I recently read The Hero With a Thousand Faces while on a visit back home in Los Angeles. It had been sitting on my shelf for well over a decade, but I had never gotten around to it until this trip. I’m glad I did — it was excellent, and quite profound.
Tucked among the myriad discussions on the psychology of the hero and the metaphysical nature of our universe is a small discussion of the relative merits of the classical theatrical genres of Comedy and Tragedy. As a refresher, comedies are lighthearted, humorous stories which invariably end in most if not all of the main characters getting married (and ostensibly living happily ever after). As a contrast, tragedies are serious stories in which invariably end in death, as promising characters are undermined by what are ultimately revealed to be their own personal flaws. As examples from Shakespeare, we can look to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew as examples of comedies, and Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo & Juliet as examples of tragedies.
These two genres are commonly seen as capturing the essence of theater and story (in the common incarnation of the smiling and sobbing masks 🎭). The question Campbell poses is simple: which of these two genres better speaks to the essential nature of our experience? Are Comedies the deeper genre, because they capture the abundant and joyous nature of life? Or are Tragedies the deeper, because they speak to the ways that, despite out best efforts, all ends in death and destruction? Which is the figure, and which is the ground?
One critique of the Comedy is that they invariably end in ellipses (…). The two (or four) main characters get married… and live happily ever after. Comedy lies, they say, because it lets the story fade into the distance. If we were to stay with the story, we would realize that it, too, has a tragic aspect, ending inevitably with death and decay.
On the other hand, Tragedy lies because it omits the ways in which may find ourselves redeemed, and assigns too much weight to our personal flaws. There are more forces at work upon us than we commonly acknowledge, and to say always that our flaws are our final undoing is to deny the way in which new life and vitality can emerge from what appears to be hopeless circumstance.
Campbell’s view, which I loved, is that neither Comedy nor Tragedy can be said to be absolutely the deeper: each is a partial truth which surrounds and contains the other, much as a gemstone is set in the middle of a golden ring. Every comedy is set in the midst of a tragedy, and every tragedy is embedded in the center of a larger comedy. We can perhaps envision this as the rings of a tree, each ring being both contained and surrounded by other rings, but this finite image only approaches the truth, in which the rings go outwards and inwards, up and down, forever.