Although I enjoy a large range of writings, mostly falling under the romantic section, I particularly love to laugh. Laughing is good for one’s health, and gaining a few laugh lines is nothing to be ashamed about. One of my favourite, if not my absolute favourite, Shakespeare plays is Much Ado About Nothing. It is fantastic. The wit, the quips, the heartbreak, the marriages are all wonderful, but that is a digression for another day. The point is, this is a comedy.
When most people think of comedies, they think of something that will make them laugh. And in truth, that is what modern comedies do. I watched Good Morning, Vietnam the other day with my boyfriend. We were laugh through most of it as Robin Williams is a comedian if there ever was one. but this is a modern comedy. It is a comedy filled with jokes, quips,perhaps a hint of sadness (I mean, Vietnam was horrific. It’s no wonder they wanted something to make them smile). But in short, modern-day comedies are funny. That is all they are. There is no real plot line, and by that I mean there is no underlining story that brings the reader or watcher to a specific point. It is a story, but there is no fundamental conclusion.
This is not what a comedy has always meant. Sure, it could be funny and typically had comical points in it. But a comedy was, as the point, a unifying script.
The word comedy comes from the Greek in the form of two words: komos and aoios. The first means “merry-making, festival, revel, or carousal”, the second is a singer or a poet. The later comes from the word aeidein which means “to sing”. This should reveal what a comedy first started as, which was poetry. Now these two words together formed komodios meaning “singer in the revels”, which then came komoidia, “an amusing spectacle”. With the emerging Roman rule, Latin borrowed words from Greek and thus comoedia was formed. Then in the late 1300’s in the Old French language, comedic was born and gave meaning to “a poem”, though not yet in the sense of theatre.
The theatrical use of the word did not come about until later in the Middle Ages, thus gaining the definition of an “amusing play or performance”. As time went on, this came to mean poetry and stories, but always ones with happy endings. The English use of the word began with the definition of being a “narrative poem”, but by the end of the 1800’s gained a common definition of a “quality of being amusing”. However, a comedy in relation to classical literature gained for itself another meaning, and that is one of unification.
The most famous work of literature, I would say, that uses this unifying structure of comedy is Date’s The Divine Comedy. In this extended narrative poem, Date creates an allegory of a person’s walk towards God. But more to the point, it is a person’s soul starting at a point of separation from God and ending with the joining of God. This is what happens in comedies. Things separate come together; sadness turns to happiness; two become one; disorder comes to order; disharmony becomes unity. Now, there are some comedic elements to this comedy. Most, however, if not all, are grotesque. But that is another point to show that not all comedies are to be hilariously funny. Sometimes, they begin rather sad but lead to a joyful conclusion. That is what Dante’s Comedy does. It begins with mans separation from God in the Inferno, and by the Paradiso, man is united with God. Now, I do not necessarily agree with everything found in this piece of literature. The poetry is wonderful and the imagery beautiful, but he theology is a little off. Still, as far as a unifying comedy goes, everything down to the number of syllables embodies this definition of unity in Dante’s Comedy. It fulfills every part of the definition of a comedy. It makes us laugh, it is a narrative poem, and its conclusion is a unifying one.
Thus a comedy can take on many forms. A true comedy in literature may be funny, but the main goal is to unify. That sense of the word has since changed. By the time Shakespeare got around, he used the best of both worlds and wrote literature that was both funny and unifying, as is found in the play mentioned above. Today, we usually find comedy just for laughs. And that is good. We can laugh through comedies, and some may bring us to tears. But in the end, if we’re laughing together, at least we are unified in that laughter.
As with anything I discuss concerning etymology, these words and snippets of definitions came from the Oxford English dictionary. However, all is my own work.