You know how they categorize Shakespeare’s plays, right? If it ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. And if it ends with a funeral, it’s a tragedy. So we’re all living tragedies, because we all end the same way, and it isn’t with a . . . wedding. ― Robyn Schneider, The Beginning of Everything
What is life, a tragedy or a comedy?
I’m not asking whether life is a barrel of laughs. We all know it’s not. “Comedy” and “tragedy” have particular meanings. In literature, “comedy” and “tragedy” refer to the shape of a story, not so much its content or even its tone.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, for instance, were full of jokes. Or at least that’s what our English teachers told us at school. If we’re honest, we probably hadn’t noticed the gags—I hadn’t anyway. When the alleged “humor” was pointed out I dutifully said, “Oh,” and wrote in my exercise book: Hamlet is making a joke, apparently.
Frown or Smile?
Tragedies can have jokes, and comedies can have heartache. In fact, much of comedy depends on the banana-peel moment, the pompous being brought down a peg or two, or the grand farce where everything falls apart. Tragedies contain joy, comedies contain pain, but the distinguishing mark of each is the ending. At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy the bodies are piled up on the stage. At the end of a Shakespearean comedy—in all 14 of them, in fact—there is a wedding. Or four.
To help fix it in your mind, think of it this way: a comedy is shaped like a smile. You go down then up—descending into darkness before rising up to joy. A tragedy, on the other hand, is shaped like a frown—up then down. You climb to prosperity then tumble into the pit.
So then, now that we’ve clarified the question, let me ask it again: What is life, a tragedy or a comedy?
Life as a Tragedy
Tragedy, surely! That’s what professor Lawrence Krauss would tell us:
The picture that science presents to us is . . . uncomfortable. Because what we have learned is that we are more insignificant than we ever could have imagined. . . . And in addition it turns out that the future is miserable.
We’re the flotsam of a cosmic explosion, biological survival machines—wet robots—clinging to an insignificant rock, hurtling through a meaningless universe toward eternal extinction. But still, the new flavored latte from Starbucks is incredible. And have you tried hot yoga? And we’re renovating the kitchen. So, you know. That’s nice.
As the annihilating tsunami of time bears down on us we obsess over our sand castles—the promotion, the holiday, the new gadget—and we dare not look up.
Life is a tragedy, and this dismal tale is sold to us in every magazine and paperback: The thousand books you must read before you die; The ten must-see destinations for your bucket list. The shape of the story is up then down and the advertisers are primed to sell you the uppiest up that money can buy because the down really is a downer. The photos are glossy, but they mask an unutterable tragedy. Life, according to the wisdom of the age, is about enjoying our brief “moment in the sun.” We clamber upward, grab for ourselves all the achievements, experiences, and pleasures that we can and then, so soon, we are “over the hill” and the grave awaits. It’s up then down. The frowny face. The tragedy.
Unique Plot Twist
Then—against all odds and in distinction to all competitors—the Bible dares to tell a different story. It actually has the audacity to be a comedy. The tale it tells holds out dazzling and eternal hope for us.
The Bible actually has the audacity to be a comedy.
While the religions of the East speak of dissolving into the ocean of being, and while Islam and the Christian cults portray an otherworldly future, the Bible promises resurrection. This is different. It’s about these bodies and this world raised up. It’s this life laid hold of and turned around, like the plot twist in a classic comedy. Resurrection is about the author doing something joyous with our story—this one, the one we’re in—taking us through the valley of the shadow and out into a happily ever after, complete with a wedding (Rev. 19:6–9). Without Jesus, life ends with a funeral. With him, there is a never-ending wedding feast.
The Bible is a comedy, and it all centers on Easter.