Definition and Examples of Comic Relief

Comic relief usually means a release of emotional or other tension resulting from a comic episode interposed in the midst of serious or tragic elements in a drama. Comic episodes or interludes, usually in tragedy, aimed to relieve the tension and heighten the tragic element by contrast. They are or should be an essential and integral part of the whole work. If not actually extended into an episode or interlude, the relief may take the form of a few remarks or observations (or some form of action) which helps to lower the emotional temperature. The humour involved tends to be wry or sardonic.

Good representative examples are Iago’s gulling of Roderigo in Othello, the drunken porter scene in Macbeth, Hamlet’s laconic and witty treatment of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Osric in Hamlet (and the Gravediggers ‘scene’ in Hamlet) and the Fool’s mockery in King Lear. Other outstanding examples are to be found in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Atheist’s Tragedy.

There was good precedent for such relief in some Mystery Plays. A remarkable example is the York Mystery Cycle version of the Crucifixion in which the four soldiers talk in the colloquial, matter-of-fact style of everyday life as theym go about their business of nailing Christ to the Cross. In a different vein is the almost slapstick and buffoonish comedy that occurs in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, which itself is a counterpoint and contrast to the wry ironies of Mephistopheles.

Also read: Black Comedy or Dark Comedy

Also read: Domestic Comedy