Comedy or Tragedy: Some Shakespearean Wisdom for Vocation

© Jan Kacer, Dreamstime.com  

Recently, while listening to a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Politics by Paul Cantor, I was struck by the usefulness of Romeo and Juliet in thinking about vocation. Cantor explores the distinction between tragedy and comedy by comparing Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both written in the same year and both focused on young lovers and romantic love. It struck me that comedy has a long-haul wisdom and love of the ordinary that is all too often absent from talk and teaching about vocation. Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble. It can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.  

Students are often encouraged to look at their vocations like Romeo and Juliet looked at their love. For Romeo and Juliet love must be extraordinary and unique; they saw themselves (like many teenagers) as the only couple in the world who really loves one another. They place love over life, and they attempt to pursue their love (for some legitimate reasons) outside community. The result is tragic. 

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, howeverShakespeare doubles the number of lovers from two to four. They are no longer unique. They are, in fact, pretty much interchangeable. The lovers spend a comic night in the forest, a space apart from the social order wherein the confusion and magic of eros can play out harmlessly. The night ends not with suicide but with a return to Athens and to the play’s social and political order. The return from nature to community is a recognition that marriage, the end of comedy, requires some compromise. Compromise in this sense doesn’t mean giving up on dreams or values or violating one’s conscience; it means making life work by acknowledging finitude, conventions, and the necessity (even to romantic love) of community. 

A review of some cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragic love story

Romeo and Juliet did in love what students are normally told to do in vocation: they discovered the great love of their lives and they pursued it with all of their hearts. Their love burned so brightly that despite their lives ending in a teenage, double suicide, Romeo and Juliet are still admired. This, of course, is a danger of tragedy: we can end up admiring and perhaps even imitating what was intended as a cautionary tale. 

I wonder if in teaching and discussing vocation we don’t present a similar kind of danger to students. We focus so often on the exalted, the exemplary, the unique, on lives of burning passion. In doing so we risk setting students up for the disappointment that comes when they inevitably encounter two of the main challenges to sustainable vocation: the passage of time and the same old thing.

{Bren Tooley expressed similar concerns in her reflections on how vocation gets conveyed to our international students. See “Exporting Vocation.”}

This is why I think our students can benefit from the long-haul wisdom of comedy. After all, who wants their vocation, much less their life, to be a tragedy? I don’t mean to say (nor, I think, did Shakespeare) that there is nothing passionate or heroic about the love and lovers in comedies. But that passion and heroism exist in tension with the demands of sustainability that a long, happy life makes on those who would live such a life. 

Comedy teaches us that we are a lot like others, and that that is a good thing. It makes empathy and understanding possible. In tragedy, community is shattered. In comedy the social order’s well-being depends on our recognition of and participation in it. Lastly, perhaps the best wisdom comedy offers to get us through life’s ups and downs is that comedic heroes can laugh at themselves; they have, as Cantor says, feet of clay. This does not hinder their success in love or life; it is a prerequisite for it. In fact, Cantor suggests that comedy is perhaps even more philosophic than tragedy because comedy breeds in us a skeptical, questioning attitude. Its job is to bring people and ideas back down to earth (think Socrates, Falstaff, or Dave Chappelle). The more exalted and noble one’s path, the more one is in need of holes punched through pretension and of mirror-moments, painful though they may be. These keep us from tragic errors in judgment that lead to downfalls. Deflating pretension and living long enough to correct a mistaken judgment or bad decision is the realm of comedy.   

Above all, comedy teaches us the beauty of ordinariness. An overly exalted view of vocation may make students adverse to anything ordinary. Rather than view ordinariness as a blessed connection with others, a point at which we can relate to our fellow wayfarers, students may come to view ordinariness as failing, a source or shame, as something that prevents them from doing the extraordinary, rather than something that keeps them down to earth. Comedy teaches us to live what Wendell Berry in the novel Hannah Coulter calls a “futureless life”; a life not spent trying to be someone else somewhere else. Such a life does not preclude growth and development and the nourishment of others any more than planting a seed in the soil will preclude its growth. 

{For more on Wendell Berry and vocation, see Jeff Brown’s musings here}.

Is there a spiritual benefit to laughter?

I wonder: am I in danger of taking myself and my teaching of vocation too seriously? To be sure, the meaning of life is serious business, but a grain of salt never hurts and the salt of the earth isn’t a bad thing to be. And I want my students to actually enjoy discovering their vocations. College, career, and calling are too often matters of pressure and panic. Laughter is something the world, and our students, could use more of. And so, perhaps, could vocational studies. 

Neither in my own life nor in the lives of my students am I against the exalted, the exemplary, the life of passion and purpose. Without these qualities we would not have the lives which inspire so many vocationally: Gandhi, MLK, Mother Teresa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Rosa Parks and so on. But the long-haul wisdom of comedy can help make Act Five of our vocations one of joy and laughter rather than tears and regret. 


Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions. 

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