“Woeful tragedy,” indeed

Masks of comedy and tragedy, Folger Shakespeare Library. (c) Prakash Patel Photography.

We’re told from a young age that tragedy teaches us important things about what it means to be human. But does it actually teach us anything, or simply reveal what we already know? We’re taught that tragedy is serious, insightful, and award-winning, but in my experience, it’s also bleak, depressing, and unsurprising… and much too much like real life. Spurn me, attack me in the comments, dismiss me as a sentimental and unserious thinker if you will, but I must speak my truth — Tragedy is highly overrated.

Tragedy. Robert Smirke. Tragedy and Comedy. Drawings, [late 18th century].
Shakespeare’s Tragedies, in particular, are said to be stories of heroes with tragic flaws that lead to their downfall: Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his ambition; Othello’s his jealousy; Romeo and Juliet’s their youth and impulsiveness; King Lear and Coriolanus their shared tragic flaws of arrogance and excessive pride. Timon of Athens is hopelessly naive, the flaws of Titus Andronicus are almost too numerous to mention, and Hamlet, according to Laurence Olivier, is considered (inaccurately, I think) to be the “tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

Perhaps the greatest flaw these characters share is stupidity, an inability to consider the ramifications of their behavior (and probably forgivable in the case of the youthful Romeo and Juliet). Admittedly, watching prudent, cautious people not commit thoughtless action isn’t inherently compelling, but watching bad people behaving badly and causing horrific things to happen with domino-falling inevitability can’t possibly be a revelation, can it?

Tragedy’s ancient Greek origins are as a dramatic genre based in human suffering that provides pleasure for an audience based on the pain of others, a kink I don’t particularly share. But I do get a cathartic pleasure watching villains get punished, so seeing Iago hauled off at the end of Othello, or Richard III (a debatable tragic hero) get killed at the Battle of Bosworth, or Macbeth and Titus Andronicus die bloodily feel like emotional payoffs worth sitting through the plays for.

Comedy. Robert Smirke. Tragedy and Comedy. Drawings, [late 18th century].
Generally, I want to be moved at the theater, not sit horrified by tragic events, no matter how beautiful the poetry. “If it bleeds, it leads” has always been a guiding principle in news coverage, but should it be in art? (For that matter, should it be in news?) When King Lear is reconciled with Cordelia at the end of Act Four, his apology and genuine repentance — and her acceptance of them — are incredibly moving; I’d be perfectly happy if the play ended there. To be clear: I am defiantly not arguing that the play should be returned to the happy ending contrived by Nahum Tate, but I do wonder what is achieved by Lear’s Act Five. Yes, many horrible people get what’s coming to them, but at the cost of a lot of collateral damage.

It’s not that tragedies don’t have power; of course they do. I’m moved by the end of Romeo and Juliet, when those poor kids die due to circumstances not entirely of their own making. I’m moved at the end of Hamlet, when the young prince kills his murdering uncle at the cost of his own life, struggling heroically to his final moments in the role of avenger, a part for which he’s tragically unsuited. I’m moved by the return of Hermione at the end of The Winter’s Tale, not because Leontes is forgiven (it’s debatable whether he is, or indeed even should be) but because his victim lives. (Yes, The Winter’s Tale is listed as a Comedy in the First Folio, but it’s more popularly considered a Romance, which I define as “a tragedy with a happy ending”—a happiness that, in this case, is almost fatally compromised by Shakespeare not giving poor Hermione any lines.)

All Is True and Upstart Crow
Kenneth Branagh in All Is True and David Mitchell in Upstart Crow. (IMDB)

The implied corollary to “Tragedy is overrated” is that Comedy is underrated, something I (of course) fervently believe. Comedy relaxes an audience, allowing moments of power and poignancy to sneak up on you, or as a respite from non-stop carnage. Shakespeare sprinkled comic relief throughout his Histories and Tragedies, frequently more than is emphasized in production, such as the Porter’s drunken soliloquy in Macbeth, the impertinence of the wise Fool in King Lear, or the talkative asp-bearing Countryman in Antony and Cleopatra. And, in a Bard-adjacent vein, the final minutes of the Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow (written by Ben Elton), when William discovers the death of his son Hamnet, is more powerful and moving than the entire solemn two hours of Kenneth Branagh’s film All Is True (also written by Elton). It’s hard to feel the pleasure of pain if you’ve become numb to it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre. Production photo by Manuel Harlan.

Because you know what really moves me? Joy. The joy of discovery, such as when Beatrice realizes she might be loved and love in return in Much Ado About Nothing, or when the mechanicals’ performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is better than they or anyone else thought possible. Or in Twelfth Night, when Viola and Olivia, both grieving over intense loss, rediscover a lost sibling and the restorative power of love. Or in the Bridge Theatre production of Dream, when the mutual attraction between a transformed Bottom and a bewitched fairy monarch reaches its comically joyous climax to the strains of Beyoncé’s “Love On Top.”

I will say this, though: Tragedies have ghosts, and ghosts are always cool.