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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The term “Comedy” designates certain traits of man's
relationship with his fellows. More or less as fate is
to the tragic hero, so society is to the comic hero. The
idea of the comic, then, refers to some aspect of man's
conflict with his group (political, familial, etc.) and its
conventions, mores, ideals. But the same man is also
part of that society; hence, in struggling with it he
is apt to trip himself. Comedy, thus, is an ironic strug-
gle with society.

Comedy involves the failure to live up to an ac-
cepted standard, a failure which usually elicits a smil-
ing or laughing reaction. This article will not be con-
cerned with theories of laughter but only with the form
and content of the kind of action which awakens the
sense of the comic.

The recorded lineage of comic action goes back to
the Margites (ca. ninth century B.C.). Aristotle makes
reference to comic plays enacted in fifth-century
Megara. There are other early evidences of comic
mimes who, in their little dramas, poked fun at mytho-
logical characters or at self-important citizens. Some
scholars maintain that the comic tradition, beginning
with these Greek sources, is continuous to modern
times (cf. A. Nicoll, Masks, Mimes, and Miracles, 1963).

The relation of comedy to tragedy has, since the
Greeks, appeared to be complex. In a famous passage
of the Symposium (223D) Socrates argued that the art
(τέχνῃ) of composing comedy is the same sort of thing
as the art of composing tragedy. An ancient tradition
ascribes to Aristotle an essay on comedy paralleling
the Poetics. The Tractatus coislinianus (ca. 100 B.C.)
may have drawn upon such an essay, for it formulates
a definition of comedy closely analogous to the famous
definition of tragedy in Poetics VI, only it remarks that
comedy effects the catharsis of “pleasure and laughter.”
Perhaps an excessive or inappropriate pleasure or
laughter was, by means of the comic action, thought
to be rendered moderate, as measured by the political
and rational nature of man. However, definitions of
these terms and the theory explicating their usage have
not come down to us. Other aspects of this Aristotelian
tradition are mentioned by such writers as Iamblicus
and Proclus; it has been elaborated in modern times
by Lane Cooper (1922) and by Elder Olson (1968).

Comic writings are loosely organized compared to
tragic writings; nevertheless, there is sufficient unity
among them to warrant considering the form of com-
edy in a single section. The use of this form, however,
is varied and will later be considered under several

1. The Form of Comic Action. If, inclined by the
tradition mentioned above, we accept the view that
comedy is analogous in certain respects to the Aris-
totelian account of tragedy, then the discussion of the
formal structure of tragedy, its beginning, middle, and
end—and the reference of the end back to the begin-
ning—will be relevant mutatis mutandum to comedy.
However, certain differences should be emphasized.
The principles of likelihood and necessity, which unite
the episodes of tragedy, become the principle of comic
likelihood. Comic likelihood is not without its own
system, yet its logic may be quite different from, often
the reverse of, tragic likelihood. It is usually related
somehow to the socially actual, desired, or desirable,
and by comparison with this standard its ridiculous,
absurd, or naturally unlikely character emerges. For
instance, a man for whom life has become intolerable
jumps from a thirty-story building. On the way down
he passes another man in a parachute. “Sissy,” he


Surely also the comic catharsis is significantly differ-
ent from the tragic. Since the Tractatus coislinianus
fails to develop definitions of “pleasure and laughter,”
it may be maintained that the purgation of folly by
folly comes closer to describing the effect of actual
comedies and comic situations. If the admired average
of human kind is the careful worker or the grave
professional man, both seriously concerned to act
creditably within their social roles, then we must also
suppose them at least occasionally to resent the disci-
pline which their roles require and to be restive under
the constant restraint which their reputations impose.
Beneath the conformist, as Nietzsche insisted, there
lives the satyr. Comedy tears off the foolish mask of
conformity and indulges for a brief but relieving inter-
val the equally foolish satyr. This catharsis yields an
insight into the less respectable but ever present ani-
mal-like basis of the human being. Thus it purges folly
by means of folly and brings man and his milieu into
an easier and perhaps more fruitful harmony. Comedy
deprecates the traditional mores, and by means of this
permissive irreverence it preserves them. Comedy, like
tragedy, is a self-corrective action. Hence John
Meredith could speak of comedy as the “ultimate

Guided by suggestions offered by Aristotle in the
Poetics, F. M. Cornford (1914) holds that comedy, like
tragedy, evolved from the ancient ritual slaying of the
old king or scapegoat for the sake of the continued
survival and fertility of the tribe. The agon between
the old king and the young pretender, which often
ended in the death or mutilation of the former, con-
tinued beyond the tragically relevant part usually to
a triumphal procession (the komos), a feast, and a
marriage. The procession, feast, and marriage com-
prised the portion which became the source of comedy.
Or perhaps comedy is the whole ritual action perceived
from the point of view of the komos, feast, or marriage.
In any event, this account of the ancient ritual provides
a likely story of the beginning of comedy, its continued
preoccupation with political and sexual matters, and
its ambiguous combination of opposites: cruelty and
celebration, penance and festival, the serious and the
irreverent. Comedy, then, is a forgetting of the tragic
and bloody renewal in a careless, happy release. Yet
a note of anxiety often still runs beneath its ridiculous
and jovial surface.

Doubtless no human value is absolute, and no human
act or role is as significant as it may at the time be
thought to be. The insight of comedy is directed upon
the meaningless aspect of human values and upon the
absurdity inherent in all human acts, roles, and projects.
Yet it is sometimes not without the suggestion of a
vision beyond such foolishness.

Illustrating this comic pattern on the generic scale
is Homer's Odyssey. Although the story begins with
the tragedy of the Trojan War, the epic continues with
Ulysses' journey back to Ithaca, his arrival disguised
as a beggar, his energetic restoration of order, and his
repairing to bed with Penelope. All these events come
off in a manner basically in accord with the comic
spirit; thus life was restored and traditional or ideal
values were affirmed.

2. The Content of Comic Action. Taking comedy
seriously for a moment, we can imagine the comic hero
asking why man is involved in a Kafkaesque labyrinth
of institutional red tape, conventional values, and con-
flicting ideals. The comic spirit responds that the evil
of this situation is not an evil in itself. It is not a
function of fate nor of cosmic order; rather it is a
function of human and social order. Comedy manipu-
lates this situation so that the hero appears as ridiculous
(more or less harmlessly excessive) and could reform,
or society appears as ridiculous and perhaps might be
reformed, or the hero and his society become self-
aware, self-critical, and appropriately reaffirm their
common ideals. Comedy, thus, tends to adjust the
individual toward the actual, or the actual toward the
possible, or both toward the ideal. These three alterna-
tives point to the three kinds of content which are
enlivened by the comic vision of life. We shall briefly
illustrate and consider each kind.

(a) Aristophanes often speaks strongly for an indi-
vidual's accepting the ancient order of things. In the
Frogs, for instance, he stages a kind of mock contest
between Euripides, representative of liberal social re-
form, and Aeschylus, representative of traditional wis-
dom and order; although Aeschylus is pictured as
laughably excessive in his traditionalism, he wins the
contest hands down. And in the Clouds, Socrates is
presented either as impiously searching out knowledge
about the moon and clouds or else as teaching a de-
structive and rather foolish sophistry. In the end old
Strepsiades, who had apprenticed himself to Socrates,
returns chastened to the old ways and Socrates' “think-
tank” is burned to the ground. Shakespeare is often
moved to make comedy of excess and admonishment.
The newly crowned King in the second part of King
Henry the Fourth
represses the irrepressible Falstaff
and strongly suggests that he act his age. In Measure
for Measure
the good Duke gives over the rule to the
self-righteous Angelo. Angelo sets up a Puritanical
society, but then his ordinary human weaknesses get
the better of him. His not unusual use of office for
egotistical sexual ends is mercilessly exposed.

Molière is deeply devoted to the norms of his culture.
Comedy for him is the “mirror of society” in which
a man of his time could see the excesses for which


society could and would make him suffer. Molière
portrays the ridiculous attempts of the bourgeois “gen-
tleman” to deck himself out in aristocratic finery, to
acquire fashionable arts and wit, and to marry off his
daughter above her station. In L'Avare, Harpagon
sacrifices everything for money and in the end he gets
only that, but only a little of that. Excessive anxiety
about death, exaggerated fear of cuckoldry, misan-
thropy, religious hypocrisy, all these and more are
limned by Molière against the backdrop of the honest
normalcy of middle-class seventeenth-century mores.

Tom Jones, hero of Fielding's famous novel, lacks
social prudence—“the duty which we owe to our-
selves,” as Squire Allworthy explains. Otherwise he is
brimful of the most acceptable natural virtues. He is
tricked by the hypocritical prig, Blifil, out of his name,
his inheritance, and a possible fortunate marriage. As
an outcast he wanders amiably but unthinkingly into
various situations, mostly amorous. Finally he discovers
himself apparently in the Oedipus predicament. In the
end, though, the predicament proves to be illusory.
Tom acquires a modicum of prudence, discovers his
real parentage, and of course marries the girl. Blifil
is unmasked and gets his due. The norms of good British
society are once more reasserted and Fielding has
realized his purpose of helping “to laugh mankind out
of their favorite follies and vices.”

The tradition of the clown, the fool, and the mime,
though appearing in other comic roles, as a recollection
of the Fool in King Lear will indicate, is often utilized
by this species of comedy. The medieval clown, like
the modern, possessed the usual human appurtenances
and attitudes but to a laughably exaggerated degree.
Punch, for instance, like many comic-strip characters,
is berated and beaten for the thousand petty preten-
tions and foibles to which socialized man is heir.

(b) Comedy not only finds grist to its mill in the
task of converting the deviant or the crackpot individ-
ualist into the reliable citizen; it also engages in the
movement toward social betterment. Aristophanes'
Lysistrata, written shortly after the disastrous Sicilian
expedition, presents a simple plan for converting
Athens from a warlike imperialist power into a peace-
ful city: the women plan to go on a sex-strike until
the men agree to give up war. After some little diffi-
culty in reaching unanimity among the ill-disciplined
and lusty Athenian women, peace is achieved and all
ends happily in bed.

Many of the Socratic dialogues are comic or utilize
comic devices. The Euthydemus, to take one instance,
offers the spectacle of two Sophistic clowns challenging
the bystanders in the Lyceum to verbal battle. They
easily defeat the boy, Cleinias, much to their delight,
but then they seem to be unaware of being tripped
and thrown by Socrates. In the Meno, Meno, a notable
general, comes off less well in his dialectical struggle
with Socrates than his slave boy. And at the end
Anytus, taking the part of all right-thinking Athenian
gentlemen, is offended upon being shown by Socrates
that he knows nothing of the virtue to which he lays
claim, and cares less. Socrates himself, with his uncon-
ventional manners, his appearance, and his ironic style,
is as much a comic as a tragic character. Often, as
in Gorgias (485ff.), by drawing ridicule upon his strange
ways, he was able to turn it back upon popular con-
ventions and values.

With gentle humor Chaucer set the men and women
of his own day into contrast with a society or a life
symbolized by the Canterbury Pilgrimage. And
Rabelais, in a manner which Falstaff himself could not
better, exploited the same contrast.

Much of English Restoration comedy expresses dis-
gust with the customs of the times and a longing for
reform. Jonson's Volpone, like his Alchemist, exposes
the lust after gold which seemed to infect everyone
with greed and duplicity, vices which are only thinly
disguised by the ceremonies of civilized life. The elab-
orate plot and counterplot of Volpone are uncovered
in the end not by the officers of justice but by the
plotters themselves who fall to noisy recrimination.
Moreover, the world, it is suggested, is as rapacious
and as deceptive as Volpone himself. Wycherly's
comedies likewise depict a life which is nasty, brutish,
and if not short, certainly hypocritical. Indeed much
of Restoration comedy may be characterized as the
presentation of a consciously dissembling world. Its
manners become the comic mask and, like Swift's bitter
satire, suggest by negation a society quite opposite
from the actual. No less does Huxley's Brave New
make the same suggestion.

Jean Anouilh's comedy, on the other hand, fre-
quently takes the opposite tack. As if in opposition
to an exaggerated and impractical idealism, Creon of
Anouilh's Antigone, like the Grand Inquisitor of
Dostoevski's Brothers Karamazov, freely admits that
systematic injustice and clever manipulation, masked
if need be by sophistry and ceremony, offer the only
means to maintaining a modicum of social order. And
in his Waltz of the Toreadors a due concern for forms
and ceremony is said not only to keep society going
but to provide a convenient and probably defensible
screen for a modest self-indulgence. Still Anouilh's
personages often seem more or less genuinely to long
for an order where the ideal would be pursued for its
own sake and where the individual and the common
goods would be at one.

(c) Another species of comedy turns upon the point
where the humorous and the tragic seem to blend and


where the harsh actualities and deception of the world
are somehow transformed by a lively faith. This point
of turning is admirably illustrated in much of Chekhov.
It is developed at length for their respective worlds
by Dante in the Divine Comedy and by Goethe in the
two parts of Faust.

More obviously, Cervantes' Don Quixote belongs to
this species of comedy. The Don's foolish and romantic
idealism needs to be brought low and awakened to the
realities of the real world. But what is this real world?
As embodied in Sancho Panza, it halfway credits the
Don's imaginary realm, and in any event it is unwilling
to risk losing the opportunity to profit from Don
Quixote's possible discoveries. If the Knight of the
Mancha is the wild adventurer and explorer, his squire
is no less the egotistical exploiter. The gaming, crimi-
nal, ribald real world of Sancho Panza is quite as
disproportionate in its own way as Don Quixote's.
Society continually unhorses the Knight for his non-
conformity, but this is such a society as needs to be
spurred into movement. Still in the end Sancho Panza
achieves some insight into his limitations and is re-
signed to being himself and to caring for his crops and
his family. Likewise at his journey's end, Don Quixote
acquires a certain wisdom. He sees that all men are
equal in death, and are equally purged of their folly
and illusions.

Nowhere, though, is this kind of comedy more
clearly and beautifully set forth than in Shakespeare's
later plays, the tragicomedies such as The Winter's Tale
or The Tempest. The action in the latter play takes
place on the island to which a tempest had borne the
dispossessed Duke. Here Ariel balances Caliban; Pros-
pero foils and forgives the unjust manipulations of his
brother, and the magic of the world, its cloud-capped
towers and gorgeous palaces, all give way to the young
lovers. Prospero is a comic Lear; he calms rather than
defies the tempest, and he gives himself to wisdom and
his daughter to Ferdinand rather than both to death.

Recent tragicomedy is differently keyed. In Samuel
Beckett's Waiting for Godot, two bums, reminiscent
of Rouault's sad clowns, stand aside from the endless
sadomasochistic spectacle of the passing world. They
wait, for whom or what they know not. Call it Godot.
They savor the passage of time, waiting absurdly for
the unintelligible object of their faith. Time passes.
They consider suicide. A tree buds. Is it the tree of
life? Is it Godot himself? Who can say? At least they
reach a vague recognition of their indeterminate plight.

The note struck by this kind of comedy is some sort
of reconciliation. This is the comic spirit discovering
in itself a tincture of seriousness and idealism. This
spirit originated in the tragic world, but here it is
caught at the moment at which it dissolves into com
edy, even as the autumn moves around to vernal excess
and as springtime moves on to the fall dance, feast,
and festival. The two complement each other and form
a unity. Perhaps indeed the seeming two arts of tragedy
and comedy may at this point become parts of one
and the same whole.

The comic sense, in sum, is an awareness of the ironic
character of man's involvement in social evil. In form
it may most briefly be described as the catharsis of
folly by folly. Comic action has been regarded as a
means for disciplining the foolishness inherent in pre-
tentions to social respectability by exhibiting and in-
dulging the foolishness of the “lower” and disreputable
self. Consequently it depends upon the possible unity
of the traditional duality of “that amphibious crea-
ture,” man. This unity may be seen in the tendency
of the comic sense to bring the deviating individual
into accord with social norms, or to bring the deviating
society to awareness of the ideal, or, finally, to recon-
cile the individual and his social milieu with the ideal
by way of a productive and unifying insight into a more
authentic vision of human possibilities.


E. M. Blistein, Comedy in Action (Durham, N.C., 1964),
biblio. pp. 131-39. A. Cook, The Dark Voyage and the
Golden Mean
(New York, 1949). L. Cooper, An Aristotelian
Theory of Comedy
(New York, 1922), biblio. pp. xv-xxi. F. M.
Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy (London, 1914). M.
Eastman, The Enjoyment of Laughter (New York, 1936). E.
Lauter, Theories of Comedy (New York, 1964). A. Nicoll,
The Theory of Drama (New York, 1931), pp. 175-243; sug-
gestions for reading, pp. 245-56. A. Nicoll, Masks, Mimes,
and Miracles
(New York, 1963). E. Olson, The Theory of
(Bloomington, Ind., 1968). H. T. E. Perry, Masters
of Dramatic Comedy and their Social Themes
Mass., 1939), biblio. pp. 409-17. L. J. Potts, Comedy
(London, 1948), biblio. pp. 168-71.


[See also Art and Play; Catharsis; Classification of the Arts;
Motif; Satire; Tragic Sense; Wisdom of the Fool.]