During Napoleon’s 1808 campaign in Germany, he visited his favorite author, Goethe. The two giants of the age met twice, once at Weimar and once at Erfurt. Andrew Roberts’s new biography, Napoleon, devotes a paragraph or two to this meeting; the biography is a very complimentary take on Napoleon, so Roberts is naturally very eager to quote Goethe’s highly favorable impression of how well the French Emperor could hold a literary conversation. Napoleon himself wrote Romantic novels as a young man; incidentally, so did Saddam Hussein.
The fact that Goethe and Napoleon should have discussed Tragedy is a powerfully ironic detail. The parable-like Downfall of the Overreacher is one of the focal points of Elizabethan tragedy (Marlowe’s Tambourlaine, the two-part play that originally impressed the young Shakespeare), and both Shakespearean and neoclassical French tragedy presented more than one version of the Great Man’s downfall, and not just Caesar’s. Napoleon, at the time he met Goethe, was at his zenith, still a few years out from his Russian fiasco, Elba, Waterloo, and St. Helena. In 1808, his hubris was soon to set his tragic downfall in motion.
Their discussion of the art of tragedy led, naturally, Shakespeare. Napoleon, with a characteristically French sense of purity, expressed disgust with Shakespeare’s tendency to mix comic and tragic scenes. He said he was baffled at Goethe’s admiration for the Bard.
Today, we see Shakespeare’s blending of high and low, comic and serious, as a sign of his breadth of vision and versatility. Before the meteoric rise of his reputation (which was taking place, Europe-wide, at roughly the time of the Napoleon-Goethe conversation), this mixing was not universally admired. In fact, one of the more common opinions was that it was a defect, not a virtue.
From our perspective, we would argue that mixing the two is a truer representation of life, which doesn’t have a sense of genre. However, the truly tragicomic—think Catch-22—is relatively rare in Shakespeare. There are the Fool’s scenes in Lear and the monologues of Jacques (which seem more like set pieces showing the “melancholick” temper), but in most plays, the comic and tragic are not blended but juxtaposed. The comic scenes are breathers. So Macbeth is dark, darker, darker…and then cut to the rotund porter speaking in prose.
This was what bothered the neoclassical temperament, and French literary taste before Victor Hugo generally: The gratuitous interpolation of comic material. Many of Shakespeare’s prose comedy scenes were cut in performance during the 17th and 18th centuries, partly, one suspects, because they weren’t that funny anymore, humor changing the way it does from generation to generation.
The neoclassical counterargument to blending tragic and comic scenes isn’t entirely baseless, though no one makes it anymore, even in France; with Hugo and de Musset, the Romantic movement put paid to the neoclassical purity of genre on that country’s stage. The counterargument stated that it didn’t matter that, in “real life,” tragic and comic/mundane things might happen close together, temporally or spatially. During the Tragic Crisis, which is what the tragedy (with its unities of time and place) was focusing on, nothing was comic. Nothing. Why? Because Medea just killed her kids. Because Phaedra just confessed her incestuous lust. This is serious stuff; comedy to either side of this toxic blast crater, even if well done, is in bad taste. Imagine if someone were to crack irrelevant jokes right after the twin towers fell on the news. Comedy in a situation like that doesn’t offer “comic relief”; comedy is worse than irrelevant, it’s simply not funny.
So in a sense, the neoclassical outlook wants art to be truer to reality. Shakespeare’s tragic-comic alternation says: “This is some heavy stuff, but let me change the scene and make you laugh for a bit”—because, implicitly, what you’re watching is just a play. It’s not real; I can ease up the pressure for a few beats. The neoclassical, straight-tragedy approach says: “This is heavy stuff, and there’s absolutely nothing to laugh about here”—because, implicitly, this isn’t a play, I want you to experience this as real. And in real life, at your darkest moment, if you’re truly in extremis, hearing a clown pun about his codpiece is not going to penetrate that darkness. The truly tragic is not a mere dramatic sensation. It’s metaphysical, “irrecoverably dark.” Sure enough, blind John Milton opted for this approach in his own tragedy about a blind man, Samson Agonistes.
Which was, in turn, based on Greek, not Shakespearean, tragedy. The Greeks, who invented Tragedy, kept all comic material out of the tragedy proper. They quarantined it and presented it in a satyr play, which usually shared no characters with the tragic trilogy that preceded it.
Goethe himself moved from a neoclassical approach to a Shakespearean one. If you look at his earliest work, like The Sorrows of Young Werther (Napoleon’s favorite novel, and one of the books the two men discussed), it’s a book of unrelieved, sentimental melancholy. The story is not a conventional tragedy, but the hero (spoiler alert) does die at the end. Goethe’s serious historical plays like Egmont and Gotz von Berlichingen, from what I recall of them, don’t have much comedy in them, either. But in Faust, Goethe brings in wit from the very beginning with Mephistopheles, who enters as a poodle; and by Part II, there’s such a confusion (in the best sense) of effects and moods and genres and verse styles that it’s scarcely a “tragedy” anymore at all. True to form, at the very end (spoiler alert, again) of Faust II, written in his final years, Goethe pushes this mingling to the point that he reverses the tragic fate of Faust. Heavenly choirs show up and intervene just as Mephistopheles is going to collect on Faust’s soul. Goethe adopted Shakespeare’s insistence on the coexistence of the light and the darkness—and in this last work, the light won out.
Although rarely remarked, this was the course of Shakespeare’s career, too: The “great tragedies” where everybody dies at the end come from the middle phase of his career. In his final years as a playwright, Shakespeare transitioned to writing the so-called “Romances,” culminating in The Tempest—plays which have happy, click-in-place endings. So Goethe saving Faust, and Shakespeare miraculously reuniting an elderly Leontes and Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, are actually two examples of the same philosophical arrival, this idea that the light wins out—that life doesn’t end senselessly, with the wastage of a Werther or Cordelia.
Neither outlook tells the whole story, of course. For some people, in real life, life really does end senselessly or randomly. For others, it doesn’t. That is a kind of play or novel you don’t see often: Where things work out all neatly deus-ex-machina for one character, but end senselessly and nihilistically for another, with no explanation, no logic as to who gets their comeuppance and who gets redeemed. Taking the broadest possible view, that may well be “real life”—and real life may well be thoroughly uncongenial to art.