Is it true that our fantasies of a happily ever after situation is rooted in the language we speak? Should we study Shakespeare to understand our own desires? The contrast of comedy and tragedy in those plays can teach us a lot about our ideals. Comedies end in marriage; tragedies end in death.
In Shakespeare’s comedies there are many examples of mistaken identities. Think about the ass in Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a play within a play, but one of the characters is magically turned into an ass. The consequences of misunderstandings in the comedies is light. The worst that happens is people are revealed to be fools.
In the tragedies, one key difference is the motivation behind the misunderstanding. In the tragedies, the mistakes are due to a malicious design. Characters like Iago show us what it is to be driven by negative emotions, to use manipulation to destroy lives. We see Hamlet’s uncle stealing the power of the throne and sleeping with his mom. His uncle becomes his father through a bloody act of murder. In the tragedies, the intentions are evil and the consequences are fatal.
In the comedies, the characters’ intentions are generally benevolent. There is an innocence to the way the characters view the world. They are situation comedies, the blueprint for the modern form, and the humor comes from a harmless misunderstanding. Mistaken identities lead to hilariously awkward revelations of truth. In the end, though, the forces that have led the plot astray are calmed and the narrative comes to its consummation.
Through the tragedies, Shakespeare asks existential questions about the nature of good and evil and political power corrupting women and men. They are meditations on the nature of power and its implications in fate. The misunderstandings in tragedies are intentional and malicious and lead to death. In Romeo and Juliet, their mistaken view of the world leads to a double suicide. In Othello it leads to a murder suicide. As an audience we know what they don’t, which is what makes their deaths so tragic. They are unnecessary. They are predicated on a mistake.
Hamlet is the tortured prince. Ophelia is the victim of neglect. Othello is the deceived general. Desdemona is a woman murdered for none of her own doing, a victim of jealous violence. Romeo is the rejected suitor. Juliet is the lovesick martyr. The men are wronged and the women are victimized as a result.
Seeing this pattern in literature can help us to identify it as a kind of cultural myth. We hold to these beliefs. By giving them name, we also open up the space for choice. Knowing the difference between options is the prerequisite to making a good decision. If we see marriage as a metaphor, then we can design our lives to accord with our deep sense of comedy. We can create a valuable part of a larger network. Understanding the forms that misunderstandings take gives us a way to envision our own process of awakening.
This is why writers still matter so much. They are able to create models of human behavior that help us to understand ourselves and in so doing to make decisions based on the outcomes we desire for ourselves and our loved ones. Tragedies are in some ways cautionary tales about the corrupting influence of power. The violence of those narratives is motivated by greed. It is through a psychological failure to achieve a sense of contentment, happiness or peace that the opportunity for malevolence appears.
Shakespeare is a study in good and evil, in the full spectrum of human emotions and motivations. In the resilience of characters overcoming mistaken identities to finally fall in love we find the spirit of a culture attempting to satisfy its public. The marriage is one of culture with the people. Everything is metaphoric and can be read as a reflection of a larger reality. Comedy is a culture coming into harmony without the presence of pure evil.
The tragedies show us how incredibly harmful an evil agent can be within any human arrangement. Since we are so prone to error and to mistaking identity even in the comedies, there is plenty of opportunity for a sociopath to manipulate the misunderstanding in a way that leads to violent confrontation and death. Part of the reason it is important to study literature is because it can help us to come to know what is important for us to be learning and why.
In our current historical moment, we should learn from Shakespeare and be aware of the potential for tragic outcomes even as we search for a comedic relation to life. If we want to marry ourselves to the fate of the ecosystem, then we will fall in love with the process of sifting through dirt.