Discussion Topic

The classification of Shakespeare's The Tempest as a tragicomedy

Summary:

The Tempest is classified as a tragicomedy because it blends elements of both tragedy and comedy. The play features serious themes such as betrayal and revenge, but it resolves these conflicts with reconciliation and forgiveness, leading to a happy ending. The presence of comic characters and magical elements also contributes to its classification as a tragicomedy.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is The Tempest by Shakespeare considered a tragicomedy?

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, a play was a tragedy if everyone suffered in the end, even the innocent. A play was a comedy if the innocent triumphed and only the wicked came to a horrible end. Comedies weren't necessarily humorous. But during the Renaissance, the genre of tragicomedy became more accepted. In this genre, the ending was happy but solemn topics of danger, fall from position, and important public figures or events were dealt with. Comedy as we think of comedy, with jokes and buffoonish characters, was also part of tragicomedy.

Looking at tragicomedy through this lens, we can see it applies to Shakespeare's The Tempest perfectly. Serious issues normally portrayed in tragedies are present, including Prospero's fall from power, the low sub-human villain of Caliban, the murder plot of Sebastian and Antonio against Alonso, and the theme of revenge. On the other hand, we have a romance between Miranda and Ferdinand, a humorous subplot with the lower-class Stephano and Trinculo, and the lighter elements of the bridal masque and other harmless magic. Ultimately when Prospero draws those who have wronged him into his magic circle, the play hangs in the balance between comedy and tragedy: Will he take revenge on those who have wronged him, showing himself to be no better than they, or will he overcome his desires for retribution and heed his higher nature? When he forgives those who wronged him and dons his ducal robes, order is restored, and the happy ending for everyone ensues, confirming the play to be a perfect example of tragicomedy.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is The Tempest by Shakespeare considered a tragicomedy?

At the time of the Renaissance, a tragicomedy came to be defined as a type of work that does not quite fit with either a tragedy or a comedy. 

A tragedy is basically a serious story which often involves the death of one or more of the characters. A comedy is a lighthearted, funny story that has a happy ending. A tragicomedy is not lighthearted enough to be called a comedy and it doesn't include death and awful events to be called a tragedy.

Shakespeare's Tempest is a tragicomedy because although the story starts out in a serious tone and difficult situations and fears abound, there is no death and destruction. There are funny moments throughout the play as the characters on the island have interesting experiences. There is also a background of tragedy, about the ill-treatment received by Prospero and his daughter. But death itself doesn't come up on any of the characters in the play and there is a happy end. Everyone is content and they celebrate the love and forthcoming marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, the king's son.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is The Tempest by Shakespeare considered a tragicomedy?

Simply put, William Shakespeare's The Tempest includes aspects of both tragedy and comedy. Generally considered Shakespeare's final play (believed to be written around 1610), it is considered the last of his late romance plays. Highly theatrical--better viewed on stage than through reading--The Tempest includes the tragic element of the treacherous death plans followed by Prospero's revenge in addition to the many comic moments; including the love interests of Miranda and Ferdinand, the trickster Ariel, and the monstrous Caliban. The comic moments far outweigh the tragic elements, making it one of Shakespeare's most enjoyable and sometimes incongruous plays.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is The Tempest by Shakespeare considered a tragicomedy?

The Tempest is a tragic comedy because there are elements of both tragedy and comedy in the story.

Tragedy in literature comes from unfortunate events befalling the characters, either through no fault of their own or as a result of their actions. Generally, in a tragedy, the audience identifies with characters that are experiencing difficulties. Before the beginning of the play, tragedy befell Prospero when his position was usurped by his brother. More tragedy happens when the people on the boat hit the tempest and land on the island. Even though the play ends in a good place for many of the characters, it takes tragic circumstances to arrive there.

Comedy, by modern day's standards, is amusing. It's something that can make the audience laugh and defy situational expectations. For example, Caliban throws himself toward Stephano as his new master and says things like "Let me lick thy shoe." Even though Caliban is a tragic character, he can still provide humor depending on the production. Other characters make jokes about things that their compatriots say or make ironic observations. These things lend a touch of comedy to the events of the play.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is The Tempest by Shakespeare considered a tragicomedy?

The Tempest, along with the three other plays written towards the end of Shakespeare's career (including The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline and Pericles), is difficult to categorize as either a tragedy or a comedy. The published versions of Shakespeare's work also make it difficult to determine what he intended. The First Folio considered The Tempest and The Winter's Tale comedies, but Cymbeline was classified as a tragedy. Later published collections classify these four plays as "Romances" but this is not a really accurate category to use, either. The Tempest contains no major love story in its plot, so the term "Romance" does not feel particularly suitable.

The play does have certain comic elements: the characters of Caliban and Ariel are often played for comic relief. However, it is also possible for both of these characters to be played with a more tragic context: both are bound by servitude, and beg for their freedom, which makes them somewhat tragic. Caliban is ostracized for being ugly; this can also be comic or tragic, depending on the portrayal in performance. Prospero's age and occasional befuddlement can also be played for either comic or tragic effect (Shakespeare was nearing the end of his life and this is considered the final play he wrote). The same goes for Miranda's lack of exposure to the male sex, brought to a climax when she sees men for the first time and exclaims "O brave new world, that has such people in it!"

Because the play contains elements of both genres, it has been referred to by some critics as a "tragicomedy." This seems to be the best working term to refer to this play that defines placement in either genre. Modern productions for stage and screen (for example, the London production starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospera) tend to offer creative interpretations of this play, with the possibilities for comedy or tragedy being fairly fluid, depending on artistic choices made for the productions.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is The Tempest by Shakespeare considered a tragicomedy?

When it was published in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest was grouped together with the comedies. Although the comedy here is on the whole more subtle and understated than in, say, Much Ado About Nothing, it's there all the same, and it brings some much-needed comic relief to the proceedings.

One such example comes in the form of Caliban's shameless sucking-up to Stephano. Caliban is so desperate to come out from underneath Prospero's thumb that he's prepared to prostate himself at the feet of a drunken butler. In other words, Caliban wants to become the servant of a servant, and a drunken one at that. As part of his attempt to ingratiate himself with Stephano Caliban shamelessly offers to kiss his feet.

As with much of the humor in The Tempest, this is comedy tinged with more than a hint of sadness. For we can only feel pity for poor old Caliban: he's so anxious to escape Prospero's control that he chooses to degrade himself before such an apparently worthless nonentity.

Stephano provides additional humor, albeit of a much broader variety, earlier in the scene. In his drunken state, he mistakes Caliban and the jester Trinculo for a four-legged creature. The fool is hiding beneath Caliban's cloak to escape from a raging thunderstorm. Stephano observes that this strange creature appears to be able to talk out of its behind as well as its head:

Four legs and two voices—a most delicate monster. His forward voice now is to speak well of his friend. His backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract (Act II Scene ii).

This is low humor at its very lowest, with Stephano making a rather naughty joke about breaking wind.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is The Tempest a comedy or a tragedy?

Traditional classifications of Shakespeare's plays group them into three categories: comedies, tragedies, and histories. Sets of the complete works from the nineteenth century or earlier often devote one volume to each genre. There is some dispute about these groupings: Macbeth, for instance, is generally classed as a tragedy but sometimes is classed as a history. There is no doubt about the comedies, however, and The Tempest is always found among them.

To qualify as a comedy in this sense, a play needs nothing more than a happy or even an ambivalent ending, often concluding with a marriage. It does not need to make the audience laugh. More recent scholarship, however, has offered more classifications of the plays than the traditional three. Measure for Measure and some other plays traditionally deemed comedies have been labeled "problem plays," while others, such as Pericles and Cymbeline, are often known as "romances."

Either of these labels could be applied to The Tempest. It has the supernatural elements of a romance while also containing the thorny moral issues that define the problem plays. The Tempest has become a staple text of postcolonial studies in recent decades, making scholars and students more aware of the problems raised by Prospero's domination of the island and his treatment of Ariel and Caliban.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on