Johnson in the Preface to Shakespeare holds that the mingled dramas of Shakespeare are not only effective but also fulfill the proper function of drama much better than pure comedy or tragedy. Shakespeare, in Arnold’s view, incurred the biggest censure “by mixing comic and tragic scenes in all his works. And this very faculty of Shakespeare made him-
“Even nobler than both the Greek and the Roman dramatists”
Referring to the charge that Shakespeare has mixed the comic and tragic scenes, Johnson points out that the Shakespeare’s play are not in a “rigorous sense,” either tragedies or comedies, but composition of a distinct kind. Shakespeare’s plays exhibit the real state of earthly life which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled in various degrees and endless combination. Shakespeare says Johnson has united the power of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one composition. In other words, Shakespeare was equally at home in writing tragic and comic plays and he could combine comic and tragic elements in one and the same play. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and Ludicrous characters and they sometimes produce sorrow and sometimes laughter.
This was a practice contrary to “the rules of criticism”. But Johnson says that there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The object of literature is to give instruction by pleasing. A play in which the comic and the tragic have been mingled, is capable of conveying all the instructions that tragedy or comedy aims at because such a play is closer to the reality of life than either pure tragedy or comedy. The mingling of tragic and comic scenes does diminish or weaken the vicissitudes of passion that the dramatist aims at. There are many people who welcome comic relief after a scene producing the feeling of melancholy.
Now we should look at the historical background of the matter. It is true that, on the whole, the ancient classical dramatists had kept tragedy and comedy strictly apart from each other. Neo-classical drama of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Italy, France and even England tried to observe the line of demarcation between tragedy and comedy. But Shakespeare was a romantic, not a neo classical dramatist. The free use of tragedy and comedy in the same play is one of the most striking and familiar features in the work of Shakespeare and other romantic playwrights of his time. Romantic drama reveals in variety of effect, while tragic comedy or the mixed play was, according to Addison, one of the most monstrous inventions that ever entered into a poets thoughts.
Neo-classic criticism showed a curious tendency to out Greek the Greeks in strictness. Aristotle indeed says that tragedy represents an action which is serious: and Greek tragedy in practice has little comic relief; yet it has some. We find some comic elements in Homer himself. Homer’s gods are sometimes used for a comic purpose, as well as men like Thersites or Irus. For the middle Ages, the mixture of tragic and comic was as natural as breathing, and it produced their best dramatic work. The greatest Elizabethan tragedies were half the child of comedy, not only because Polonius in Hamlet, the Porter in Macbeth, and the fool in Lear produce some of their most striking scenes. Johnson, it must be pointed out, justifies tragic-comedy on conflicting grounds.
In the twentieth century, T.S.Eliot has argued that, though human nature may permanently crave for comic relief, it does not follow that this craving should e gratified. Eliot upholds the doctrine of ‘the unity of sentiments,’ T. S. Eliot also said that the desire for comic relief springs from a lack of the capacity for concentration.
There is no reason why a tragedy must be absolutely laughter less and there is equally no reason why a tragedy should not be laughter less. Perhaps only one rule remains valid about humor in tragedy, namely that humor must not clash with the tone of the whole. It is extraordinary how seldom this fault is found in Shakespeare. Mercutio and Thersites, Pandarus and Polonius, the Grave diggers and the Porter and Cleopatra’s clown are certainly not out of place in the plays in which Shakespeare had depicted them.
Johnson is undoubtedly a critic of neo-classical school. However in his defence both of Shakespeare’s disregard of the unities of time and place and Shakespeare’s mingling of tragic ad comic elements. Johnson seems to deviate from the rigid stand which neo-classicism adopted. Strictly speaking, neo-classic theory did not permit the mingling of tragic and comic in the same play. But it is possible to argue that Johnson defends such mingling on the fundamentally neo-classic ground that the imitation of general human nature not only permits but demands it. Shakespeare’s plays, combining comedy and tragedy, show real human nature which “partakes of joy and sorrow.”