Learning “Comic Relief” by
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Prompted By Comic Relief

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I was introduced to “comic relief” by my 8th grade English teacher, in his explication of Act II, Scene III of “Macbeth”, the scene following the macabre murder of King Duncan, whose blood is yet unwashed on Macbeth’s hands.  Blood and treason rule the night.

To the extent that “comic relief” need not cause one to snot in laughter, need not require a banana peel to go ass over teakettle on...

The new scene opens with a persistent knocking at the gates of Macbeth’s castle. The gate keeper, aroused from his drunken stupor by the knocking, and wholly ignorant of the horror within, buffoons his way to the gate, joking that he is a “devil-porter” who is opening the gates of hell to those arriving for the “everlasting bonfire.” Which of course is somewhat and ironically true, for hell now lies within the castle walls, and will soon horrify the new arrival (Macduff, a staunch and loyal defender of the recently deceased king).  But for now, in this brief moment between the high drama of the regicide and the high drama of its imminent discovery (and the recurrent death and retribution that follow), the world is sort of normal.  The gate keeper is funny, as drunkards and blowhards are known to be.  He is no hurry to open the gate.  We, reading or watching, can take a breath and enjoy the distraction.

Call it “comic relief” said my teacher.

Lucky for me, when I dimly recalled this ancient first encounter I looked for and (miraculously) found my 8th grade “Macbeth” on a shelf in my study, nestled and gathering dust among a few other old school books which have travelled with me from place to place, decade to decade, evading any number of chances to get lost, tossed or forgotten.  I was able to read, in the original text of my boyhood, with my original marginal doodles, Act II Scene II which contains the murder, and Macbeth’s first distraught realization that his evil deed cannot be undone; and Act II, Scene III which contains the gate keeper’s meanderings, and also Macduff’s distraught discovery of the murdered king:  “O horror, horror, horror!  Tongue nor heart [c]annot conceive nor name thee!”

To the extent that “comic relief” need not cause one to snot in laughter, need not require a banana peel to go ass over teakettle on, but may just be a happy and unexpected hiatus between two chores, I would call my discovery of my old “Macbeth”, and the satisfaction I glossed from it, a working example of “comic relief.”

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Here is what I said about myself on the back page of my 2020 humor/drama/politico novel "The Debutante (and the Bomb Factory)" (edited here, for clarity):

"Jonathan Canter Is a retIred attorney; widower; devoted father and grandfather (sounds like my obit); lifelong resident of Greater Boston; graduate of Harvard College (where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon); fan of waves and wolves; sporadic writer of dry and sometimes dark humor (see "Lucky Leonardo" (Sourcebooks, 2004), funny to the edge of tears); gamesman (see "A Crapshooter’s Companion"(2019), existential thriller and life manual); and part-time student of various ephemeral things."

The Deb and Lucky are available on Amazon. The Crapshooter is available by request to the author in exchange for a dinner invitation.






Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. If that eighth grade English teacher yet lives, or if you can make contact with one of her or his survivors, oh what a wondrous gift it would be to share with them the fruits of this recollection.
    It was quite inspiring to hear the details of this very specific example of comic relief as portrayed in literature. Quite inspiring and quite satisfying.

    • I heard recently that he is still teaching. He was a wondrous teacher, maybe the best of my life–among other wondrous things, our weekly theme papers were due on Monday, and he regularly returned them on Tuesday, full of thoughtful and helpful comments. He spoiled me. Some future teachers returned the papers w/o comment 3mo later, when it didn’t matter. The good news is that I ran into him about 20 years ago and told him, sort of awkwardly, and maybe like a simp, that he was my favorite teacher–which I think he appreciated.

  2. Suzy says:

    This is great, Jon, thanks for reminding us that comic relief doesn’t have to mean rolling on the floor laughing, it can just be a small comic interlude between more serious (or even tragic) things.

    My memory of MacBeth is from sophomore year of college, when I took Shakespeare from the great Harry Levin. My roommate’s last name was Porter, so when we got to the scene with the drunken porter, there was great merriment at her expense. Who cares if a king was being murdered, when there was a drunken Porter! I could have sworn the stage direction was “The drunken Porter stumbles in,” but I checked my copy and it is the same as yours.

  3. Marian says:

    This is spot on, Jon, for where we are today, when any relief is helpful. I am so glad you still have that Shakespeare volume. My wonderful annotated book of all the plays and sonnets was in a box that was lost during one of my very numerous moves, most likely in the 1980s.

  4. Thanx Jon for reminding us of Shakespeare’s genius and his grasp of psychology, a few hundred years before Freud.

    And bravo for keeping those old school books, what a trove!

  5. I am not a Shakespeare scholar, or regular re-reader, but I find that in those random times when his words and my brain collide I am a winner.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Having just found my annotated complete works of Shakespeare, which thankfully survived our downsizing book purge, I am curious what I wrote in the margin for that scene. In these dark times, we all need to find a bit of comic relief.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great description of comic relief, Jon. I might not have gone to Harvard, but I was a Theater major at Brandeis, so read a lot of Shakespeare and he always wrote in some comic relief for the “groundlings” between the murder and mayhem of the tragedies. Your teacher sounds wonderful.

    I was discussing MacBeth over dinner tonight with my son (I’m in London, we are waiting for the birth of our first grandchild). His 9th grade English teacher was featured in a front page story in the Boston Globe yesterday. Brainerd Phillipson is now a rare book dealer. One of his clients in Concord, MA discovered what has been authenticated as a rare Durer painting (not engraving) and will be put up for auction soon, expecting to fetch millions of dollars.

    We got into a discussion of his long-ago teacher (from 22 years ago), a highly literate, entertaining man. I reminded my son that his teacher invited me to come into school and act out a scene from MacBeth for his 11th grade class, I read Lady MacBeth and one of the students read the other part (I no longer remember what scene and I am not home to check). But, like with your story, we are back with MacBeth and public school. I still have my copy too, in addition to my full Works of Shakespeare from college. Books, like memories, are always worth keeping.

    • Betsy, a lot of rich ground tilled in your comment. I read the story about the newly-discovered (and apparently authenticated) Durer, and I thought to myself pity the poor guy who sold it for $30., and congrats to the lucky guy who bought it, and his lucky dealer.
      Are there any extant reviews of your performance as Lady Macbeth? Did you play other notable roles in your acting career (in the 11th grade class, or otherwise)? What a great character Lady Macbeth is, fiendishly pushing her equivocating husband to do murder, cleaning up the crime scene herself, and then losing her mind (she tries and tries to wash the blood from her hands).
      I was especially pleased to find my old text, and read my old marginal comments in my long-since-gone loopy cursive style (I now feature an illegible scrawl): I was tossed back to when I was a boy, with a lot of open space between my ears, and in this particular case remembering (savoring, as it turns out) my teacher’s comments re “comic relief”.
      As to keeping books, yes and no. They fill up a lot of space, collect a lot of dust, and are often difficult to get rid of. Many of them stick around because they are old friends, even if I haven’t spoken to them in decades.
      Most importantly, I wish an easy and happy baby delivery for all concerned.
      Jon

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Jon, you can read about my amateur acting career, such as it was, in the old Retro story “Follow the Fold and Stay No More” ( for the prompt, “The Road Not Taken”).

        I did get in touch with Brainerd Phillipson, the Newton English teacher, turned antique book dealer, yesterday. He remembered me, my son and my reading of Lady MacBeth for his 11th graders, which he concurred was memorable. So that was fun.

        Books do tend to take up room, and collect dust, I agree. I’ve gotten rid of some through the years but many I just cannot part with. I am lucky that we have not yet down-sized. That will be a catastrophe.

        Thanks for the good baby wishes. For now, we wait, isolate, and try to avoid omicron.

  8. John Shutkin says:

    A wonderful story Jon and, as Suzy noted, “comic relief” does not have to cause the riotous outflow of any bodily substances. Indeed, as Macbeth well demonstrates, the more tragic or horrifying the story, the lighter the relief may be.

    And your eighth grade teacher reminds me of not one, but all, of my superb high school English teachers. Like you, we were required to submit an essay every Monday, which meant weekends –and typically Sunday nights– had to have some frivolity set aside for them to be duly written. (Indeed, as I typically write my Retro stories the Saturday or Sunday after the newest prompt is released, I am experiencing a modified case of deja vu these days.) But, by Tuesday or Wednesday of each week, the essays were returned, inevitably with thoughtful, incisive comments (and, of course, a grade). I never had a course in either college or law school that taught me more about writing than those high school classes. And I’d like to think that, like Potter Stewart and pornography, I know good writing when I see it.

    • Sunday nights still tend to haunt me, for a plethora of reasons (let’s have a prompt: “Why Sunday nights still tend to haunt me”), not the least of which is the “deja vu” (as you say) of squeezing a theme (my school called them themes) out of my unfocused brain onto a sheet of blank paper. If doodles counted my page would have been filled to the margins. Fortunately, word doodles counted (and still do).

      • John Shutkin says:

        That would be a great prompt, though I recall a number of earlier Retro stories that spoke about watching the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday night. For my part, I’m just glad that, unlike my English essays, there has yet to be a Retro prompt in which I had to discuss character development in Ethan Frome — or was it Silas Marner?

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    One of the books from long past that I will never part with is my “Complete Works of William Shakespeare in One Volume” that I bought for a college lit class. I haven’t read anything by old WS is many years; it might be time to revisit MacBeth!

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