Term Paper: Tragedy &amp Comedy One Popular

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[. . .] In his now immortalized soliloquy, Hamlet reveals the extent of his tortured soul: "To be, or not to be - that is the question: / Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?" (3.1.57-61)

If Shakespeare used a grave digger for comic relief in Hamlet, in Macbeth, he achieved it through the unlikely character of the porter in Act 2, Scene 3. In a satire appropriate to the plot of Macbeth, the porter imagines that he is in attendance to the gates of Hell, and very tellingly proceeds to make sardonic remarks about human nature by describing the number and variety of sinners, and the fate that awaits them: "...If a man were porter / of hell-gate, he should have old turning / the key.... Knock, knock, knock! Who's there.... / Faith, here's an English tailor come hither, for stealing out / of a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may / roast your goose." (2.3. 1-16)

Interestingly, both Hamlet and Macbeth are tragedies characterized by the struggles and suffering of the central protagonist over moral issues. However, the two plays are sharply contrasted in terms of the classical war of conscience between good and evil. While in the case of Hamlet, the tragedy is clearly that of a good man forced by circumstances to perform acts against the dictates of his conscience, in Macbeth's case, it is almost the opposite. Macbeth is a story that explores the struggle of the human will against evil forces: "...the story of ambition is also a story of temptation, defeat, and remorse of conscience." (Thorndike, p. 172)

Macbeth's ambition gets initially fuelled by the witches' prophecy and eventually leads him to succumb to the temptation of power and riches. However, his initial act of murder leads him to several more, resulting in a great deal of conflict, remorse, and suffering. Indeed, Macbeth's guilty conscience is highly evident right through the play, along with that of his wife. But perhaps the scene where his guilt, remorse and fear come through most clearly is that of the banquet where he alone sees Banquo's ghost: "Blood hath been shed ere now...the time has been, / That, when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end; but now they rise again...." (3.4.94-99)

The discussion, so far, has demonstrated that even the greatest of tragedies can, and do, have characteristics of comedy. However, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex is one play, which can perhaps be classified as a pure tragedy since there is literally no comic element:

It deservedly is the focus of any discussion of tragedy, not merely because Aristotle's precepts seem to derive from his having witnessed and been moved by this play, not merely because Oedipus Rex seems to contain many of the popular, and often misleading, notions about tragedy, but because for the first time...a dramatist, brilliantly using all the resources of his art, puts a question mark at the heart of his play...for the first time, a character's ordeal causes him to face the fact of mystery, the darkness of self and the darkness of gods." (Berlin, p. 2-3)

The question mark that Sophocles placed at the heart of Oedipus Rex pertains to the human tendency, especially during his time, to place too much faith in fate or the will of the Gods, leading to perhaps humans fulfilling prophecies rather than being guided by reason. Indeed, it can be clearly inferred from several scenes in the play that Oedipus' suffering was caused because he was blindly led by the prophecies instead of using his ability to reason. Sophocles even hints that Oedipus may have realized this at the end of the play: "Apollo...he it was / That brought these ills to pass; / But the right hand that dealt the blow / Was mine, none other...."

In fact, an interesting parallel can be drawn between Oedipus and the suffering of President Lyndon Johnson, as portrayed in the HBO film Path to War. Like Oedipus, President Johnson was a man of conscience who wanted to be remembered for his human-rights record and legacy of a "Great Society." Instead, he got caught in a struggle between his own reason and that of the advice given to him by his best advisors or oracles. As a result, Lyndon Johnson ended up becoming the symbol of an unpopular Vietnam war that he never wanted to wage. Indeed, it is the moral struggle and suffering of President Johnson that is highlighted in Path to War that makes the film one which epitomizes tragedy: "We are essentially witnessing the self-imposed downfall of a proud and powerful individual.... As the film progresses, we see Johnson ruminative, vengeful, contradictory, confused, saddened, enraged etc.... Lastly, though certainly sympathetic to Johnson...the film does not let him off the hook in any way...pointedly reminded that although Johnson was certainly advised, the decisions ultimately rested on his shoulders alone." (Janis, 2003)

If Path to War epitomizes tragedy, the film, Pretty Woman represents the genre of comedy. For one, this is a film that delightfully showcases the contrast between the individual and the social order, and thereby mocks the hypocrisy of society. For instance, it shows up human behavior in blindly following social norms and judgments. When Gere asks Roberts her name, she responds by saying, "What would you like it to be?" Because Pretty Woman is a film that has characters who are unabashedly materialistic and cynical, it can be said that it has at least one characteristic of a tragedy in that it does raise questions about human existence: "...it is astonishing that 'Pretty Woman' is such an innocent movie.... Here is a movie that could have marched us down mean streets into the sinks of iniquity, and it glows with romance...it protects its fragile love story in the midst of cynicism and compromise." (Ebert, 1990)

Path to War, like Oedipus Rex, is a pure tragedy based on circumstances and errors in judgment whereas Pretty Woman is a film that is a comedy because its light heartedness and innocence completely overshadow its tragic characteristics. Personally, I believe that it is next to impossible to state a preference for one over the other since both are equally enjoyable on their independent merits.

Works Cited

Berlin, N. "The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy." Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

Ebert, R. "Pretty Woman." Chicago Sun-Times Web site. March 23, 1990. Accessed Sept.

15, 2004: http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1990/03/537944.html

Hibbard, G.R. "Hamlet." Oxford: Oxford University, 1998.

Janis, J. "Path to War." DVD Talk Web site. March 25, 2003. Accessed Sept. 15, 2004:

http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/read.php?id=6092

Shakespeare, William, & Bullen, A.H. "The Works of William Shakespeare Gathered Into One Volume." New York: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Sophocles. "Sophocles' Oedipus Trilogy." Encyclopedia of the Self. Accessed Sept. 15, 2004: http://emotionalliteracyeducation.com/classic_books_online/oedip10.htm

Thorndike, A.H. "Tragedy." Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1908.

Trumbull, Dr. E.W. "Types of Drama/Plays: Comedy." Introduction to Theatre:

Online Course. Accessed Sept. 15, 2004 from the Northern Virginia Community College Web site: http://novaonline.nv.cc.va.us/eli/spd130et/typecomd.htm

Trumbull, Dr. E.W. "Types of Drama/Plays: Tragedy." Introduction to Theatre:

Online Course. Accessed Sept. 15, 2004 from the Northern Virginia Community College… [END OF PREVIEW]

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