What is the difference between a comedy and a tragedy?

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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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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
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What's the difference between a tragedy, a history, a romance and a comedy?

The four genres you have listed are the various types of plays that existed during the Renaissance. We can look at Shakespeare to help identify the elements that distinguish the four types from one another.

Tragedy and Comedy are the ancient dramatic genres. They can be found in the writings of the ancient Greeks like Sophocles or Aristotle. They were thought to be the two sides of human existence and displayed the full range of human emotions. The dichotomy between tragedy and comedy is why drama is represented by the two masks: one laughing and one crying.

Tragedy has a few elements that are distinct from the other genres; typically, there is a serious storyline that involves intrigue—murder, suicide, patricide, adultery, and the seven deadly sins. There generally is a tragic hero: a hero that is marked by some flaw or hamartia that brings them down. The ending of the play gives a clear indication if it is a tragedy: it is a tragedy if the main character(s) die (and this is usually one of several deaths). An example of tragedy is Romeo and Juliet; it ends in the deaths of the main characters and several others.

Comedy is the opposite in many ways. It generally has plot elements that are meant to be funny, like a mistaken identity or the use of fantastic features like faeries. Comedies can also be identified by their ending: when every problem in the play is resolved and a wedding takes place. For example, Twelfth Night tells the story of a pair of fraternal twins who end up switching identities, and it ends in a double wedding.

History plays generally do what their name implies; they tell the story of a historical event in a dramatic format. An example would be Richard III, which tells the story of King Richard III of England and (mostly) sticks to the historical details, although the context of politics (of the author and of the audience) plays a crucial role when these stories are told.

A Shakespearean romance wasn't a classification used until after Shakespeare's death. This genre didn't exist during the Renaissance, but it generally describes a "tragi-comedy" or a play that splits the boundaries between tragedy and comedy. It doesn't feature much in the way of death, but it comes very close. However, Shakespearian romances have a happy ending, despite being serious in tone and subject matter. An example of this genre would be The Tempest, where there is serious intrigue—near-murder, and plots of revenge—yet it has a happy ending where the main characters learn something and grow.

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What's the difference between a tragedy, a history, a romance and a comedy?

These four classifications of literature are generally applied to plays—specifically to Shakespeare's plays. Most of Shakespeare's plays are tragedies, comedies or histories, but the last four plays of Shakespeare's career are grouped into a category called the "Romances." Though the term "romance" was not in usage as such during Shakespeare's time (the other three were), modern scholars use the term to describe these plays that contain elements of both tragedies and comedies.

Tragedies are plays that contain elements of Aristotle's theory of tragedy: for example, a tragic hero, a fight between good and evil, and the presence of a fatal flaw (also known as hamartia) in the hero. Generally speaking, tragedies end unhappily, having focused on the impact of evil throughout the duration of the play. Comedies typically focus on lighter themes, minimizing the effects of negativity and evil. In the case of Shakespeare, comedies end with a wedding celebration.

Shakespeare's histories are plays that dramatize significant historical events and individuals from early English history. Interestingly, some of Shakespeare's tragedies cross over into history, like The Tragedy of Julius Caesar and The Tragedy of Macbeth, plays which address important people and events of countries other than England.

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What's the difference between a tragedy, a history, a romance and a comedy?

Speaking from a literary viewpoint, there are several main differences between a comedy, a tragedy, a romance and a history.

A comedy was first referred to in the medieval times as any writing which ended happily.  There has since been added literature dealing with serious or dramatic themes, but doing so in a lighthearted manner.  Then there is the dark comedy which deals with the macabre, in an unsettling satirical manner.

A romance, during medieval times, dealt with often historical or heroic deeds.  It did so in the form of allegorical poetry, so as to romanticize the events.  It is commonly a rendering of light and amusing characters that concludes with a happy ending.

A tragedy deals with tragic events and usually result in the ruination of the main character.

A history is a factual account of events.  It involves the chronological relating of facts about real people and situations in a straightforward manner.

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