The essence of comedy is the triumph of “la forza di natura,” nature over intellect. And the happies tale of all is the odyssey that ends with…Laughter in the house…
…Homer’s Iliad concludes with a funeral, the initial event in what will be the complete disintegration of a society. The flames that consume the pyre of Hector preconfigure the burning of Troy. The odyssey ends with a complete integration of society. Odysseus becomes a father again, embracing Telemachus by the light of the swineherd’s fire, then a husband again, as Penelope joins him at his own hearth. Finally, after a symbolic remarriage, Odysseus fully re-enters the family structure when he again becomes his father’s son. Appropriately, when he reveals himself to the aged Laertes, they embrace and then go into the house- to have dinner. This comic resolution contrasts sharply with what doubtless took place in Achilles’ homeland, for old Peleus was never to see his son again, nor Neoptolemus his father.
the odyssey explicitly rejects Iliadic values, especially the notion that otherworldly glory is in any way glorious. Even Achilles changes his mind. In Book 11, when Odysseus hails him as mightiest among the dead, Achilles retorts bitterly that there is “nthing” in death, that he would rather be a live peasant than a dead king. He then immediately asks about his son and about his father. The Odyssean Achilles speaks the philosophy of the entire poem, which, simply stated, is “Give me Life.”
Not coincidentally, these are the words Falstaff uses to justify his hasty retreat from the battle at Shrewsbury Field. In comedy, where hedonism replaces heroism, Falstaff is a genius, and Hotspur, so like Achilles in his search for glory, is a fool. As Fat Jack reasons:
No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.
If the tragic hero dies for what is nobler in the mind, the comic hero lives for what is nobler in the flesh. Hotspr cares for such intangibles as “bright honor,” and would rather dies than see his reputation sullied:
“I better brook the loss of brittle life / Than those proud titles thou hast won of me”
(to be continued)…