The Comedy of King Lear
October 3, 2012
Last week in Newcastle a young audience member asked 'why is King Lear so funny'? There are comic moments from The Fool/Kent and Edmund, but this is the tragedy of King Lear, not the comedy! Or is it...
One of my observations while watching the play this week in Cornwall was about the consistent presence of laughter towards the end of the play.
When Lear carries the dead Cordelia in his arms and cries 'howl, howl, howl, howl' there are always roars of laughter from the audience, and when she is lifted into the grave there is also great amusement.
My question is why is end of the play funny to young audiences? Why is something so sad so funny? Of course there is the whole tragedy comedy symbiosis, but adult audiences don't laugh at this part in the play, and younger audiences do.
I find this fascinating, and this response has been most surprising. Is it that the disturbing image of the dead daughter carried on by a howling father is too much to consider, or is it that Lear is simply a comic character, even at the most tragic moment of his life?
Taking the latter on board, I consulted the writings of comedy expert Henri Bergson about comic characters, and found this quote - 'a character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself'. Is it too much to expect us to howl and mourn for Cordelia when we know she ended up dead due to his ignorance - his lack of self-knowledge? I wondered could this shed light on Lear, if the young people were laughing at his ignorance?
Interestingly, the laughter usually stops around the time when Lear says 'I might have saved her'. Yes, he might have. There's the rub, and the knowledge. That's the real tragedy - his insight is too late. And that's not funny. It's tragic.
by Caroline Byrne
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