What Divided Comedy and Tragedy?

Learning about Shakespeare’s comedies, like A Mid Summer’s Night Dream and Twelfth Night, when followed by his tragedies makes for the possibility of significant genre comparison. In my reading of Othello so far, I’ve found it especially interesting to consider how fine of a line there is in dividing comedy from tragedy. In Othello, Shakespeare develops one of his most infamous characters: Iago. Iago is difficult to characterize by default (thinking here about how he claims “I am not who I am.”) but it’s safe to assume that he’s at the very least a selfish, self-interested character concerned with only his goals. His primary goals in Othello revolve around his schemes in the demotion of Cassio’s ranking as Lieutenant in order to gain the status for himself. This, consequently, also leads to Iago’s dissolution of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship. These motives, being set to the course of a tragedy, imply only the worst of conclusions. However, they aren’t very far off from the motives of another self-interested Shakespearean character found in Twelfth Night, a comedy. Malvolio inhabits much of the same selfish tendencies that Iago embodies. After finding Maria’s false letter from Olivia, Malvolio is less interested in the avent of a loving relationship in his life than he is in what that relationship would bring him: status, wealth, the power to mock Sir Toby, and so on. So, Shakespeare has given two characters from two separate plays that are certainly reflective of one another. Furthermore, the development of each character’s’ storyline, and the plot points respective to each play, depend on objects of deception. In Othello this motif is satisfied by Desdemona’s handkerchief. In Twelfth Night, Maria’s letter to Malvolio. The letter to Malvolio leads to his eventual imprisonment and what is assumed to be his madness– the destruction of his character. In Othello, the handkerchief, a token of Othello’s love for Desdemona, becomes the same sort of object of destruction the Maria’s letter is. Othello uses the handkerchief as evidence in concluding Desdemona’s impudence. He becomes consumed by the dislocation of the object from Desdemona to Cassio, then to Bianca. Through this fixation, Othello also dislocates himself from previous characterizations of himself. He’s no longer the noble, eloquently tongued, reserved general seen when he meets the senate. Instead, he’s rash and offensive, something more like the animal he was unfairly claimed by his peers.

Like Malvolio, Othello’s character is nearly removed from himself. This doesn’t come with a comedic return to normalcy, though. Being a tragedy, it must be assumed that there won’t be a “happy ending,” Othello is probably going to die, or at least the people around him will. Iago is the catalyst to all of the destruction in the play, the self centered, selfish Iago. He fills the role of the antagonist in Othello, similar to how Malvolio arguably fills the antagonist role in Twelfth Night. The contingencies in the content of each play and how their villains are characterized is what makes their genre classifications so interesting. Each play could have been set up for either comedy or tragedy. Iago could have been interpreted as more of a trickster, someone less manipulative or malicious. The misunderstanding of Desdemona’s handkerchief having been given to Cassio rather than lost is similar to the misunderstanding of Maria’s note to Malvolio. If Othello was being looked at objectively and compared to Twelfth Night, it might be easy to perceive the content as comedic.
That being said, I wonder if there are any interpretations of Othello that put it on as a comedy. Or, if there are any groups that have reinterpreted any of Shakespeare’s tragedies as comedies (or the reverse).

One thought on “What Divided Comedy and Tragedy?

  1. The mixing of genres that Shakespeare, and the Elizabethan era English playwrights, employ is one of the most interesting things about the era. While in France, just after this period, the Neo-Classical ideals were strictly enforced, meaning that mixing of genres was considered poor playwriting, genres were more rigidly defined. This mixing of genres allows for intense emotional moments in a comedy, and the light-hearted jests of the clowns in the tragedies. I’d be really interested to see a few productions done with opposing tonalities. I wonder what would be brought out in those performances that we haven’t seen otherwise.

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