William Shakespeare was one of the only, and certainly the most noted, playwright whose work spanned the divide between comedy and tragedy. It is not coincidental that he also wrote plays about history. What I would like to do is give such insight I can provide as a playwright and historian about the unity between tragedy, comedy, and history, to suggest that part of the enduring genius of Shakespeare’s works comes precisely from his understanding of the fundamental unity between these three ways of looking at the world.
Setting The Stage
Let us first, before we discuss the unity of tragedy, comedy, and history in detail, set the stage about the different types of approaches one can have to life. While we tend to think of comedy and tragedy as opposites, and history as unrelated to either, they are in fact closely related cousins, and none of them is a true opposite of any of the other terms. Rather, each of them has an opposite that exists outside of the bounds of the moral territory marked out for human beings, while comedy, tragedy and history all exist within that moral territory.
How so? Tragedy is drama filled with suffering–often somewhat undeserved (but not entirely), in which reality is seen as mixed and ambiguous, but with the survival of the eternal and exterior standards of good and evil. Likewise, comedy itself also deals with ambiguities concerning the need to accept and make accommodations with unpleasant realities (which are often funny to others) . History itself is making an accommodation with the past, accepting the ambiguities of the causes of individuals, classes, societies, and civilizations and coming to terms with their actions and their human limitations. The common thread running through tragedy, comedy, and history is an acceptance of human limitations while recognizing the enduring value of human relationships, virtue, and memory .
What are the opposites of these three different noble callings? Since tragedy draws its pathos from the endurance of the eternal and godly standards of virtue despite immense human suffering, its opposite must be a mocking of those moral standards. In other words, the opposite of tragedy is cynicism. Cynicism, particularly in its more nihilistic forms, denying the validity of right and wrong while pointing to a cruel and hostile universe, robs society of its hope in justice and right and wrong, leaving it vulnerable to despair. Since comedy draws its humor from the acceptance of unpleasant realities, its opposite must be a denial of anything unpleasant, a denial of the value and importance of the physical world and its limitations, or what can be termed the gnostic illusion. Additionally, since history is the acceptance of the ambiguous behavior and motivations present in reality among all human beings, its opposite must be a denial of that ambiguity. This is found in propaganda, a melodramatic account in which all of the characters wear black or white hats and the considerably darker reality of our mixed natures remains unexplored.
The Nobility of Tragedy, Comedy, and History
Earlier I stated that tragedy, comedy, and history were all noble. Why did I use this particular word, and why is that label important? We must remember that the most enduring part of our works (whether those works be literary or otherwise) lies on the way in which our particular momentary labor touches upon those aspects of the world that are fundamental and essential. It is the combination of the ephemeral with the eternal in works of genius that makes them stand the test of time, while other more immediately popular works fade away when the tides of culture shift and they are left without moorings in the eternal and unchanging truths of the universe and of human behavior.
Though few people these days seem to possess a genuinely tragic worldview (though I certainly do), tragedy is itself noble. It is noble precisely because it is uncomfortable. We do not wish for good people (or relatively good people, despite their flaws) to suffer horribly, and seemingly disproportionally, but such cruel and undeserved suffering is a real part of our human existence. If we are to accept and accommodate with reality, we must deal with tragedy openly and honestly. We must face up to the reality that bad things happen to good people, that small blunders can have horrifying consequences out of all proportion, but that good and evil remain judged according to the same divine standard. It is noble to face these ugly and unpleasant truths.
Likewise, though we may not understand how, comedy is itself noble as well, for different (but not entirely unrelated) reasons. Comedy is noble because we have to make accommodation with unpleasant truths that are funny, and because not all differences are worth making war over. Opposites attract, after all, and “odd couples” can indeed make worthwhile and lasting friendships (whether one is talking about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or Big & Rob on an MTV reality television show). The understanding that not all differences of opinion make someone beyond the pale of acceptance, and that not every disagreement needs to lead to a war or a schism, is itself a noble and important lesson, too often ignored by those of narrow-minded worldviews. Some differences are worth going to war over, but not all of them are–and having a comic spirit of acceptance about inessential differences of preference or opinion that do not amount to sin (again, properly distinguishing between sin and preference requires a firm knowledge of the biblical standard) is a noble and essential way of living life without constant civil war in one’s church or family or nation. It is noble to step back from unnecessary war and hatred and not take one’s self so seriously that one is in constant battle with others. To laugh (especially at one’s self) is indeed noble.
Likewise, history is a noble profession, and I do not only say that because I am a biased historian (although I certainly am). Historians have the solemn task of pouring over the raw materials of archives and primary source material, as well as the secondary materials of other historians, and to weigh them in the balance of evidence and logic, in order to lay a sure foundation of knowledge about the past for others to mine for lessons and contemporary relevance. After all, we cannot understand ourselves fully without understanding where we come from, and so a keen understanding of the past is vital for our knowledge of the context of present reality. It is a noble thing to help mankind better understand itself and make accommodation with the often unsettling and uncomfortable truths of our past.
The Choice Between Acceptance and Denial
Within literature (and I am including history as literature because of its concern for narrative), one faces the choice of whether to accept or deny reality. If one accepts reality, then whether one writes tragedy, comedy, or history depends on one’s temperament and the subject material at hand. Some people may be temperamentally predisposed to focus on the gloomy and tragic truths of the world, while others may be predisposed to laugh rather than cry, while others may take it upon themselves to soberly examine the facts and evidence of history to make some sense of that which has come before. Some people may do all three, but if one chooses to accept reality and accommodate with it, one will be within the realm in which tragedy, comedy, and history exist, in some fashion (perhaps even blended in some fashion (like Shakespeare’s famous “problem plays” that straddle the line between comedy and tragedy).
Likewise, if one chooses to deny reality, one has the choice of various approaches as well. One can cynically dismiss the validity of good and evil and gloat over the sufferings of others. One can likewise deny the unpleasant realities of life and make a gnostic fantasy of pure good and evil without human limitations of error and imperfection. Similarly, one can deny the reality of good and evil being within the heart of all people and groups of people, and create a melodramatic propaganda account that whitewashes blame from the author and his (or her) chosen people while placing all blame on one’s enemies. Examples of these histories abound .
The choice between acceptance and denial is a moral choice, a determination either to accept the control of God over the universe and the reality that the workings of divine providence over that universe may be hard to understand (they are for me, certainly) but that reality takes precedence over our own wishes and desires, or a determination to be ruled by one’s own desires and wishes without regard to any external standard by which one can be judged. This is a choice between acceptance of God’s authority over the universe (through the acceptance of reality) and the denial of that authority and the rebellion against the limitations that we have been placed under as human beings.
The implications of this choice are momentous. Accepting or denying reality determines whether one can actually recognize and assimilate the facts about life. If one deliberately chooses one’s own wishes over what actually is, one cannot find the way to truth because one has walled one’s self off from it. Self-deceit is the most damaging deceit to suffer from, because it prevents one from discovering the reality. Likewise, a commitment to face reality itself has consequences in one being an enemy to lies and deception, no matter how fashionable or popular they may be. Whichever choice one makes, one has chosen a side.
The unity of tragedy, comedy, and history comes from the way in which all three of those endeavors depends on an awareness of reality. Comedy ridicules the fashionable fads and political correctness of the age, whether it is the savage plays of Aristophanes, the witty requels of Machiavelli, the satires of Jonathan Swift, or the comedies of Shakespeare. Tragedy points out the suffering inherent in human existence as a result of the influence of sin and corruption on fallible human beings who can make catastrophic errors of judgment, a sense of profound but noble sorrow found in such disparate sources as Elie Wiesel’s Night, the dramas of Lope de Vega (particularly Orlando Furioso and Castigo Sin Verguenza), or the tragedies of Shakespeare or Sophocles. Likewise, genuine history seeks to uncover reality from its fragmentary sources, whether that is from participants in history like Thucydides (in his History of the Pelopanesian War) or Josephus, or from others who seek to provide an orderly account to momentous works (like Luke the Historian/Physician in the Bible or Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). All of these works are grounded in an understanding about reality that is fundamentally moral in nature.
We must therefore, if we wish to understand how someone like Shakespeare (or someone like myself) can write tragedy, comedy, and history, understand what common ground these endeavors inhabit. This common ground is a worldview that seeks to deal with reality and make the best of it rather than to deny it or to curse it. Given the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s works, it is clear he inhabited a large part of that ground of reality at least in an understanding of human motivation and behavior. The rest of us can only hope that our work is as profound and as enduring, so that we too may see the unity of worldview and perspective behind such seemingly disparate fields as tragedy, comedy, and history. Whether we sigh and cry, laugh, or seriously weigh the evidence, so long as we accept reality and deal with it we have chosen the side of light against the darkness of lies and illusion. All those who have chosen the same path are natural allies united in a common cause, whatever our own personal temperaments and creative inclinations.
 Robert B. Heilman, “Shakespearean Comedy And Tragedy: Implicit Political Analogies,” Shakespeare As Political Thinker, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000), 392.