There’s a scene in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in which two clowns find Faustus’s book of magic spells and try to do some minor magic—they want to conjure up beer for themselves, if I remember correctly. But when they read from the spell-book they end up conjuring up Mephistopheles himself. And Mephistopheles is none too pleased to have been conjured away from his more serious devilry to be at the beck and call of two clowns. So he turns one into an ape and the other into a dog. 

If you’ve ever watched any of the Coen Brothers’ movies, you are familiar with how this kind of disproportion between intent and outcome can be a driving force in storytelling, whether comic or tragic. In the Coen Brothers’ world, people think who think they’re risking a little bit of trouble find themselves in whole worlds of trouble. In Fargo, the squirrelly car dealer thinks one little mostly-fake kidnapping is going to solve all his problems; it involves him in problems far beyond his reckoning. In Raising Arizona, a childless couple named Hi and Ed McDonough also think a kidnapping will be the answer to their problem; in their case, everything works out all right, but things get a lot worse for the McDonoughs before they get better. In The Big Lebowski, Jeffrey Lebowski just wants to get his rug cleaned, and the next thing he knows he’s mixed up with LA’s criminal underworld. 

This kind of imbalance between intent and outcome is compelling, I think, because it reflects so much of what happens in real life. We live with a sense that we know what we’re getting into—or, at least, a sense that we ought to be able to know what we’re getting into—but most of the time we don’t.

The disproportions and imbalances of human interaction and human endeavor, left to play themselves out, typically (always?) result in tragedy. King Lear is an excellent example. Lear and his daughter Cordelia come into conflict in Act I, Scene i, when she speaks truth to his unreasonable demands. Lear spins out like an out-of-balance washing machine: a slight imbalance becomes a centrifugal disaster flinging everything into disorder. The same dynamic is at work in feud/revenge stories, whether Paradise Lost or Moby Dick or Romeo and Juliet or the recent Netflix show Beef.

The spin cycle can be broken, however, and it often is broken, both in story and in real life, by the intervention of grace and/or forgiveness and/or mercy. There is no comedy without grace.

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