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The Implications of Expectation

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  1. Introduction
  2. Expectation: Differentiation of types
  3. In Erich Segal's edition of 'The Birds'
  4. Conclusion

The essence of comedy is widely debated but, as Umberto Eco emphasizes, with little success: ?the uneasiness manifested by those who have theorized on the comic inclines us to think that the Comic must be somehow connected with uneasiness.? It may be more meaningful and productive to instead identify certain aspects (or techniques) of comedy and explore how they work and what they create. Comedy is often thought of as an art of deception, but I would like to examine it as an art of expectation.

However, expectations can take many forms and be engaged in may ways in literature and plays: in How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel uses comedy to defuse anxiety and tension to make her audience ?unprepared for the explosion? that follows; in The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde teases the audience's notions of what can be said and what should be left unsaid; and in Aristophanes' The Birds and Plautus' The Brothers Menaechmus, the audience's societal stereotypes are tested by what are at first perceived to be stock social-characters.

These works have different dynamics: in Vogel's work it is the comedy itself that creates particular expectations, while the comedy of Wilde, Aristophanes, and Plautus is created by the destruction of pre-conceived expectations. But in all of these vastly different works, comedy and expectation are closely linked together, perhaps suggesting a broader application of this theory to other comedies.

This discussion of expectation requires a differentiation of types. Expectations can be rooted in one's culture or social conventions. These are usually a part of one's worldview, long held, and not usually open to scrutiny ? stereotypes. Other expectations are more transient and dependent on the unfolding of events ? the kind that might be created by an author more or less consciously before she challenges them. The nature of these types of expectations and their origins differ, even if the second kind may also depend, at some deeper level, on cultural conventions and social roles.

[...] These contradictions of social expectations form the backbone of each piece, creating humor intertwined with social criticism and moral advice. In Erich Segal's edition of The Birds, the list of characters presents Peisetaerus and Euelpides as ?two elderly Athenians? (Segal, 7), setting them up as social equals; however, it is immediately made clear that there is a social and intellectual imbalance between the two. This is explicitly shown when Peisetaerus belittles Euelpides: ?Why are we traipsing back and forth like this, you idiot?? (Segal, 9). [...]


[...] This discussion of expectation requires a differentiation of types. Expectations can be rooted in one's culture or social conventions. These are usually a part of one's worldview, long held, and not usually open to scrutiny ? stereotypes. Other expectations are more transient and dependent on the unfolding of events ? the kind that might be created by an author more or less consciously before she challenges them. The nature of these types of expectations and their origins differ, even if the second kind may also depend, at some deeper level, on cultural conventions and social roles. [...]

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