Senior Seminar:  Tragicomedy from Ancient Greece to Shakespeare


Objectives:  Few dramatic genres are as neglected and as abused as poor “mungrell Tragy-comidie” (Sidney’s Defence of Poetry), and yet tragicomedy has steadily gained influence over the past several hundred years until the point where it now dominates modern dramatic arts (read any Pinter or Stoppard lately?).  Shakespeare scholars in particular have a love-hate relationship with tragicomedy: most critics admit to its influences on Shakespeare’s works, but no one is quite sure which, if any, of his plays are “tragicomedies” in a formal sense.  Instead, we make do with descriptions like “the problem plays” or “the dark comedies” or “the late plays.”  This seminar will attempt to trace a reliable pedigree for this “mongrel” in order to better explore Shakespeare’s relationship with the genre that has been called “the human spirit’s attempt to build itself a world which is compatible with how it wishes to live.”


Required Texts:

*  Coursepack of out-of-print plays and criticism

*  Maguire, Nancy Klein, Ed. Renaissance Tragicomedy: Exploration in Genre and Politics (RT on syllabus)

*  Shakespeare.  Venus and Adonis, 1 Henry IV, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Winter’s Tale, and Two Noble Kinsmen.  You may use a collected edition (i.e., the Riverside) or the single editions of your choice (Signet and Arden are both good).

*  Aristophanes.  Frogs.

*  Euripides.  Alcestis and Other Plays.  Penguin.

*  Euripides.  Four Tragedies: Cyclops, Heracles, Iphigenia in Tauris and Helen.  Grene and Lattimore, tr.

*  Plautus.  Amphitryon and Two Other Plays.  Norton

*  Sidney, Philip.  A Defence of Poetry. 

*  Sophocles.  Oedipus Rex.


Secondary Texts:  (On reserve)

*  Green and Handley.  Images of the Greek Theatre

*  McMullan and Hope, Eds.  The Politics of Tragicomedy : Shakespeare and After

*  Sutton, Dana.  Ancient Comedy: The War of the Generations


Technological Resources:

This course has a web page that offers links to on-line resources and provides a bulletin board for posting questions, answers, comments, rough drafts, reviews, etc.  I will visit the web page regularly and will keep it up-to-date.  I encourage you to make good use of this resource and to share your ideas with me on how the web page can be more useful.



*  to read each assignment carefully, imaginatively, and as scheduled!  With this much reading, falling behind will probably be fatal.  Be an engaged reader:  underline in purple, scribble in the margins, bracket important speeches and scenes.  Look up strange vocabulary.  Mark up your text!

*  keep a response journal, either in a notebook or on disk, in which you keep track of your questions and thoughts as you read this material.  Start thinking early about possible research paper topics and use the response journal as a place to make connections and experiment with ideas.  Always bring the journal to class, as I will collect them periodically during the semester.

*  regular attendance and participation in lively but polite discussion.  A successful seminar depends on the willingness of all involved to share their ideas and perspectives; chronic non-involvement will result in a reduction of your participation grade.  If you are terribly shy about talking in front of others, then you must compensate with plentiful contributions to the course web page discussion area.

*  choosing a day for which you will serve as a class discussion leader.  Your duties include posting discussion topics and probing questions to the class web page at least 48 hours before your chosen day and then serving as the discussion starter during class itself.

*  a 12-15 page research paper.  You must submit a 4-5 page prospectus of your project by the end of ninth week, so I can give you advice, suggest secondary criticism, and make sure your topic is appropriate to the paper length and to the course.  The prospectus should describe your proposed topic in some detail, including a discussion of specific passages or incidents you feel will be important to your argument.  I do not expect that you know what the entirety of your argument will be, but I do expect that you know approximately what it will be about and that you be able to show some evidence of having begun your research into secondary materials.  The prospectus will not receive a grade, but a 1/2 grade penalty will be assessed on the final paper if the prospectus is not turned in on time.  I will not read a final paper if I have not seen a prospectus first.



1        Introduction to course:  why is tragicomedy worth investigating?


2        What is tragedy?

          Aristotle, selections from Poetics

          Horace, selections from Ars Poetica

          Sophocles, Oedipus Rex


3        What is comedy?   

          Sutton, Chapters 1 and 2

          Aristophanes, Frogs


So, what is tragicomedy?
4        Ancient Greece:

          Shawcross, “Tragicomedy as Genre, Past and Present” in RT

          Yoch, “The Renaissance Dramatization of Temperance” pp. 115-124 in RT

          Euripides, Cyclops


5        Euripides and the Critique of Tragedy

          Green and Handley, Chapters 4 and 5

          Euripides, Alcestis

          Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris     


6        Ancient Rome:

          Sutton, Chapter 3

          Cinthio’s comments on Plautus

          Plautus, Amphitryon


7        Medieval Romance and Miracle Plays:

          Dixon, “Tragicomic Recognitions” 56-70 in RT

          Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Parts 1 and 4

          Mary Magdalene

8        Renaissance Experiments with Mixed Genres:

          Sidney, A Defence of Poetry

          Sidney, from The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia

          Mucedorus (anonymous play)


9        Renaissance Experiments, continued  

          Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis

          Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV


10      Finally, A Defence of Tragicomedy

          Loewenstein, “Guarini and the Presence of Genre”

          Guarini, “Compendium of Tragicomic Poetry”

          Guarini, Il Pastor Fido [The Faithful Shepherd]


11      Fletcherian Tragicomedy

          Yoch, “The Renaissance Dramatization of Temperance” pp. 124-138 in RT

          Fletcher, The Faithful Shepherdess (make sure you read Fletcher’s Preface!)


12      Fletcherian Tragicomedy, continued

          Williams, “Not Hornpipes and Funerals” in RT

          Beaumont and Fletcher, Philaster

          Beaumont and Fletcher, A King and No King


13      At Last!  Early Shakespearean Tragicomedy           

          Mowat, “Shakespearean Tragicomedy” in RT

          Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

          Shakespeare, Measure for Measure


14      Middle Shakespearean Tragicomedy

          Dixon, “Tragicomic Recognitions” pp. 70-79 in RT

          Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

          Shakespeare, Pericles                


15      Late Shakespearean Tragicomedy

          McMullan, “Introduction”

          Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale

          Shakespeare and Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen




[Sample Syllabi]

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