English University Interviews - Comedy & Tragedy

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You should be able to demonstrate an awareness of both comedy and tragedy. Here, we’ll look at two questions covering this area, as well as a third Oxbridge question on irony that straddles the two to some extent.

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What is the Purpose of Comedy?

This question has been asked at interview for Oxbridge students before, and it’s not hard to see it as being a very common question – especially if you’ve studied comedic works at A Level or referenced them in your personal statement. This type of question is one where you should engage in a debate with the tutor, rather than trying to set out a clear definition and then moving on – there is no set purpose for Comedy. However, you should consider that a comedy in general will involve a happy ending, which in turn differentiates it from tragedies. As such, what might a comedy provide us with? It could provide us with laughter, which would be the most obvious answer to the average person when asked what a comedy is. However, Comedy in terms of literature requires further assessment. We might decide that comedy provides respite from the harsh realities of the world, while tragedy seeks to draw attention to chaos. Of course, Comedy can also provide a lens through which we can interrogate real-world issues – as seen in satire, a type of comedy in which humour is used to criticise certain people or ideas and draw attention to how they are incorrect or concerning. Lastly, Comedy can be used to persuade people of certain points of view – for example, through using satire to illustrate that an opposing point of view is ridiculous and should be ignored. 

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What is Tragedy?

Tragedies are an ancient form of Literature in which the narrative begins with a structured, ordered system and degenerates into chaos. Typically, the principal character will be held up as great or heroic, and thus be able to fall from this lofty perch over the course of the work. Aristotle explained that the hero of a tragedy must go from initial good fortune to bad fortune, and must exist as neither entirely good nor entirely evil – instead they should be human. The hero should fall due to a personal flaw, in general, and this minor flaw can thus prove to be their undoing. Because they are not entirely evil, they are not undone through a series of clear choices, but rather through misfortune and perhaps hubris. When considering what a Tragedy’s purpose is, we can look to Aristotle again, who explained that the point of Tragedy is to create catharsis, through the pity that we have for the hero. We begin by seeing the hero as great, and as such we might even look up to them – over the course of the narrative we begin instead to feel fear and pity, and realise that ill-luck can befall anyone. It is the hero’s death, typically, that provides the final catharsis for the audience. Tragedies traditionally involved ‘great’ characters like kings and princes, but over the centuries evolved to feature common people as well.

What is Irony?

Irony can be associated with both humour and tragedy. Comic irony is likely the first definition that one would think of – it comes from a contrast of situations, with the contrast creating amusement. There is also situational irony, which comes from the difference between the intentions of characters and the outcomes that they attain. This is the basis for many famous works of both literature and pop culture – like Wile E. Coyote, whose best laid plans always result in him failing to catch the Road Runner. Lastly, tragic irony involves the reader being aware of information that the characters themselves are unaware of – and this information leading to the characters’ negative outcomes. The most obvious example here would be Romeo and Juliet, in which the reader understands the reality of the situation, but the star-crossed lovers do not.

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