A Beginner’s Guide to Comedy and Tragedy

Drama is a form of literature acted out by performers. Performers work with the playwrightdirector, and set and lighting designers to stage a show.

Live actors act as someone else called a character.

play consists of:

  1. dialogue – where characters talk with each other
  2. action – what characters do in the play
  3. gesture – what the character shows through motion(s) and expression(s)

script, written by a playwright, gives the actors words and cues to perform the dialogue, actions and gestures of their characters on stage.

As a reader, you can only imagine what the gesturesexpressions and voices of the characters are like. Remember you must imagine the “sounds,” actions and scenery when you are reading a script.

What’s Reading a play Like?

Reading a play is like listening to a conversation, and using your imagination to guess at what the characters are like. This conversation is what actors will perform on the stage and will give you an idea of how other people, including the playwright, imagined the play to be.

If you have read a play and then see it, you may be surprised because the play may be different from what you had imagined. This is similar to reading a story and then seeing a movie of that story.

it is rarely exactly what you had imagined.

Types of Drama

There are three basic types of drama:

  1. Tragedy: a serious, solemn play based on an important social, personal, or religious issue.
  2. Comedy: a play that shows the humorous actions of characters when they try to solve social, personal, or religious problems.
  3. Tragicomedy: a play or novel containing elements of both comedy and tragedy.

Analyzing Drama

How you react to a play will depend on:

  1. your individual perspective of the world
  2. your sense of humor
  3. you political attitudes
  4. your moral values

Aspects of drama to enjoy and interpret a play


The scenic design and props. These add meaning and historical context to what characters do and say in the drama. Some components of the setting are as follows:

  1. The orchestra, the performance and dancing area for actors and the chorus.
  2. The lighting is used to show
    • illusion of time
    • highlight an action
    • emphasize an event or character
  3. Costumes are used to portray
    1. age
    2. class
    3. profession
    4. ethnic culture.


The way a play is organized into sections. Most plays are divided into acts and scenes. A traditional play follows the structural pattern of a traditional short story or novel. It has

  • an introduction (exposition)
  • rising action
  • climax
  • falling action
  • resolution (denouement).


Characterization refers to the way the actor portrays the character’s qualities and characteristics, these could be:

  • traits
  • moral qualities
  • physical presence
  • voice
  • Qualities (either physical and superficial or psychological and spiritual)
External characteristics
  • names
  • physical appearance
  • physical nature
  • manner of speech and accent
  • manner of dress
  • social status
  • class
  • education
  • friends
  • family
  • community interests
  • Internal characteristics
  • thoughts
  • feelings
  • emotions

Types of Characters

  1. Protagonist: The main character of a play, the one who is the center of action and holds your attention.
  2. Antagonist: The character who causes problems for the protagonist.
  3. Foil: The character that acts as the butt of the jokes. Also a character used to show contrast with the main character.
  4. Confidant: Friend or servant of the antagonist or protagonist who by “listening” provides the audience with a window into what the major characters are thinking and feeling.
  5. Stock Characters: Superficial roles. (Ex: comic, victim, simpleton/fool, braggart, pretender).


The central purpose or message of the play as developed by the playwright (i.e. the playwright’s message for the audience).

Dramatic Irony

The contrast between what the character thinks the truth is and what the audience knows the truth to be. This occurs when the speaker fails to recognize the irony of his actions

What’s a Comedy?

Comedy is  an entertainment consisting of jokes intended to make an audience laugh.  For ancient Greeks and Romans comedies were a stage-play with a happy ending.  William Shakespeare wrote  many  comedies during his life, some of his comedies are:

  1. The Merchant of Venice
  2. Twelfth Night
  3. All’s Well That Ends Well
  4. The Tempest
  5. Taming of the Shrew
  6. The Winter’s Tale
  7. As You Like It
  8. Love’s Labours Lost
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  10. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  11. The Merry Wives of Windsor
  12. Measure for Measure
  13. Much Ado About Nothing
  14. Pericles
  15. Prince of Tyre
  16. The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Shakespeare’s Comedies

The main characteristics in Shakespeare’s Comedies are:

  • A struggle of young lovers to overcome problems, is often the result of the interference of their elders.
  • There is some element of separation and reunification.
  • Mistaken identities, often involving disguise.
  • A clever servant.
  • Family tensions are usually resolved in the end.
  • Complex, interwoven plot lines.
  • Frequent use of puns and other styles of comedy.
  • They may involve some very dramatic storylines.
  • They have a happy ending, often involving a marriage.

Types of Comedy

Court Comedy, written to be performed at the court of kings and queens.

Comedy of Characters is a play that focuses on the absurdities and eccentricities of the characters rather than plot development.

Romantic Comedy involves love and romance

Farce is  a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

Satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Comedy of Morals highlights and condemns behavior that is considered socially unacceptable.

Black Comedy: Humour that makes fun of serious subject matter such as death and religion. Offensive to some, and hilarious to others. Requires intelligent scripting.

Parody deliberately imitates another work for comic effect

High Comedy: a type of comedy characterized by witty dialogue, satire, biting humor, or criticism of life.

Low Comedy:  a dramatic or literary form of entertainment with no primary purpose but to create laughter by boasting, boisterous jokes, drunkenness, scolding, fighting, buffoonery, and other riotous activity.


Tragedy is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences.

Tragedy begins in ancient Greece, of course, and the first great tragedies were staged as part of a huge festival known as the City Dionysia.  Because audiences were so vast, actors wore masks that symbolized their particular character.

Some Examples of Tragedies are:

  1. Antony and Cleopatra
  2. Coriolanus
  3. Hamlet
  4. Julius Caesar
  5. King Lear
  6. Macbeth
  7. Othello
  8. Romeo and Juliet
  9. Timon of Athens
  10. Titus Andronicus

Types of Tragedies

Greek Tragedy typically consisted of a protagonist of high rank who makes an error of judgement  and accepts his fall from grace. Other important elements include Gods, mythology, conflict, suffering and catharsis.

Roman Tragedy While many Greek tragedies were still being performed during Roman times, few genuine Roman tragedies survive. Those that have survived are mostly adaptations of Greek tragedies.

Elizabethan tragedies often include protagonists of high status (nobility, military rank, etc.) who are flawed, encounter a reversal of fortune and (usually) die at play’s end.

Revenge tragedies are dramatic works in which one character seeks revenge upon another character for an evil doing. Excellent examples of revenge tragedies include William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

Tragicomedy A mixture of tragic and comic elements existing in a single dramatic work. Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot is a fine example of the form, where the comic elements are not necessarily noticeable at first glance.

Domestic Tragedy portraying the common man in a domestic setting as the tragic hero (as opposed to a character of nobility in a palatial setting). Excellent examples include Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

Characteristics of Shakesperean Tragedies

Tragic/Fatal Flaw

it is a personality trait that leads to the downfall of the protagonist. It can also be a wrong action performed by the protagonist that results in his own ruin. It is the most important element in the tragedy and almost every hero/heroine of a Shakespearean tragedy possesses a tragic flaw. Examples of tragic flaw in Shakespearean tragedy are: Macbeth’s obsession with power, Othello’s jealousy and Hamlet’s indecisiveness.

Supernatural Elements

Use of super-natural elements is a common characteristic of the Elizabethan drama, to which Shakespeare’s plays are no exception. Supernatural powers contribute to the fate of the protagonist. However, they are not solely responsible for the downfall of the hero, it still lies in the deeds/actions of the hero.

Internal and External Conflict

The external conflict, as we can easily make out, is the conflict between two people, the tragic hero and another main character of the story. It can also be the conflict between two parties one which is led by the tragic hero. The result of the external conflict is always in favor of the other party as it is the good party.

When talking about the inward struggle of the hero, the conflict represents the struggle of thoughts in his mind. The result of this struggle, many a time is that the hero goes insane (as in King Lear, the king becomes mentally ill). The inward struggle also includes the action of spiritual forces which work against the hero.


As the tragic hero/heroine is of high estate and is a public figure, his/her downfall produces a contrast that affects not only his/her personal life, but the fate and welfare of the entire nation or the empire. It reflects the powerlessness of human beings and the omnipotence of fate that a personal story of a peasant or a worker cannot produce.

The adverse effects of fate on the empire are evident in Macbeth when Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Macduff are planning to defeat Macbeth and at the same time trying to support the collapsing kingdom. Macduff suggests that Malcolm take the throne, but Malcolm is not mature enough to hold the falling empire.


Any piece of literature is successful when it evokes pity, fear, and other such emotions in the audience. The audience feels sympathy for the character and empathize with his/her sufferings.

The Tragic Hero

Some characteristics of the tragic hero are:

  1. He must be a good man, though not absolutely virtuous.
  2. His sufferings, fall, and death of an absolutely virtuous man would generate feelings of disgust.
  3. The hero should neither be a villain nor a wicked person for his fall, otherwise, his death would please and satisfy our moral sense without generation the feelings of pity, compassion, and fear.
  4. The ideal tragic hero should be basically a good man with a minor flaw or tragic trait in his character. The entire tragedy should issue from this minor flaw or error of judgment.
  5. The fall and suffering and death of such a hero would certainly generate feelings of pity and fear.

Six Elements of Tragedy by Aristotle

The Plot is the most important part of a tragedy. The plot means the arrangement of the incidents. Normally the plot is divided into five acts, and each Act is further divided into several scenes. 

Characters are men and women who act. The hero and the heroine are two important figures among the characters.

Thought means what the characters think or feel during their career in the development of the plot. The thought is expressed through their speeches and dialogues.

Diction is the medium of language or expression through which the characters reveal their thoughts and feelings. The diction should be ‘embellished with each kind of artistic element’.

The song is one of these embellishments.

The Spectacle is a theatrical effect presented on the stage and it also includes scenes of physical torture, loud lamentations, dances, colorful garments of the main characters, and the appearance of the subordinate characters.


Tragicomedy is a literary genre that blends aspects of both tragic and comic forms. Most often seen in dramatic literature, the term can variously describe either a tragic play that contains enough comic elements to lighten the overall mood or a serious play with a happy ending. 

The main purpose of tragicomedy is to describe the dual nature of reality where both modes can coexist, perhaps simultaneously

Manuel Campos, English Professor

Manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of EnglishPost.org, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English