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.  

From the beginning of the play, the situations facing King Lear are portrayed with aspects of comedy. This is because of Lear’s choice of puerile and pathetic ‘task’ which he sets his daughters, in order to decide how he will divide his kingdom between them. Lear asks his daughters:

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”

Which ever daughter expresses the greatest love for her father, through words, receives the most amount of land from King Lear. Goneril and Regan both express their overwhelming love for their father making exaggerated and clearly insincere proclamations such as:

“Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;”

Lear believes what his two eldest daughters have said, even though in this example, Goneril is saying that “words cannot describe how much I love you,” and yet she continues to express her love for him through words! Lear is flattered into believing the sentiments are genuine and therefore divides up the land so the two elder daughters get the biggest share of his land. Cordelia, however, tells the truth about her love for her father:

                                                 “I am sure my love’s

More ponderous than my tongue.”

She is being transparent in what she says. However this does not satisfy Lear’s enormous ego, despite the fact that, in deeds, Cordelia is clearly his most loving daughter, so he disowns her and banishes her from the land. This puerile behaviour King Lear is displaying is incongruous to his status as King of Britain. Comedy could be seen in this scene because Lear is so blinded by his ego that he cannot see what he is doing to himself, his daughters and to the land over which he rules. However this scene must also be perceived as pathetic and potentially tragic because the audience can see that Cordelia is the only truthful daughter and, as he has banished her, it can be predicted that some tragic consequences are inevitable.

Despite his outrageous behaviour, it is evident that Lear’s love for his daughters in genuine, strong and very real. It is the fact that he does not really know his daughters at all, that is the source of the problem. Thus, his love is based on false understanding. If his love was based on a true understanding Lear would not have banished Cordelia and misguidedly believed and rewarded Goneril or Regan. Lear’s instincts are heroic and noble: good qualities for a King to have. Yet, his judgements are completely incongruous to his instincts as Lear is blinded to his mistakes and to anyone else around him. Also, incongruously, Lear wants to abdicate and shed the responsibilities of a King, yet still retain the power - “all the addition of a king”. The biggest fault with King Lear is his mind as he cannot see what he is doing is wrong. This makes the subsequent punishment of truly losing his sanity very appropriate. It is only through this process that Lear is able to find some reason in madness and, being reunited with Cordelia at the end of the play restores his mind and some sanity once again.

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Clearly, incongruity permeates this play. The incongruity in itself is essentially comic because it is odd and unexpected. The natural human reaction to something out of place or incongruous is to laugh but it can also lend us to cry, which corresponds with G. Wilson-Knight’s identification of a kind of laughter that “treads the brink of tears”.

Another example of King Lear’s incongruity and lack of self awareness is in a moment of outrage at his two eldest daughters, after they both reject him and his entourage from their households. Lear speaks of the revenge he will have ...

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