Comedy and Tragedy

“The comic and the tragic heroes alike ‘learn by suffering,’ albeit suffering in comedy takes the form of humiliation, disappointment or chagrin, instead of death. There is a comic road to wisdom, as well as a tragic road.” — Wylie Sypher, Comedy

We have good days and bad days.  This is the rhythm of life.  It is also the rhythm of literature, where comedy and tragedy form a complementary whole.

Comedy and tragedy are pre-generic forms, which means that they occur within other genres and therefore exist logically prior to these other genres.  Hero stories and epics can be either comic or tragic.   For example, the hero story of David is a tragedy, while the hero story of Ruth is a comedy. The shape of the Bible as a whole is comic, culminating in the “happy ending” of Revelation 21-22.

To say a Bible story is comic doesn’t necessarily mean it is amusing.  It means it has a “U-shaped” plot structure.  A comic tale begins with the hero in prosperity; then events take a downward turn into tragedy, but ultimately everything is resolved in a happy ending.  Along with happy endings, comedies feature characters that are transformed from bad to good, surprise plot twists, reunions, miracles, sudden reversals of fortune, and rescues from disaster.

The story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) follows a classic U-shaped structure.  It is an archetypal rags-to-riches story, a staple of comic narrative.  The youngest of eleven brothers, Joseph begins as his father Jacob’s favorite child (prosperity), but he is sold into slavery and ends up in an Egyptian prison (tragedy).  Unexpectedly — thanks to his ability to interpret dreams — he rises to a position of power second only to the Pharaoh.  When Joseph’s brothers stand before him in Egypt to request food, they do not even recognize the younger brother whom they tormented. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and moves his entire family to Egypt (prosperity restored).  It is a grand family reunion and a happy ending.  Among the other notable comic narratives in the Bible are these:

  • Noah and the flood: Genesis 6-9
  • the story of Ruth
  • the story of Esther
  • the “framing story” of Job: Job 1-2 and Job 42
  • the “passion story” of Jesus: John 18-21

Like comedy, tragedy begins with the hero in prosperity, but it ends in catastrophe, usually death.  In tragedy, the hero is afflicted with a tragic flaw of character, makes a grievous error in judgment that leads to his or her downfall, and becomes gradually isolated from society. There are two undisputed tragedies in the Bible:  the tragedy of Samson (Judges 13-16) and the tragedy of Saul (1 Samuel 8-31).

The story of Samson provides a good example of biblical tragedy.  Samson begins as all tragic heroes do — in an exalted position from which a great fall is possible.  His miraculous birth and superhuman strength make him “most likely to succeed,” but he has numerous tragic flaws:  self-indulgence, a weak will, and spiritual recklessness.  His error in judgment occurs when he foolishly reveals to Delilah the source of his strength.  In the end, Samson suffers and dies weak and blind, toppling a Philistine temple on himself and his victims.