Definition of Tragicomedy

Tragicomedy is a genre that blends elements of both comedy and tragedy. A tragicomedy can either be a serious play with a happy ending—which is not the case with a straightforward tragedy—or a tragic play interspersed with moments of humor in order to lighten the mood.

The definition of tragicomedy was first used by the Roman playwright Plautus. He was a comic writer, and his only play with mythological implications was called Amphitryon. Generally, comic plays did not feature gods and kings, but Plautus was only accustomed to writing comedies. Therefore, in the prologue to Amphitryon, Plautus announced, via the character Mercury, that this play would inhabit a new form of genre:

I will make it a mixture: let it be a tragicomedy. I don’t think it would be appropriate to make it consistently a comedy, when there are kings and gods in it. What do you think? Since a slave also has a part in the play, I’ll make it a tragicomedy.

Common Examples of Tragicomedy

There are many films which can be considered examples of tragicomedy, as they combine both tragic and comic aspects. Here is a short list:

  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • Juno
  • Big Fish
  • The King’s Speech
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Lars and the Real Girl
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • Sideways
  • Amélie

Significance of Tragicomedy in Literature

The earliest works of literature were confined to highly systematized rules of either comedy or tragedy. Each genre had its own conventions, and most plays worked within these confines. Plautus was not necessarily trying to make a philosophical argument in creating a play that could not be defined solely as comedy or tragedy, and yet it was important to begin recognizing that most lives contain elements of both. Different cultures and eras had their own approach to tragicomedy, and yet it has endured as an important genre for thousands of years. As the German writer and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing noted, “seriousness stimulates laughter, and pain pleasure.” Tragicomedy allows works of literature to explore depths and paradoxes of human experience unavailable to strict comedies and tragedies.

Examples of Tragicomedy in Literature

Example #1

PORTIA [as Balthazar]
Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

Though William Shakespeare’s plays are generally grouped into the three categories of comedy, tragedy, and history, there are notable exceptions. The Merchant of Venice is a famous example of tragicomedy because there are elements of both tragedy and comedy such as Portia’s cross-dressing, as she does in the above scene in order to play a lawyer. Shylock is, in turns, a comic character and a tragic figure. We are not meant to read him only as one or the other. And though there is marriage at the end of the play (also typical of a comedy), it does not contain particularly light-hearted subject matter throughout.

Example #2

TROFIMOV: The vast majority of those intellectuals whom I know seek for nothing, do nothing, and are at present incapable of hard work. They call themselves intellectuals, but they use “thou” and “thee” to their servants, they treat the peasants like animals, they learn badly, they read nothing seriously, they do absolutely nothing, about science they only talk, about art they understand little. They are all serious, they all have severe faces, they all talk about important things. They philosophize, and at the same time, the vast majority of us, ninety-nine out of a hundred, live like savages, fighting and cursing at the slightest opportunity, eating filthily, sleeping in the dirt, in stuffiness, with fleas, stinks, smells, moral filth, and so on. . . And it’s obvious that all our nice talk is only carried on to distract ourselves and others. Tell me, where are those créches we hear so much of? and where are those reading-rooms? People only write novels about them; they don’t really exist. Only dirt, vulgarity, and Asiatic plagues really exist. . . . I’m afraid, and I don’t at all like serious faces; I don’t like serious conversations. Let’s be quiet sooner.

(The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov)

The student Trofimov is idealistic and revolutionary, and speaks of important issues of his day. Yet there are comic aspects to his character as well; he is naive enough to be the butt of other characters’ jokes and scorn. Anton Chekhov had originally imagined The Cherry Orchard to be a comedy, and labeled it as such, thinking it to be a farce. However, many directors bring out the more serious and tragic nature of the play. Both elements exist dually in this tragicomedy example.

Example #3

After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why. One day he had a better idea. To everyone he knew he wrote that he was going on a very dangerous mission. “They asked for volunteers. It’s very dangerous, but someone has to do it. I’ll write you the instant I get back.” And he had not written anyone since.

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 highlights both the absurdities and horrors of war. Even the comic aspects of the novel carry a hint of something darker. In the above example, the protagonist Yossarian promises to write when he’s back from a dangerous mission, and fails to do so. Though from the reader’s point of view this is a bit humorous, Yossarian’s friends and family can only assume that he’s dead.

Example #4

If, by the virtue of charity of the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find out…

That some people really do look like rodents. That certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do. That over 50% of persons with a substance addiction suffer from some other recognized form of psychiatric disorder, too. That purposeful sleep-deprivation can also be an abusable escape. That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude. That it is possible to get so angry you really do see everything red.

(Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace)

David Foster Wallace’s metamodernist novel Infinite Jest contains multiple elements of tragicomedy. By accepting aspects of both genres, Wallace is seemingly acknowledging that life itself contains multitudes. In the above passage, Wallace writes of the things that become apparent in a halfway house. Some are funny, such as “some people really do look like rodents” and some are tragic, like “That over 50% of persons with a substance addiction suffer from some other recognized form of psychiatric disorder, too.”

Test Your Knowledge of Tragicomedy

1. Which of the following statements is the most accurate tragicomedy definition?
A. A genre that combines elements of both tragedy and comedy.
B. A play with many humorous and lighthearted aspects and ends with several marriages.
C. A work of literature that encourages the reader to laugh at the misfortunes of others.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following plot lines could be an example of a tragicomedy?
A. Two characters get married, but jealousy overcomes the husband and he murders his wife at the end of the play.
B. A man seeks revenge for his dead father, which leads to many more deaths, including his own.
C. Two characters consider absurd concepts and talk about light-hearted ideas, but end up dead at the end of the play.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Gods and kings were generally not a part of tragedies in Ancient Greek and Roman plays.
B. The comic playwright Plautus is considered the first to acknowledge the need for and presence of tragicomedy.
C. Tragicomedies always must end in a happy way.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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