Does Shakespeare utilise comic elements in his tragedies, for instance, in "Hamlet"?

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robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the key things about Shakespeare's genius was his ability to master several genres. Most of the other writers of his age were specialists in one genre but not the other - Middleton was excellent at tragedies but not at comedies, and Jonson (famous even now for his comedies) wrote only two tragedies, both of them failures (not recommended reading!).

Shakespeare knows, then, the value of juxtaposing comedy and tragedy, and the way a sad moment can be heightened by preceding it immediately with a funny moment. Again and again in the tragedies, hugely dramatic, tense scenes are placed next to a comic scene:

  • The funny, drunken Porter who appears just after the murder scene in "Macbeth"
  • The "clown" who appears shortly before Cleopatra's death in "Antony and Cleopatra"
  • The gravediggers (just called "clowns" in one of the extant texts) who appear just before Ophelia's funeral in "Hamlet"

You might also think about "Romeo and Juliet" which begins as a comedy - a good natured play about young love in Italy (could also be a description of "A Midsummer Night's Dream") - before turning ominous and violent.

Moreover, Shakespeare is excellent at putting tragedy into comedies. Look at Hero's anguish in "Much Ado About Nothing", or Malvolio's bitter, vengeful exit in the last scene of "Twelfth Night". Shakespeare never works in simple generic terms.