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by William H. Benson

March 11, 2004

     Comedy is about getting the right guy with the right girl, and the play ends with a wedding.  It is about light-hearted and romantic emotions, smiles and kisses.  It is desire and fulfillment acted out in a solemn ceremony before others, for love is that quantity which keeps strife and chaos away.  In Much Ado About Nothing Benedick marries Beatrice, and the play ends.

     Tragedy on the other hand is about murder, the reasons leading up to it and the consequences thereafter.  It is serious and full of frowns.  It is hatred plotting its own course in private. 

     Master Shakespeare had read North’s translation of Plutarch’s life of Julius Caesar and had then put the murder in Act III of his play.  Brutus and Cassius had watched Caesar take over the powers of the government in a disregard for the law and for the Senate, and fearful of the outcome of his ambition, these nobles had plotted to murder him.  On March 15, 44 B.C. they gathered about and stabbed him repeatedly until he lay dead.

     They then cried out, “Liberty!  Freedom!  Tyranny is dead! . . . Ambition’s debt is paid.”

     And then Shakespeare, being the genius he was, brought love and murder together into the same play.  Because Othello and Desdemona loved each other intensely, they had married.  But then a third party Iago, out of his own jealousy and anger and hatred, presented evidence that Desdemona had been unfaithful, even though she had not.  Despite her pleas that she was innocent, Othello in a murderous rage suffocated his once-beloved wife.

     Romeo and Juliet on March 11, 1302, according to Shakespeare, married secretly.  Young and in love, “two star-crossed lovers” they were.  But then that same afternoon Romeo in the midst of a brawl on the streets in Verona killed Tybalt, one of Juliet’s relatives, and had broken the Prince’s law, who had strictly forbade fighting.  Knowing that the punishment for this crime was execution, Romeo fled Verona, only then to die beside Juliet.

     They say that love is blind, that it drives people in both the right direction and at times in the wrong direction.  Othello and Romeo were at the mercy of others and also of their own powerful unchecked emotions—love and anger and jealousy and hatred.  Instead of desire and fulfillment, they ended up with strife and chaos.   A wedding which should have been the means to a deep and abiding love ended in a tragic murder.

     Television can be classified into comedy or tragedy—either the thirty-minute sitcom or the hour-long murder mystery, and we can quickly flip channels from one to the other.

     Forty years ago on Monday nights I watched Andy Taylor and Barney Fife chase Helen Crump and Thelma Lou, and we laughed then as we do now at the reruns.  And then there was Perry Mason who each week solved a case, identifying who murdered the victim.

     Today we have Greg and Dharma and Law and Order, a comedy and a tragedy.   

     As it has throughout humankind’s history, the issue of marriage is once again today in the news.  But this cannot be classified a comedy, for it is not about getting the right guy with the right girl.  And neither is it a tragedy because no one is being murdered.  Perhaps it is that other of Shakespeare’s dramatic forms—history; some would argue that this is a just a social development filling the newspapers that future historians will sift through to try to determine its causes.

     However, some brave commentators have labeled it what it is–lawlessness.  Thomas Sowell said, “It is an issue solely because a few headstrong judges in Massachusetts and an opportunistic mayor in San Francisco decided that they were above the law.”  Bill O’Reilly said, “What kind of message does this send to Americans who don’t like a variety of other laws? . . . Either the law rules or it doesn’t.  And in California and much of the liberal press, it doesn’t.”

     “Liberty!  Freedom!  Tyranny is dead!”  The Founding Fathers understood and believed that liberty and freedom could only survive in a society when the laws were obeyed.

     We shall have a “Comedy tonight, and a tragedy tomorrow.”