We typically associate comedy with humor – jokes, pratfalls, puns – but it’s not all about the laughter! There’s an older definition of comedy that is broader and deeper, and one that we see very clearly in Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard includes comic characters and scenes in nearly all his plays, even the tragedies (consider the Gravedigger in Hamlet, or the Porter in Macbeth), and the comedies often have quite serious plots (as in Much Ado About Nothing).
What makes a comedy, then? The overall theme of a (traditional) comedy is reconciliation and restoration, promoting unity and resolving loss, strife, and hurt. In keeping with this function, we do see humor, wordplay, confusion, mistaken identities, and so on, and often a bit of satire too, but at its core, the comedy is all about reconciliation. That’s why a wedding at the end of a comedy is so important: it represents the bringing together of the lovers (usually after lots of misunderstandings or obstacles) in peace and unity.
J.R.R. Tolkien, in his great essay “On Fairy-stories”, suggests that the happy ending in a fairy tale is supremely satisfying because it is, at a deep level, true: the happy ending of history is the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, and so our response to fictional happy endings is a foreshadowing of the ultimate joy of the redemption of all creation.
So here is Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, with a few words on the subject…
The happy ending is my special gift:
Inheritances given, feuds resolved,
The things that give the reader’s heart a lift,
While laughter helps their tension to dissolve.
By rights it has a wedding – the sign of life,
The echo of a child’s future laugh,
Inviting us to share, with man and wife,
A cosmic celebration. It’s only half
The story without toil and pain, it’s true
(The tragic muse has much to say on this)
But like the buried seed that must burst through
The soil to flower in the light, it’s bliss
We’re made for. Come, and set aside your care
And play awhile: we glimpse our future there.
Holly is a poet, teacher, and apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. She is the author of the memoir Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms.
Image: “The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania” (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Joseph Noel Paton, courtesy of Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Noel_Paton_-_The_Reconciliation_of_Titania_and_Oberon.jpg