Verna A. Foster, The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. 230pp. ISBN 0 7546 3567 8.

Lucy Munro
Keele University

Munro, Lucy. "Review of Verna A. Foster, The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 11.1-8<URL:>.

  1. Tragicomedy is something of a Cinderella among dramatic genres. Despite the claims of its defenders for its aesthetic and moral integrity, the form has often been maligned or sidelined by critics. Philip Sidney's critique of "mongrel tragicomedy" in An Apology for Poetry is merely the best-known of a number of condemnations of the genre; its vicissitudes are perhaps best encapsulated by the fact that the term seems originally to have been coined by Plautus in Amphitryon as a joke. Yet tragicomedy has also seen periods during which its influence on the English stage has been immense. In the early seventeenth century, the experiments of dramatists such as Beaumont, Chapman, Fletcher, Marston, Middleton and Shakespeare established it as a major force, and it went on to dominate the Caroline stage before modulating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into a number of interconnected mixed forms, including sentimental comedy, melodrama and the drame. Then, as tragedy gradually fell from favour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tragicomedy took centre stage once more in plays by dramatists ranging from Ibsen and Chekhov to Beckett and Pinter.

  2. These two periods of tragicomic innovation are the focus of Verna Foster's The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. The book is both a study of tragicomic dramaturgy and an assertion of the independence and, indeed, superiority of tragicomedy as a dramatic form. Chapter One, "The Name of Tragicomedy: Problems of Identity", is almost a manifesto, establishing Foster's own theory of tragicomedy and critiquing previous accounts. The rest of the book is broadly chronological in its organisation, including two survey chapters and four chapters providing detailed accounts of Renaissance and modern tragicomedy. Chapter Two, "Early English Tragicomedy: From Providential Design to Metatheatre", traces the tragicomic impulses of medieval religious drama and the influence of Guarini's theory and practice; Foster also provides stimulating accounts of Greene's James IV and Marston's The Malcontent. Two chapters then examine in detail "Shakespearean Tragicomedy" (concentrating on Measure for Measure and The Winter's Tale) and "The Tragicomedy of Sexuality and Surprise" in plays by Beaumont, Fletcher and Massinger including A King and No King, A Wife for a Month and The Bondman. The next chapter bridges the gap between the early seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries, surveying plays such as Dryden's The Rival Ladies and The Spanish Friar, Steele's The Conscious Lovers and Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun. The final chapters focus on "Tragicomedy and Realism" in plays by Ibsen, Chekhov, Synge, O'Casey and Williams, and on the tragicomedy of the absurd in plays by Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter.

  3. Despite this range of plays and historical periods, tragicomedy is strictly delimited. Combining the analyses of writers and critics such Guarini, Shaw, Pirandello, Dürrenmatt and Ionesco, Foster argues that the genre is marked out by a number of "family resemblances". Tragicomedies are not merely plays that combine the comic and tragic; they are plays in which the tragic and comic "are formally and emotionally dependent on one another, each modifying and determining the nature of the other so as to produce a mixed, tragicomic response from the audience" (11). They generally end in "moral and aesthetic discomfort" (158), rejecting the consolations of tragedy or comedy. Drawing an important distinction, Foster uses Guarini to suggest that Renaissance tragicomedy is best viewed as a form of comedy; in modern tragicomedy, however, the modal "tragi" has become more potent, leading to these plays' much bleaker treatment of the genre. This emphasis on a very particular mingling of comedy and tragedy leads to some significant omissions. For instance, Foster does not include Shaw's plays in her study on the grounds that "the satiric impulse overwhelms any tragic potential" (29), despite the fact that Shaw himself saw them as tragicomedies; Ibsen's The Wild Duck is accepted as tragicomedy but A Doll House is rejected because it "contains neither a tragic nor a comic view of life and cannot, therefore, be tragicomic; it is a drame" (11).

  4. Further "family resemblances" are created in the interlinked qualities of metatheatre and the metaphysical. Tragicomedies, Foster claims, tend towards artifice and self-consciousness, often creating a balance between sympathy and detachment in their audiences; they are orientated towards the general and universal rather than the specific and political. In Renaissance tragicomedy, the audience are often made aware of the unseen dramatist's manipulation of events (the convenient appearance of the pirate Ragozine's head in Measure for Measure being a frequently-cited example). The dramatist's metatheatrical presence creates "a benign universe that allows second chances, endows its suffering protagonists with tragic dignity even when they behave absurdly, and offers consolation, though it is often muted, for sorrows past" (199). In modern tragicomedy, on the other hand, the original Christian orientation is lost; rather than displaying the workings out of a benign providence tragicomedies instead use the metatheatrical to demonstrate the absence of any higher power: "The misfit between the individual and his cosmos is no longer seen as a redeemable fall from unity but as an absurd condition of human existence" (199).

  5. At its best, The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy juxtaposes to illuminating effect plays that might seem otherwise to have little in common. For instance, a brief comparison of the treatment of sexuality in Fletcher and Williams is unexpected but compelling in its evocation of the ways in which tragicomedy "allows for the expression of both the painful and the absurd in sexual experience" (154). Foster is also illuminating in her comments about style, such as her accounts of the disconcerting mixture of naturalism and artifice in tragicomic language and dialogue in dramatists as disparate as Fletcher, Synge and Pinter. Moreover, the juxtaposition of Shakespeare with writers such as Beckett and Ionesco, and Foster's emphasis on tragicomedy's capacity to provoke discomfort in its audience, is a useful corrective to over-complacent readings of plays such as The Winter's Tale or The Tempest. In fact, Foster's commitment to "a definition of the genre that transcends its formulations in any particular period" (10), leads me to wonder whether thematic organisation might have served her purposes better than the chronological structure adopted here.

  6. Given Foster's focus on dramaturgy, metatheatre and the metaphysical, and her commitment to a transhistorical approach, it is perhaps inevitable that the book should be noticeably ill at ease with tragicomedy's social and political interactions. This is, she argues, a genre that "focuses on metaphysical rather than social aspects of human experience, though it might have social and even political engagements" (14). Although she acknowledges that tragicomedy's "political implications may help to explain [its] popularity in the years after the Restoration" (98), Foster elides these issues in relation to other periods.

  7. This elision is particularly problematic in relation to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As many recent critics have noted, Renaissance writers and commentators frequently associate the mixed mode with social and political disruption.[1] As John Lyly comments in Midas, "Time hath confounded our mindes, our minds the matter, but all commeth to this passe, that what heretofore hath beene serued in seuerall dishes for a Feast, is now minced in a Charger for a Gallimaufrey. If we present a mingle-mangle, our fault is to be excused, because the whole World is become an Hodge-podge".[2] A King and No King, one of Foster's two main exemplars for Fletcherian tragicomedy, is insistently political in its concerns, as important work by Zachary Lesser and Philip Finkelpearl has demonstrated.[3] Lesser's article, published in 2002, may have emerged too late for Foster to consult it, but Finkelpearl's resonantly titled monograph, Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, was published as long ago as 1990. Foster's rather inflexible definition of tragicomedy also precludes comparison of A King and No King with Beaumont and Fletcher's politically aware and disjunctively tragicomic tragedies, Cupid's Revenge and The Maid's Tragedy, the latter performed by the same company as A King and No King at around the same time.

  8. The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy is an intriguing account of tragicomedy's emergence, its revival and its dramaturgical importance. Its omissions demonstrate, however, the extent to which trans-historical narratives about dramatic genres inevitably obscure as much as they reveal.


[1] See, for example, Nancy Klein Maguire, ed., Renaissance Tragicomedy: Explorations in Genre and Politics (New York: AMS Press, 1987); Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Hope, eds., The Politics of Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and After (London: Routledge, 1991); Nicholas F. Radel, "Homoeroticism, Discursive Change, and Politics: Reading 'Revolution' in Seventeenth-Century English Tragicomedy", Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 9 (1997), 162-78.

[2] Midas (London, 1592), sig. A2r-v.

[3] See Lesser, "Mixed Government and Mixed Marriage in A King and No King: Sir Henry Neville Reads Beaumont and Fletcher", ELH 69 (2004), 947-78; Finkelpearl, Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). On the politics of Fletcherian tragicomedy see also Lee Bliss, Francis Beaumont (Boston: Twayne, 1987); Sandra Clark, The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher: Sexual Themes and Dramatic Representation (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994); Gordon McMullan, The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1994).

Works Cited


      Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

      © 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).