Wordsdays – Comedy in King Lear

(because there’s nothing funnier than a tyrant losing power, going insane, and seeing his children dead before him as he himself dies!)

As we saw last week, King Lear is not a particularly upbeat text, both in terms of its chaotic plot, and in terms of the themes of religious and political destruction beyond that plot. However, there must be some comedic elements in the play to break up the misery and make the play the entertaining and engaging spectacle that it is; without the rivalry between Oswald and Kent and the Fool’s lines, the play would end up being as painful and saddening to watch as the original ending of Mass Effect 3.

Oswald provides perhaps the clearest example of comedy in the play, in his scenes with Kent: in act 1.4, he is tripped by the disguised servant to please Lear, leading to one of the greatest insults ever hurled in the english language – ‘you base football player’. This slapstick comedy provides a nice relief from the expulsions of 1.1, and Edmund’s betrayal of Edgar in 1.2.

Also, this comedy is humorously simplistic – one guy pushes another over. As well as this light-heartedness breaking up the darker themes of the play, this simplicity breaks up the heavy ideas of madness, trust and the nature of power that the first three scenes established, ensuring that we, as an audience, don’t become weighed down with dark, heavy ideas.

Round two is equally amusing, with Kent calling Oswald ‘Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!’. Although Kent ‘draws his sword’, the action is again kept light by the fact that Kent merely ‘beats him’, before Oswald is saved by his masters. Kent’s punishment for this, stocking, is one of humiliation, not physical pain, meaning the conflict between Kent and Oswald becomes one of competition and showmanship, like the rivalry between Ash and Gary Oak, and not a bloody fight to the death. This idea is reinforced by Oswald later dying at the hands of Edgar, not Kent; this is a violent and dark event, but it does not undermine Oswald and Kent’s rivalry that has already been established.

These exchanges are fundamentally funny because of the characters of Kent and Oswald themselves; Kent represents loyalty to a good cause, Lear, whereas Oswald represents the blind following of a master; in Shakespearean Tragedy, AC Bradley calls Oswald ‘the most contemptible’ for his faith to a ‘monster’, whereas Kent is ‘one of the best-loved characters in Shakespeare’.

As a result, the audience ends up rooting for Kent to triumph, almost as they would an underdog, against the sliminess and smugness of Oswald, for whom it all seems to be going well initially. Their conflict reflects the rift between Lear and Goneril and Regan, but to a much less tragic and fatal extent, ensuring that their fighting is comedic.

Bradley sums up Lear’s Fool as a comedic character very well – ‘His antics, his songs, his dances, his jests, too often unclean, delighted [the audience], and did something to make the drama, what the vulgar, poor or rich, like it to be, a variety entertainment’. His quips both reflect the flaws of Lear’s political structure – ‘They’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’ll have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace’ – and are insultingly blunt – ‘I took you for a joint-stool’ – providing a sense of comedy for any viewer.

The Fool’s humour functions similarly to Oswald and Kent’s, in that the Fool’s jokes highlight problems with Lear and his rule, but are surrounded by songs and nonsense – ‘The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it’s had it head bit off by it young’, again breaking up the serious overtones.

Additionally, the Fool differs from the later madness of Edgar’s character Poor Tom due to this intelligence; whereas the latter appears to be insane to the point of ridicule, shouting ‘Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill / Alow, alow, loo, loo!’, the former is humorous in a controlled way. Poor Tom’s appearance in this film version, with his near-nakedness and and genuine fear he generates amongst Lear and his followers, makes the audience afraid of who he is, and if he’s at all capable of losing it and murdering everyone in their sleep like Marik Ishtar; we never get that feeling with the controlled quips of the Fool.

The Fool remains humorous to the very end of his life, a contrast to Oswald and Kent’s rivalry, which is over by the end of act 2; his last line follows Lear saying ‘We’ll go to supper i’the morning’; he retorts ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’, ending his lines with a quip. Also, Lear suggests that he has been ‘hanged’ at the end of the play, an event the audience never sees, meaning that our lasting impression of the Fool is one of comedy, and not of death; the Fool is one of few characters to not die in the final scene, the other being Oswald, suggesting that the comedic characters are removed from the climactic bloodbath – Kent even survives!

Furthermore, he is said to be ‘supporting Lear’ as the sleeping King is taken to Dover, while Poor Tom launches into a monologue, again showing the Fool’s jokes to be secondary for his loyalty to Lear; he only laughs at the King’s expense if he can help ‘his master’ afterwards. This endears the Fool to the audience and reinforces the idea of him being an intelligent character who is just having a joke; we can laugh easily at his antics as he shows that he will do everything he can to support Lear beyond these capers.

King Lear is hardly a comedy, being a play about madness, the destruction of the righteous and death, but is is not without its laughs: Oswald and Kent show a lighter side to the conflict between Lear and Goneril and Regan, reducing it to a healthy, slapstick-heavy rivalry, not a  fatal struggle, and the Fool shows measured comedy, that the audience finds easy to laugh at, as they know he will try and support Lear as best he can beyond his jokes. Perhaps it is these events and characters that make the play so likeable; on the one hand, there is death and madness, but on the other, there are constant breaks from the darkness, to remind us that life can be fun. A bit like the end of Life Of Brian.

References:

King Lear, 2008 Film

AC Bradley’s excellent Shakespearean Tragedy

‘Wordsdays’ is a weekly series on the Jamespatrickcasey blog, with a terrible name and an unnecessary message in the footer. Every Wednesday, I will attempt to balance the sophistication and complexity of the ideas of some of the world’s most popular pieces of literature, with the bluntness and daft metaphors of my own writing style, while trying to make it vaguely informative and halfway amusing. No prior knowledge of the texts discussed will be needed to read these posts, although a vague knowledge of the word being discusses won’t exactly hurt.

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