Comedy and Tragedy as Foils Shakespeare is an author that is known to pair comedy and tragedy together as foils. Susan Snyder, a scholar author has stated, “The source tales of Romeo and Othello would, I think, suggest quite readily to Shakespeare the possibility of using comic convention as a springboard for tragedy” (Snyder 123). In most of Shakespeare’s works, he uses elements of comedy to lead into a tragic event that will soon happened. Shakespeare also enjoys using tragedy to contrast the comedic elements in his writing.
A large reason for the comedy contrasted to the tragedy is done in order to keep an audience entertained. According to Leech, “Shakespeare was bound to draw on his earlier treatments of love in comedy, but would need to make a major departure too” (Leech 1). In Romeo and Juliet, comedy and tragedy are used as foils of each other, which is shown through Mercutio’s death, Juliet’s “death”, and the irony and wordplay found in the play leading up to tragic events.
Early in the play, Mercutio’s death is a great example of how comedy can lead into tragedy in Shakespeare. In the acts leading up to a very tragic death, the play is full of comedy, and it is said, “If we divide the play at Mercutio’s death, the death that generates all those that follow, it becomes apparent that the play’s movement up to this point is essentially comic” (Snyder 125). Mercutio’s death was the first major death in the play between the two families, which resulted from the feud.
This death is the first death which is said to be the cause of all deaths that follow. Despite the importance of this death, there are many examples of comedy in the play, one of which includes, “Mercutio: Here’s my fiddlestick; here’s that shall make you dance. Zounds, consort! ” (III. 1. 44-45). Before the duel began, Tybalt exchanges insults and jokes to add to the lighthearted mood. Another example of comedy before the death is when Mercutio states, “Mercutio: Ay, Ay, a scratch, a scratch” (III. 1. 88).
In this quote, Mercutio was trying to play it off like he was only barely injured from the dueling, even though the audience knows it is much more than that and that he will later die. It is important that Shakespeare added in the elements of comedy in this scene so that it would add more contrast when the disaster occurs. Although there are many moments of comedy in the scene when Mercutio’s death, there is certainly tragedy to accompany the scene as well. According to Thrasher, Romeo and Juliet differs from other Shakespearean tragedies in that it becomes tragic over time, rather than being fully tragic (97).
The first few acts and scenes of the play have many elements of comedy, but as the play progresses, the number of jokes and puns decrease, causing the play to become more tragic. Mercutio’s death was one moment in which much of the comedy in the play transitioned into tragedy and created a more disastrous storyline. Aside from the death itself, an example of the tragedy following Mercutio’s death is when Romeo was banished. Shakespeare writes that after being banished for fighting in the streets, Romeo takes a dagger and offers to stab himself (832).
Because Romeo would be much further away from Juliet and would not be able to visit her, Romeo considered killing himself. After deciding not to kill himself, Romeo with the help of the Friar Lawrence and Juliet decide to fake Juliet’s death so she will then be able to live the rest of her life with Romeo and be exempt from marrying Paris. Mercutio’s death is a death that can set the mood for almost all of the deaths to follow. The death was a great example of how comedy and tragedy are used as foils in that a very tragic situation is approached with many elements of comedy.
Another example of how comedy and tragedy are used as foils is seen through Juliet’s faked death. Leech acknowledged the many moments of pure comedy when Romeo and Juliet state their love for each other (1). Although the reader knows that the two lovers will end up dying, Shakespeare adds different lighthearted moments to the scene to prepare the audience for the disaster soon to come. After the “death”, the Capulet family is mourning, but Shakespeare adds the scene with Peter and the musicians to contrast to the tragedy.
An example of this comedy is when Peter states, “Peter: O musicians, because my heart itself plays ‘My Heart Is Full. ‘o, play me some merry dump to comfort me” (IV. v. 103-104). The use of puns and wordplay add a cheery mood to the tragic scene. Aside from the moments of comedy to accompany the tragedy, there is a substantial amount of tragedy alone found in these scenes. There is a great amount of tragedy found in Juliet’s death alone. One may argue that the drama and chaos found in the acts leading up to and following the death made the event seem more disastrous.
Due to the confusion and haste of the events following the fake death, there was much tragedy that then followed. An example of this tragedy is, “Romeo: Farewell. Buy food and get thyself in flesh. Some cordial and not poison, go with me to Juliet’s grave, for there I must use thee” (V. 1. 84-86). This quote shows Romeo preparing to go to Juliet’s grave with the poison to kill himself. After arriving and finding Juliet “dead”, Romeo eventually drinks the poison. When Juliet wakes up as Romeo is dying, she states, “Juliet: Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl! Drunk all and left no friendly drop to help me after” (V. iii. 162-164). After waking up from the “death” potion, Juliet finds Romeo dead. She realized that Romeo drank poison, but has used all of it, so Juliet then stabs herself as an alternate way of killing herself. Juliet and the Friar’s plan that backfired led to much more disaster than necessary. The use of the small elements of comedy during these tragic scenes can make for a much more entertaining and enjoyable play.
Juliet’s “death” and the deaths that then followed is another example of how comedy and tragedy are used as foils. Although individual events are used to show the contrast between comedy and tragedy, there are countless jokes and comedic segments added to an overall tragic plot. It is commonly known that Romeo and Juliet is a tragic story, but not all recognise the comedy in the play. According to Halio, there are about 175 puns and quibbles in Romeo and Juliet (58). In most of his writing, Shakespeare uses many puns for comic relief.
It has been said that “much of the humor in the play also derives from ambiguities, particularly bawdy jokes that depend upon a more less veiled secondary or tertiary meaning” (Halio 58). Overall, it is common for Shakespeare to write using puns and wordplay as comic relief in tragic situations. Aside from the wordplay used in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare also used irony to add comedy to a tragic play and to keep an audience entertained. During the death scene of Mercutio, he states, “Mercutio: I am hurt. A plague a both houses” (III. 1. 87).
This line is ironic because the two houses are already cursed, members from each family will die at the end of the play anyway. Also, this line is ironic because Mercutio is cursing the family he was fighting against along with the family that he was fighting to support. The line when Benvolio states, “Benvolio: I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire. The day is hot, The Capulets are abroad” (III. 1. 1-2) is also ironic because earlier in the play, Benvolio was the character always looking to start a fight, but now, he is the one trying to prevent Mercutio from fighting.
Irony is very important to the comedic element in Shakespeare’s writing because it is a way to add subtle comedic jokes and keep the audience thinking. The irony along with tragic disaster in the play is a great example of how comedy and tragedy are foils of each other. Shakespeare uses comedy and tragedy as foils throughout Romeo and Juliet, which can be seen during Mercutio’s death scene, Juliet’s “death”, and the irony and wordplay used during the tragic events.
During Mercutio’s death scene, many puns and jokes are said between the two feuding families, which is then followed by a very tragic death. When Juliet faked her death, the Capulet family was mourning, but Shakespeare also included the scene with Peter and the musicians with many puns to lighten the mood. Additionally, the small puns or jokes are used during the play to add the comic relief element during the tragic events. Overall, the comic element is used as a foil to tragedy to keep an audience intrigued during most Shakespearean works.