Northrop Frye on Comedy (from The Anatomy of Criticism)

In Greek New Comedy what normally happens is that a young man wants a young woman, that his desire is resisted by some opposition, usually paternal, and that near the end of the play some twist in the plot enables the hero to have his will. In the first place, the movement of comedy is usually a movement from one kind of society to another. At the beginning of the play the obstructing characters are in charge of the play's society, and the audience recognizes that they are usurpers. At the end of the play the device in the plot that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero, and the moment when this crystallization occurs is the point of resolution in the action, the comic discovery, anagnorisis or cognitio. The appearance of this new society is frequently signalized by some kind of party or festive ritual, which either appears at the end of the play or is assumed to take place immediately afterward. Weddings are most common.

The obstacles to the hero's desire, then, form the action of the comedy, and the overcoming of them the comic resolution. The obstacles are usually parental, hence comedy often turns on a clash between a son's and a father's will. The opponent of the hero's wishes, when not the father, is generally someone who partakes of the father's closer relation to established society: that is, a rival with less youth and more money.

The tendency of comedy is to include as many people as possible in its final society: the blocking characters are more often reconciled or converted than simply repudiated. Comedy often includes a scapegoat ritual of expulsion which gets rid of some irreconcilable character, but exposure and disgrace make for pathos, or even tragedy. The tendency of the comic society to include rather than exclude is the reason for the traditional importance of the parasite, who has no business to be at the final festival but is nevertheless there.

Comedy usually moves toward a happy ending, and the normal response of the audience to a happy ending is "this should be," which sounds like a moral judgment. So it is, except that it is not moral in the restricted sense, but social. Its opposite is not the villainous but the absurd, and comedy finds the virtues of Malvolio as absurd as the vices of Angelo. The question then arises of what makes the blocking character absurd. Ben Jonson explained this by his theory of the "humor," the character dominated by what Pope calls a ruling passion. The humor's dramatic function is to express a state of what might be called ritual bondage. He is obsessed by his humor, and his function in the play is primarily to repeat his obsession. The humor is comedy is usually someone with a good deal of social prestige and power, who is able to force much of the play's society into line with his obsession. Thus the humor is intimately connected with the theme of the absurd or irrational law that the action of comedy moves toward breaking.

The society emerging at the conclusion of comedy represents, by contrast, a kind of moral norm, or pragmatically free society. Its ideals are seldom defined or formulated: definition and formulation belong to the humors, who want predictable activity. The movement from pistis [false belief] to gnosis [awareness], from a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the older characters to a society controlled by youth and pragmatic freedom is fundamentally, as the Greek words suggest, a movement from illusion to reality. Hence the importance of the theme of creating and dispelling illusion in comedy: the illusions caused by disguise, obsession, hypocrisy, or unknown parentage. The comic ending is generally manipulated by a twist in the plot. The manipulation of plot does not always involve metamorphosis of character, but there is no violation of comic decorum when it does. Unlikely conversion, miraculous transformation, and providential assistance are inseparable from comedy.

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We pass now to the typical characters of comedy. In drama, characterization depends on function; what a character is follows from what he has to do in the play. Dramatic function in its turn depends on the structure of the play; the character has certain things to do because the play has such and such a shape. The structure of the play in its turn depends on the category of the play; if it is a comedy, its structure will require a comic resolution and a prevailing comic mood. Hence when we speak of typical characters, we are not trying to reduce lifelike characters to stock types, though we certainly are suggesting that the sentimental notion of an antithesis between lifelike character and the stock type is a vulgar error. All lifelike characters, whether in drama or fiction, owe their consistency to the appropriateness of the stock type which belongs to their dramatic function.

With regard to the characterization of comedy, the Tractatus [an ancient discussion of comedy] lists three types of comic characters: the alazons or impostors, the eirons or self-deprecators, and the buffoons (bomolochoi). We may reasonably accept the churl [agroikos] as a fourth character type. The contest of the eiron and alazon forms the basis of the comic action, and the buffoon and churl polarize the comic mood.

The humorous blocking characters of comedy are nearly always impostors, though it is more frequently a lack of self-knowledge than simply hypocrisy that characterizes them. The multitude of comic scenes in which one character complacently soliloquizes while another makes sarcastic asides to the audience show the contest of eiron and alazon in its purest form and show too that the audience is sympathetic to the eiron side. Central to the alazon group is the senex iratus or heavy father, who with his rages and threats, his obsessions and his gullibility, seems closely related to some of the demonic characters of romance, such as Polyphemus.

The eiron figures need a little more attention. Central to this group is the hero, who is an eiron figure because, as explained, the dramatist tends to play him down and make him rather neutral and unformed in character. Another central eiron figure is the type entrusted with hatching the schemes which bring about the hero's victory. This character in Roman comedy is almost always the tricky slave (dolosus servus), and in Renaissance comedy he becomes the scheming valet who is so frequent in Continental plays, and in Spanish drama is called the gracioso. Modern audiences are most familiar with him in Figaro and Jeeves of P. G. Wodehouse. Elizabethan comedy had another type of trickster, who is generally said to be developed from the vice or iniquity of the morality plays. The vice is very useful to a comic dramatist because he acts from pure love of mischief, and can set a comic action going with a minimum of motivation. The vice may be as light-hearted as Puck or as malignant as Don John in Much Ado, but as a rule the vice's activity is, in spite of his name, benevolent. One of the tricky slaves in Plautus, in a soliloquy, boasts that he is the architectus of the comic action: such a character carries out the will of the author to reach a happy ending. He is in fact the spirit of comedy, and the two clearest examples of the type in Shakespeare, Puck and Ariel, are both spiritual beings. The tricky slave often has his own freedom in mind as the reward of his exertions: Ariel's longing for release is in the same tradition. The role of the vice includes a great deal of disguising, and the type may often be recognized by disguise.

We pass now to the buffoon types, those whose function is to increase the mood of festivity rather than to contribute to the plot. Renaissance comedy, unlike Roman comedy, had a great variety of such characters, professional fools, clowns, pages, singers, and incidental characters with established comic habits like malapropism or foreign accents. The oldest buffoon of this incidental type is the parasite. In Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch we can see the affinities of the buffoon or entertainer type both with the parasite and with the master of revels.

Finally, there is the fourth group to which we have assigned the word agroikos, and which usually means either churlish or rustic, depending on the context. This type may also be extended to cover the Elizabethan gull and what in vaudeville used to be called the straight man, the solemn or inarticulate character who allows the humor to bounce off him, so to speak. We find churls in the miserly, snobbish, or priggish characters whose role is that of the refuser of festivity, the killjoy who tries to stop the fun.

Frye and As You Like It

Study Questions

1. What are the two main types of characters in a comedy? What is their relation to each other?

2. What motivates the blocking characters at the outset of the play? How does Frye characterize their thinking and behavior?

3. How do the unblocking characters overcome the opposition of the blockers? What mental traits would be expect these characters to exhibit?