Few contemporary critics discuss Hegel's theory of comedy. (
(I) In contrast, Hegel's theory of tragedy has received...) Yet
Hegel's theory invites our attention for at least four reasons. First,
Hegel offers two major insights into comedy, the importance of subjectivity and particularity as the dominant categories of the genre and
recognition of comedy as the negation of negativity or the mockery of
an untenable position. Second, unlike his theory of tragedy, which
offers a historical division into ancient and modern tragedy, Hegel
presents a transhistorical, if albeit brief, discussion of types of comedy. His typology, though suggestive, is at odds with his system and so
offers us an example of the tension that sometimes surfaces in Hegel
between macro- and microstructures. Third, comedy occupies a central position in Hegel's Aesthetics. In all the lecture notes on Hegel's
Aesthetics, comedy has the last word; with comedy the discussion of
art concludes. Moreover, two of the most important aesthetic categories in the immediate post-Hegelian period were the ugly and the
comic, concepts that for the Hegelians were closely linked. Hegel's
immediate successors, attuned to systematic aspects of the Hegelian
system, knew the centraliry of these concepts both for Hegel's system
and for the viability of idealist aesthetics in modernity; my paper
draws, therefore, on these often overlooked thinkers. Finally, Hegel's
theory can be productively related to modern reflections on comedy.
Hegel elevates a moment of comedy that seems to be lost in much of
modern comedy, lightness of spirit; either Hegel's theory did not keep
pace with the times, or modern comedy does not satisfy certain ingredients of outstanding comedy. Nonetheless, Hegel's discussion of
comedy, with its stress on subjectivity and the negation of negativity,
has particular resonance for our age.
The greatest strength of Hegel's discussion of comedy is his insight
into subjectivity and particularity as the distinguishing features of the
genre : "What is comical [...] is the subjectivity that makes its own
actions contradictory and so brings them to nothing" (15 :552; A
1220, translation modified; cf. 15 :528-29,15 :534,15 :552-55, and
Most of my references are to the edition of the Aesthetics...) By subjectivity Hegel means an elevation of the self
and of self-consciousness in contradistinction to objectivity (or naive
adherence to the traditional norms of society) and to intersubjectivity
(or the spheres of friendship, love, and community). The comic self
focuses his energies on himself and his private interests and desires.
Preoccupation with one's own particularity is comic insofar as it is
viewed in contrast to the world and the substantial sphere such particularity tends to overlook.
Hegel was not the first to recognize the link between subjectivity
and comedy, (
Vico, for example, noted that New Comedy is built around...) but his reflections supersede earlier insights, insofar
as he discusses subjectivity in its most philosophical and overarching
aspects. Nonetheless, Hegel's theory has gaps, and the elevation of
comedy among Hegelians such as Heinrich Theodor Rotscher,
Christian Weifie, Arnold Ruge, August Wilhelm Bohtz, and Friedrich
Theodor Vischer can be partially explained as an attempt to fill these
lacunae without overlooking Hegel's initial insight.
In a work dedicated to Hegel, Rotscher, for example, analyzes
Aristophanic comedy by way of the transition from objectivity to subjectivity, from the reliance on tradition and objective values to its
dissolution. Rotscher describes the subject matter of Aristophanic
comedy as a battle between, on the one hand, "simple moral custom,
shame before the law, in short unreflected obedience that recognizes
the law and moral custom as ultimate and decisive without needing
another authority" and, on the other hand, a "subjectivity for which
moral custom and law are no longer the highest authority and which
instead draws determination from its own thinking and imagining"
(47, my translation). He continues : "Belief in gods, laws, and moral
customs are thereby robbed of their former strength and power, since
they must first be brought before the forum of reflection and thought
in order to receive validation. This battle can thus be characterized
abstractly as the opposition of simple moral substance and its objectivity, in which the individual is immersed, and free subjectivity,
which renounces the same. This subjectivity dethrones objectivity as
such, i.e., as what is immediately valid and decisive [...] and exercises
its judgment on it internally" (47-48, my translation).
For Rotscher the essence of Aristophanes is the development of a
subjectivity that reasons and questions and thereby dissolves the
objectivity and stability of tradition and state. This reason is not yet
associated with freedom, but is influenced by nature and the private
and arbitrary desires of the self. It is a formal capacity of reason and
individual will : "The purely formal nature of will, which we call
caprice, can choose the lowest as well as the highest, the most moral
as well as the most repugnant; it casts its lot with one or the other
according to the contingent constitution of the subject" (48, my translation). Aristophanes attacks the various intellectual destroyers of the
state, Euripides, the Sophists, and Cleon, who exhibit subjective
passions and offer rhetorical defenses of the same. The Clouds, for
example, mocks the subjectivity of the Sophists, including Socrates.
Scientific speculation calls into question religious traditions, and
rhetoric undermines the previously accepted givens of tradition,
including its moral precepts. Socrates, the individual and eccentric
thinker, upsets the commonality of Greek ethical life. Not tradition,
but man, indeed the cleverest man, becomes the measure of all things;
not validity, but victory, determines truth.
Beyond his general reflections on subjectivity and particularity,
Hegel elaborates the central role of contradictions and the need for
a comic resolution. In a sense comedy functions as an aesthetic
analogue to Hegel's practice of immanent critique, by which the
philosopher seeks to unveil self-contradictory and thus self-canceling
positions. Hegel writes concerning this Socratic technique : "All
dialectic allows that which should have value to have value, as if it
had value, allows the dissolution inherent in it to come to pass"
(18 :460; HP 1 :400, translation modified). Hegel applies the structure
directly to the comic : "The comic is to show a person or a thing as it
dissolves itself internally in its very gloating. If the thing is not itself
its contradiction, the comic element is superficial and groundless"
(18 :483; HP 1 :427-28, translation modified). Ruge develops Hegel's
insight when he opens his commentary on the comic by discussing the
value of error in the formulation of truth. The comic work takes the
hero's position seriously, accepts it, and follows it to the point where it
reveals its own absurdity and so destroys itself. According to Ruge,
the object of comic negation "cancels itself, it is the negative in and
for itself, the self-canceling" (179, my translation). Comedy is "immanent negation" (179, my translation). What, according to Hegel, is
most commonly negated or canceled in comedy is the false elevation
of subjectivity or particularity.
Hegel's typology of comedy is, if briefer, more complex than his
typology of tragedy. Hegel discusses three types of comic action. He
begins : "On the one hand, first, the characters and their aims are
entirely without substance and contradictory and therefore they cannot
succeed" (15 :528; A 1200, translation modified). Hegel elaborates
using the example of greed : both the goal and the means to achieve it
are "inherently null" (15 :528; A 1200). The hero takes the empty
abstraction of wealth as the ultimate reality and excludes every other
form of contentment. The hero fails to reach his goal but recognizes
the untenability of his claims, and so the play ends on a harmonic
note. Since the failure stems from worthless values, nothing is lost.
The protagonist deserves to fail and in failing recognizes the stupidity
of his claims : "Therefore there is more of the comic in a situation
where petty and futile aims are to be brought about with a show of
great seriousness and elaborate preparations, but where, precisely
because what the subject wanted was something inherently trivial,
nothing in fact is ruined when his purpose fails; indeed, he can surmount this disaster with undisturbed cheerfulness" (15 :529; A 1201,
translation modified). Though Hegel doesn't offer an illustration, a
good example might be the innkeeper in Goethe's The Accomplices. If
we widen the scope of the hero's aims to include anything evil —
though the aims remain thwarted — we might think of works such as
Moliere's Tartuffe, Goldoni's The Liar, or Kleist's The Broken Jug. For
purposes of reference let's call this the comedy of negation.
In Hegel's second form of comedy the hero's goal is valid, the
means, however, limited : "Second, the converse situation occurs when
individuals plume themselves on their substantial characters and aims,
but as instruments for accomplishing something substantial, they, as
individuals, are the precise opposite of what is required" (15 :529;
A 1201, translation modified). In this way the hero reduces the substantial to the appearance of what is substantial. The individual is
incapable of fully realizing his legitimate goals. The contradiction lies
between the noble intention and the insignificant individual who tries
to bring this intention to fruition. Hegel names as an example
Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae. Examples from the post-Hegelian era
might include Schnitzler's Anatol, Brecht's Master Puntila and His
Servant Matti, and Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist. For
purposes of reference let's call this the comedy of reduction.
A third form of comedy emphasizes the role of chance in bringing
about a harmonic conclusion : "A third type, in addition to the first
two, is based on the use of external contingencies. Through their
various and peculiar complications situations arise in which aims and
their accomplishment, inner character and external circumstances, are
placed in comic contrast with one another and then they lead to an
equally comic solution" (15 :529-30; A 1201, translation modified).
Evident in the works of Menander, this form of comedy is also
apparent in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Holberg's
The Masquerades. Let's call this third Hegelian form the comedy of
Hegel begins his typology with a subgenre in which negativity is
especially prominent; it might thus be considered more of an antithetical genre.(
American Hegel critics commonly contest that the thesis-antithesis-synthesis...) With this in mind I would reverse Hegel's first and
second forms. Hegel's third form, moreover, is hardly synthetic. It
appears to involve an erasure of subjectivity, rather than a synthesis of
objectivity and subjectivity; expressed in different terms, the harmony
is one of chance, not reason. Hegel's third form should be the first. In
comedy, therefore, we begin with a lack of consciousness; the hero,
knowing little, follows his own particular desires and, led by coincidence and fortune, reaches the good. This is the comedy of coincidence : the hero achieves harmony through nature and chance, not
This comedy, the comic equivalent of objectivity, passes over into a
series of antithetical subgenres, in which subjectivity predominates : to
Hegel's comedies of reduction and negation I would add what I call
the comedy of withdrawal. In the comedy of reduction the hero has an
intuitive grasp of harmony and truth but is unable to reach his goals
owing to his own ineptitude and deficiencies. The hero follows his
desires, much like the hero of coincidence, though these desires lead
not to the good but to a reduction of the good. The hero of the next
form, the comedy of negation, recognizes that a reduced goal is a false
goal and so freely seeks evil, albeit with strong (and clever) means.
The hero of the comedy of withdrawal attempts to confront evil but
recognizes only the content of truth, not its means of success.
Moliere's The Misanthrope, Schnitzler's Professor Bernhardt, and
Durrenmatt's The Physicists would be good examples. The hero of
withdrawal fails mainly because of the inadequacies of society, but
also because of the hero's unwillingness to grant objectivity, as deficient as it is, its moment of truth. These antithetical forms present us
with a bow of sorts. The bow represents movement away from truth
with its reduction, reaching its outer distance from truth in the case of
negation, and returning toward truth with the attempt, unsuccessful
though it is, of resisting this negation of truth.
The hero of the synthetic genre, finally, unites in himself the objectivity of a valid goal with awareness of the means necessary to reach
that goal. I call this form the comedy of intersubjectivity : the hero
overcomes contradictions and reaches the intersubjective sphere by
virtue of his own reflection rather than mere chance. As examples
consider Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Goldsmith's She
Stoops to Conquer, or Raimund's The King of the Alps and the
As in all dialectical progressions, the thesis and the synthesis contain the primary moment, the antithesis the secondary moment : the
primary moment in comedy is reconciliation; the antithetical moment
is the elevation of subjectivity. Recognizing comedy as an antithetical
genre, Hegel comments at length on the antithetical elevation of subjectivity. His typological analysis, however, elevates the primary
moment, reconciliation. Modern comedies and modern comic theory
tend to see the secondary moment as dominant, thus the wealth of
modern comedies that fit the antithetical patterns and push them to
Let's look more closely at one of Hegel's subgenres to show how we
could expand it further using Hegelian insights. In comedies of coincidence the protagonists imagine themselves to be the agents of
action, but their subjectivity is revealed to be illusory : not the subject,
but chance and natural causes are at play. Antirealism and images of
nature tend to predominate in works of this kind. Consider Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or Woody Allen's A
Midsummer Night s Sex Comedy. The audience tends not to take these
protagonists very seriously. The multiplicity of marriages with which
such works frequently conclude mocks any unnecessary stress on
the uniqueness of the individual and exhibits the importance of the
overarching order. The broad sphere, what is common not what is
particular, is highlighted. What appears contingent and accidental is
not the institution of marriage but the subjects entering into it.
Institutions have ontological independence; they transcend individuals
and generations. The references to procreation, which are frequent in
such works, suggest that the individual exists not only for itself but
also for the continuation of the species.
At its best the comedy of coincidence is not an insignificant or
superficial genre; instead, it contains a highly speculative structure
and can be understood in the context of Hegel's philosophy of history,
which is often brought to bear on his theory of tragedy, but is normally not viewed as a source of insight into comedy. In fact comedies of
coincidence are generally regarded as the weakest and most superficial
comedies — even by Hegelians. Vischer, to take one example, strongly favors comedies of character over comedies that stress coincidence
or intrigue (6 :333- 35); he sees in the former a deeper comic element
["eine tiefere Komik"] (6 :334). The comedy of coincidence, however,
is often deep. Coincidence shows how the seemingly contingent can
be integrated to serve a higher necessity. There is a pattern to comic
coincidence, just as there is reason in world history (12 :22). The
reason is not the reason of the individual subject — his or her desires
after all are often thwarted — but rather a transcendent reason. The
genre is in its metastructure ironic : it appears to be an innocuous
piece about what is insignificant, yet it is at its core serious and substantial. The larger harmonic goal may result not from the realization
of private pursuits but from the thwarting and redirection of these pursuits. One could almost speak of a "cunning of the genre." The pursuit
of the various particular interests of the characters taken together
forms a comic whole. This is generally true thematically, and it is also
true in terms of form : one thinks of the commedia dell'arte, wherein
the collective pursuit of individual parts creates a coherent form.
I would also like to comment briefly on the two subgenres Hegel
does not introduce. In what I call the comedy of withdrawal one figure
arises to protest the inadequacies of a corrupt reality. The hero is justified but not yet strong enough that he can have the impact on society
he desires. Here the subject fails not because he has inadequate means
to a true goal, as in reduction, or invalid goals, as in negation, but
because the subject, who is more or less correct in his views, cannot
accomplish his goals in a world in which invalid goals reign.
Protagonists of withdrawal fail in part owing to their virtues. The
form thus borders on tragedy. (Hamlet has great affinities to this structure, as does Grillparzer's A Fraternal Quarrel in Hapsburg.)
From a more substantial perspective, however, we can argue that the
comic structure remains insofar as we recognize a contingent weakness in the subject, specifically a weakness in the form of his actions.
The means the protagonist of withdrawal employs to realize the good
are insufficient not only because of the difficult situation but also
because of particular contingencies on the part of the protagonist; this
is comic. A further comic dimension is apparent when the hero of
withdrawal exhibits the need to be acknowledged by what he negates.
Consistently pointing out to others his independence, the hero only
affirms his dependence (on the views of others). The hero pretends to
withdraw from the world even as he insists on its recognition; he
cannot do without the very sphere he negates. Where the tragic hero
pursues an end consistently, sacrificing his life for it, the comic hero
remains inconsistent, wanting success but neither fully sacrificing
himself for it nor recognizing the means necessary for its realization.
The Misanthrope illustrates the ambiguities of this subgenre : the
hero is in practice justified, in principle, however, not. Alceste's high
moral standards lead to his failure in society; he cannot possibly deal
with those who are selfish, unjust, and hypocritical. Alceste both seeks
and demands a symmetry of inner and outer self. His demand for
symmetry in the sense of a one-to-one correspondence in his relationship with Celimene leads to his private unhappiness. Alceste will not
compromise. He is in many respects a hero. Yet, Alceste lacks tact and
with this success, and so he is nonetheless the object of our laughter.
Alceste must be candid and outspoken when he might have been
elusive or silent. Moreover, Alceste revels too greatly in his martyrdom; the play parodies, as much as identifies with, the hero's suffering. A fascinating structure of Alceste's misanthropy is that if he loses
in his efforts to reform humanity, he can justify his pessimism. To
have success would be to deny his position (as misanthrope); there is
thus an existential desire for him to fail and so keep his identity intact.
In the synthetic form of comedy, the comedy of intersubjectivity,
the subject begins with an untenable stance but alters his position in
the course of the play. This differs from the comedy of coincidence.
Coincidence is a subordinate genre precisely because of the individual's lack of autonomy : subjectivity is philosophically a higher
category than chance or luck. The harmony of coincidence also lacks
stability : the individuals are not knowledgeable; thus, they could
easily be led astray. The harmony of coincidence is, in Hegelian
terms, only abstractly positive. It is a harmony of unreflected naivete
that has yet to differentiate the negative from the positive and so cannot resist the powers of negativity. Its optimism is not, as later in
intersubjectivity, earned by way of the refutation of alternatives.
Intersubjectivity argues that nature may follow a rational plan, as in
coincidence, but that spirit is higher than nature insofar as it knows
this plan and knows of plans that transcend nature. Chance plays a
lesser role in spirit than in nature. Just as in the Hegelian system the
purpose of nature is to bring forth spirit, so — in comedy — is the
truth of coincidence the higher structure of intersubjectivity. The
subject develops truth and harmony out of itself, knows it, and
acknowledges its validity. Because the development in intersubjectivity is more than coincidental, the plot tends to be organic rather
than episodic — another dimension in which the later form supersedes the earlier one. The comedy of intersubjectivity is superior not
only to the thesis but also to the antithesis, for it overcomes and integrates negativity.
This review and critique of Hegel's typology of comedy suggests
that Hegel did not discuss the full variety of forms available to the
genre. Indeed, he overlooks the genre most characterized by subjectivity and contradiction, withdrawal, and the genre most characteristic
of synthesis, intersubjectivity. In addition, because his reflections on
the subgenres are so brief, it is possible to expand what is only implicit in Hegel's discussion. Most importantly, Hegel's typology does
not follow any coherent sequence, and it places on the level of the
synthesis a genre better characterized as thetic.
We might expect a hierarchy of dramatic forms to mirror social
convention; thus tragedy with its elevated heroes supersedes comedy
with its low characters. Surprisingly, Hegel turns this hierarchy on its
head. Tragedy with its affirmation of the substantive is a thetic genre;
comedy, in its negation of tragedy, is an antithetical genre and in this
sense more advanced. Yet the erroneous claim that Hegel views
tragedy as the highest of dramatic forms remains widespread.
Consider, for example, Clayton Koelb, who asserts, "tragedy is in
Hegel's view the highest form of drama" (72); Werner Koepsel, who
calls tragedy "the highest genre in Hegel" (216, my translation); Leon
Rosenstein, who writes that for Hegel tragedy is "the highest form of
art" (521); or Werner Schultz, who asserts that "tragedy" is for Hegel
"the highest artform" (96, my translation).(
See also Gearhart 76; Henry Paolucci 201; Anne and...) For Hegel, however,
comedy is philosophically (and also historically) a later genre than
A variety of moments comes into play here. First, tragedies,...)
Vischer likewise recognizes at least one sense in which comedy is
more advanced than tragedy; it is more reflexive and in that sense
more expansive : "That first of all comedy is in a certain sense higher
follows for us in principle from the most inner essence of the comic
[...] The comic has shown itself to be an act of the pure freedom of
self-consciousness, which engenders and dissolves in infinite play the
contradiction with which everything sublime is afflicted. It therefore
contains in itself the absolutely great, which is the tragic, as a moment
of its process, has thus more, is beyond it [...] Comedy thus belongs
to the later age of human ripeness, which developed calm and serenity
out of storm, is brought out of balance by no power of experience and
with clear and cheerful insight grasps the great and small as the inseparable sides of one world essence [als die ungetrennten Seiten
Eines Weltwesens]" (6 :345-46, my translation)(
Vischer — Hegelian that he is — notes also that every...).
Hegel also alludes to a third form of drama ("the deeper mediation
of tragic and comic conception"): "Instead of acting with comical perversity, the subjectivity is filled with the seriousness of solid relations
and strong characters, while the tragic consistency of will and the
depth of the collisions are so far mollified and smoothed out, that
there can emerge a reconciliation of interests and a harmonious unification of individuals and their aims" (15 :532; A 1203, translation
modified). Hegel mentions in this context Aeschylus' Eumenides and
Sophocles' Philoctetes as well as Goethe's Iphigenia. Unfortunately,
Hegel never fully develops his brief discussion of the drama of reconciliation, and when he does return to it his comments are as frequently
derogatory as they are laudatory. On the one hand, the drama of reconciliation appears to be the third genre, following tragedy as thesis and
comedy as antithesis (see especially 15 :521); on the other hand,
Hegel's Aesthetics closes not with the drama of reconciliation but with
We can relate Hegel's limited and ambivalent reflections on the
drama of reconciliation to his view of comedy and in turn to his
philosophy of subjectivity. Hegel presents three historical phases of
art : symbolic, classical, and romantic. The romantic is characterized
by subjectivity, and with comedy, the genre of subjectivity, Hegel's
aesthetics closes. In his concluding discussion of drama, Hegel treats
the genres in the sequence tragedy, drama of reconciliation, comedy
(15 :555-74). The fact that comedy is free to turn any chance event
into art means for Hegel the near dissolution of art (14 :220-22 and
15 :572-73). The arbitrary content of comedy no longer serves truth.
Hegel's view reveals — at least at this point of his lecture — a failure
fully to appreciate comedy as the negation of the negation, a point on
which the Hegelians scored better than Hegel himself. If comedy is
the negation of a negation, the first negation must include as its possibility all forms of particularity. Only when the second negation fails is
art, which requires a moment of truth, dissolved. As is sometimes the
case elsewhere (Hosle), Hegel's Realphilosophie is here determined
by a logic of subjectivity. The drama of reconciliation, the drama most
characterized by intersubjectivity, is, like the comedy of intersubjectivity, left silent, when comedy, as the ultimate genre of subjectivity,
leaves the stage.(
The drama of reconciliation is the overlooked genre...) We see then in Hegel's discussion of comedy positions not fully developed or resolved and moments at tension with the
larger principles of the Hegelian system.
The most consistently challenged aspect of Hegel's theory of
tragedy has been the assertion that tragedy includes a moment of
reconciliation. His theory of comedy, being less well-known, has not
suffered the same level of critique. Yet a parallel moment in his theory
of comedy is at odds with the development of modern comedy and
most theories about it : the related claims that comedy include an
element of lightness, that the comic hero not suffer real pain, and that
he be beyond his situation, able to laugh at himself and his foibles
(15.518; 15.552; 15.569).(
Insofar as he elevates cheerfulness of spirit, Hegel...) With the widespread transformation of
modern comedy into satire and the grotesque, comedy has become as
dark vis-a-vis Hegel's theory of comedy as modern tragedy has
become vis-a-vis his theory of that genre.
Hegel does not stand isolated in the tradition. In the fifth chapter of
the Poetics, Aristotle views the comic defect as "not painful or
destructive" (5.1) and adds that "the comic mask is ugly and distorted,
but does not imply pain" (5.1). Despite shifts within comic theater, a
number of modern theorists share this Aristotelian-Hegelian view.
Nicolai Hartmann, for example, writes : "obviously comedy stops
where serious suffering and bitter pain begin" (Aesthetik 422, my
translation). A danger of modern comedy is that the comic heroes'
foibles and transgressions become so severe as to surpass the limits of
the comic : pain and suffering are indeed evident; even murder is not
beyond the bounds of modern comedy. There may be a metacomedy
in the audience's disinterest in such works. The objectivity of the
audience takes its revenge on the illicit intentions of the authors who
are so preoccupied with transgressing generic boundaries. No country
has developed this dark comic tradition greater than Germany, and no
country has more difficulties convincing world audiences of the value
of its comic tradition.(
There are surely many reasons why Germany has a less...) The differences between Hegel's theory and
modern comedy need not refute Hegel; the true Hegelian may well
assert, "so much the worse for the plays."
Modern drama often focuses on despair, which can arise from a
substantive conflict and be portrayed as tragic. Despair, however, can
also arise from a focus on the self and its particularity. Dwelling on
our own dolorous finitude as a pretext for ignoring more substantial
issues is from a Hegelian perspective comic. Though some forms of
Angst and despair may belong in tragedy (we could despair, for
example, of seeing the good but being unable to realize it), most
forms, particularly those that relate to the contingent weaknesses of
the subject, would be better treated in comedy than in the serious and
somber literature of despair. For an age preoccupied with its own
subjectivity, an age that reduces norms to issues of particularity and
power, comedy may be the most appropriate genre. For comedy calls
into question these various manifestations of finitude. Comedy evokes
via negation the values sketched in tragedy, as the unspoken standards
against which we measure the comic hero's follies. Hegel writes
insightfully that in comedy the reduced reality "is brought into portrayal in such a way that it destroys itself from within, so that precisely
in this self-destruction of the right element, the true can display itself
in this reflection as a fixed, abiding power, and the face of madness
and unreason is not left with the power of directly contradicting what
is inherently true" (14 :120; A 511, translation modified) Seemingly
lost values are recognized after we pass through their negation.
Comedy makes explicit for the audience, it objectifies, the errors of
the age and so helps society's efforts to transcend them. The comic
negation of the various forms of negativity — indulgence, nonmeaning, frivolity, brutality, monotony — leads to truth. Knowledge of
error as error frees us from the compulsion to continue to err.
The view that comedy negates negativity, which was clearly recognized by Hegelians such as Christian WeiBe, Arnold Ruge, and Karl
Rosenkranz, has been forgotten or denied in most modern theories of
Completely independent of the Hegelian tradition, one...) The Hegelians went to great lengths to show that comedy
integrates negativity, but only by sublating it. WeiBe, one of the first
German critics to address the related concept of the ugly, speaks of
comedy as "superseded ugliness, [die aufgehobene Hajilichkeit] or
[...] the reconstitution of beauty out of its absolute negativity, which is
the ugly" (1 :210, my translation). Rosenkranz, in his Aesthetics of the
Ugly, likewise views the ugly, the aesthetic counterpart to evil, as a
necessary, but subordinate, moment that is ultimately sublated in
comedy : "The ugly contrasts with the beautiful and contradicts it,
while the comic can be at the same time beautiful, beautiful not in the
sense of simple, positive beauty, but in the sense of aesthetic harmony,
the return from contradiction to unity. In the comic, ugliness is posited
as the negation of the beautiful, which, however, it negates in turn"
(53, my translation). The ugly, according to Vischer (1 :362), is an
appearance in opposition to an idea (we could say an act of reduction,
negation, or withdrawal). The comic then is the formal treatment of
the ugly in such a way as to present it as a nullity. To view the matter
in a related but different way we can say with WeiBe that what is
immediately beautiful can never be comic; comedy requires negation
As these critics demonstrate, classical aesthetics can deal with the
ugly, the disjointed, and the asymmetrical; in fact, it deals with these
negative categories more consistently than many modern and contemporary aesthetic theories by dealing with them as negative. The comic,
in short, is not the negation of substance but the negation of the negation of substance or the negation of the ugly as the reduction of truth.
In comedy we laugh at contradictory positions; we don't take them as
the final truth. Showing the nullity of that which is null and nugatory,
comedy does not cancel what is substantial. Rosenkranz treats obscenities, for example, as belonging to the sphere of the comic (235-46); a
function of the comic is to present them in their absurdity and as such
negate them : "This whole sphere of sexual vulgarity can only be
aesthetically freed through the comic" (246, my translation). The presentation of obscenities indirectly serves a moral purpose. This is the
case with Aristophanes and Ben Jonson, for example, who are masters
of the reductio ad absurdum. We recognize in their portrayals the
mere appearance of freedom, that is, the negative freedom of libertinage, and the mere appearance of true subjectivity, that is, self-assertion without true intersubjectivity. As WeiBe suggests, the focus on
audience reception, its recognition of the negation of a negation, reintegrates true subjectivity into the ideal, even as false subjectivity, or
the mere appearance of true subjectivity, is ridiculed and erased
Insofar as comedy is a negation of negativity, it may leave viewers
with no firm orientation, no articulation of norms (merely a mockery
of their present positions); it is, therefore, particularly destabilizing :
once subjectivity has been reached, one cannot return to the simplicity
of objectivity. Rotscher uncovers this principle as the paradox of
Aristophanes' comedies, which mock the subjectivity that has freed
itself from objective Sittlichkeit and which seek in the viewer a consciousness of this transition; thus, comedy presupposes what it
endeavors to negate, subjectivity (365-77; cf. Hegel 15 :555). In a
sense this paradox renders the greatest comic artist, Aristophanes, a
tragic figure. Recognition of the enemy as enemy presupposes defeat
of the naive ethos.
Despite the danger of disorientation, comedy may be appropriate
for some audiences and superior to tragedy, which may be incomprehensible to an audience that has abandoned normative values. The
reductio ad absurdum of the antithetical comic genres exhibits for the
audience the absurdity of an immersion in finitude, particularity, and
negativity. If, however, a comedy of intersubjectivity contains
moments of the earlier, more explicitly negative subgenres, it, too,
may be capable of reaching a contemporary audience and would in
many ways be preferable, for it leaves the audience with speculative
affirmation, not just the dialectical negation of negativity.
Although I support, on the one hand, Hegel's elevation of the complexly positive, I would like to recognize, on the other hand, that in
modernity there is a development that does not surface with Hegel,
but which contains a moment of truth. In modernity comedy is viewed
as liberation from an oppressive objectivity, as we see in Henri
Bergson and above all in Mikhail Bakhtin. Hegel, who prefers
Aristophanes, elevates the restoration of a traditional objectivity, but
we cannot forget that comedy can also free us from the constraints of
a false objectivity — and not only a false subjectivity. What is traditional and common may be further removed from truth than the
creative imagination of the individual subject. The target of comedy
will differ by time and place. In his theory of comedy Hegel offers
many insights that are superior to the competing claims of the present.
This does not, however, imply that Hegelis theory cannot be enhanced
by immanent critique and complemented by more modern reflections.
Trans. S. H. Butcher. New York : Wang, 1961.
AXELOS, Christos. "Zu Hegels Interpretation der Tragodie." Zeitschrift fiir
19 (1965): 655-67.
BOHTZ, August Wilhelm. Uber das Komische und die Komddie : Ein Beitrag
zur Philosophie des Schdnen.
Gottingen : Vandenhoeck, 1844.
FEIBLEMAN, James. Aesthetics : A Study of the Fine Arts in Theory and
New York : Duell, 1949.
. In Praise of Comedy : A Study in Its Theory and Practice.
New York :
GEARHART, Suzanne. The Interupted Dialectic : Philosophy, Psychoanalysis,
and Their Tragic Other.
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.
HARTMANN, Eduard von. Aesthetik.
2 vols. Leipzig : Haacke, n.d. .
HARTMANN, Nicolai. Aesthetik.
Berlin : de Gruyter, 1953.
. Die Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus. II. Teil : Hegel.
Berlin : de
HEGEL, G.W.F. Aesthetics : Lectures on Fine Arts.
Trans. T. M. Knox.
Oxford : Clarendon, 1975. (A)
. Lectures on the History of Philosophy.
Trans. E.S. Haldane and
Frances H. Simson. 3 vols. New York : Humanities P, 1955. (HP)
. Vorlesungen uber die Philosophie der Kunst. Berlin 1823. Nachgeschrieben von Heinrich Gustav Hotho.
Ed. Annemarie Gethmann-Siefert. Hamburg, Meiner, 1998.
. Werke in zwanzig Banden.
Ed. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus
Michel. Frankfurt : Suhrkamp, 1978.
HOSLE, Vittorio. Hegels System : Der Idealismus der Subjektivitat und das
Problem der Intersubjektivitdt.
ed. 2 vols. Hamburg : Meiner,
KOELB, Clayton. "'Tragedy' as an Evaluative Term." Comparative
11 (1974): 69-84.
KOEPSEL, Werner. Die Rezeption der Hegelschen Asthetik im 20. Jahrhundert.
Bonn : Bouvier, 1975.
Moss, Leonard. "The Unrecognized Influence of Hegel's Theory of
Tragedy." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
28 (1969-70): 91-97.
PAOLUCCI, Anne and Henry PAOLUCCI. "Introduction." Hegel on Tragedy.
New York : Harper and Row, 1962 : xi-xxxi.
PAOLUCCI, Henry. "The Poetics of Aristotle and Hegel." Review of National
1 (1970): 165-213.
RAFFEL, Burton. "Shakespeare and the Catholic Question." Religion and
30 (1998): 35-52.
ROSENKRANZ, Karl. Asthetik des Hafilichen.
1853. Darmstadt : Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1979.
ROSENSTEIN, Leon. "Metaphysical Foundations of the Theories of Tragedy
in Hegel and Nietzsche." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
ROTSCHER, H. Theodor. Aristophanes und sein Zeitalter : Eine philologischphilosophische Abhandlung zur Alterthumsforschung.
Berlin : Vossische Buchhandlung, 1827.
RUGE, Arnold. Neue Vorschule der Asthetik. Das Komische mit einem komischen Anhang.
1837. Hildesheim : Olms, 1975.
SCHULTZ, Werner. "Die Bedeutung des Tragischen fur das Verstehen der
Geschichte bei Hegel und Goethe." Archiv fur Kulturgeschichte
Vico, Giambattista. The New Science.
Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and
Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca : Cornell UP, 1984.
VISCHER, Friedrich Theodor. Asthetik oder Wissenschaft des Schdnen.
ed. Ed. Robert Vischer. 6 vols. 1846-1857. Hildesheim : Olms, 1975.
WEIBE, Christian Hermann. System der Asthetik als Wissenschaft von der
Idee der Schonheit.
1830. Hildesheim : Olms, 1966.
(I) In contrast, Hegel's theory of tragedy has received more attention. Not only is it
considered, next to Aristotle's and ahead of Nietzsche's, the second most important theory
of tragedy in the Western world, it is even employed by critics who disparage Hegel and
everything Hegelian and are simultaneously unaware of their source (Moss).
A detailed evaluation of Hegel's theory of both genres, with a fuller account of the
secondary literature, is available in my book Tragedy and Comedy : A Systematic Study and
a Critique of Hegel (Albany : SUNY, 1998).
Most of my references are to the edition of the Aesthetics edited by Hotho. The new
critical edition of Hegel's philosophy of art, while very valuable, will not replace this
edition. The critical edition represents only one person's lecture notes of one lecture,
namely, Hotho's own notes of the 1823 lecture, and is thus very modest in range and detail
vis-a-vis the Aesthetics, which draws on far more material. Hegel lectured on aesthetics in
Heidelberg in 1818 and in Berlin in 1820/21,1823,1826, and 1828/29. Hotho based his
compilation on HEGEL'S Hefte zur Asthetik, which he developed for his Heidelberg lecture
and then for his first Berlin lecture and which contained an array of later notes, all of
which, save for a small number of notes, is now lost; HOTHO'S Vorlesungsnachschriften of
1823 and 1826 (the latter of which has been lost); three other Vorlesungsnachschriften of
the 1826 lecture (of which two have been lost); and five Vorlesungsnachschriften of the
1828/29 lecture (of which four have been lost). Hotho manipulated these materials without
having the benefit of today's standards for historical-critical editions. In this sense it would
not be unjust to refer to the larger Aesthetics as the work of Hegel and Hotho. If one's
primary interest is historical, this information is indeed notable; if one's primary interest is
the validity of the arguments, the information is far less significant. In addition, Gethmann-Siefert, the editor of the new edition, overemphasizes some of the differences between the
lecture notes and the Hotho compilation. Drawing on her own writings and citing them in
more than 50 of the introduction's 170 notes, she argues that the lecture notes indicate that
Hegel judges artworks according to their historical function, not their aesthetic quality
(civ; cf. cxi, cxxxvii, cxxxix); that Hegel was more interested in the phenomenological
richness of art than in creating a system that could comprehend this richness (cvi-cvii; cf.
cxxxvii); and that he did not elevate classical art (xxvi; cf. cvii and cxxxvii). While some
of these claims have moments of truth, they are also overstated. Even though Hegel is very
interested in the function of art, he also reflects in the lecture notes on aesthetic quality (30,
65ff, 272ff, 298,300,305,306); throughout he makes manifest his interest in both the
phenomenological richness of art and systematic conceptions of art and of the development
of art; and while he praises a variety of artistic styles and recognizes very specific ways in
which the romantic transcends the classical, Hegel's praise of classical art also contains
some very strong language, even in the lecture notes (36-37,179,306). It may well be that
some studies of Hegel's aesthetics that are based on the Hotho compilation occasionally
capture Hotho more than Hegel; of particular note, for example, is Gethmann-Siefert's discussion of Hegel's and Hotho's differing evaluations of Goethe and Schiller (cxc-ccxiv).
However, a good number of these studies remain insightful even though Gethmann-Siefert
ignores them in her introduction of more than 200 pages. Given that much of what Hegel
left behind and much of what Hotho had available to him are forever lost, the ideal situation, it seems to me, would be, on the one hand, continued attention to the current
Aesthetics as the work of Hegel and Hotho, a version whose richness is unparalleled by
other documents, and, on the other hand, a critical edition that would offer us not a single
set of notes on one lecture, as in the current version, but at least one set of notes per lecture,
where available, with supplementary materials from the other lecture notes of the same
year in an apparatus along with all of the extant notes from Hegel. Such a complex manuscript situation might best be addressed in a hypertextual format. Of great importance for
the current essay, there is nothing in my reading of Hegel that is contradicted by the materials of the new edition.
Vico, for example, noted that New Comedy is built around private and fictitious
personages, who could be fictitious precisely because they were private. This privatization
of the genre also explains the elimination of the chorus, whose task was to serve as a civic
entity commenting on public matters (Vico 332).
American Hegel critics commonly contest that the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model
has anything to do with Hegel. See, for example, MUELLER, KAUFMANN, "Hegel :
Contribution" 165-68 and Hegel 167-75, and Allen Wood xxvii and xxxii. Whether or not
Hegel used precisely these terms, a glance at Hegel's use of triadic structures on the
microlevel — as in the finite, the bad infinite, and the true infinite — or on the macrolevel
— as in the logic, the philosophy of nature, and the philosophy of spirit — should convince
the reader that this tendency in Hegel criticism misses the mark. It has been justly criticized
by Merlan, and the importance of the triad is underscored by Hegel's programmatic analysis of the dialectic in paragraphs 79-82 of the Encyclopedia and his philosophical and
methodological elevation of the triad in the concluding section of the Science of Logic,
"The Absolute Idea" (6 :553-73). One should note, however, that the antithesis is never
added arbitrarily to the thesis but is an extension of the thesis, its self-cancellation or truth.
See also Gearhart 76; Henry Paolucci 201; Anne and Henry Paolucci,
"Introduction" xxiv; Axelos 655-56; and Nicolai Hartmann, Die Philosophic 376. The
error appears to be a modern one. The superiority of comedy within the Hegelian system
was clear to nineteenth-century thinkers attuned to Hegel's dialectic, even those who were
decidedly anti-Hegelian, as, for example, Eduard von Hartmann 1 :418.
Hegel elevates tragedy in such a way as to make it appear superior only in his Jena
essay on natural law where he defines comedy as either a plot without a conflict or a plot
without substance and elevates tragedy for containing both : "the absolute relationship is
put forth in tragedy" (2 :499, my translation). In the Phenomenology and the Aesthetics
comedy has an unambiguously later (and superior) position. Though Hegel may have had a
stronger emotional attachment to tragedy, the systematic position of the two genres is
A variety of moments comes into play here. First, tragedies, originally presented as
trilogies, were normally followed by a satyr play. Second, comedy did not receive offical
standing in Greece until 486 B.C., almost fifty years after tragedy. Third, if Hegel is to be
believed, comedy, not unlike philosophy, reaches its peak in periods of social dissolution
Vischer — Hegelian that he is — notes also that every advance comes at a price :
"But progress is also loss; levity and freedom themselves become on closer inspection onesided [...] Comedy contains the sublime, the tragic in itself, but only in order to grasp it in
its one-sidedness before it develops and to transform it with a sudden reversal into its
opposite [...] The levity is therefore bought at the price of taking too lightly what forms the
great content of serious drama" (6 :346, my translation).
The drama of reconciliation is the overlooked genre of drama, neglected by dramatists and theorists alike. The early Hegelians are among the few theorists ever to address
the topic. See Roche 247-279.
Insofar as he elevates cheerfulness of spirit, Hegel demands not only that the comic
hero be in a position to laugh at himself (15 :552; 15 :569), but also that he be without self-doubt, that is, that he embody an unabashed confidence of subjectivity or a "naive personal
self-assurance, no matter how things go" (15 :554; A 1222). Many comedies have one of
these elements : for the former one thinks of Woody Allen's characters; for the latter Don
Quixote comes to mind, as Hegel himself emphasizes (14 :218). Rare, however, above all in
modernity, is the comic figure who integrates both moments; one might consider certain
figures in Nestroy or Thomas Mann's Felix Krull.
There are surely many reasons why Germany has a less developed and less successful comic tradition than, say, France, Italy, or Spain. First, when Germany initially
developed a national theater, it was not yet a single nation, and (unlike tragedy) comedy
usually presupposes a highly developed societal structure. Second, at the time of German
Klassik, drama was above all a moral institution (in the words of Schiller's famous essay),
and tragedy and the drama of reconciliation appeared to the authors of that age to be more
edifying than comedy, which was viewed as a lesser genre. Third and related, German
literature has often sought to compete with philosophy, and comedy may have appeared in
this context as too light. Interestingly, the Austrians, who were less influenced by these
philosophical pretensions, have been rather successful in comedy. Austria of course is, like
France, Spain, and Italy, a Catholic country. In Catholicism the concept of the universal is
predominant, and the individual as individual is hardly stressed. Protestantism, which in
contrast places subjectivity at the fore, is less oriented toward comedy (one need only think
of the Scandinavian authors, such as Strindberg and Ibsen, where comedy is virtually
absent). In short, Catholicism, with its delimiting of subjectivity, is more fertile ground for
comedy than Protestantism. The unusual situation of England can be explained by specific
aspects of the British tradition : the emphasis on what is common, including common
sense; and Anglicanism's unusual position within the Protestant faiths. Not insignificant in
this context is the possibility that Shakespeare may have been Catholic or at least Catholicleaning (Raffel). Also relevant is the fact that the greatest comedic writers in the English
language after Shakespeare have been Anglo-Irish — from Congreve, Goldsmith, and
Sheridan to Wilde and Shaw. Though not Catholic, they were immersed in an overwhelmingly Catholic culture.
Completely independent of the Hegelian tradition, one astute twentieth-century
literary critic does define comedy along the lines of a double negation : "Comedy, then,
consists in the indirect affirmation of the ideal logical order by means of the derogation of
the limited orders of actuality" (FEIBLEMAN, In Praise of Comedy 178-79). Feibleman's
work was first published in the late 1930s and does not appear to have had much impact,
especially on recent, postmodern theories of comedy. For further elaboration of the definition, see FEIBLEMAN, Aesthetics 81-98. An interesting facet of the similarity with the
Hegelian school is that Feibleman, an antiidealist, also views comedy as a progressive and