What’s the Funniest Tragedy?

We’ve often discussed the fact that Romeo and Juliet, right up until Mercutio’s death, is a romantic comedy that suddenly goes very very badly.  Even the darkest plays have at least a couple of jokes thrown in (or do they?)  So let’s talk about that.  Among all the plays that are not supposed to be comedy, which one do you think is the funniest?

There’s multiple ways to look at this:

* Laughs where Shakespeare put them, and expected them.
* Laughs where a modern director found an opportunity to get a laugh.
* Laughs where the audience laughed, and probably wasn’t supposed to.

So let me rephrase it this way – which play do you think provides enough potential for the audience to walk away thinking, “Wow, I never expected to laugh that hard!”

I’ve seen a fair share of laughs in Othello, and Macbeth.  I didn’t laugh at Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but when I saw a production in Boston Common the lead character was so over the top snarky in his attitude toward everybody that I couldn’t help myself (although I also wanted to punch him).  I’ll be very surprised if King Lear makes this list.  Somebody remind me if there’s any funny bits in that one at all?

10 thoughts on “What’s the Funniest Tragedy?

  1. I actually think that Titus Andronicus is hilarious, and while it'd be easy to attribute that all to modern perceptions of melodrama and to modern directors playing up the ludicrous angle, I suspect a lot of it comes from Shakespeare, too. There are places where he uses alliteration in ways that are just babbling and ridiculous, even during "serious" scenes, and then so many of the scenes juxtapose tragedy with absurdity in a way that I can't help but find funny. Take Marcus's speech when he finds Lavinia, for instance — so many people see that as "oh, such beautiful poetry" and miss that Marcus is such a spaz that he stands there talking about Lavinia's wounds for forty lines without doing a thing to help the poor girl. Or the opening political squabble between the brothers. Or the entire Revenge scene. There's a lot more sly, almost satirical humor in that play than it gets credit for.

  2. The few funny bits in Lear. The first is seeing how unruly Lear's knights are during 1.4 with Goneril:
    "Men so disordered, so debauched and bold
    That this our court, infected with their manners,
    Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust
    Make it more like a tavern or a brothel
    Than a graced palace."

    Edmond also gets a few funny parts (when he injures himself: "Look, sir, I bleed." and when he talking about which sister he wants: "Which of them shall I take?")

    Also crazy Lear. Although it's sad, you can't help but laugh. "Look,look, a mouse! Peace, peace; this piece of toasted cheese will do 't… Sa, sa, sa, sa!"


    The night has been unruly: where we lay,
    Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
    Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death,
    And prophesying with accents terrible
    Of dire combustion and confused events
    New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird
    Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth
    Was feverous and did shake.


    'Twas a rough night.

    –Even after everything that has taken place prior to this–the horror, blood, and murder– it's almost impossible to not find Macbeth's short line funny. I don't think it was intended to be that way at all. But the timing almost dictates it; the fact that it's a line/meter completion in modern editing doesn't help at all in the delivery. Not so in the Folio. There, it's possible to give the short line the value of a full one in beats without delivering it like a "punchline". In any event, it's still humorously macabre.

  4. This is funny because I have actually been planning to write a post on the ten funniest moments in King Lear.. If I do end up writing it, I'll post the link here. But for now, I'll offer one example.

    Edmund warns Edgar of his father's rage against him. Edgar can hardly believe it.

    Edgar: Some villain hath done me wrong.
    Edmund: That’s my fear.

    Edgar happens to be entirely correct. We just saw Edmund plant the lies. "That's my fear" cracks me up every time.

  5. Lear definitely has a lot of comedy in it. Lear's Fool is arguably a funnier and less glum character than, say, Feste.

    Hamlet gets my vote for funniest tragedy, though. Hamlet himself has a caustic sense of humor that's largely what keeps us on his side, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tend to get laughs whether or not they want to. Polonius and Gravedigger both work well as comic relief characters (I realize they're much more than that, but it's not unusual for audience's to find them hilarious).

  6. Was hoping I could find a spot to post this.

    For those in the Boston/Providence area, try to find a ticket to see Trinity Rep's King Lear, running through the 21st. Just got back from seeing it with my 80 high school students. They were mesmerized.

    One of Trinity's best Shakespeares in recent memory, produced in conjunction with a Dallas company where erstwhile Trinity director Kevin Moriarty works now.

    If you are in the Dallas area in January, you'll be able to see the same show.

    As for humor, yes, all the moments mentioned above, plus Oswald (the estimable Fred Sullivan. Jr.), whose scene with Kent insulting him into submission was quite funny.

    Well acted, well produced, just well everything.

  7. Hamlet, I think has some funny scenes in it. I laugh at Roz and Guil, and also at Hamlet's scene with Polonius. The rest is some sort of sarcastic smile.

  8. Anonymous says:

    There was an English all-male troupe that came to the States last year, I believe, that put on a Richard III that embraced the macabre, dark humor, with an asylum atmosphere to the set and trundling, singing men taking off the bodies. the scene with Anne is always darkly funny, wooing a lady over her husband's corpse. I felt bad for laughing that hard.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I saw a production of Macbeth last year that was staged as a comedy. When the house lights came up, the woman behind me said, "That was fun! I remember thinking, wait, but it's a tragedy. Admittedly, many of the comedy the directors found worked (the dinner scene was roaringly funny), but something still felt off about it to me. Nevertheless, I learned about the play and the potential to stretch things in different directions.

  10. I find Lear full of humor! My favorite exchange, with Lear poking fun at himself:

    Edgar: Away! the foul fiend follows me! Through the sharp hawthorn blows the cold wind. Humh! go to thy cold bed, and warm thee.

    Lear. Hast thou given all to THY two daughters . . .?

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