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What Is a Tragicomedy?

Tragicomedy combines elements of both tragedy and comedy.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 11 April 2014
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A "tragicomedy" is a dramatic work that does not necessarily fit properly into either a tragic or comedic framework, or which combines elements of each. In its original meaning, it typically referred to plays and similar works that included both gods and kings along with slaves and peasants in a setting that fit neither. The term later came to refer to plays that did not have the amount of death necessary for a tragedy, but which could not entirely be categorized as a comedy either. Throughout the 20th Century, however, the tragicomedy was popularized as a work that combines both elements in a more succinct way through events that are, at best, bittersweet.

Early usage of the term "tragicomedy" stemmed from the drama of ancient Greece. In that context, the term was used to refer to works that included both "high" and "low" types of characters. These roles were usually reserved for certain works and were often mutually exclusive. A single play written as a tragicomedy might include the gods, who usually appeared only with each other and rulers, alongside slaves and peasants. These types of works were often criticized and viewed as experimental or as failures of drama.

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During the Renaissance, and afterward, the idea of the tragicomedy was altered to indicate a dramatic work that did not quite fit into either of the two major categories. A tragedy is typically considered to be a work with serious and dramatic elements, which ultimately ends in the death of one or more characters. In contrast, a comedy is a play that typically includes lighter elements, and more importantly ends without death and often features a wedding at the conclusion.

A tragicomedy became works there were fairly serious in tone, sometimes with funny moments, which might seem like they were going to result in death, but did not. This might be due to a sudden twist of fate or change in the story. They could be very serious works, but the lack of death ultimately precluded them from categorization as tragedies. These types of plays ultimately evolved into works of melodrama, which continue into the present.

In the 20th Century, however, the idea of the tragicomedy was once again revisited. Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard created works that included both comedy and tragedy, often intertwined. These plays had themes that were quite serious, sometimes tragic, but would present them through absurdity and comedy. This type of tragicomedy is often intended as a way to illustrate the dual nature of reality, in which both extremes coexist, often within the same moment.

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