Comic Relief: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 What is Comic Relief?
  • 0:51 William Shakespeare
  • 2:26 Charles Dickens
  • 4:11 Harper Lee
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Hayley Medeiros

Hayley is an experienced, certified teacher of English and art who holds a Master's degree in literature.She has taught all levels from elementary through college.

In this lesson, you will learn what comic relief is in a work of literature, as well as explore some examples of it in selected works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Harper Lee.

What Is Comic Relief?

Have you have ever cracked jokes or heard someone make funny noises during a serious lecture to lighten the mood and make people laugh? If so, then you already know what comic relief is. In a literary work, comic relief is an author's use of humor to give the reader or audience an emotional break from the tension and heavy mood of a serious or tragic plot. This can include humorous characters, clever dialogue, and funny scenes.

Comic relief also functions as an element of contrast to intensify the tragedy to come, and it can be found in all genres of writing. Now, let's look at some examples of comic relief from the work of three different writers noted for their use of this important literary technique: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Harper Lee.

William Shakespeare

We'll start with William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a master of comic relief and frequently incorporated comedic elements into many of his plays. He often used a clownish, bumbling type of fool to provide comic relief. Let's look at a few prominent examples of comic relief in Shakespearean tragedies.

In Act II: Scene iii of Macbeth', the drunken porter (gatekeeper at Macbeth's castle) is a buffoon who appears between the horrific murder of King Duncan and the gruesome discovery of his body. He imagines that he is the gatekeeper of hell, and his hallucinations are delivered with enough slapstick, dirty jokes, and vulgarities to keep the audience in stitches. After this, the horror of King Duncan's butchered corpse is magnified for the audience.

In King Lear, the court jester, called ''The Fool,'' provides comic relief in the form of his crazy behavior, jokes, and mockery of Lear's stupidity. There is actually a lot of wisdom in the madcap riddles and jokes made at Lear's expense. This supplies welcome relief from the king's insanity and the play's violence.

Another example of comic relief occurs in Act V: Scene i of Hamlet.' By this point, Ophelia has committed suicide, and Claudius and Laertes are plotting to poison Hamlet, who has just returned to Denmark. To lighten the mood, Shakespeare inserted the scene with the clownish gravedigger who enjoys jerking Hamlet around every time he asks him a question about the grave he is digging. This gives the audience a much-needed comic respite from the bloodbath that is to come by the end of Act V.

Charles Dickens

Another famous writer who used comic relief is Charles Dickens. As a writer whose mission was social reform, Dickens knew that his novels would not be very popular without the injection of comic relief. Because really, who wants to read several hundred depressing pages about starving orphans, bankrupt families serving prison terms in the poorhouse, and child beggars? Dickens' humorous character names provide comic relief. Who doesn't at least crack a smile at hearing names like Pip, Pumblechook, Fezziwig, Mr. Wopsle, Polly Toodle, Mrs. Jellyby, and Herbert Pocket? Dickens used character names to allude to the basic absurdity of human nature.

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