drama has two distinguishable forms—plays that present dark, gloomy, and sad expressions and plays which are bright, gay, and animated by wit and humour. Any attempt to define them completely is rendered almost impossible by the variety they offer. Yet, attempts are always made. For the classicists, tragedy is the imitation of action by the great while comedy deals with the commoners. However, to the modern audience, this sounds inadequate and limited. For them, as Dr Johnson put it, the distinction lies in the effects which each type has upon the mind. An oversimplified approach is that, in case of tragedy, the audience is deeply moved and their sympathies are profoundly stirred while in comedy, the impression, being lighter, is less penetrating and more relaxing.

As defined by Aristotle, comedy is “an imitation of characters of a lower type...the ludicrous being merely subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” This definition cannot be applied as much to the English comedy as to the classical ones.

Why is Universality Needed in Comedy?

All drama arises out of a conflict. In comedy there is ever a conflict between personalities or between an individual and the society at large. It is very important to note that an outward conflict is what appeals most in the theatre while an inward conflict is what gives majesty and distinction to the play as a text. Beyond basic characterization and in the inwardness, a general atmosphere or spirit must be incorporated which finally enwraps the plot with a unique dominance. This can be called universality.

In any good comedy, there is always a sense that the events and the characters are not isolated—they are related in some way to the world of ordinary experience. If we find in a comedy a person such as Dryden’s Bibber (‘’The Wild Gallant’’), we often tend to regard him as a unique specimen of a particular psychological affliction. However, extraordinary eccentricity is not truly laughable in a comedy. What is needed is the element of universality. This may be attained by various means—the introduction of supernatural elements is, for instance, one such means. other effective devices include setting, use of subplot and symbolism, to name a few.

Oberon and Titania: Shakespeare makes extensive use of supernaturalism in his Romantic Comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream
Oberon and Titania: Shakespeare makes extensive use of supernaturalism in his Romantic Comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream | Source

Supernaturalism as Comic Device

The air of comedy is often too cynical, too reasonable and unemotional to allow any introduction of supernaturalism openly. Even in Dryden’s ‘Amphitryon’, the descent of gods to earth is diluted in a frank spirit of farce. The weird sisters in Shadwell’s ‘Lancashire’ are not like their counterparts in ‘Macbeth’. In a comedy, the playwright readily attempts to eradicate any possibility to attack his own scepticism. As an instance, the ghost in Addison’s ‘Drummer’ is nothing but an earthly shape in disguise while the spirit of Angelica appearing in Farquhar’s ‘Sir Harry Wildair’ reveals itself in the last act as the bodily form of Wildair’s wife. In a word, an air of reason permeates the whole, dissolving any majesty or awe that could otherwise be evoked by such portentous phenomena.

In case of Shakespearean comedies, we find characters like Puck, Titania, Oberon, Ariel and Caliban who raise the level of the plays to a new height. ‘The Tempest’, unquestionably, has a symbolic vastness, where the figures beyond nature become representations of a humanity which is shadowed and modified.

There are scores of comedies depending on the actions of forces playfully baffling human beings. M.Bergson has called automatism as one of the chief sources of the risible. Such a concept forms the basis of the ‘Comedy of Errors’: repetition, inversion and interference, as postulated in Berson’s ‘Comique de situation’—all depending on teh automatism of man in hands of divine forces. The element of universality follows subsequently. The gods are ridiculed and sacred things are turned to objects of merriment.

"Laughter" is a collection of three essays by French philosopher Henri Bergson, first published in 1900. It was written in French, the original title is Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique ("Laughter, an essay on the meaning of the comic").

Henry Bergson (1859-1941)
Henry Bergson (1859-1941)

Characterization as Comic Device

In comedy, the basic essence of mirth arises out of the juxtaposition of various characters. This is again because there is a marked absence of “protagonist”. The fundamental assumption of comedy is that it hardly deals with isolated individuals. The playwright either tries to introduce several of a particular type or he establishes that a figure is representative of a class. This makes the audience make an instantaneous connection between the particular work of art and the entire human race as a whole. The artisans of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are presented in pairs and as foils to each other. Their juxtaposition is affirms that their idiosyncrasies are not peculiar but rather probable generally.

In the words of William Blake, “The characters of Chaucer’s pilgrims are the characters that compose all ages and nations”. This is also applicable to finer comedies. There are Mirabels among us all along with Sir Fopling Flutters and Mrs Malaprops. Ideally, Comedy should never be restricted to represent a particular age but should have potential to reflect human experience as a whole. It is true that the risible has something in it truly racial and national, yet there are general lineaments of humanity beyond such borders. From this issues forth a spirit of generality, that these situations and persons are not isolated but abstracts of something of greater and weightier significance than themselves.

Sir Fopling Flutter: A Hilarious Figure portrayed by George Etherege in his witty comedy "Man of Mode"
Sir Fopling Flutter: A Hilarious Figure portrayed by George Etherege in his witty comedy "Man of Mode" | Source

Parallel Plots or Subplots: An Effective Comic Device

Another repeatedly used dramatic device to secure universality is the introduction of subplot which, makes way for Bergson’s ‘repetition— inversion— interference’. The lovers in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ have their quarrels, so does Oberon and Titania. The love of Bassanio and Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is juxtaposed with the courtship of Gratiano and Nerissa. This concurrence, of course, need not always take the form of an identical series of events. In Fletcher’s ‘Wit at several Weapons’, there are two plots of different traits. The whole theme of both plots is deception and intrigue. It can be further noted that the relation between the plots may even be one of contrast rather than of similarity. It can be further illustrated in Beaumont’s comedy ‘The Woman Hater’. The contrast, instead of weakening the spirit of the play, gives it a peculiar unity—suggesting to the audience the universality of these diverse themes. This might have been lost had the main plot stood isolated.

Comedy of Errors: Shakespeare's most brilliant juxtaposition of Parallel Plots
Comedy of Errors: Shakespeare's most brilliant juxtaposition of Parallel Plots | Source

Symbolism and Other Devices

An external object, having a force beyond itself, often unifies diverse elements in a play and enriches the spirit of universality. The haunted house In ‘The English Traveller’, and the forest of Arden in ‘As You Like It’, serve as symbols of emotions raised in the play. The force is often so generalizing that it stretches beyond the particular (almost incredible) instances to reach the level of credible generality and universality. Interestingly, a playwright often uses style and pathetic fallacy to enhance the sense of generality. Verse has, until recent days, been acknowledged as the prime medium for serious plays while prose has been widely accepted as the appropriate medium for comedy. However, blank verse was used widely in Elizabethan comedies. The desire of the comic playwright to rise beyond the level of commonplace prose is manifested through frequent introduction of songs and sporadic utilization of verse

In Shakespearean comedies, there is a rich utilization of natural symbolism. It is apparent in Portia’s speech (“It is almost morning...”) in the last Act of “The Merchant of Venice”. Nature imagery has, of course, been used by other playwrights too, but not quite as beautifully as by Shakespeare. Incidentally, the most remarkable example from the Greek stage is from the background of Sophocle’s almost romantic tragedy of “Philoctetes”. Nature, certainly, is not made to sympathize with man’s emotions so frequently in comedy as in tragedy.

“The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose... one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”

— Aristotle

The ultimate effect of all these devices is to create a sense of universality. A play must have some ramification beyond the theatre. As Aristotle observed, “The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose... one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” It can be concluded that this applies to the dramatic art as well, mostly because Aristotle’s “Poetics” is about the genre of drama. However, it does so only after one takes into account the diverse means that the playwright adopts to secure such an effect.

© 2017 Monami

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