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 on them both:
“I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things,
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.”
This speech occurs at the beginning of Lear’s descent into madness, his whole speech is like a puerile tantrum which is inconsistent with his former status he enjoyed as a King. He is acting in a pompous way, despite that fact that he has nothing and no longer has any influence over how the country is run.
Later, Lear struggles to control his tears and cries to the gods:
“You think I’ll weep;
No, I’ll not weep:-“
At the time that Shakespeare wrote this play, one was considered weak to cry, particularly a man, but even more so for a King. Kings were seen as the foundation strength of the country and, if they showed weakness, it would show the whole country to be unstable. This entire speech and scene invites ridicule of King Lear because he is so blinded to his mistakes and the incongruity of his current behaviour.
As funny as this scene may be in theory, if one looks deeper into the significance of Lear’s loss of control, not all of it would appear humorous. Audience members could feel sympathy for Lear as he is going mad; he has no self awareness with which to appreciate what is happening to him and recognise his responsibility for it all. In addition, his daughters have been cruel to Lear by not accepting him into their households, knowing that a denial of his entourage is the ultimate snub for a monarch as proud as their father. All of these things amount to mental torture for the former ruler of the country. Recognising the bathos of the King’s position, the audience would probably feel sadness for Lear rather than revel is his torment.
Another character within the play that could be explored for comic potential is The Fool: a significant character in King Lear although it may not at first seem like it. Within his many cruel jokes about Lear’s situation, The Fool does speak a lot of truth, and offers King Lear advice about what he should do. However, the words that he speaks are not all humorous: they are poignant as they point out things that no one else can see about Lear’s situation.
Despite his apparent jest, The Fool’s humour actually increases the pain that the audience feels for King Lear because a lot of his lines are cruel. Thus The Fool almost rubs the fact that the situation is Lear’s fault into his face, which evokes pity within the audience. If The Fool stood in front of Lear and told him honestly and truthfully what he says in his jokes, he would be punished or maybe even killed because he has no ‘right’ to tell the ‘king’ anything - The Fool enjoyed the lowest status in the hierarchy of the times. It could be perceived as ironic that only The Fool, the lowest of the low, is left faithful to King Lear as he has banished all the other people in his life that were faithful to him. It could also be seen as ironically humorous, but equally pathetic, that the lowest of the low is the only person with the insight to understand what is happening to Lear, but his lowly status means that no one listens to him.
There are many examples of The Fool’s cruel humour throughout the play, all of which point out the irony and absurdity of Lear’s situation and, although they may be perceived as being witty, their impact on the audience is not comedic:
“The Hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it’s had it head bit off by it young.”
This point made by The Fool is explaining how King Lear’s own children have turned against him after he has taken care of them for so many years because he ‘fed’ them the strength and power with which to carry out this betrayal! He is mocking King Lear about this and for the bad decisions he has made. As true as this is, Lear takes no notice of it because he does not listen to The Fool (for reasons already explained.) Also, Lear is still blind to the truthfulness of what The Fool has said and therefore does not even react to it in any way.
The Fool sees the potential for comedy in all of Lear’s actions throughout the play and is the only person left by his side when he is going mad in the wilderness. The Fool may be seen as someone who is there to ‘lighten the mood’ of the scenes by injecting aspects of comedy in one of the most tragic parts of the play. However, the impact of The Fool is much more likely to enhance the tragedy in Lear’s situation.
In addition, further tragedy can be found in the words of wisdom that The Fool speaks (which may be considered as sinister humour) 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. In rage and self pity, Lear cries: “as this mouth should tear this hand for lifting food to’t.” This may be interpreted as comic for its dramatic irony; however, it could also be interpreted as tragic because he was such a powerful character and to see him reduced to such a level, regardless of his folly, is deeply saddening.
For a man used to a life of privilege in court, life in the wilderness is obviously taking a toll on King Lear’s mental state and he continues to act incongruously to his status. For example, Lear takes his clothes off. This could be presented on stage as being like a two-year-old as they sometimes take their clothes and have no shame in doing it, or possibly a drunk as drunk people have no self-awareness and therefore might degrade themselves in this way. Both of these interpretations would create a twisted kind of comedy. Another reason this could be seen as comic is because in his “reason not the need” speech earlier in the play, Lear refers to a basic need for clothes to distinguish man from beast, so taking them off is contradicting what he has already said.
Another significant and symbolic thing that takes place in this scene of the play is the pathetic fallacy of the storm. Lear’s mind is like a storm in the way that he is angry about what has happened and unable to cope with certain truths he must face to avoid madness: he is battling with himself as he slowly begins to learn about his mistakes, but still does not want to accept that any of it is his fault.
Lear also meets Poor Tom in the wilderness, (who is, in fact, Edgar - Gloucester’s legitimate son - disguised as a beggar). After a few ‘enlightening’ words of jibberish from Poor Tom, Lear calls him a “noble philosopher”, which is ironic and truly pathetic: Lear’s companions now comprise The Fool and a mad beggar. The once mighty ruler’s peripeteia is at once comical and deeply tragic.
Undoubtedly the audience feels great sympathy and pity for King Lear at this time: he is so mad and confused that it would be almost impossible to think that he was once a ruler of Britain. There is extreme pathos in Lear being reduced to nothing.
To reinforce the seriousness of what King Lear has done and providing a visual and more overly physical reflection of Lear’s madness, Shakespeare includes a sub-plot. The sub-plot in King Lear mirrors the journey of Lear, is the story of the Earl of Gloucester. This shows the widespread effect that Lear’s actions have on the country he used to rule: what he does in Act One, scene one, affects not only him and his daughters, but also the land and people he once ruled over. It also gives Lear’s story more depth as it allows the audience to see his inner turmoil played out in the physical torment of Gloucester’s suffering as punishment for his sins.
The first time Gloucester is introduced to the audience in the opening lines of the play where he talks to Kent about his illegitimate son, Edmund. He makes jokes at Edmund’s expense about how he was conceived outside wedlock, Gloucester being quite crude about Edmund and things he had no control over.
Good sport at his making”
This gives people the impression that Gloucester lacks self-control and discipline.
Like Lear, Gloucester does not accept personal responsibility for his child, and when he subsequently suffers for his misplaced loyalties, he blames the gods for playing with humans and influencing what they do, claiming that they are against humanity.
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.”
Puerile boys find it funny to watch a fly struggle if they pull off one of its legs or wings, but they do not think about how the fly feels. This is how Gloucester feels the gods think of humans. This would have shocked Shakespeare’s contemporary audience because they believed heavily in God(s) and to say that they were conspiring against humanity, would have been thought blasphemous). Gloucester’s thinking is analogous to the King’s because he did not accept responsibility at the beginning of his learning journey either.
Gloucester’s physical torture is a truly horrific scene in the play; it is also unnecessarily crude and disgusting. Shakespeare shows this in the extremely graphic detail of this scene. Cornwall says:
“Out, vile Jelly!”
“Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.”
This captures a vivid image of the violence of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out. This scene is deliberately graphic which helps to reinforce the cruelty that adds up to Lear’s hidden torture in his madness. In this sense, the scene is far from comic.
However, by some callous people, this scene might be viewed as macabre entertainment. Throughout history, the sight of physical torment has provided a welcome diversion for many. Citizens at the time of the plays first performance enjoyed many examples of violent entertainment, including bear baiting and cock fighting, as well as watching disabled fellow human beings being beaten. Even today, we are fascinated by the violent entertainment most commonly seen in video games and the horror genre of films and books. It would be blinkered not to acknowledge these things. However, the macabre thrill that the audience may get from this scene in the play certainly is overshadowed by the cruel and unnecessary pain Gloucester endures. The audience would also be mindful of the sub plot’s purpose and recognise that this scene is a vehicle by which to convey Lear’s extreme mental torture as well as to illustrate the impact of Lear’s original decision on his whole kingdom.
A further glimpse of black humour in this scene lies in the joke made by Regan at Gloucester’s expense:
“Let him smell his way to Dover”
The macabre humour shown by Regan is sickening but also appropriate to reveal what is going on in Lear’s world by showing the audience the sick and twisted mind of his daughter. The audience has been subjected to the grim and horrific kind of humour in this scene to portray not only the corrupt nature of Lear’s daughter, Regan, but also how the protagonist and his world are controlled by a greater power than himself, the gods.
After the gouging out of his eyes, Gloucester wants to commit suicide because he does not want to live without his sense of sight. He plans on going to Dover to hurl himself off a cliff and fall to his death; however, it does not work out the way he had planned. Edgar, still disguised as Poor Tom, takes Gloucester to Dover and tells him that they are on the edge of a cliff, describing to him the rocks and peril that lie below. Gloucester (because he is blind) believes him and prepares to take the final step off the cliff; in reality Gloucester is on a small step and will not fall far at all. He speaks of how he is going to hurl himself off the cliff edge and die heroically. Gloucester takes the final step off the ‘cliff’ and ‘falls to his death’. This shows the bathos of tragedy, how wretchedly absurd someone’s behaviour can be in the midst of extreme suffering.
Many people find the sight of someone falling flat on his face hilarious, as it is the very stuff of slapstick comedy. These people may indeed find this scene comic whilst other will feel sorry for Gloucester and his impotence even in suicide. He really does cut a truly pathetic figure.
This truly heart-rending and dejected scene in the play is an important one because it prepares the audience for what is to come next: Lear at his lowest ebb. This is by no means comic. Seeing Gloucester at breaking point, directly prior to this, prepares the audience by giving them an insight into how a character might act and react in a situation of such suffering.
At this point in the play Lear has reached his lowest ebb. He has plunged into the depths of madness and lost himself in a world of fantasy:
“Look, Look, a mouse! Peace, peace;
this piece of toasted cheese will do’t”
A man who used to be the majestic ruler of the land deteriorating to such a point where he talks to a mouse, is quite shocking to watch: Lear has been reduced to nothing. Having travelled this journey with Lear there is no way this scene could be interpreted as comic; it is both pathetic and tragic to see such madness in a once almighty man. However, Lear’s peripetia is necessary. He has to reach rock-bottom and fully appreciate what he has done wrong, before he can be reunited with Cordelia at the end of the play, thus balancing the scales of justice. 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.