Plot in Comedy and Tragedy

Comedy, tragedy, Aristotle, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, drama considered with reference to the class divisions of a hierarchical society. Drama. Sixteenth Century Drama and Seventeenth Century Drama. 16th Cent. 17th Cent. English literature. Essay.

The formal title of this essay is "Comic Plots and Comic Ends: Theory Versus Carpentry". Copyright © 1995, 2003 Hugh Cook.

Comments by Hugh Cook, 2003

This piece dates from 1995, and was written for a course called "18.315 Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Drama". One point to note: in the course of this essay I indulged myself in a "thought experiment". This is not a standard essay procedure and it is not suggested that anyone else should follow this procedure. (Don't be surprised if you get an unfavorable reaction if you do.)

I don't write plays. Even so, this essay is written from a craftsman's viewpoint, implicitly asking the question "How is it built?"

In a nutshell:-

Tragedy simplifies because everyone dies. Comedy, by contrast, leaves everyone alive at the end. The essay argues that riot, deadlock and the resolving ensemble scene (standard features of comedy) are best understood by thinking about the nuts-and-bolts requirements of a comedy.

The context:-

(i) In The Happy End of Comedy Zvi Jagendorf points out that, whereas the end of a tragedy should seem an inevitable outcome of the initial situation, comic endings have a certain arbitrariness, being governed by convention. "Comic endings are ... solutions, exploiting social institutions such as marriage, courts of law, identification parades, and banquets for the façade of finality they provide". He also notes that "As comic plots near their end they tend to accelerate rather than subside in rhythm, seemingly heading toward an enactment of uncontrolled riot or unbearable deadlock".

The task:-

Read Jagendorf's introductory chapter, "A Theoretical Introduction to the Study of Ending in Comedy", and apply some of its insights about comic plots and comic endings to at least three prescribed plays.

Hugh's Essay from 1995

"Comic Plots and Comic Ends: Theory Versus Carpentry"

A consideration of Jagendorf's treatment of comic plots and comic ends, "A Theoretical Introduction to the Study of Ending in Comedy", discussed in relation to Jacobean city comedy as represented by the plays The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont; The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare; A New Way to Pay Old Debts by Philip Massinger; and Epicoene; or, The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson.

        A noteworthy feature of many comedies is that they end with an ensemble scene in which all or most of the characters are gathered together in a social ceremony such as a marriage, a banquet or a trial. In Zvi Jagendorf's elegant analysis of comic closure, it is argued that such social ceremonies are typically deployed to mask the dissonance between the intractable materials with which comedy frequently deals and the desired happy ending. While Jagendorf is both perceptive and persuasive, this essay argues that he overstates his case. In particular, it is the countervailing thesis of this essay that basic plot mechanics logically force a comedy toward a concluding ensemble scene, and that these same mechanics account for two qualities foregrounded by Jagendorf: riot and deadlock.

        For Jagendorf, riot and deadlock are key concepts, one or the other typically dominating the accelerating action of the final stages of a comedy. Riot denotes a state in which action is conditioned by an uncontrolled and semi-rational hyperactivity analogous to that of a carnival or a bacchanal. By contrast, deadlock is a state of stasis brought about by apparently unresolvable conflicts. Arbitrary conventions of comic closure are habitually used to resolve the problems of both riot and deadlock; such conventions exploit unifying social ceremonies, such as a marriage or a banquet, to provide an illusion of logic to endings which are not in fact predicated on that which has come before.

        In so arguing, Jagendorf differentiates comedy from tragedy, accepting the conventional view that tragic closure represents the inevitable outcome of inexorable forces which have dominated the drama from the outset. According to this theory, the action of a comedy is comparatively arbitrary, lacking the cumulative inevitablity of the tragic plot. However, while this may be so, it should also be noted that the tragedian who subjects the tragic hero to the inexorable operations of fate is free to kill minor characters at will, a glorious liberty which is always denied to the comic dramatist, unfree creator of the unfettered comic character.

        The tragedian's poetic licence is a licence to murder, whereas the comic dramatist must obey the first commandment: Thou shalt not kill. The fact that there can be no deaths in a comedy is a major structural constraint which necessarily conditions the work of the comic dramatist. Since the comic character is immortal, the comic dramatist is denied those opportunities for murderous simplification which the tragedian so frequently exploits. By definition, a comedy contains no deaths: if death were to enter, comedy would exit.

        The force of this restraining convention is made clear in Beaumont's play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, in which Wife, Boy and Citizen debate the topic of comic closure:

  Cit. I do not like this. Peace, boys!
        hear me, one of you: everybody's
        part is come to an end but Rafe's,
        and he's left out.
  Boy. 'Tis 'long of yourself, sir; we
        have nothing to do with his part.
  Cit. Rafe, come away! - make on him,
        as you have done of the rest, boys;
  Wife. Now, good husband, let him come
        out and die.
  Cit. He shall, Nell. - Rafe, come away
        quickly, and die, boy.
  Boy. 'Twill be very unfit he should die,
        sir, upon no occasion - and in a
        comedy, too.
  Cit. Take you no care of that, sir boy;
        is not his part at an end, think
        you, when he's dead? - Come away,
               The Knight of the Burning Pestle
               Act V, 288-302

        As Jagendorf observes, "Nowhere is convention, the formal model, more obviously present than at the ending of a novel, play, poem, or piece of music." (Jagendorf, 1984: 11). An awareness of such conventions is amply demonstrated in the above extract from Beaumont's play. The play is drawing to a close, and the Citizen, growing restless because the fate of Rafe has not been resolved, demands that Rafe should die. The Boy protests that it would be improper for someone to die for no reason, and particularly in a comedy. But the Citizen, being possessed of firmly-held notions of dramatic closure which are, properly speaking, more appropriate to tragedy, demands that Rafe should die anyway so his part may be brought to an end.

        According to Jagendorf, "Comic endings are in themselves a convention, an agreement between poet and spectator rather than a necessary outcome of the material." (Jagendorf, 1984: 12). In dramatising an argument about comic closure, Beaumont highlights two of these conventions. The first is that the fate of each character should be resolved by the end of the play. The second is that the simple expedient of killing people off is inappropriate to comedy. As the Citizen knows full well, bloody death is a flexible dramatic device capable of resolving a world of plot problems. But, as the Boy knows, things are not so simple in a comedy, in which death is outlawed.

        Transgressing against comic convention for satiric purposes, Beaumont nevertheless allows Rafe to meet a hero's end:

  Rafe. Ne'er shall we more upon Shrove Tuesday meet,
        And pluck down houses of iniquity; -
        My pain increaseth; - I shall never more
        Hold open, whilst another pumps, both legs,
        Nor daub a satin gown with rotten eggs;
        Set up a stake, Oh, nevermore I shall.
        I die; fly, fly, my soul, to Grocers' Hall.
        Oh, Oh, Oh, etc.

                 The Knight of the Burning Pestle
                 Act V, 347-354

        A key point to note about Rafe's fatal end is that it is demanded by Citizen and Wife, George and Nell, who are not Rafe's opponents but his supporters. Throughout the play they are full of praise for Rafe, their hero who was able to "wrestle with the great Dutchman and hurl him." (III, 280-281). Rafe is their champion, a fact made explict when George says, "I will have Rafe do a very notable matter now, to the eternal honor and glory of all grocers." (V, 381-383). Here, Rafe is consciously depicted as a vehicle for the social aspirations of the citizens who are his sponsers.

        Why is it, then, that Citizen and Wife should be the ones to demand that Rafe should die at the end of the play? It is possible to argue that what we are seeing here is no more than the comedy of incomprehension: that George and Nell are simply displaying their ignorance of dramatic convention, and are being held up to ridicule on account of their unabashed taste for the blood-and-thunder endings of melodrama. However, George and Nell are characters in a play which displays a lively awareness of the manner in which the protocols of drama reflect the class divisions of a hierarchical society. As the Boy says, for example, "it will show ill-favoredly to have a grocer's prentice to court a king's daughter." (IV, 49-50).

        Accordingly, it seems reasonable to read Rafe's mortal end as a satirical hierarchical transgression: here we have a grocer's apprentice playing the part of the "great man" whom Aristotle posits as the rightful hero of a tragedy. By taking upon himself the honour of a tragic death, the grocer's apprentice Rafe is usurping a role which, as Aristotle makes clear, properly belongs to someone of higher social status.

        In defining the tragic hero, Aristotle invokes notions of social status, saying that "He will belong to the class of those who enjoy great esteem and prosperity, such as Oedipus, Thyestes, and outstanding men from such families." (Aristotle, 1987: 44). Oedipus and Thyestes both come from royal families (Tripp, 1988), and heroes from exactly "such families" dominate the tragedies of the Renaissance - Prince Hamlet, for example, and King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and the heroine of The Duchess of Malfi, who confronts impending death with a statement of social status: "I am Duchess of Malfi still." (IV.ii.142).

        The value system of tragedy, then, is hierarchical, being posited on notions of upper class superiority which make it inappropriate for "a grocer's prentice to court a king's daughter." This inequality of regard is documented in the writings of the Renaissance critic Puttenham, who says that "In euerie degree and sort of men vertue is commendable, but not egally: not onely because mens estates are vnegall, but for that also vertue it selfe is not in euery respect of egall value and estimation. For continence in a king is of greater merit, than in a carter" (Puttenham, 1936: 42).

        Put crudely, tragedy is the drama of the ruling order, in which minor characters of lower rank typically die first to clear the stage for their social superiors. In a typical tragedy a number of underlings are slaughtered in a manner designed to focus attention on a hero from the upper echelons of society, a hero who is usually given the privilege of dying last. Consequently, Rafe is elevating himself socially when he accepts a tragic end, thus fulfilling the Citizen's stated intention of having the players "present something notably in honor of the commons of the city." (Induction, 28). On a more practical level, the mindless crudities of Rafe's parodic death-heroics permit Citizen George to effortlessly structure an ending for the action he has been controlling, thus demonstrating that tragedy's licence to murder makes easy the art of closure.

        Murder, then, provides the tragedian with a simplifying device which is denied to the more democratic art of the comedian. Free to simplify through murder, the tragedian usually does, permitting the staging of depopulated endings which tighten the focus on the tragic hero. In Antony and Cleopatra, for instance, Enobarbus, Eros and Antony all die in Act IV, setting the scene for the stately pacing of a structurally simple fifth act in which Cleopatra and Charmian perish.

        In a tragedy, deaths can be spaced out to suit the dramatist's convenience, adequately resolving the fate of any character so disposed of - "is not his part at an end, think you, when he's dead?" - leading to simplified endings in which there are too few survivors to generate a riot and too few complications left to produce deadlock. By contrast, a comedy typically enters its last act with all its subplots unresolved and with all its characters still alive, two complicating factors which necessarily push the termination of the plot in the direction of complexity.

        Whereas tragedy follows an arc of simplification, excluding the expendable classes as it progressively tightens the focus on a single high-ranking hero, the socially inclusive art of comedy proceeds through cumulative complication, a point which can easily be demonstrated by showing what happens if the tragedian is denied the freedom to murder. Take, for example, Othello. True to the traditions of Jacobean city comedy, this play opens in a city - the Venice which is the setting for Volpone - and features the gulling of Roderigo by the trickster Iago. In a comedy, however, Roderigo would be immortal, but in this tragedy he is killed off in Act V Scene i, a pice of streamlining which simplifies the plot as it moves toward the dignified orchestration of its catastrophe.

        Now suppose, for a moment, that this simplifying expedient is not available. Suppose the play is not Othello but, let us say, The Cunning Iago, a piece of work by one Francis Beaumont, a work which conforms to the non-lethal conventions of comedy. Such a play might bring us the following colloquy:

  Wife. I dislike me this Roderigo.
  Cit. Peace, cony. If you do not like him,
        you will not suffer him. - Rafe,
        bring out this Roderigo, and kill him.
  Boy. We know not this Rafe, sir, he is not
        in this play, and besides, sir, the
        play is a comedy, 'twould be very
        unfit that Roderigo should die.

If the conventions of comedy are adhered to, then Roderigo will not be murdered, regardless of what the Citizen might wish, and The Cunning Iago suddenly becomes a play which is, in terms of the structural demands of its plot, much more complicated than Othello. If Roderigo remains unmurdered, then Iago is in desperate danger of having his fraud discovered. Furthermore, without the violence of the fight, Cassio cannot be conveniently sidelined by injury. Othello is not allowed to murder Desdemona - the rules of comedy forbid it - and it would be similarly inappropriate for Emilia to be killed.

        A possible resolution would be for Emilia to detect Iago's deceitful use of Desdemona's handkerchief and denounce him to Othello. Thus freed from his duty of loyalty to his faithful Ensign, Othello would declare his love to Emilia and elope with her. Lodovico would then arrive to hear Roderigo's complaint and punish Iago. Subsequently, Lodovico would have Othello's marriage annulled, after which Cassio and Desdemona would convert their covert adultery into lawful marriage, allowing the comedy of The Cunning Iago to end with a wedding and a feast.

        While this thought-experiment may seem frivolous, a serious purpose underlies it. If murder is ruled out of bounds, then the structural problems of resolving a situation like that posed in Othello do become significantly more complicated. Tragedy is able to cut through the knotty problems of dramatic closure with a knife (quite literally), but the plotting of comedy requires a more sophisticated approach to conflict resolution.

        Structurally, then, the immortality of comic characters undoubtedly complicates the plotting of comic endings, helping account for the fact that "As comic plots near their end they tend to accelerate rather than subside in rhythm, seemingly heading toward an enactment of uncontrolled riot or unbearable deadlock." (Jagendorf, 1984: 17). Absent murder, the ending of Othello has the potential to evolve into a frantic farce of libidinous partner-swapping or into a deadlocked standoff requiring resolution through a merciful and powerful deus ex machina in the form of Lodovico.

        Elements of the hypothetical The Cunning Iago do actually exist in Twelfth Night: as Muir observes, in inventing the gulled Roderigo for Othello, Shakespeare "seems to have taken a hint from his own Twelfth Night, where Sir Toby Belch extracts money from Sir Andrew Aguecheek by promising to arrange for his marriage to Olivia, just as Iago promises Desdemona to Roderigo." (Muir, 1968: 10.) However, what truly distinguishes Twelfth Night is the magnitude of the trick played on Malvolio, which is only revealed to him in the final scene of the final act, provoking him to declare "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!" (V.i), and then to exit.

        Malvolio's exit is appropriate, not just because the play is over, but because exposure of the trick which has been played on him drains the dramatic tension from his role. A Malvolio who remained on the stage would be an anticlimactic presence unless given fresh dramatic purpose. To generalise, whereas the deaths in a tragedy add to dramatic tension, the revelations in a comedy deflate it, and so ideally should be reserved until the play's last scene.

        In Jonson's Epicoene, the exposure of the crucial trick is indeed reserved for the final scene. Writing of this exposure, Jagendorf says "The most climactic unmasking is the one longest delayed and closest to the final curtain. This is the discovery that makes a fool of everybody including the audience." Of this, the revelation of Epicoene's male gender, he goes on to say that "After it nothing more can be said." (Jagendorf, 1984: 37). Precisely: the revelation made, Truewit promptly launches into the speech which brings the play to an end.

        This said, it is interesting to observe what happens in The Taming of the Shrew when a character unmasks well before the end of the play. In this play, the main plot shows how Petruchio woos and tames Katherina. To this, Shakespeare adds a subplot concerning the wooing of Katherina's sister Bianca, who is contended for by Lucentio and Hortensio, both disguised. Well before end, Hortension unmasks. He throws off his disguise, declares that "I am not Litio" (IV.ii.16), and renounces his efforts to woo Bianca:

Hortensio                       Signor Lucentio,
           Here is my hand, and here I firmly vow
           Never to woo her more, but do forswear her
           As one unworthy all the former favours
           That I have fondly flattered her withal.

                          The Taming of the Shrew
                          Act IV, Scene ii, 27-31

        At this point, Shakespeare could reasonably write Hortensio out of the plot. Instead, the simplifiction of Hortensio's unmasking is promptly followed by the arrival of a merchant of Mantua, who is gulled into dissembling himself as Vincentio. The deflationary, anticlimactic effects of the unmasking are compensated for by a fresh and more intense complication. As for Hortensio, his role is recomplicated through his marriage to a widow, an enriching factor which permits the joke of situation of Act V Scene ii when Hortensio's wife defies his summons. Marriage gives Hortensio a fresh comic function. Similarly, were Twelfth Night to run for a sixth act, a marriage might recharge Malvolio's comic potential.

        Instead, Twelfth Night ends with Act V Scene i, an ensemble scene featuring most of the play's characters. Here, Shakespeare seeks to link the Malvolio subplot with the Viola-Orsino-Olivia plot, which in terms of structural logic is an entirely separate entity. To connect plot with subplot, Shakespeare provides this one most tenuous of logical links:

Viola The captain that did bring me first on shore
       Hath my maid's garments. He upon some action
       Is now in durance, at Malvolio's suit,
       A gentleman and follower of my lady's.

                              Twelfth Night
                              Act V, Scene i, 274-277

        The fact that Malvolio has caused the captain to be imprisoned helps maintain the comic balance, making his own imprisonment a kind of poetic justice. However, in terms of plot logic, this is a desperately spurious piece of invention which has no logical connection whatsoever with anything which has gone before. However, so much is happening in the busy ensemble scene that the lack of logic may easily pass without being noticed, and the schism between plot and subplot is gracefully masked.

        In a very similar fashion, the banquet scene which concludes The Taming of the Shrew unites the characters of a plot and subplot which otherwise have very little to do with each other. Structurally, the Petrucchio-Katherina plot barely intersects with the subplot concerning the courting of Bianca. For instance, Act IV Scene i treats with the taming of Katherina in Petrucchio's household; for the sequential Act IV Scene ii, on the other hand, the scene switches back to Padua and the Bianca subplot, which at this point is logically and geographically independent of the Katherina-Petrucchio action.

        The Taming of the Shrew ends, as do some other comedies, with a banquet. According to Jagendorf, there is a theoretical reason for this, which flows from the fact that "the comic ending is founded on no objective principle the truth of which puts everything else into perspective." Instead, according to Jagendorf, "Comic endings are rather solutions, exploiting social institutions such as marriage, courts of law, identification parades, and banquets for the fa‡ade of finality that they provide." (Jagendorf, 1984: 15).

        If Jagendorf is here seeking to establish a dichotomy between an unobjective art of comic closure and an objective art of tragic closure, then this statement is dubious, given that the supposed inevitablities of tragic closure are conditioned in large part by notions of class, as has been shown above. However, on the level of practical stagecraft, it is certainly true that the social ceremonies of comedy may provide a "fa‡ade of finality" which would be otherwise lacking. Certainly, minus the intersections of its concluding banquet scene, The Taming of the Shrew would become a very odd play indeed, one in which plot and subplot concluded in separate locales, their characters failing to interact. Given that the Petrucchio-Katherina plot is so separate from the Bianca subplot, it does not seem perverse to argue that a concluding ensemble scene is necessary to provide an illusion of logical interconnection, and that Hortensio's reappearance is designed at least partly to help support this illusion.

        As a matter of practical stagecraft, then, a closing ensemble scene can be seen as a natural possibility for a comedy. But Jagendorf goes on to account for such ceremonies of closure in more theoretical terms, arguing that riot and deadlock are at odds with the desired happy ending: "somehow an acceptable happy ending must be accomplished, although both deadlock and riot, for different reasons, will not let it happen." (Jagendorf, 1984: 19). This, according to Jagendorf, accounts for the social ceremonies which so often feature in comedies, since "Both riot and deadlock need to undergo some kind of modulation to make possible the release that produces an acceptable happy ending." (Jagendorf, 1984: 20).

        To argue thus, however, is to argue that comic closure is subject to a discipline of compulsory happiness, which is not necessarily the case. Though Jagendorf's argument is apparently underwritten by a platonic notion of the ideal comedy in which all will end happily, in Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts, for example, the denoument sees Sir Giles Overreach go hideously mad, a development difficult to reconcile with the dictionary's definition of the word "happiness". Similarly, Epicoene ends with the brutal humiliation of Morose.

        An alternative thesis, and a much simpler one, is to propose that denoument is dominated by the need for resolution: by the conventional requirement to resolve the fate of each character by the end of the play. If "everybody's part is come to an end but Rafe's, and he's left out" then the ending is clearly deficient. The simplest way to meet this need for resolution is to have everyone - or just about everyone - on stage for a final ensemble scene, which Jonson does at the end of Epicoene.

        In Epicoene, the mainspring of the main plot is the desire of Sir Dauphine Eugenie to save himself from being disinherited by his uncle Morose. The subordinate action involving such characters as the collegiate ladies, Sir John Daw, Sir Amorous LaFoole and Captain Otter and his wife is at best only loosely related to the dynamics of the main plot. What we have here is a case of "multiple plots related primarily by theme." (Knoll, 1964: 115). Once again, a concluding ensemble scene is used to give at least a gloss of logical coherence to the play's closure.

        In summary, this essay argues that the complex and sometimes hectic ensemble scenes which close so many comedies are natural consequences of two features of the comic plot: the immortality of the comic character and the fact that a comic revelation works best if delayed until the last possible moment. Furthermore, a final ensemble scene can provide a highly effective illusion of structural coherence, seeming to resolve the fates of all the characters and to unite storylines which, whatever their thematic coherence, are only tenuously related in terms of strict plot logic. Should a dramatist wish to write such an ensemble scene, a wedding, banquet or trial provides a natural matrix permitting a large cast to be deployed on the stage in an unforced, natural manner.

        Of course, a social ceremony such as a wedding is not value- neutral; rather, it can be seen as being freighted with all manner of anthropological resonances, and is clearly so seen by Maus, who says that "The wedding, at which the lovers' alliance is made permanent and potentially fertile, is an appropriate ritual for a comic conclusion - once this primary relationship is assured by marriage, social regeneration seems to follow as a matter of course." (Maus, 1984: 127). Similarly, in a discussion of Roman New Comedy which invokes authorities as diverse as Freud and Claude Lévi-Strauss, Konstan shows how the dynamics of such comedies of this type - a major influence on Jacobean city comedy - flow from the social tensions in the society to which they relate. (Konstan, 1983: 15-32).

        It is therefore reasonable for Jagendorf to make a connection between techniques of comic closure and social dynamics, as when he says that "Closing sequences in comedy look back to the energy of the epitasis while unfolding the pattern that quells this energy and moulds it into acceptable social forms." (Jagendorf, 1984: 33). However, a world of change separate a playwright such as Plautus from his Jacobean emulators. Moreover, to examine the comedies of the Victorian era, an age still more remote from gladiatorial Rome, is to find similar features (riot or deadlock, and a concluding ensemble scene focused on marriage or its promise) demonstrated by such works as Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest and Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado. All in all, the evidence suggests that riot, deadlock and the resolving ensemble scene are best understood not in terms of anthropological theory or platonic notions of the ideal play but in terms of stagecraft: as natural manifestations of the basic structural carpentry of the comic plot.


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Copyright © 1995, 2003 Hugh Cook