Comic Relief | Definition, Meaning, Examples in Tragedy

Comic Relief

Comic Relief

Comic Relief Definition

Comic relief in tragic drama is introduction of comic scenes which relieve the tension created by a tragic situation. And by contrast comic relief heightens the significance of the tragic theme. The drunken porter’s speech in Macbeth is an example in comic relief.

Comic Relief Meaning and Purpose

The mixture of comedy and tragedy is also justified by the laws of contrast and relief. When a monotony of horror can no more be endured and the nerves are strained to the uttermost, some sort of relaxation seems absolutely needed. The intrusion of the comic according to the psychological law of contrast often heightens the tragic effect as well as gives relief. The most successful example from the point of view of creating a profound impression by the introduction of the comic in tragedy is provided by the wonderful Fool in King Lear. Without the Fool, the tragedy would not have been what it is.

Comic Relief in Greek Tragedy

Aristotle says that tragedy must represent an action that is serious; and hence there was no comic relief in Greek tragedy. But then we must remember that the tragic trilogy in the Greek amphi-theatre was always followed by a satiric play which was comic. It was a sort of tragic burlesque. Cyclops of Euripides, Oceanus in Prometheus, the Messengers in Antigone are partly comic figures also, over and above the regular comic satiric play that normally follows a tragic trilogy.

Comic Relief in the Elizabethan Period

In the Middle Ages, the mixture of tragic and comic was natural and freely accepted. (The Doctor’s Servant in The Play of the Sacrament) In fact, it was a regular medieval tradition to mix comedy with tragedy. Scenes of comic relief or comic interludes were inherited by Elizabethan drama from the native Mysteries’ and ‘Moralities’. Even in the Elizabethan Age, in spite of the protests of scholars, the general practice was to use comic scenes to relieve the tension of tragedy-Polonius, Macbeth‘s Porter, Lear’s Fool and others are living examples of this practice. Character also gains by such addition of comic scenes by the acquisition of a sense of humour. Thus ‘comic relief’ serves two purposes to relieve the tension of emotion and to heighten the tragedy by contrast.

Comic Relief in Macbeth

The Porter Scene in Macbeth relieves the tragic tension : it suggests the irony-the porter is a porter of hell gate, Macbeth’s castle being a very hell. It also serves a dramatic purpose-it gives Macbeth time to wash his hands and put on his night gown-it covers the gap between the crime and its discovery.

Comic Relief in Hamlet

The professional indifference of the clown who has been grave-digger contrasts comically with the sensitivity and skepticism of the hero and there is bitter irony in Hamlet’s jests with the clown at the grave of the girl he himself has driven to madness and death. The audience knows that this gentle woman was Ophelia, but Hamlet does not.

Comic Relief in Romeo and Juliet

Mercutio and the Nurse are two comic characters in Romeo and Juliet play comic interlude in a few scenes.

Whether Comic Relief Essential or Not?

Now, the point is whether this comic element in tragedy disturbs the unity of tone. France, of course, continued to use only serious tragedy unrelieved by comic scenes. Even in our own days T. S. Eliot has attacked the use of comic scenes in a tragedy.

But should this human craving for comic relief be so disregarded? It is not the aim of the dramatist to please? Is not comic relief artistically valuable? The contrast (serious scene and comic scenes) may give new depth to the play and the characters.

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What about concentration on which T. S. Eliot insists? A little relaxation between scenes and the audience may concentrate better. Nature’s way is also to work, to rest, to work, to rest.

So there is no reason why tragedy should be laughterless, and there is no reason why it should not. The only consideration to be kept in mind is that humour must not clash with the tone of the whole play. Shakespeare knew instinctively how to avoid this pitfall. Many of his successors did not.

“The tragic Muse has learnt that, to hold her hearers, she must either sing sometimes, ………or sometimes smile.” (F. L. Lucas)

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