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Comedy, Tragedy, and the Epic

ENG 406 (Not currently offered)

Comedy, Tragedy, and the Epic
(Not currently offered)

Description and Objectives

Comedy, Tragedy, and the Epic offers a thorough exploration of select masterworks from the four main literary genres: lyric, tragedy, comedy, and epic, studied in that order. By first studying the characteristics, praxis, and telos that define each genre, students will be more conscious of the varied dimensions that make up human life. Our study of exemplary great works of imaginative genius that will round out an engrossing curriculum vitae for the attentive student. This journey through the literary cosmos, like the wheel of fortune, will begin with close readings and contextual analysis of select lyric poems from the Metaphysical poets (Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Marvell, Vaughan, and Hopkins), as well as works from the Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge). From there we will turn to Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, whose The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays, is both a masterpiece of the tragic form and a powerful dramatization of the human longing for the just city.  Then we turn our gaze to Shakespeare’s Othello and Iago, who will teach us how man’s unchecked ego can antagonize and steer a hero into the tragic abyss.  Next, as a relief, and following a comic arc, we consider the nimble mind of Aristophanes, who is generally agreed to be the keenest, merriest wit the world has known.  Aristophanes’ vision was profoundly spiritual, as he was the first to recognize that the comic imagination is essential in the movement toward hope and love.   Continuing the comic upswing, Shakespeare’s marvelous The Winter’s Tale beautifully depicts the merciful terrain of comedy as a realm of faith, hope, and love in a fallen world.  Like The Winter’s Tale, Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast is a fitting contemplation of the artist’s plea and the spiritual healing and heavenly foreshadowings that culinary delights and gift mentality effect in bringing back into the fold a knot of friends and lovers who had ill-fated fallings-out.  At last we approach the realm of the epic, which concerns the hero’s great endeavor to build, restore, or maintain the good city, despite it being plagued, either by natural catastrophe or my man-made tyranny and corruption.  As a capstone, and bridging the genres of comedy and epic, we celebrate Alessandro Manzoni’s epic romance, The Betrothed, which depicts the plight of a betrothed couple during Milan’s plague of 1630.  Beset by cruel injustices inflicted by the Unnamed, a regional tyrant and mob boss, the young lovers have to fend off many sufferings and dangers, especially those inflicted by the Unnamed’s bravoes, early modern day mafiosos.   


  • The Oresteia, by Aeschylus 
  • Othello, by William Shakespeare 
  • The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare 
  • Peace, by Aristophanes   
  • Babette’s Feast, by Isak Dinesen
  • The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

Course Requirements

The works selected for this course have the young student’s heart most in mind, and
stress the liberal arts of literature: reading, reflecting, discussion, and writing. The wisdom of humane letters is a heart knowledge that deepens with guided reading and discussion of classic texts as masterworks of insight and imagination. This class will focus on continuing to develop college-bound students’ ability to read closely and understand challenging literature, and to write about it with critical acumen and style. The class will require each student to conduct research and to complete two five-page papers to prove that he is ready to perform this academic requirement in college. 

Students should expect daily reading assignments, weekly quizzes and frequent writing assignments of various length, spanning from the poem analysis and in-class essay, to the typed composition and research paper. In addition, once a quarter, students will be required to memorize and to recite a poem or a key passage from the texts. 

There will be a comprehensive mid-semester examination. 

Writing assignments will be completed in class or at home and will typically take place each week. 

  • In-class writing assignments will usually be open-book.
  • Take-home writing assignments must be typed and cite the text(s) according to MLA format. 

Late papers will be accepted, but with a penalty of a letter grade drop for every class period the assignment is late. 

Class participation is required whether it takes the form of effective insights or the asking of probing questions. At the end of each grading period, class participation will play a substantial role in improving, maintaining, or decreasing the student’s grade for the quarter.

Successful Students

Successful students will have a mature approach to their teacher, their peers, and the coursework. 

“Those who are pupils consider within themselves whether what has been explained has been said truly; looking of course to that interior truth, according to the measure of which each of us in able. Thus they learn, and when the interior truth makes known to them that true things have been said, they applaud…”

-St. Augustine, De Magistro, chap. XIV.