Guide to Literary Terms

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Comic Relief

Comic relief (also called episode and interlude) - a humorous scene, incident, or remark occurring in the midst of a serious or tragic literary selection and deliberately designed to relieve emotional intensity and simultaneously to heighten, increase, and highlight the seriousness or tragedy of the action. Apart from being a simple diversion, though, comic relief normally plays some part in advancing the action of drama.

The phrase comes from two words: the first, comic, has the same etymology as that of comedy which is discussed above; relief may be traced from Middle English, back to Middle French, and originally to the Old French relever, meaning “to relieve.”

Since the Sixteenth Century, tragedians have almost universally used comic relief, as in Shakespeare’s drunken porter in Macbeth:

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the key. Knock, knock, knock! Who’s...

(The entire section is 318 words.)