Article Title

Tragedy and Laughter


This article aims to question the common assumptions that tragedy is concerned with the dignity of the hero and that there is a sharp distinction between tragedy and comedy by focusing on the function of laughter in tragedy. Laughter occurs in tragedy when low-life characters encounter high-born ones, and when abstract, metaphysical sources of distress are reduced to practical, material concerns. It occurs too at moments of self-conscious parody or witty word play. It is also invoked regularly in the characters’ anxiety about mockery, and ultimately in the bleak contemplation of death and the decomposition of the body. All these examples point to a concern in tragedy with hybridity and loss of definition. Focusing primarily on Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, I argue that tragic laughter mocks the hero “out of countenance”, and that with that loss of dignity or stable shape comes a further gelastic response which registers the disruption of clear-cut ethical and generic boundaries. The disintegration of the hero and of the aesthetic structure of the tragic drama produces generic uncertainty and an uncomfortable ambivalence of tone. And this ambivalence, which can lead in some plays –both ancient and modern - to a nihilistic sense of meaninglessness, is as central to tragic affect as the widely-recognized Aristotelian pity and fear.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.