[In the morning] Socrates was driving them to the admission that the same man could have the knowledge required for writing comedy and tragedy—that the fully skilled tragedian could be a comedian as well.
Conclusion of Plato’s “Symposium”, 223d
In an irony Socrates would surely appreciate, I believe that the concluding thought of Plato’s philosophical masterpiece can be readily confirmed in the 21st century American sitcom. In fact, tragedy and comedy are related by more than the knowledge required to produce them. The modern situational comedy has given us a vivid demonstration of how the exact same content can be at once tragic and comic, with laughter and despair depending upon slight alterations in the editing process. Without the highly suggestive power of the laugh track, the lovable antics of quirky nerds suddenly become the sad expressions of social outcasts.
Stripped of its comedic tags, the sitcom does not devolve into a colorless examination of the everyday life it apparently depicts. The theatrical elements, the colorful exaggerations and caricatured mannerisms, do not allow it to do so — rather, without our interpretive context, they seem like calls for help. A similar effect can be observed in the melodramatics of Ross in Friends. The attempt at the reverse, turning a horror film into a sitcom, is somewhat successful when the theme of Seinfeld plays over the Shining.
We experience the cultural conditions and assumptions of The Big Bang Theory on a personal level, and yet a slight alteration can make something very familiar seem entirely different. In this respect, the laugh track is like the chorus of the ancient Greek theater, whose songs and dances flavored these texts in ways now forever lost to time. An absent or wayward chorus could have transformed tragedy and comedy into their opposite. With the essential content of a work basically irrelevant, the dramatist writes something generally theatrical and beyond classification in genre, as Plato suggests. The theater takes us to realms above our ordinary experience, where dreams and nightmares can only be distinguished in later reflection. Slapstick jokes suddenly seem very cruel when the wrong song plays.
Yet if our own sitcoms can be so ambiguous when stripped of their laugh track, what hope do we have of resolving ancient texts in a definite interpretation? Latin authors were classified in genres with a relatively fixed style, with particular meters reserved for particular genres. Dactylic hexameter is the meter of Vergil’s tragic epic, Horace’s lyric poetry revives the ancient verse of Sappho, and Catullus puts his playful works into the eleven syllables of hendecasyllabic verse. By heeding the meter, we may at least in part infer if the “chorus” of Roman readers would be reading a work as tragedy or comedy.
Yet some meters seem to deliberately avoid making an commitment between tragedy and comedy. Ovid writes elegiac couplets, a literary form originally associated with Greek funeral elegy but later used with erotic poetry. The couplet is metrically identical to dactylic hexameter, though it loses a foot every other line. Largely due to Ovid’s generally lighthearted approach, this diminishing of the meter has become associated with a lower poetic register, a step beneath the heavy material of epic. In his Amores, “Loves“, he explains how Cupid came to steal the “missing foot” of a once-aspiring epic poet.
Oh, my wretched fate! That little man wields deft arrows!
I now burn, and in my empty heart Love rules.
So let my work rise by six meters, and fall in five:
Farewell to you, fierce wars, and your meter as well!
The farcical tale sets the tone for Ovid’s particular formulation of the elegiac aesthetic. Ovid may have joined Vergil in the weighty ranks of epic, but a comic spirit has taken hold of him. In this definition of elegy for his own purposes, Ovid prepares his reader to receive familiar content in a new way. The tragic stock of mythic tales, familiar in epic, will be told with a wink and a smile. The poet will still be ruled by Love, but will escape Cupid’s worst ferocity, the tragic love captured in Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid. A revised meter has become the ancient equivalent of an added laugh track. Ovid may not be telling jokes, but the lost metrical foot resolves establishes an underlying pattern of laughter instead of tears.
Ovid’s laugh track is most necessary in another elegiac poem, Ars Amatoria, “The Art of Love“, a handbook purporting to give advice on how to conduct romantic affairs. Consider how this section might be received if read in full seriousness of dactylic hexameter, the meter traditionally used in instructional poetry:
Don’t be shy of promising: promises entice girls:
add any gods you like as witness to what you swear.
Jupiter on high laughs at lovers’ perjuries,
and orders Aeolus’s winds to carry them into the void.
Jupiter used to swear by the Styx, falsely, to Juno:
now he looks favourably on his own example.
Gods are useful: as they’re useful, let’s think they’re there:
take wine and incense to the ancient altars:
indifferent calm and it’s like, apathy, don’t chain them:
live innocently: the divine is close at hand:
pay what you owe, hold dutifully to agreements:
commit no fraud: let your hands be free from blood.
Delude only women, if you’re wise, with impunity:
where truth’s more to be guarded against than fraud.
Deceive deceivers: for the most part an impious tribe:
let them fall themselves into the traps they’ve set.
“Ars Amatoria“ Book 1, 631-57
Without the benefit of levity, Ovid is no longer a humane poet of gentle persuasion. At best, he’s the bitter victim of romantic deceit; at worst, he’s a sociopath justifying a particularly vicious brand of misogyny. Yet Ovid goes on to give similar advice to women in Book 3 (after he’s armed the Greeks, he’s ready to arm the Amazons), encouraging them to manipulate their lovers with “fake grief” (677). The implication is that these deceits will work because men are desperate and dumb. When we aren’t laughing with Ovid, he suddenly seems like a grim and unremitting cynic, utterly disenchanted with all partisans in the war of the sexes.
Perhaps we accept Ovid when the laugh track returns because his jokes relieve us of the disappointment and frustration from which they arise. Perhaps the laughter of satire and the rage of insult are fundamentally one and the same. Yet this is one instance where we should set aside unity in favor of distinction. In our time, questions of acceptable speech and proper sensitivity have become paramount, and have compelled us to look more deeply at the intention and effect of language. In this respect, Ovid is a great case study, because he seems to have been, simultaneously, one of Rome’s most sensitive voices and the author of a noxious bro-bible.
From this contradiction, we may take away that human communication is more a matter of its underlying ‘meter’ than its explicit statements . Many people speak the good and true without true charity, while others deliver nasty insults with utter human sympathy. As we grow into our new multimedia-based, post-textual world, the skill of contextual interpretation, the essential skill of the classical historian, has never more necessary.