Examples of Ending a Comedy: Moliere’s Tartuffe and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

The ending of a comedy doesn’t need to make us laugh. The humorous parts of a comedy occur in the rising action and the climax; we laugh during the journey. By the time we reach the final scene, the jokes curtail, almost by necessity. For example, everyone remembers Don Quixote tilting at windmills in chapter eight, but not his death. In Twelfth Night, we remember the stiff Malvolio being made a fool of in his yellow stockings more than the weddings at the end. The ending acts as a tying together of humorous scenes, and while the success of a tragedy leans heavily on the ending, a comedy does not.

The old adage says that tragedy ends in death and comedy ends in marriage. These stereotypes work only as a generality. Many cross-pollinations of genres exist today, such as tragicomedy and dark comedy, and endings have diversified as well. However, the formulaic happy ending of comedy remains a staple in film and literature. The four comedies to be examined here all have different endings: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Moliere’s Tartuffe, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The different types of endings have different effects on the reader, but the most powerful ending in these four comedies is Don Quixote, which ends like a tragedy, with the death of the hero.

A traditional New Comedy, the ending of Twelfth Night ends in marriage. Actually, the play ends with a triple marriage, the couples being Viola and Orsino, Sebastian with Olivia, and Toby and Maria. The ending of the play is a foregone conclusion from the beginning, and there is never a question of whether or not the couples will fall in love. What makes the ending interesting is how the couples fall in love. New Comedy is like a song, with formulaic verses, choruses and no real surprises. We don’t come back for the last chord of a catchy song, but for the chorus and verses that makes us sing out loud. Shakespeare uses mistaken identity and disguise to mix up the characters, and the exposure at the end unties the knots in a believable manner. He unties the mess and then unites the characters again. The stress builds quickly as the twin siblings Sebastian and Viola cross paths, with each one foiling the other. Shakespeare manages to create traditional New Comedy endings better than anyone else, but even so, the ending leaves the audience without any deep or self-reflective feelings about the characters.

Tartuffe by Moliere also follows the format of New Comedy, with a resulting marriage that restores the status quo to power that existed at the beginning of the play, while at the same time hanging Tartuffe out to dry. The difference between this ending and Twelfth Night, however, is that Moliere makes use of a deus rex machina, a “king from the machine,” as Louis XIV appears and rectifies the deception of Tartuffe: “The King, by royal order, invalidates / The deed which gave this rascal your estates” (Moliere 162).

Unfortunately, for the same reason readers decry the usage of divine intervention, the deus ex machina, this ending does not satisfy. Twelfth Night cleans up the story with sophistication and, for the most part, plausible reasons, but Tartuffe builds up a situation that puts the hero against the wall, and by no action of his own, his situation gets resolved. The comedy at the end relies entirely on the delivery of the actor playing Tartuffe when he says: “Who? I, sir?” and “To prison? This can’t be true” (161). When his usurped world falls apart, a rapid denouement brings us to the ending. The falling action of Twelfth Night takes a long time, and raises many questions to entertain the audience. Therefore, in regard to New Comedy, an effective ending arrives at the last line gracefully, and between these two plays, Shakespeare outdoes Moliere in terms of satisfying the audience.

In Waiting for Godot, the ending leaves Gogo and Didi pushing and pulling against themselves, as they have throughout the play.

VLADIMIR: “Well? Shall we go?”
ESTRAGON: “Yes, let’s go.”
They do not move (Becket 60).

The end comes abruptly, with no definite closure, such as would happen with a marriage or a death. Instead of tying up loose ends, the play ends with a continuation of the play. They will be forever waiting. It is not a happy ending or a sad ending, but it is somehow miserable because of the essence of indecision and anticipation. Estragon says, “I can’t go on like this,” and Vladimir replies, “That’s what you think” (60). In other words, Vladimir knows that they have to go on waiting. Waiting for Godot doesn’t really have an ending, but since they have made no progress as characters, the ending invokes little or no emotion from the audience.

Characters that convince us enough to care about them have the greatest effect on an audience, and when they take us through a series of humorous events, a powerful ending can be a simple return to reality. In the ending of Don Quixote, Cervantes places his hero on his death bed with his friends weeping. Sancho Panza says, “Don’t die senor; your grace should take my advice and live for many years, because the greatest madness a man can commit in this life is to let himself die” (Cervantes 937). After over nine hundred pages of laughter, Cervantes beings us back to reality, prompting us with, “let us put all jokes aside” (936). Even the author becomes sad, saying, “For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him” (939). As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Cervantes leaves us with the impression that he is staining the page with goodbye tears. In this type of ending, our affection for a character can only come about if we enjoyed the ride.
Some great modern comedy films have successfully used a Quixotic ending. Planes, Trains and Automobiles reveals John Candy as a homeless man, and The Big Lebowski has Steve Buscemi suffering a heart attack. In endings like this, the text subtly asks a question: was he or she funny enough to care about? In Don Quixote, the foolish knight errant has become reasonable again, and they implore him to remain a dreamer: “now that we are on the point of becoming shepherds and spending our lives in songâÂ?¦now your grace wishes to be a hermit? For God’s sake, be quiet, come to your senses, and tell us no more tales” (936). Like Sanson, we don’t want to see Don Quixote become normal again, because his devotion to his dreams has convinced us that the fantasy is the reality.

A tragic ending to a comedy takes us through a spectrum of emotion, and leads to introspection. That is to say: a great comedy can make the audience cry. Reality has bite after a fantasy becomes real. It can wrench the viewer. A traditional happy ending invites the audience to be happy for the character, but a Quixotic ending invites us to feel for the character. Just as role reversals in the narrative affect us, the Quixotic ending creates a role reversal in the reader.

Today, with marriage declining as an institution, perhaps we should change the mantra to say: comedy ends in death, tragedy in marriage. In my first two novels, Memoirs of a Virus Programmer and Immaculate, I’ve used this as a rule.

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