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Tragicomedy is a genre that blends elements of both comedy and tragedy. Most often seen in dramatic literature, it can be a tragedy with a happy ending or a tragedy with enough comic relief that the mood of the entire play is improved. Mostly, the characters in tragicomedy are exaggerated, and sometimes there might be a happy ending after a series of unfortunate events. It is incorporated with jokes throughout the story, just to lighten the tone.

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 the 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”.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is considered one of the most popular examples of tragicomedy. Though it has a comedic structure, there are tragic characters, such as Shylock (who is a central character), and tragic events, such as Antonio’s “loss” of life (because he is not dead). Although the play ends on a happy note with the union of the lovers in the story, and Antonio is saved from a tragic incident, readers are left with a taste of Shylock’s sufferings. Hence, the feeling and mood of the play at the end are neither happy nor gloomy. Though this play has a comic structure, it also has a strong tragic story. Therefore, it can be classified as a tragicomedy.

Anton Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard, turned out to be his final play that has a combination of comedy and tragedy. It is the story of an elite family that is on the verge of losing its inherited estate. As this play is based on an inevitable social change, which came with the dawn of the 20th century, it presents the end of an aristocratic era, blended with tragic and comic elements. The comic elements can be seen in the behaviour, humorous aspects, and lack of responsibility of the characters.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot can also be considered one of the great examples of tragicomedy. There are many gestures, dialogues, actions, and situations that are filled with pure comedy. All types of musical devices have been used to create laughter. The overall atmosphere is that of a dark comedy. For example, Vladimir is determined not to listen to Estragon’s nightmare. However, the latter keeps pleading with him to listen. Similarly, Estragon takes off and puts on his shoes several times while Vladimir plays with his hat again and again. On the other hand, comedy turns into a tragedy due to the haplessness of these tramps. Vladimir and Estragon wait for somebody who does not come, which makes them disappointed. With time, they indulge themselves in meaningless activities.

Shakespearean tragicomedies have complex and dubious plots. One of his perfect tragicomedies is The Winter’s Tale. The first three acts are both tragic and serious, while the final two acts are based on pastoral romance, roguery, songs, humour, and reunion. A sheep-shearing celebration with the elegant, innocent Perdita serving as a hostess, dancing and singing with shepherds, is suggestive of rural life in England. The blend of suffering, sorrows, humour, romance, forgiveness, and reunion in the play confirms its label as a tragicomedy. There are different aspects of the tragicomedy in the play that include: tragic elements, comic elements, romantic elements, and a happy ending.

The Caretaker, written by Harold Pinter is, is mixed with two modes, tragedy and comedy, and is a fine modern example of tragicomedy. The comic elements come out in the monologues of Mick and Davies, and even the interactions between characters sometimes approach farce. Davies’ repetition, confusion, and deceit of the brothers make the play comedic. However, the tragic element appears in the climactic monologue of Anton, regarding his shock treatments, at the end of the play and in “that place,” although its ending is somewhat ambiguous.

The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou is a modern example of tragicomedy. Three escaped convicts experience much difficulty travelling to the leader’s (Ullyses Everett Magill) homestead to retrieve a treasure. The homestead is flooded before they can get the treasure, and Magill finds out that the wife he left behind is marrying someone else. But, along the way, there are many comedic elements-including “sirens,” women who lure the men and turn one of them into a frog, and in the end, the convicts put out a hit record as the “Soggy Bottom Boys.”

American writers of the metamodernist and postmodernist movements have made use of tragicomedy and/or gallows humour. A notable example of a metamodernist tragicomedy is David Foster Wallace’s 1996 magnum opus, Infinite Jest. By accepting aspects of both genres, Wallace is seemingly acknowledging that life itself contains multitudes. Wallace writes of the things that become apparent in a halfway house. Some are funny, such as “some people 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.”

The main purpose of tragicomedy is to describe the dual nature of reality, where both modes can coexist, perhaps simultaneously. Therefore, the interweaving of both aspects gives both a comic and tragic view of life. Tragicomedy is mainly used in dramas and theatre. Since tragic plays focus exclusively on protagonists, while comic plays are devoid of focus and concern, therefore plays that fell between these two categories were developed. These types of plays present both modes of life through absurdity and seriousness.

Different cultures and eras had their 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.

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δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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