Definition of Comic Relief
Comic relief is a literary device used in plays and novels to introduce light entertainment between tragic scenes. It is often used in the shape of a humorous incident, a funny incident, a tricky remark or a laughing commentary. It is deliberately inserted to make the audiences feel relief. In this sense, it makes the tragedy seem less intense. Although it is often considered a diversion, it plays a significant role in advancing the action of the play or the novel. Etymologically, comic relief is a phrase of two words comic and relief. The meanings are clear that it is a relief provided through comic incidents or remarks.
Examples from Literature
“Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of
hell-gate, he should have old turning the key. Knock
Knock, knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of
Belzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged himself on th’
expectation of plenty. Come in time! Have napkins
enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t. Knock
Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name?”
(Macbeth by William Shakespeare, Act-II, Scene-III, Lines 1-8)
These lines occur in the third scene of the second act of Macbeth by Shakespeare. Porter is delivering these lines between two gruesome incidents; the murder of King Duncan and the discovery of his dead body. Porter thinks that he seems to be on guard of the gate of the hell. He is hallucinating and delving inappropriate jokes and abuses. This scene brings a brief comic relief after the tragic death of King Duncan.
“Fathers that wear rags
Do make their children blind;
But fathers that bear bags
Shall see their children kind.”
(King Lear by William Shakespeare, Act-II, Scene-II, Lines 55-58).
It is very interesting that King Lear, was indeed a powerful and a beloved father, enjoying the love of his daughters. When he was a wealthy king, they used to flatter him. However, when he is a poor man after dividing property, every daughter becomes blind toward him. The joking and mocking behavior of the court jester provide this comic relief at several other places in the play. These lines bring relief for the readers when the tragedy is overwhelming.
“Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here
stands the man; good; if the man go to this water,
and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him
and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he
that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.”
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act-V, Scene-I, Lines 14-20)
This is another great example of comic relief from Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The two clownish gravediggers in this scene are talking about the drowning of Ophelia and her burial in the graveyard. These lines show how jestingly this first gravedigger is exampling the suicide in a way that it does not seem that he is accusing the dead; rather, he is accusing the water. This is comic relief as it provides the audience a chance to smile after going through heavy sorrows of the death of Hamlet’s father and melancholy of the young Hamlet.
“Well, sir.—Now I am made man for ever. I’ll not leave my horse for forty. If he had but the quality of hey-ding-ding, hey-ding-ding, I’d made a brave living on him: he has a buttock as slick as an eel. [Aside.] Well, God b’ wi’ ye, sir, your boy will deliver him me: but hark you, sir; if my horse be sick or ill at ease, if I bring his water to you, you’ll tell me what it is.”
(Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlow, Scene-XI, Lines 20-24).
Horse courser is a character in Dr. Faustus, who wants to buy Faustus’ horse when they are in the emperor’s court. Faustus warns him not to ride his horse in water. At first, he displays his seriousness in understanding his instructions. Later he begins to cut jokes over this issue saying that the horse’s behind is “slick as an eel” making others laugh over the argument. However, it is interesting that when he rides on it through water, it vanishes, leaving him on the grass. This comic scene occurs when the situation becomes profoundly serious and intense in the play.
Functions of Comic Relief
Comic relief is a pause for the audience. It provides them with an opportunity to feel light-hearted and enjoy something new. It also gives them a chance to smile at something different. Although it sometimes seems awkward, it happens in real time, too, that humor is the spice of life where tragedy becomes too heavy to tolerate. Also, it proves a moment of reflection for the characters.