Is “Comedy” Less Serious than “Tragedy”?

As heirs of modernity, we have a tendency to believe that tragedy is more “serious” than comedy. When I use the terms “tragedy” and “comedy” I’m using them in the literary sense. Tragedy is a work of literature in which community is broken in the end. Comedy is a work of literature in which community is restored in the end. Modern thought tends to believe that the world is random; we are all at the bay of impersonal forces moving us inexorably toward a black void we call “death”. Because of this belief we often believe that tragic literature and art is closer to reality than comedy. In a recent interview with Touchstone Magazine about his work on Shakespeare, Peter Leithart addresses this unfortunate misapprehension:

RP: Shakespeare’s comedies are often thought of as lighter and less serious than the tragedies. Is this a correct perception?

PL: I think that’s an unfortunate bias. Why should a play with a happy ending be less serious than one in which every ends up dead? Why should resurrection and marriage be less profound than death? I’ve found in my study and teaching of Shakespeare of the years that the comedies are as psychologically, philosophically, and theologically rich as the tragedies—or more so.

Leithart does a wonderful job of highlighting what we ultimately think about the future. Because modern thought is, in a sense, the air we breathe or the water we swim in, we tend to believe that the future of modern thought is actually the future. Leithart reminds us that this is not true. The future of the world is resurrection and marriage. Heaven and earth will be united and made new. The future of the world is comedy.

As Leithart points out the fact that the end is celebratory does not mean that the journey is any less psychologically, philosophically or theologically less rich as a story with a tragic ending. Shakespeare proves this in his comedies but he is not the only writer to prove this point. I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien also mastered this reality too in The Lord of the Rings. In the end community is restored. Aragorn is made king and Arwen is his bride, the friendship of Legolas and Gimli endures and the Shire is saved from the tyrannical machinations of Suaruman. Yet, as one reads of the restoration of all these communities, there is a profound depth to the joy that makes one think of the resurrection. The reason the joy of the resurrection will be so profound and deep will be in many ways due to the experience of death. Likewise, the joy of Gondor being restored under Aragorn and the Shire being saved from Suaruman is so deep because of the prior pain and suffering that was experienced.

Food for thought.

Michael

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