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This article is taken from PN Review 148, Volume 29 Number 2, November - December 2002.

The Comic Muse David Gervais

'Rien n'est drôle que le malheur... c'est la chose la plus comique du monde.'
                                              (Beckett, Fin de Partie)

No one has characterised comedy better than Yeats does in his brief essay 'The Tragic Theatre'. So confident is he of his definition that it is easy to let it pass uncontested. It hinges on a distinction between 'character and lyric poetry':

Suddenly it strikes us that character is continuously present in comedy alone, and that there is much tragedy, that of Corneille, that of Racine, that of Greece and Rome, where its place is taken by passions and motives, one person being jealous, another full of love or remorse or pride or anger. In writers of tragi-comedy (and Shakespeare is always a writer of tragi-comedy) there is indeed character, but we notice that it is in the moments of comedy that character is defined, in Hamlet's gaiety, let us say; while amid the great moments, when Timon orders his tomb, when Hamlet cries to Horatio 'Absent thee from felicity awhile,' when Antony names 'Of many thousand kisses the poor last', all is lyricism, unmixed passion, 'the integrity of fire'. (Essays and Introductions)

But this view of tragi-comedy, in which the comic is incidental and taken up into the tragic fire, must be questioned, even if it seems to be endorsed by Dr Johnson. What is true of Hamlet and perhaps Lear may not correspond to plays like Othello where, over and ...


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