In The Importance of Being Earnest, Miss Prism sums up a novel that she wrote and lost many years before, saying, “The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That’s what ‘fiction’ means.”
Will the guys in the white hats out-gun the guys in the black hats? You can count on it. Will Wile E. Coyote ever catch the Road Runner? Not in a zillion years. If we know the ending, why do we watch?
Comedy depends on expectations being fulfilled. We expect that the hero will save the day, the villain will be foiled, and true love will prevail.
Tragedy depends on expectations being fulfilled, too. Either there is a villain (Richard III) or a tragic hero (King Arthur). The one is evil, and must die for the world to be set to rights. The other is a good guy, but must die to atone for a tragic flaw.
If we know the ending, why do we watch?
Comedy and tragedy, the happy face and the sad one, are the classic forms, and as long as we know which world we’re in, we form our expectations accordingly. But what happens when the forms get mixed? Romeo & Juliet hurts so much to watch because so much of the time we seem to be watching a love story, which is a comic form, while we know that, really, it is the other thing. The play begins with a quarrel, a clashing of swords. Then we meet the lovers, star-crossed. Act III, a continuation of the quarrel. Tybalt kills Mercutio. Romeo kills Tybalt. We now know for sure that we are watching a tragedy. How do we know? In a comedy, nobody dies.
But still we hope. Surely, this time true love will prevail. Why can’t, just once, the messenger arrive in time to tell Romeo of the Friar’s scheme? We’re all rooting for him, even while we know that we must watch as Romeo once again encounters Juliet’s lifeless body, once again drinks the poison just before Juliet wakes up, and that Juliet will once again stab herself with her true love’s dagger.
Aristotle says that the power of tragedy lies precisely in knowing that the tragic hero will die. Agamemnon is doomed before the play even opens, yet we must sit and watch him move closer to ignominious death with every step. We experience pity and fear, and leave the theatre purged, for a time, of these emotions.
In a comedy, there are no big surprises but lots of little ones along the way. How, precisely, will Rocky & Bullwinkle survive Boris Badenov’s latest evil plan? What, exactly, will be the nature of the mechanical or mental malfunction that sends Wile E. Coyote falling, once again, to the floor of the canyon far below? The funny part is, we enjoy watching this stuff again and again, just as young children want to hear the same bedtime story over and over, and don’t you dare try to skip a page. What we crave, what well-formed comedies, tragedies, and bedtime stories give us, is confirmation that the world is ultimately dependable and just. Romeo murdered Tybalt, and murderers must die. Rocky & Bullwinkle are on the side of right, and right will always win in the end.