Comic Relief in Tragedy

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      “A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious.” — says Aristotle in his Poetics. So, the Greek tragedy hardly introduces any comic element in tragedy. The grandeur of tragedy is kept undisturbed without any change or relief in the tragic tone. But the main departure from Aristotle’s treatise on tragedy was the more universal employment of humorous speeches and incidents, called comic relief, in course of the serious action. In course of time in the evolution of tragedy, the need for some relief from the severity of the tragic atmosphere was felt. The chorus serves to offer some relief in the tragic gloom by its ironical beauty. This is popularly called a lyrical relief. Sometimes there were intrusive bits of comic dialogue and horseplay, but in other instances they were woven into the drama in such a way that they widened and enriched, rather than weakened, the tragic significance, such as the gravediggers in Hamlet, the drunken porter in Macbeth, and the speeches of the Fool in King Lear. A non-Aristotelian form which produced artistic masterpiece was the ‘tragicomedy’, in which the action is basically serious and seems to threaten disaster to the protagonist, but which ends in happy reversal. The term ‘tragicomedy’ is also applied to plays in which serious and comic elements are combined throughout the action, either in the mode of double plot or alternating episodes of gravity and humor. Shakespeare and his contemporaries introduced a mixture of tragedy and comedy in their works. Examples of tragicomedy are Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, and Beaumont Fletcher’s Philaster.

      Comic relief is also justified by the laws of contrast. When the monotony of the horror can no more he endured and the nerves are strained to the uttermost, some sort of relaxation or relief is an absolute necessity. Contrast psychologically heightens the tragic effect as well as it gives relief. For instance, the Fool in King Lear, creates a profound comic relief in an instant tragic storm. Comic relief provides an interlude in a tragic world. In Romeo and Juliet there are two comic figures, the Nurse and Mercurio. In fact, Mercutio is more than comic, and is such an interesting character that Shakespeare removes him in Act III because he threatens to overpower Romeo’s character in personality and importance. A masterful comic, Mercutio teases Romeo continually and makes use of pun and bawdy jokes. His view of love is a counterpoint to Romeo’s courtly love and unrealistically romantic ideals. In Act I, for instance, when Romeo bemoans his unrequited love from Rosaline, Mercutio makes the ribald observation that Romeo should go out and find a woman that will ‘requite’ his passion with physical passion:

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love;
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.”

      After an action scene in a play, or a critical moment in a story, there is a huge amount of tension in the air, and the audience or readers are riled up. In order to calm the audience down, the author of the play or story has to use comic relief. This involves using comedy and humor, which can be in the forms of a humorous scenario, a character having funny lines, or puns (words that have more than one meaning). Comic relief is used in a genre of literature that is not ‘comedy’, and it is done in order to ‘relieve’ the audience or readers of the dramatic tension that the scene in the piece of literature caused. Although the tension is relieved, the contrast in the genre of the scene with high tension and the moment with the comic relief strengthens the audience’s emotions about the critical scene. In all of Shakespeare’s tragic plays, comic relief is used in order to bring out the full effect of the unfortunate events that occur, mainly through contrast. In Macbeth, comic relief is shown through the Porter, who makes his entrance right after the dramatic scene, high in tension, where the king of Scotland, Duncan, is murdered. At the beginning of the play, the three witches appeared and prophesied that Macbeth would be king. From this moment up until the scene where Macbeth actually kills the king, tension is being built up because the audience knows that Macbeth is about to take action based on the prophecy of the witches. In this scene, the tension explodes, and the scene serves as a sort of ‘miniature climax’. This tension is relieved after the Porter scene, but the comedy brought from it contrasts with the scene with the murder, showing the difference between pure evil and innocent comedy. Thus, stronger emotions to the murder scene are brought out from the audience, effectively captivating their attention to the play.

      Back in Shakespeare’s time, the audience had no trouble understanding the meaning of the words used in his plays. However, nowadays, the English language has changed up a little, and the message Shakespeare attempts to convey through his characters’ lines are not as clear as it was to the audiences back then. Therefore, the Porter’s lines, meant to convey comic relief, may not be noticed by novice Shakespeare readers. First of all, the Porter begins by comparing himself to the guard of the gates of hell. “Here’s a knocking indeed! / If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.” When the Porter mentions about Beelzebub (“Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub?”), there is the common lack of information on who or what Beelzebub is. Beelzebub is referred to as Satan in the New Testament of the Bible, but since not many people study the Bible in this era, not many people know what Beelzebub is. He then proceeds to pretend that the person knocking is a sinner knocking on the gates of hell. First, the Porter pretends that the knocker is a farmer who committed suicide for expecting too much. Then he welcomes an ‘equivocator’, which is someone who twists around his words so that he never has to tell the truth directly. In other words, the second sinner is a liar. The third is a selfish tailor, and in the end, the Porter stops pretending to be the gatekeeper because he jokingly says that he was going to “let every profession into hell”, stating that everyone is a sinner. Finally, the Porter lets Macduff in, asking why the Porter took a while to answer the door which the latter replies that he was too busy drinking the previous night. The Porter then goes on to describe three things that drinking alcohol causes: “nose-painting, sleep, and urine”, or in other words, it makes one’s nose red, knocks them out, and causes them to have the need to use the facility. When the Porter goes on to say, “much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery”, he means that when someone is drunk, the alcohol tricks his sexual desire, by giving it to him but then taking it away. This is shown in the lines “it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him”. However, after this small humorous scene, the section of comic relief is over and when Macduff asks for Macbeth (“Is thy master stirring?”), the audience is back to the realization that this is not the time for jokes or humor. The audience was distracted by the comical dialogue between the Porter and Macduff, and almost forgets that the king, Duncan, had just been murdered. The high contrast of emotion between death and humor brings out the feelings of the audience towards the murder of Duncan even more. All in all, the role of comic relief is to not only dispel the tension, but to heighten the feeling that the audience gets in response to an important, critical, and usually in Shakespeare’s tragedy plays, dark scene.

      The mixture of tears and laughter is now justified as humor enriched by sympathy. It is the tool to understand the serious realities of life: ‘‘Humor is the meeting point of tragedy and comedy”. Elizabethan drama derived comic relief or comic interlude from the native ‘Mysteries’ and ‘Moralities’. It is a well known principle of Shakespeare’s dramatic art in the tragedy that after a tragic scene of high tension in which emotion of the audience is on the brink of numbness, he generally introduces a scene of light and low comedy. This relieves the tension of the preceding tragic scene.

      However, the justness or propriety of comic relief is, of course, a matter of academic controversies. Classical scholars like Ben Jonson and Sidney are not in favor of comic relief. They feel that a comic relief in the midst of tragic tone, serves no purpose other than to appease the gross taste of the vulgar audience. It is also claimed that comic relief hampers the dignity of the tragic art, and that is derogatory to the virtue of a good tragedy. Indeed, comic relief is not always appreciated in all cases. The grave-diggers in Hamlet are extremely clownish and they only serve to lead Hamlet to moralization on the morality of all human glories and achievements. The clown in Othello, in fact, has no function. To a group of intellectual spectators, comic relief may seem quite unnecessary and superfluous. But it has an appeal for the average theatre-goers.

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