Tragicomedy stories are often plays. They contain exaggerated characters, unfortunate events but usually resolve with a happy ending. Some of the events will feel more absurd and surprising than they might in just a comedy or tragedy. Readers will also notice the use of jokes scattered throughout the story. These are used to lighten the mood in particularly dark, more tragic passages.
Definition of Tragicomedy
A tragicomedy is a story that contains elements of comedy and tragedy. It usually has serious subject matter that’s lightened with jokes and concludes with a happy ending. Unlike classic tragedies, most of the characters will make it to the end of the story without dying.
The tragicomedy dates back to the Roman dramatist, Plautus. His play, “Amphitryon,” is the earliest example of a tragicomedy. In the first lines of the play, he announced that he was starting a new genre known as “tragicomedy.” Plays that contain “kings and gods” shouldn’t be consistently comedic, he added.
Examples of Tragicomedies in Literature
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is a classic example of a tragicomedy. It features incredibly dark and disturbing subject matter but also makes light of the circumstances the soldiers find themselves in. The absurdity of war is at the heart of this novel, and Heller makes that quite clear through the use of passages such as this:
Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he would have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
Here, the Doctor and Yossarian discuss Catch-22 and how it keeps men fighting whether they’re insane or not. It’s incredibly distressing, but the manner in which the lines are delivered is meant to evoke mirth.
“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare
In this well-loved Shakespearean play, readers will find examples of comedy and tragedy. This is one of the only plays the Bard wrote that fits into the tragicomedy category. Shylock’s character is dark, brooding, but also comedic and outrageous. Readers are meant to interpret and enjoy both sides. One of the most famous scenes from the play occurs when Portia dresses up as a lawyer, Balthazar, in order to argue against her father’s demand for a pound of flesh. This humorous moment is juxtaposed with the very serious subject matter. She delivers the following lines while cross-dressing:
Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett
“Waiting for Godot” is one of the most famous examples of a tragicomedy. The writer purposefully used comedic moments in order to offset the dark atmosphere. This is seen quite clearly through Vladimir’s attempts to ignore Estragon’s nightmare, their hand gestures, compulsions, and the endless waiting that is at the heart of the play. Here is a humorous and simple quote from the play:
Vladimir: What do they say?
Estragon: They talk about their lives.
Vladimir: To have lived is not enough for them.
Estragon: They have to talk about it.
These simple moments are the most effective. The humor the two characters share might catch readers off guard, making it all the more poignant.
Although most tragicomedies are plays, there are numerous films that also fit the genre. These include Internal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Juno, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Inglourious Basterds. These films bring together the two genres in different ways, but within all of them viewers can find dramatic moments and comedic ones. They sit in between two genres and are therefore enjoyed by a large audience.
Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is a tragicomedy, as is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
Exaggerated events and characters, jokes scattered throughout the story (particularly in dark moments), tragic events that are lightened by how characters treat them, and a mostly happy ending.
“Amphitryon” by Plautus is considered to be the first tragicomedy.
Some of Shakespeare’s tragicomedies include “The Merchant of Venice,” “Troilus and Cressida,” “Measure for Measure,” and “The Winter’s Tale.”
Related Literary Terms
- Tragic Flaw: a literary device that writers use to complicate their characters. Flaws include pride, envy, and cowardice.
- Tragic Hero: usually the protagonist in a piece of literature. Specifically, a tragedy. This kind of character has a tragic flaw.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Satire/Satirical Comedy: used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.
- Black Humor: a literary device used in all forms of literature to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Farce: a genre of comedic literature. It uses exaggerated and outrageous situations to create humor and make the audience laugh.
- Read: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
- Watch: Leaving Home – A Tragicomedy
- Listen: What is a Tragicomedy?