Lear and Comedy Essay Sample

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Strangely enough, it is G. Wilson Knight, a critic famous (not to say notorious) for a vehemently Christian interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays, who notes in The Wheel of Fire some of the comedic aspects of King Lear[1]. Whether or not the harsh moral ecology of King Lear fits comfortably with the Christian ethos of forgiveness, structural elements of comedy are plainly present in King Lear, quite apart from the sardonic humour of the Fool. Indeed, a ‘happy ending’ involving the marriage of Cordelia and Edgar was part of Nahum Tate’s revision of the play which was the accepted version from 1681-1838. Marriage is the traditional ending in Shakesperian comedy, and many critics have found the death of Cordelia to be unacceptably cruel[2]. This is especially true in view of the fact that Shakespeare altered his sources for the story (Holinshead’s Chronicle and the anonymous play King Leir).

Wilson Knight sees the opening scene as being comedic, a suggestion unique in my experience, but not without foundation, in that Lear’s stage-management of his abdication breaks on Cordelia’s resistance, leaving his plan in chaos. It is the puncturing of pride and pomposity, the subversion of Lear’s assumptions, which provides the possibility of humour, although Lear’s reaction to this setback is authentically frightening. Over the course of the play Lear’s power to curse : That thou hast sought to make us break our vows,

Which we durst never yet, and with strained pride To come between our sentences and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward: (1:1:166-170) declines, to become ludicrous and ineffectual:
No, you unnatural hags
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things What they are, yet I know what; but they shall be The
terrors of the earth. (2:4:267-271)

Where it has been traditional to see the conflict of Act 1 as a dispute between truth and falsehood, Katherine McLuskie identifies it as an ideological clash between a contractual and a patriarchal notion of authority in the family[3]. This is well observed, but does not entirely account for Cordelia’s behaviour, in which the idea of ‘chastity’ in its broadest Elizabethan sense would seem to be involved. Shakespeare’s stress on female chastity becomes increasingly marked in the late plays.

If laughter is restrained by fear in Act 1, it is equally restricted by pity by Act 3. Alexander Leggat identifies various structural elements of the play which are characteristic of comedy as a Shakesperian genre. “Every one of Shakespeare’s plays makes some use of laughter, though the laughter can be grim; but none makes such pervasive use of the fundamental structures of comedy, particularly as Shakespeare practised it.”[4] Leggat cites Maynard Mack, who sees Lear’s journey through the blasted heath as a parody of the forest scene in As You Like It, Stephen Booth on similarities with Love’s Labours Lost, and notes the “full and significant use of disguise” (p.3), very much a feature of Shakesperian comedy, rather than tragedy. Furthermore, I think the use of a prominent sub-plot mirroring the main action is comedic rather than tragic in normal circumstances. Shakespeare, an inveterate explorer of the emerging theatrical conventions, seems to be using the forms and techniques of comedy to produce what nearly all commentators agree are very uncomfortable dramatic effects. Wilson Knight speaks of “the demonic laughter that echoes in the Lear world.”

The obvious focus of humour in King Lear is the Fool, whose sardonic commentary on Lear’s behaviour is counter-balanced by his loyalty. Some of the Fool’s jokes are funny, and perhaps more of them might have been in 1605, but his humour is mordant, and his fixed subject Lear’s abdication. Where Lear blames his daughters, the Fool consistently points out that it was he who gave them power over him. The Fool’s cultural materialist position is close to Jonathan Dollimore’s[5].

As far as I know, the comic possibilities of Kent’s role have been little discussed. At first he opposes Lear’s banishment of Cordelia with sharply satirical observations, and is himself banished for his pains. He then disguises himself and earns Lear’s approval by attacking Oswald. His outrageous behaviour in attacking him again at Gloucester’s castle gets him put in the stocks. In this struggle he delivers a series of insults of considerable comic force. A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one trunk inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch (2:2:13-20).

Oswald himself is something of a figure of fun, and is eventually killed by the versatile Edgar in his role as a yokel, whilst attempting to murder the blind Gloucester. But here we touch on the most blatant and frightening example of the humour of cruelty in King Lear, the sub-plot involving Gloucester and his son Edgar. Before dealing with that, it is worth discussing the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund sub-plot at its outset.

Gloucester is appallingly open to suggestion. The robust and ebullient Edmund, his illegitimate son, finds it absurdly easy to convince him that his legitimate son and heir Edgar is plotting to remove him. Gloucester supports his credulity with reference to planetary influences, a Polonius-like meditation which Edmund ridicules in a short soliloquy. when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeits of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; (1:2:110-116) Edgar too falls prey to Edmund’s scheme, and is thus forced to begin his extraordinary career of impersonations. Edmund’s energy and charm might be calculated to win the audience’s sympathy, although this will wane as the play progresses.

Gloucester, blinded as a traitor by Cornwall and Regan , and thrown out of his own castle – “let him smell his way to Dover” (3:7:90-91) – is introduced to Edgar in his role of Poor Tom. As Poor Tom, Edgar has been assisting Lear’s slide into madness. Much of his repertoire is derived from the cries of ‘Bedlam beggars’, and some of it from Samuel Harsnett’s debunking of a case of spirit possession[6]. Some or all of this may have been considered amusing by its first audience; there is a weird sub-plot involving a madhouse in The Duchess of Malfi.

With a quick change of clothes, Edgar undertakes to guide his father to Dover. Although Gloucester does momentarily suspect him, he retains enough gullibility to be convinced that he is on the edge of a cliff. Seeking death, he flings himself face down onto the stage (we must presume) in what is the most frightening of comedic set-pieces. Edgar then persuades him that he has had a miraculous escape.

Lear re-enters at this point, and delivers a complete comic madman act. He criticises his flatterers “they told me I was everything; ‘tis a lie” (4:5:102). He then engages in a fairly typical contemporary diatribe against woman, which turns darkly misogynistic. He then proceeds to make a series of jokes at the expense of Gloucester’s lack of eyes. I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not love. Read thou this challenge. Mark but the penning of it. (4:5:131-133) He turns from Gloucester’s blindness, and begins to berate the hypocrisy of wealth and power in terms reminiscent of the manner of Puritan satire from Hugh Latimer on.

I do not intend to suggest that King Lear is anything other than a tragedy. It does seem, however, that the play makes use of the techniques and structures of comedy. Perhaps this is one of the factors that makes Lear seem so harsh, a sense of repressed laughter. Lear interrogates the structures of power through the frame of comedic structures, and with the satirical commentary of first the Fool and later Lear himself. Lear thus throws into question not only the basis of power, but the emerging conventions of theatrical practice.

[1] G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy, (4th rev. and enl. ed.) Methuen, London, (1961). [2] Including Dr. Samuel Jonson, in the notes to his 1765 edition. [3] Kathleen McLuskie, ‘The Patriarchal Bard’, in Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, (eds) Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Manchester University Press, Manchester, (1996), (pp. 88-108). [4] Alexander Leggatt, King Lear, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, (1988), p.3. [5] Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York and London, (1989). [6] Samuel Harsnett, A Declaration of Several Popish Impostures, London, (1603).

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