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An Analysis of the Role of Comedy in Shakespeares Great Tragedy King Lear

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Lucy Anderson An Analysis of the Role of Comedy in Shakespeare?s Great Tragedy King Lear. The tragedy of King Lear lies in the pathos of King Lear?s descent into madness as the once all-powerful ruler of Britain loses everything. As he reaches the end of his journey upon which Lear learns to accept responsibility for his mistakes as a monarch and a father, he is reunited with Cordelia, the one daughter who has been faithful to him throughout. It appears that Lear?s life will begin to get better: Lear has a chance of forgiveness and reconciliation. Shakespeare adds one final cruel twist to the tragedy: Cordelia?s death. This rips Lear?s world apart to the extent that he dies from the heart wrenching events. This ends the tragedy of King Lear. Comedy is evident everywhere, even in a great tragedy such as King Lear. Comedy and tragedy are closely related emotions as one person may find a situation tragic feel pathos, while another person may find the same situation humorous. This is expressed by G. Wilson-Knight in The Wheel of Fire as a kind of laughter that ?treads the brink of tears?. Despite the close relationship between these two emotions they are also completely incongruous and are poles apart: one provides relief while the other causes suffering. A strong thread of comedy is evident throughout the play which ultimately helps to increase the tragedy of the events that take place. They do this by giving the audience short moments of relief from the horrific happenings in the play. Comic moments give the audience a chance to relax and also give them a glimmer of hope before the next tragic scene, which hits them with more impact and meaning because we are caught off guard. Continuous tragedy is not effective because it would eventually de-sensitise the audience; it would all become the same and the heart-rending events would not have an effect anymore because emotions such as shock, horror and pathos are very difficult to sustain without the audience becoming detached. ...read more.


because they are intended to help King Lear, and to save him. If Lear can take a step back and look at his situation, he will be able to see what is happening to the people around him. He could also potentially see what might happen as a consequence of his actions. At this point in the play the audience can recognise that The Fool?s attempts to help save Lear from what is going to happen are futile and therefore feel sorry for The Fool as well as Lear himself. The audience would be feeling enhanced sympathy for Lear too as he is so blinded by the things that his daughters have done to him that he cannot see that possible salvation is immediately to hand. It would be possible to also laugh at Lear because he is so blinded that he cannot see the obvious truth but, given the portrayal of his obvious grief and torment, this is unlikely. Comedy such as The Fool?s that is woven in throughout the play ultimately helps to enhance the tragedy by giving the audience moments of relief from the tension in the rest of the play, stopping them from becoming desensitised and also by cruelly mocking him so relentlessly by holding a mirror to the blind monarch?s behaviour when he is clearly unable to see it and find recognition. With Lear not being able to see what is happening around him, he therefore has a long way to go in his learning before his suffering can be ended. Lear still believes that what his daughters have done is their fault; he cannot see what he has also done wrong to deserve such treatment. This leads him into the wilderness to rage at the weather and the Gods. During the scene when Lear is in the wilderness and a storm is blowing, his mind returns to what has happened as still not understanding why his daughters did such a thing to him, he tries to make sense of it. ...read more.


At this point, the audience would recognise Lear has suffered enough. A satisfying resolution would be Cordelia?s forgiveness and some reconciliation for Lear?s last days in peace. However, this is a tragedy so a peaceful resolution cannot be. The recurring incongruity throughout the play is last observed in Cordelia?s unnecessary death in the play?s final scene. The final, tragic ?joke? is that Cordelia?s father, Lear, has to witness this first hand and feel the heart-wrenching pain and anger arising from the death of one so precious. Cordelia?s is the worst death in the play because it is completely gratuitous, whereas even her sisters, Goneril and Regan, die whilst pursuing an evil desire. After Edmund?s confession in his last moments alive the death sentence for Cordelia is lifted but it is too late: Cordelia is hanged in a prison cell by a common soldier, which is not heroic but degrading. She is hanged after her enemies? deaths and with her friends looking on. Poignancy is intensified as King Lear, after enduring all the physical and mental torment of filial betrayal and then being re-united with his loving and truthful daughter, Cordelia, has to watch her heart-wrenching death. This last scene of complete incongruity and pain is captured in Lear?s final question to the gods: ?Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?? Lear cannot accept the fact that Cordelia has died. He cannot take the strain her death has put on his heart and cries out: ?I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead.? and thus, finally, dies a broken man. The strong thread of comedy evident throughout the play may seem incongruous in a play that is often referred to as Shakespeare?s greatest tragedy. Yet, ultimately, the tragedy is enhanced by these comic elements. Thus, the use of comedy in King Lear does not diminish the tragedy; it actually redoubles it. ...read more.

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