Tragic Comedy or Comic Tragedy?
During my Shakespeare for Teachers course last semester, my instructor mentioned that Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dreamare similar in some ways and that Shakespeare had actually been working on both plays around the same time. I never would have thought these two plays were anything alike – wasn’t the one about love gone terribly wrong, while the other was about love gone wonderfully right? One was sad, the other was happy. how could they be alike?
After my instructor proceeded to explain some key shared elements of the two works, I began to realize that they were similar. but not until I recently was mulling the problem over in my mind, did I realize how alike they actually are.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as we know it, is a comedy, but what would it be without its sudden “flip” ending that restores order and happiness to the characters? It would be a tragedy, would it not? Lovers jilted, Hermia or Lysander potentially killed, Helena doomed to rejection, and either Demetrius or Lysander denied Hermia’s love – this sounds more like a tragedy. Simultaneously, without its sudden “flip” ending, Romeo and Juliet would be a comedy. Lovers who reconciled their families and overcame all odds to be happily married is the stuff of comedies. Without its tragic ending, Romeo and Juliet is very similar to a comedy in that it has humor (often crude), romance, and conflict. And Midsummer Night’s Dreamis very similar to a tragedy in that it has seemingly irreconcilable conflicts and a good deal of pain, sorrow, and mental torment among its characters.
Both plays have romantic love as their central theme, and not only romantic love, but impossible romantic love. Romeo and Juliet are from feuding families; Hermia and Lysander love each other, but Demetrius and Hermia’s father oppose the match, and Helena loves Demetrius, but he does not at all return her love. Both plays main characters have parents who try to prevent them from loving whom they wish to love. Then there is the realm of control that becomes a prominent factor in both plays. Powers outside of the humans’ control combine to produce either joyful or tragic endings to these plays. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is the fairy world mainly consisting of Oberon, Puck, and Titania. If it were not for the fairies, the lovers never would have been happily restored to their right minds, and events would not have worked out for their love to succeed. In spite of the humans’ actions, they cannot right their plights by themselves, neither can they change what the fairies did.
And while the controlling powers in Romeo and Julietare definitely not fairies, they are certainly not human. Fate seems to be the overarching destiny in this play. No matter what the (human) characters do, they cannot change their fate. The terrible ending of this play is like a fluke – a product of fate over which the humans had no control. They tried to take action to better their circumstances (both Romeo and Juliet, the priest, and Romeo’s comrade) but all their plans went unexpectedly awry and failed completely. Just like the unexpected happy ending in Midsummer Night’s Dream was almost a fluke (that is, it was entirely independent of the characters’ actions and the logical probability of the way events would conclude), the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet was unexpected.
There are other ways these plays are similar as well. Plot lines seem somewhat the same. The young lovers attempted to go behind their parents’ backs and marry (Romeo and Juliet actually did marry, while Hermia and Lysander merely attempted eloping) in both. Secrecy and dependence on friendships and loyalties are present in both plays. And thematically, the subject of love is very prominent in both, they probe and explore the various ways that love manifests itself, what love does to people, what love really is, and how love is shown.
One other similarity between Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet is that in both plays, there are strong central female characters. Juliet is arguably a stronger character than Romeo is, and more constant, while Hermia and Helena (not to mention Titania) are both stronger and more constant in their love than their male counterparts are.