365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

4. The Tragedy of The Tempest?

with 2 comments

My copy of The Yale Shakespeare lists The Tempest under the tragedies. That strikes me as odd.

Now, granted, I recognize that The Tempest isn’t exactly the most comedic of comedies. It is one of those weird plays of Shakespeare’s that doesn’t fall so neatly into the three categories his work is divided into. It would be better classified as a “romance” if there were more options. But since we only have the three, I have always assumed it would be under the comedies. This is the first time I have ever seen it listed as a tragedy.

The Yale Shakespeare also puts Cymbeline and Pericles, Prince of Tyre under the tragedies. Neither of them are exactly giggle-fests (even though I usually see them listed as comedies), so it makes marginally more sense to me to list them there than to list The Tempest alongside them. And it is important to remember that even Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies have elements of comedy, whether from clever wordplay, fools, or modern audiences finding something funny in an anachronistic kind of way. But in the tragedies, the main idea is that the hero dies. Dies tragically. Hence the categorization. That definitely doesn’t happen in The Tempest.

To ease my confusion, I spent my time at work today rereading the play, noting anything that seemed to fit the classification of “tragedy”. I really only found one thing: Caliban.

Definitely a scary villain. He might be some sort of drunken part-fish freak show, but anyone who attempts to rape someone is automatically terrifying in my book. The fact that he is an attempted rapist rather than just a jerk with a grudge sets him apart from most of the comedic villains…or so I thought. Upon further reflection, it occured to me that Don John from Much Ado About Nothing sure had serious plans – he was thrilled at the prospect of doing something “to misuse the prince, to vex Claudio, to undo Hero, and kill Leonato”. And Oberon in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream might not be characterized as a villain per se, but he does set his wife up for an emotional rape of sorts (the same thing he does to Demetrius. Even if this was done out of pity for Helena, it is still a form of rape. But more on Oberon in another blog post). And while there is not necessarily anyone I would name a villain in The Taming of the Shrew, the play is all about a catty woman who is more or less beaten into submission by a husband who all but resorts to waterboarding to get her to behave. When you really think about it, Shakespeare’s comedic villains aren’t all that funny. They’re pretty scary. Though I suppose that’s the main point of being a villain.

But really, that’s it. There are no dramatic deaths, no heartless undoing of anyone, and The Tempest even has one of those beloved staples of the comedies: a young couple falling in love at first sight. Hardly seems the stuff of tragedy to me. The Tempest isn’t exactly the funniest of the plays, even if it is usually categorized as a comedy, but it is one of the prettiest. The language, lush setting, and use of magic make it more mystical and less humorous. Again, far from tragedy.

My apologies to my beaten-up copy of The Yale Shakespeare. I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. Besides, you have a play that is titled The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida listed under the comedies. It has “tragedy” right there in the title. Make up your mind. You’re confusing me.


Written by Caroline Mincks

October 4, 2009 at 3:53 PM

2 Responses

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  1. I tend to agree with you, though I see Prospero as a tragic figure in some ways, as well. He spends his entire life conspiring to get his revenge to the point that he completely loses himself. It is only at the end of his life that he sees the life he’s wasted. His epilogue is bittersweet at best. He looks to the audience and tells them that the only redemption that he can receive will come from the audience’s forgiveness. I can’t help but think that, seeing as this was his last play, the epilogue is more Shakespeare than Prospero, praying aloud that his own life’s work was not in vain which is somewhat tragic.

    Still, I’m not sure I see the play, as a whole, a tragedy.

    Stacie Rearden Hall

    December 17, 2009 at 11:42 AM

    • Prospero, sure. Same with Shylock…I think in a lot of ways his character is tragic. But yeah, overall, definitely not a tragic play!


      December 17, 2009 at 8:00 PM

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