Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Two Kingdoms of Comedy

The poet W. H. Auden writes, in a beautiful essay on Shakespeare, that there are actually two distinct genres, one might even say kingdoms, of comedy. The first he calls "classical" comedy, though it can be found in many cultures and in many periods of history. Classical comedy focuses on exposing people who think too highly of themselves or have some otherwise fantastic self-image and mocking them. "When the curtain falls" at the end of a classical comedy, Auden writes, "the audience is laughing and those on stage are in tears." The audience may laugh because they believe themselves to possess arete--"virtue," or more generally, "excellence"--which those on stage so demonstrably lack.

The other kind of comedy is best illustrated by Shakespeare's plays. Take Much Ado About Nothing, for instance: at the end of that play we see a motley collection of people, few if any of whom have behaved especially well. They have exhibited pride, wrath, jealousy, envy, treachery--most of the deadly sins and a sizable collection of venial ones--and a great deal of what can only be called sheer stupidity, especially on the part of the male lead, Claudio. Yet they are all celebrating, joyously, a double wedding...Auden calls this kind of story "Christian comedy," because it is "based upon the belief that all men are sinners; no one, therefore, whatever his rank or talents, can claim immunity from the comic exposure." This is a model of society and human nature that turns the Greek notion of arete on its head, because on this account the truest excellence is to know that you deserve the "comic exposure"--to know that you need forgiveness. When a play like this comes to its end, "the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are laughing together."

-Alan Jacobs, Original Sin, 271-272.

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