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Tragicomedy in the Thousand and One Nights: A study of overlapping literary genres

Issue 32
Tragicomedy in the Thousand and One Nights: A study of overlapping literary genres

Tamir Fayiz

Professor of Modern Comparative Literature

The deconstructive analysis of The Shoemaker and The Barber of Baghdad, two tales from the Thousand and One Nights, (also known as Arabian Nights), yielded a set of conclusions, in addition to common features and details specific to each story.
The study uncovered theatrical features in the Thousand and One Nights, especially the presence of the performing narrative, which prepares the audience to experience events as if they are taking place in front of them. In quality and function, the monologues in the Thousand and One Nights are similar to theatrical monologues.

An analysis of the framing tale, which centres on murder, reveals both tragic and comic elements in the characters and events. The comic elements in the Thousand and One Nights were introduced gradually in Scheherazade’s narration. The framing story has a happy ending, which is a relief for the audience after the tragic betrayal at the story’s beginning.

The structure of the two tales chosen for this study qualifies as tragicomedy, which sometimes approaches the modern dramatic form by combining comic and tragic elements.

The tragic and the comic co-exist in both tales. For example, tragic elements include Maarouf the shoemaker’s distress with his wife because of his weak character and his wife’s negative qualities. In the Barber’s tale, tragic elements take the form of the mistaken killing of the hunchback, the injury that lames the young Baghdadi, and the disabilities of the six brothers.

In the tale of Maarouf the shoemaker, the comic features are evident in his second wife, and in the genie’s role in rescuing him from his wife, helping him find treasure, and saving him from the governor. In the Barber of Baghdad’s tale, the comic features lie in the sharp contrast between the characteristics and behaviour of the barber and those of the young Baghdadi. The happy ending is a relief after the tragedy of the wrongful killings with which the story began.

The aim of this study is to provide parameters for the dramatic and tragicomedic styles used in the Thousand and One Nights. In these stories, narrative tragicomedy contains both elements that make the audience tense and elements that lead to a sense of catharsis. This is achieved through a range of narrative techniques that combine tragedy and comedy.

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