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What is the difference between a comedy and a tragedy?

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Tragedies in general take the philosophical view that life is a misfortune because it is filled with pain and suffering and always inevitably ends in death. Comedies in general take the view that life is ridiculous because most people behave like fools with unrealistic pretensions and expectations. Both viewpoints are valid. Most of us see life as a grim and pointless struggle at some times, while at other times, when we are in a good mood, we see life as a game to be played and not as something to be taken seriously. 

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mwestwood, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Laughter vs. Tears

While both comedy and tragedy point to human foibles, the manner in which these foibles are treated as well as the outcome greatly differ.


  • Emphasis upon human shortcomings which effect suffering
  • The hero is often isolated
  • The hero realizes errors too late
  • The hero and others die in the end/suffer a great downfall
  • The tone of the drama is solemn and ominous
  • The emotions of pity and fear are aroused
  • There are lessons in man's condition and fate
  • Self-deception and excessive pride (hubris) are held to ridicule
  • The limitations of the human condition are emphasized
  • The conflict is very serious
  • Fate often plays a strong role
  • The ending is mournful (nearly everyone dies)


  • Emphasis is placed upon the idyosyncracies of the character that can effect humor and renewal
  • The action moves toward freedom or renewal
  • There is much humor and high spirits
  • The comedy elicits a response of the intellect in delight or ridicule
  • The play celebrates a ridiculous life
  • Comedy ridicules conceit and self-delusion
  • Comedy points to human weaknesses, but suggestions for improvement and self-renewal are generated
  • The protagonist is an ordinary person
  • The conflicts are sometimes ludicrous; at the very least, they are not serious
  • The protagonist reaches an improbable achievement
  • The protagonist is an ordinary person, but idiosyncratic
  • The protagonist is often unrealistic or intolerant
  • Despite setbacks and detours, the protagonist wins out in the end.
  • Ending is usually light, happy, and positive

rigvi | Student

In literary usage, a work is characterized as comedy when it amuses the audience or depicts everyday characters and situations in an unusual form or with a happy resolution. It can also be thought of as intervals of comic relief which are the structural basis of a literary work. As a genre, there are different types of comedies, such as comedy of manners (such as The School for Scandal), etc; comedy of humours (such as Every Man in his humour); comedy of ideas, etc.

As for tragedy, the concept of the term has been changing greatly since the 16th century. We now think of tragedy as grief, misery, disaster, etc. and these terms have become synonymous to each other. The sadness and wretchedness of a person's circumstance or outcome which can't be improved until the very end results in a form of tragedy. Tragedies often use bad luck or a lack of wisdom as two main thematic instances which reinforce the wretched outcome faced by the character. One can also think of tragedies composed of a series of misfortunes continuously happening one after another. Some of the most popular works under this category are, Romeo and Juliet; Macbeth; King Lear; Catiline; etc.

There is also a literary term called tragicomedy which explores the relationship between these two elements of tragedy and comedy. Essentially, works written in this type of a sub-genre would include elements of comic nature with some dark undertones (and Shakespeare wrote a lot of these such as All's Well that Ends Well' Cymbeline; The Tempest etc). Sometimes tragicomedy can also be called dark comedy.

For more information, I suggest looking at a dictionary of literary terms.

kittyhui2006 | Student

A tragedy is a movie or films that will make us feels sad, comedy is a movie or film that will make or let us feel happy. 

ssandhu05 | Student

In a general perspective, a tragedy focuses more on more simple, serious, and tragic matters that normally involve death. This can be seen in numerous works done by William Shakespeare, for example Hamlet. A comedy is more complex, is found to be more disordered, and is more playful compared to a tragedy. Plus, it is meant to contain humor within it as well

mstyscott | Student

A tragedy makes you cry (due to death or some grave sorrow).  A comedy makes you laugh.