Lear and Comedy.
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. 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. 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. 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.” 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...