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Othello and The Sopranos: Two comedies

I’ve been listening to the wonderful Emma Smith lectures/podcasts about Shakespeare. Wow, is the world better because we can take for granted that there is a supply of such wonders that a full lifetime could not experience them, all available for free.

But what I meant to say is she makes the point that Othello is a tragedy that’s structured as a comedy. Perhaps Shakespeare, having spent the past decade or so writing within genre boundaries, was mixing up the genres on purpose, she suggests. The comedic structure of Othello is obvious as soon as she points it out: a dumb trick with a handkerchief, that in a comedy would have been the pretext for a lovers’ quarrel that lasts the length of the play, instead triggers a cascade of jealousy and fury that culminates in one of the most wrenching scenes Shakespeare ever wrote.

I’ve long thought that The Sopranos — yes, I know The Sopranos isn’t Shakespeare — was sort of like this: comic characters, comic situations, with tragic results. Also, the same structure is true of the accidental brain-blowing-out scene in Pulp Fiction (you know, the one in the car). The Pulp Fiction scene lacks tragedy because we don’t know the dead character, and it devolves further into comedy as the only implication is that it makes a mess of the car. The Sopranos usually let us know its characters better, so it got closer to tragedy. And Tony and Carmella arguably approached true tragedy: one of the advantages of “100-hour narratives” (hat tip to Steve Johnson) is that characters can be developed until they are deep and vivid even though the writing of each of those hundred hours doesn’t come close to Shakespeare.

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