How Are Greek Comedies Different From Greek Tragedies?

Having a solid understanding of the difference between a Greek comedy and tragedy allows you to enjoy the drama with greater understanding and context. The two art forms exist on separate sides of the spectrum, with comedies ending with happy and resolved endings, while tragedies end more catastrophically. Both types of drama were valued in Greek society and they served to entertain and inform the audience. There are two main ways to think about Greek drama: Aristotelian and Rhetorical traditions.

Aristotelian Tragedy

Aristotelian tragedy dealt with people in a higher social class that spoke well and came from good backgrounds. In the tragedy, these people have a fall from grace and are completely destroyed by the end of the drama. According to Aristotle, these tragedies were intended to purge the audience of “fear and pity.” The goal was to move the audience towards a feeling of catharsis and release from their daily troubles.

Aristotelian Comedy

In contrast to Aristotelian tragedy, the players in an Aristotelian comedy come from average to poor backgrounds or circumstances and ascend to a higher position in life. Unlike the main characters of a tragedy their language is average and they deal with everyday issues. Comedies always have acceptable to favorable resolutions and end with the main characters finding themselves with a better lot in life. Comedies do not have to be funny or humorous to be considered a comedy.

Rhetorical Tragedy

Rhetorical tragedies were defined through a fictional story in which the main characters were presented in a fictional light that was fantastical and not believable. An example would be Orpheus going to Hades for the sole purpose of rescuing his wife. It is not possible to return from the underworld, but in a rhetorical tragedy, the suspension of disbelief made this an acceptable method of presenting a tragedy. The tragedies usually dealt with a commonly known myth to make it easier to present the drama to the audience.

Rhetorical Comedy

The rhetorical tradition of viewing a Greek comedy involves taking a drama that consists entirely of fiction, but could reasonably appear to be based on real events. The characters in these comedies would have everyday events happen to them in a way in which the audience could relate and sympathize with. The ending of a rhetorical comedy always allowed the main characters to maintain or improve their situation in life. This was the method of viewing the world that was accepted by Plato.

“Tragedy and Philosophy”; Walter A. Kaufmann; 1992


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