Comedy is a genre of fiction that is intended to incite laughter and amusement, especially in theatre, television, radio, books, film, stand-up comedy or any other entertainment medium. It dates back to the Ancient Greeks, originating from the comedy literary definition which refers to a medieval story or narrative involving an amusing character that triumphs over poor circumstances, creating comic effects. The tone here is light and satirical and the story always ends well. It is contrasted on the one hand with tragedy and on the other with farce, burlesque, and other forms of humorous amusement.
The word comedy seems to be connected by derivation with the Greek verb meaning to revel, and comedy arose out of the revels associated with the rites of Dionysus, a god of vegetation. The origins of comedy are thus bound up with vegetation ritual. Aristotle, in his Poetics, states that comedy originated in phallic songs and that, like tragedy, it began in improvisation. Though tragedy evolved by stages that can be traced, the progress of comedy passed unnoticed because it was not taken seriously. When tragedy and comedy arose, poets wrote one or the other, according to their natural bent. Those of the graver sort, who might previously have been inclined to celebrate the actions of the great in epic poetry, turned to tragedy; poets of a lower type, who had set forth the doings of the ignoble in invectives, turned to comedy. Comedy is distinguished from tragedy through persons and manners in that it is an imitation of humbler persons and leaner fortunes. It is clear that comedy is not just subject to any vices but needs jokes, witticisms and the ridiculous, for the ridiculous is a kind of fault but this ugliness is without pain, harm or misfortune.
All discussions on the basic nature of comedy have stemmed from Aristotle’s definition of comedy as “Imitation of bad characters, bad not with respect to every sort of vice, but to ridicule only, as being a species of turpitude or deformity…… This is neither painful nor destructive”. Aristotle said that comedy deals with the ridiculous, and Plato, in the Philebus, defined the ridiculous as a failure of self-knowledge; such a failure is there shown to be laughable in private individuals (the personages of comedy) but terrible in persons who wield power (the personages of tragedy). Aristotle taught that comedy was generally positive for society since it brings forth happiness, which for Aristotle was the ideal state, the final goal in any activity. For Aristotle, a comedy did not need to involve sexual humour. A comedy is about the fortunate arise of a sympathetic character.
Aristotle divides comedy into three categories or subgenres: farce, romantic comedy, and satire. On the other hand, Plato taught that comedy is a destruction to the self. He believed that it produces an emotion that overrides rational self-control and learning. In The Republic, he says that the guardians of the state should avoid laughter, “for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.” Plato says comedy should be tightly controlled if one wants to achieve the ideal state. Also in Poetics, Aristotle defined comedy as one of the original four genres of literature. The other three genres are a tragedy, epic poetry, and lyric poetry.
Literature, in general, is defined by Aristotle as a mimesis, or imitation of life. Comedy is the third form of literature, being the most divorced from a true mimesis. The tragedy is the truest mimesis, followed by epic poetry, comedy, and lyric poetry. The genre of comedy is defined by a certain pattern according to Aristotle’s definition. Comedies begin with low or base characters seeking insignificant aims and end with some accomplishment of the aims which either lightens the initial baseness or reveals the insignificance of the aims. In comedy, the failure is often mirrored in a character’s efforts to live up to an ideal of self that may be perfectly worthy but the wrong ideal for that particular character. The comic artist’s purpose is to hold a mirror up to society to reflect its follies and vices, in the hope that they will, as a result, be mended. A comedy, thus, is a story that illustrates the idiosyncrasies of ordinary people, has a happy ending where the protagonist achieves his goal at the end. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an example of a romantic comedy. In this play, the characters experience comical situations of confused love, but in the end, they are reunited with feelings for their true loves. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is an example of a comedy of manners. In this play, a gentleman of the high society attempts to refine a lower-class woman through lessons on how to act properly.
Comedy, in its Elizabethan usage, had a very different meaning from modern comedy. A Shakespearean comedy has a happy ending, usually involving marriages between unmarried characters, and a tone and style that is more light-hearted than Shakespeare’s other plays. A successful comedy not only can make the audience happy and amused but can also make the audience understand serious social or individual problems. A comedy can be categorized depending on its characteristics. The plots of Shakespeare’s last plays (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) contain a potential tragedy but one that is resolved by non-tragic means. They contain an element of the romance of the kind purveyed from Greek New Comedy through the plays of the ancient Roman comic dramatists Plautus and Terence.
William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an example of a romantic comedy. In this play, the characters experience comical situations of confused love, but in the end, they are reunited with feelings for their true loves. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is an example of a comedy of manners. In this play, a gentleman of the high society attempts to refine a lower-class woman through lessons on how to act properly. Wit in dialogue pervades the plays of Ben Jonson, Congreve, Etherege, Sheridan, Shaw, Wilde and many more, not to mention Shakespeare’s wit as a highly sophisticated expression in comedy. It marks the triumph of intellect, and therefore, often lends an air of artificiality to comic drama. But humour is a question of a deeper human attitude conditioned by an earnestness of feeling. It is the simultaneous co-existence of humour and wit that lends grace to comedy.
The most common feature of comedy as a work of art, which ends happily and which leaves behind a pleasurable sensation, is the element of love. Comedy strikes a sense of joy, a sensation of the light of life sponsored by love. Meredith in his essay On Comedy has upheld love as the staple of literary comedy. The triumph of love as the central thing of comedy is not only evident in Shakespeare’s major plays like As You Like It or Twelfth Night, but even in radically different plays like Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, Congreve’s The Way of The World or Shaw’s Arms and The Man.
If love is the staple of comedy, laughter is its spirit. Laughter is the most necessary ingredient in comic art. Laughter may arise from
- physical deformity and incongruity, mental deformity or obsession.
- amusing situations, ridiculous or awkward manners.
- diverting dialogue or ludicrous expression.
- satire or gross farcical caricatures.
An instance from Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal can be cited here; the scene is the verbal duel between Sir Peter and his fashion-minded extravagant wife, Lady Teazle.
Lady Teazle: What though I was educated in the country, I know very well the women of fashion in London are accountable to nobody after their marriage.
Sir Peter: Very well, madam – so a husband is to have no influence no authority?
Lady Teazle: Authority? No, to be sure! If you wanted authority over me, you should have adopted Me, not married me.
Another source of laughter in comedy is the use of satire. Satire differs from wit and humour, though it is also an intellectual exercise. It is a sort of exposure of ills and evils intended to evoke laughter. It hits hard to ridicule the follies and vices in men and manners. One of the best examples of delightful satire is Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. This play caricatures the anger of thoughtless young fellows and the obsessive cares and anxieties of old fathers. Perhaps the most penetrating effect of satire is perceived in unmasking the hypocrisy, vanity, greed and other distortion of individual and social morality. For instance, Goldsmith ridicules the stupid fondness of ignorant women for fashion through Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer while Sheridan satirizes the male chauvinism through the character of Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals, but everywhere the purpose is to provide delight and not to hurt or take revenge. It is the harmonious blending of all these factors of comedy that account for its spirit.