King Lear and the Comedy Discourse
William Shakespeare is no stranger to the bending and breaking of conventions. Hailed as an inventor of words from “elbow” to “sneak”, and a master playwright who created some of the most enduring plot structures, like that of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s legacy comes as a result of his unfailing creativity. It is this unwillingness to follow the classification of “tragedy” too strictly that allowed him to incorporate elements of comedy in one of his most tragic works, King Lear. Though moments of laughter relatively hard to come by in his 17th century play, there are undeniable elements of comedy incorporated in Shakespeare’s tragedy. In blurring the boundaries between tragic and comedic, critics for centuries have argued that Shakespeare perhaps overstepped his bounds in mixing two genres that are fundamentally incompatible. But it is the opposite that is true; King Lear requires elements of comedy to succeed as in both its roles as literature and entertainment. The importance of comedy within King Lear can be observed most clearly in its role as relief, its position as a manner of coping tragedy, and finally its strategy of subtle criticism throughout the play.
Comic relief is perhaps one of the most common uses of comedy in entertainment, from Shakespearean times to today. Google defines comic relief as “comic episodes in a dramatic or literary work that offset more serious sections” (Google). When the plot of the play risks becoming too distressing for the viewers, an element of comedy is added to lighten to mood before diving back into the tragedy. The character most responsible for this comedic offset in King Lear is undoubtedly the Fool, whose foolishness is attributed for his particularly carefree attitude. Unburdened by the trauma that King Lear struggles with throughout the course of the narrative, the Fool has the unique capability throughout the play to induce laughter in the face of tragedy. It is in Lear’s frustration from having disowned his favorite daughter, Cordelia, that the Fool is first introduced. Lear and Kent are discussing the afternoon’s events when the Fool enters and asserts the two men of nobility have much to learn from him, saying “[s]irrah, I’ll teach thee a speech” (Shakespeare 1.4.112). This seems absurd given the Fool’s apparent stupidity in comparison with the supposedly educated nobility, Lear and Kent. The Fool continues, prefacing his rhymed song with “[m]ark it, nuncle” (1.4.114), recalling the confidence of a rapper taking on their opponent in a cypher, as if his little ditty were the most profound or poetic thing ever written. It, of course, is not, but the Fool delivers his nonsensical song passionately nevertheless. Adding to the comedic absurdity of the scene, the King finds the song intriguing rather than insane, and continues his conversation with the Fool with vigor.
Though the Fool may seem like a frivolous character, his comedic presence is crucial to King Lear. His melodic interjections and lighthearted disposition allows for a lifting of the tragic pressure that persists throughout the play. This periodic relief permits the play to reach the lowest of lows, and in fact makes these lows seem even more tragic in comparison to the comedy that precedes it. For example, the Fool exercises his remarkable ability to lighten the mood in one of the most distressing moments of the play, when Lear is lost in his own madness and refuses to retreat indoors during the storm. After successfully convincing the former King to find shelter, the Fool takes the stage in an equally comedic and foreboding monologue. He begins his speech saying, “[t]his is a brave night to cool a courtesan. I’ll speak a prophecy ere I go:” (III.2.80), which in vernacular translates to “this would be a great night to sleep with a prostitute, but I’ll say this before I do that”. After such a dramatic scene, the audience would react gratefully to this entertaining remark. This brief relief allows the Fool delve into his prophecy which essentially predicts the fall of Lear’s kingdom at the end of this conflict. Without the Fool’s comedic interjection, perhaps his tragic prediction would seem overly dramatic, or make the play too depressing for a viewer to sit through on their night out. By temporarily relieving the pressure of the tragedy, the Fool’s warning carries a heavier significance than had it been told within the preexisting tragedy.
He ends this speech with yet another comedic remark, “[t]his prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time” (III.3.96-97), meaning “this is something Merlin might say, so I’m ahead of my time saying it now”. The comedic framing of his speech, a break from the tragedy of Lear’s situation, allows the viewer to pay more attention to what the Fool has to say. At first, his over-confidence in his own intelligence is comedic, and the audience is able to laugh yet again at the Fool’s absurdity. But ironically, the Fool is probably right in his prediction, and it is his status as an outsider that allows him to clearly interpret the dynamics of the conflict. Had the framing of his speech been equally as serious as the mood of the scene in which it is placed, the viewer might have tuned out, thinking they weren’t missing much information if they didn’t listen intently to what he has to say. The Fool’s precedent as a comedic character provides him a unique attention that the other characters are not granted. His comedic tone and role as provider of relief to the ever depressing situation make his plot-sensitive comments more impactful than if a character whose disposition is regularly serious and insightful.
These elements of comic relief, while providing the audience with a well-deserved break from the tragedy that consumes King Lear, also point to comedy’s greater role as a manner of coping with tragedy. It is a common experience when, in the face of unspeakable tragedy that is difficult to react to, to resort to humor to manage the pain. Even if a situation wouldn’t be considered funny in any other circumstance, when confronted with overwhelming tragedy, sometimes the only response to keep from falling apart is to laugh. This is why, despite the pitiful nature of the situation, comedy can be found in Lear’s madness. An example of this use of comedy can be seen in Act 1, when Lear has banished his closest allies, Kent and Cordelia, and is unaware that his other daughters and their accomplices are plotting against him. Here, Lear speaks with an accomplice of the evil sisters, Oswald, Goneril’s steward.
LEAR: O, you, sir, you! Come you hither, sir. Who am I, sir?
OSWALD: My lady’s father.
LEAR: “My lady’s father”? My lord’s knave, you whoreson dog, you slave, you cur!
OSWALD: I am none of these, my lord; I beseech your pardon.
LEAR: Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal? [Strikes him]
OSWALD: I’ll not be strucken, my lord.
KENT: Nor be tripped neither, you base football player. [Trips up his heels] (I.4.77-85).
In this scene, the noblemen make fun of the steward after he fails to properly recognize Lear, gaining satisfaction if not entertainment from his discomfort. When Oswald refers to Lear as the father of his lady rather than the former king, this is deeply insulting to the insecure King. He is no longer powerful in his own right, but his power comes from that of his daughters. This loss of recognition, falling of his power, is one of the biggest catalyst’s in Lear’s fall to insanity. This is not to mention his daughter’s almost immediate defiance against him once he enacted his will, causing Lear to be more sensitive to this disrespect from the steward of his daughter. In order to endure this indignity, Lear at first results to abuse, accusing Oswald with some foul insults. But as Kent joins, the taunting takes on the identity as a sort of game, humorous to the men as well as the audience. In the face of misfortune, the two men resort to comedy, derived unfortunately from insult, to cope with the difficulty of the situation.
The use of humor a method of coping with tragedy is also one used by the audience not just the characters. When a scene is so inconceivably sad, so much so it is impossible for the play to recover from such misfortune, the only reaction left is to laugh. A scene that portrays only the deepening of tragedy might come across as humorous when the play has reached a point of irreversible despair. The best example of this takes place at the very end of the play, when almost every character has died in a great diversity of gruesome ways. Standing amongst corpses, among the final three to survive the play’s tragic finale, the Duke of Albany says simply “Our present business / Is general woe” (V.3.324-5). This line, while reflecting the truly heartbreaking tone of the scene, also seems comically redundant. In spite of the tragic nature of this conclusion, it is not a shocking reaction to smile upon reading or hearing this line. Albany’s observation is blatantly obvious, so obvious that his pointing it out seems absurd, leading to be interpreted comedically. The Duke’s outright statement of the scene’s “business”, in its potentially comedic redundancy, draws attention to the viewer’s natural reaction to laugh when tears don’t seem to be enough. It is this slight breaking of the tension the caused by this line that allows the viewer to leave the theater feeling sad but in some way satisfied with the full plot. It works to release the viewer from the inescapable hold that tragedy has without lessening the impact of the finale. The comic reaction induced by this line provides the viewer a way of coping with the ending of the play, just as the characters in the play use laughter as a way of coping with their tragedy.
As comedy within King Lear works to relieve from and cope with the tragic nature of the work, the use of comedy in the tragedy plays an important role in drawing attention to the general absurdity of the situation which comes as a result of the character’s obsession with a noble or powerful status. Humor is a common tool in expressing cultural critique. In the case of King Lear, Shakespeare subtly expresses his qualms with the culture and consequences of nobility through humorous circumstances. Many of the laughter inducing scenarios come as a result of some cultural misunderstanding, whether it’s the Fool’s capacity to ignore social norms or Lear’s insanity expressing itself through his mockery of circumstances associated with nobility. In the sixth scene of the third act, Lear, the Fool, and Edgar disguised as Tom of Bedlam hold a trial for the evil sisters Regan and Goneril. The two sisters, off concocting some evil plan, are not present in reality, but are figments of the former King’s imagination. In their absence King addresses his grievances to a stool, and the Fool and Edgar, both either consumed by madness or pretending to be, are given the role as judges. In the midst of the trial, the Fool asks the stool that Lear presents, “[i]s your name Goneril?” (III.6.49), to which Lear responds, “[s]he cannot deny it” (III.6.50). This line surely induced outright laughter during its performance, as this “Goneril” obviously cannot respond given that she isn’t actually there and stools cannot speak. The resulting scene is simultaneously comedic and pitiful. The mad King’s only manner of expressing his inner turmoil is through this insane scenario.
This trial scene is an important example of Shakespeare’s use of comedy in King Lear to subtly critique norms of nobility. Goneril’s crime are presented in a court, fictional as it might be. A court is an institution of society, one that King Lear would have influence over had his noble status been in place. Lear retreats to his previously held power to seek justice for his situation. This power, though, is completely made up as he gave it all away in his retirement at the beginning of the play. In fact, the power that he retained as he stepped down from his royal position was taken away by Goneril and Regan, the two people he puts to trial in the scene. The two judges, the Fool and Tom of Bedlam, presiding over the imagined court behave as insanely as Lear does. Neither of them hold any connection to nobility or high society, or in Tom’s case he is simply pretending as such.
All of these factors contribute to Shakespeare’s critique of nobility in Elizabethan society. He forces the question of “what constitutes nobility?” in placing insane characters in situations associated with the higher class. In having formerly noble characters in a situation so completely absurd, Shakespeare draws attention to the temporality of status. The comedy of the scene allows these themes and questions to be subtly incorporated into the mind of the viewer, rather than speaking the question outright. Though the viewer won’t feel troubled with these problems when watching the play, upon reflection of the tragedy they might think back to enjoyable scenes like this one and ponder the greater causes which led to the play’s tragic outcome. For Lear, his perception of nobility and power holds him back from the very beginning of the play, when his insanity was induced in part by his lack of agency, to the very end, when he is unable to save Cordelia due to his privileged lifestyle. The comedic nature of the scene is crucial because it makes it enjoyable in the midst of tragedy, provoking deeper conversation than a scene that is fundamentally unenjoyable.
The use of comedy in the midst of tragedy might appear to be a strange choice. However, in analyzing the way that comedy works in King Lear, it is clear to see that these two genres do not work in opposition, but in harmony to create the masterful tragedy. The comedy in the play provides relief from the imposing doom, allowing scenes following to be interpreted with freshly sympathetic eyes. Comedy also grants a way for both the characters and the audience to cope and work through the difficult circumstances that consume the play. Shakespeare additionally incorporates comedy to drive his greater thematic concerns home, using humorous situations to ask critical questions of his viewer. It is important to remember that King Lear at its core is a form of entertainment. Shakespeare lures viewers into his theater with his faithfully comedic wit, which only enhance the greater themes he seeks to address. By blending comedy and tragedy, Shakespeare is able to create a tragic play that enjoyable, educational, and insightful; a feat accomplished only by masters of the stage.
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