Rey Ty, Alkarzon, Peer-Reviewed Journal Article,Economic Crisis, War, Humor and Lessons from Shakespeare.
US-China Education Review A, ISSN 2161-623X
May 2014, Vol. 4, No. 5, 289-297
Economic Crisis, War, Humor, and Lessons From Shakespeare
for Adult Learning and Human Resource Development
Rey Ty, Awni Alkarzon
Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, USA
This paper addresses the problem of teaching adult learners who are going through difficult economic and political
times. Lessons are learned from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Humor is at the same time both a powerful educational
tool and a course content that can be used to highlight tragic social realities. Through thoughtful laughter, humor
comforts people. On the one hand, humor eases tension. On the other hand, humor intensifies tension by exposing
harsh realities in a comic way. Hence, humor can be used as an instructional tool to facilitate learning about
complex issues and tragedies both inside and outside the classroom (formal education), the community (informal
education), and the workplace (non-formal education and human resource development).
Keywords: humor, Shakespeare, adult education, economics, higher education, human resource development,
political science, philosophy, sociology of education, educational psychology
Educators are engaged in formal education in the classroom, informal education in the community, and
non-formal education in the organization. Adult learners whom we teach formally in the classroom,
non-formally in the organization, and informally in the community and organizational settings experience
personal, interpersonal, and social problems: social injustice, inequality, poverty, corporate greed, and even
foreign occupation (Piketty & Goldhammer, 2014; Stiglitz, 2013; Krugman, 2012). Life is hard enough.
While recognizing all these real-world problems with which people are faced as learners and as ordinary
social beings with all their worries, we can lighten up the learning atmosphere. A little humor can go a long
way. Shakespearean tragedies are depressing and focus on the dark side of human existence. However, we
can learn from Shakespeare who injected some humor in the saddest of tragedies, such as in King Lear
(Shakespeare, 2005). Humor can be used “a tool to cope with violent conflict, humanizing or dehumanizing
the other, bridge builder, (and) mobiliser” (Zelizer, 2010, p. 1).
Importance of the Research to the Practice of Adult Education
Given all the problems with which instructors and learners are confronted in their daily lives, this research
is important for the following reasons: 1. Educators can explore the use of humor in the face of tragic social
Rey Ty, Ed.D., training coordinator, International Training Office, Division of International Affairs; adjunct professor,
Department of Counseling, Adult, and Higher Education, Northern Illinois University.
Awni Alkarzon, Ph.D., assistant to the associate president of the Division of International Affairs; Ed.D. candidate, Department
of Counseling, Adult, and Higher Education, Northern Illinois University.
ADULT LEARNING AND HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT290
realities; 2. Humor can be used as a pedagogical tool which can lighten the mood in the academic and
organizational learning settings; and 3. Learners can become aware of multiple meanings in texts, for instance,
humor can be used to talk about harsh social realities. Shakespeare’s King Lear is used as an exemplar of the
way by which humor can be employed to impart some solemn message.
This paper addresses the following three research questions as they relate to teaching adults and adult
1. What is the tragic human condition with which we are confronted?
2. What lessons can we learn from Shakespeare’s King Lear that can be applied to teaching and learning?
3. How can instructors use humor as a tool for adult learners to deal with tragic situations?
Objectives of the Research
Applying lessons learned from King Lear to today’s adult learning situations, there are three objectives in
1. To understand the economic crisis and war situation within which current adult learners are situated;
2. To learn lessons from Shakespeare’s King Lear for application in teaching and learning in and about the
3. To examine how humor can be used as a tool to deal with different facets of adult learning situations.
By humor, we mean literature or speech which aims to amuse or rouse laughter in the reader or listener
respectively (Monro, 1988). Humor is a product of a cognitive shift, marking the ending of a suspense or
expectation (Dewey, 1998). The humor theory that guides this research is Ghose’s (2008) theory in
Shakespeare and Laughter: A Cultural History. According to Ghose (2008), “The function of laughter is to
make things trivial—and thus gain mastery over whatever threatens to overwhelm us. Laughter is a serious
matter” (p. 7). Ghose’s explanation is directly applicable to Shakepeare’s King Lear, because of the wise Fool’s
caustic comments on Lear’s action regarding his unwise decision to divide his kingdom between his daughters,
Regan and Goneril. Through the use of humor, the Fool in fact wants the King to be wise in decision making.
This paper described the tragic reality of human condition (including economic crisis and war), lessons
from King Lear, and the use of humor (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Analytic framework.
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Humor theories guide this research. They abound in different disciplines. Hence, the study and
understanding of humor must include theories from such fields as philosophy, political science, anthropology,
sociology, and psychology in general as well as sociology of education and educational psychology in
particular. Each theory explains one aspect of humor. Hence, these theories are not mutually exclusive. Rather,
they may be used in combination to have a better grasp of humor, as they are complementary. In fact, an author
could discuss more than one aspect of humor and thereby present more than one theory of humor. This section
presents a history of philosophy of humor, which provides interdisciplinary explanations.
There are contending humor theories. Through the ages, classical, medieval, modern, and postmodern
philosophers provide different interpretations about humor. The study of humor started with the study of
medicine, according to which, laughter is the best medicine. Prominent ancient or classical philosophers who
have discussed humor include Plato (2008) and Aristotle (1984). Key medieval philosophers who have
discussed humor are Augustine (2003) and Aquinas (2012). Major modern philosophers who have discussed
humor include Hobbes (1840), Locke (2013), Kant (1951), and Freud (1905/1960).
Here is a classification of some of the major humor theories (see Table 1) (Raskin, 1985). Considered a
type of stimulus theory, the incongruity theory (Aristotle, 1984; Kant, 1951) stresses the opposition of the
outcome of a situation but does not explain indecency, nonsense, or superiority complex. When discussing
rhetoric, Aristotle (1984) argued that when an expectation is established but instead a twist develops, then
laughter results. Kant (1951) stated that when seemingly disparate things are put together, which produce
incongruity, humor arises. Examples include dumb leaders, children lecturing parents about financial
investments, as well as seniors rapping and dancing hip-hop.
Different Types of Humor Theories
Stimulus Functions Response
Theory Incongruity theory Relief theory Play theory Superiority theory
Description Two things do not match. One releases emotion.
People bond together through
One feels better than another.
Considered as a type of response theory, the superiority theory (Plato, 2008; Aristotle, 1984; Hobbes, 1840)
posits that people poke fun at the suffering of others as well as enjoy satires and slapstick; however, it does not
account for laughing over incongruity, indecency, nonsense, or play with words. In the Philebus, Plato (2008)
indicated that people who poke fun at and consider ridiculous the misfortune of the weak derive malicious
pleasure from the suffering of others. In the “Poetics” (Sections 3 and 7), Aristotle (1984) stated that people
belittle others whom they consider as inferior to themselves. In the “Nicomachean Ethics” (Chapter 4, Section
8), Aristotle (1984) considered jokes as some kind of abuse, warning that jokes should be told without causing
suffering to others. In Human Nature (Chapter 8), Hobbes (1840) argued that when people laugh at their own
past mistakes or at other people’s misfortunes, they develop a sense of superiority and become vainglorious in
the face of the infirmity of others. When they make fun of others at their expense, the situation becomes
humorous as they feel a sense of superiority. Examples could include rich politicians laughing at their poor
constituents or subjects poking fun at the habits and customs of aristocrats and royals.
Some jokes promote the joyous arrogance of the joker and perpetuate stereotypes to be humorous.
Especially under postmodern thought, these jokes are therefore inappropriate and unethical, as they practically
ADULT LEARNING AND HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT292
amount to discriminating, belittling, and bullying others, especially those whom we consider inferior or
subordinate to us. However, appearing to be superior by mocking at others might also be a veiled attempt at
hiding one’s real sense of inferiority.
Considered a type of functional theory, the relief or release theory (Freud, 1905/1960; 1928; Spencer,
1860) as such asserts that laughter is a product of nervousness; it is a release of repression from psychological
tension or conventional social requirements. In “The Physiology of Laugher”, Spencer (1860) stated that mental
excitement must expend itself and produces a release of energy or tension in the form of laughter. The relief
theory, however, does not explain laughing at the misery of others. Freud (1905/1960) restated Spencer’s
humor theory in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, saying that joking, the comic, and humor are the
sources of laughter.
The play theory (Huizinga, 1955) states that humor is a mechanism of social bonding, social exclusion, or
stress relief, through which people have fun with one another. Examples of play theory include playing with
words. In all cases, familiarity and surprise co-existing together are two necessary elements for humor to be
appreciated by an audience, either readers or listeners.
Freud (1905/1960) regarded indecent jokes and gossips as comic relief which is produced as a result of
violating conventional moral restraints, at least momentarily.
The theory used to guide this research on the use of humor in Shakespeare’s King Lear is Ghose’s (2008)
theory in Shakespeare and Laughter: A Cultural History. The three most important literatures on humor
discussed in this paper were authored by El-Shayal (2001), Snyder (1979), and Teague (1994).
Learning as Enjoyment
In essence, El-Shayal (2001) argued that students hate Shakespeare, but at the same time, they need to
study Shakespeare. El-Shayal claimed that learning should be enjoyable, including learning about
Shakespearean tragedies. By focusing on the Fool’s comments on Lear’s misjudgment in connection to the
division of his kingdom, which in appearance is humorous, the instructor can make the lessons on
Shakespearean tragedy enjoyable.
Mixing Comic and Serious
Snyder (1979) said that “Shakespeare had thoroughly explored and mastered the comic mood while he was
still finding his way in tragedy. Add to that, the taste for mixing comic with serious was part of his theatrical
heritage” (p. 4). In addition, “Comic characters can define the tragic situation by their very unawareness and
irrelevance” (Snyder, 1979, p. 5). Snyder exposed the real part played by the Fool, who appears to be a comic
character. But in reality, he is a tragic figure. In fact, Lear punished the Fool for telling the truth.
Teague (1994) said that “Tragic and comic moments occur when someone, having accepted a particular
model for understanding the world, tries to consider alternative views” (p. 5). Lear has two reactions: one at the
beginning and the other at the end. In the first view, the Fool tried to prevent the King from giving away his
kingdom in a comic way. In the second view, Lear understood the meaning of the Fool’s comments when his
two daughters deceived him, to whom he has given his property. Lear may laugh at the Fool’s jokes, but the
play quickly recalled the tragic consequences of Lear’s unwise decision.
ADULT LEARNING AND HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT 293
On the one hand, the contribution of El-Shayal (2001) is the call for instructors of literature to make
learning enjoyable, including learning about Shakespearean tragedies and about social realities. El-Shayal’s
focus is on the teaching and learning strategies. On the other hand, the contribution of Snyder (1979) is the
need consciously to mix the serious with the comic in teaching, such as teaching Shakespeare. The contribution
of Teague (1994) is for instructors and students to consider scrutinizing both the seemingly humorous
appearances in the text and the serious and profound reality and meaning.
Filling the Gap
In general, instructors tend not to use humor, as they see teaching as a serious matter, not only in teaching
literature but also teaching in general. This paper appeals to all instructors seriously to consider humor in their
teaching in both the school and workplace settings, because it makes student learning more fun, which therefore
increase student engagement, understanding, reflection, and action.
This paper uses a qualitative research design. Literary criticism (Connery & Combe, 1995) is used as a
tool to analyze humor. Literary criticism refers to the analysis of literary works by breaking down the
component parts of a given piece, identifying the underlying themes, exposing its main aspects and structure, as
well as applying different theories in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses. This paper analyzes humor in
Shakespeare’s King Lear, from which lessons are drawn for use in adult learning today in academic institutions,
the community, and the workplace. The existentialism of Kierkegaard (1980), Nietzsche (2007), Sartre (1946),
and Camus (2000) provides tools to critique the despair and champion the ability of the human spirit to find
hope and bring about change.
The Human Condition
Existentialism. Existentialism is humanism, asserted Sartre (1946). Existentialist philosophers, such as
Kierkegaard (1980), Nietzsche (2007), Sartre (1946), and Camus (2000), stressed that in the midst of despair
and suffering, humans have the freedom and assume responsibility to choose to be engaged and get out of their
angst, despair, and clutches of oppressive structures in order to live their authentic lives, lest they practice
mauvaise foi or bad faith (Magee, 2001). Kierkegaard (1980) stated that philosophy has a profoundly personal
character in which fear, despondency, and resolution are key elements. Critiquing the inhumanity of the
capitalist system, Camus (2000) stressed that human life is senseless and absurd, in which we do not have any
way out. However, Magee (2001,) noted that:
Sartre said that he exaggerated the extent to which the individual could free himself from the pressures of the society
in which he lived. In short, human agency is not necessarily able to free humans from the yoke of structural pressures. (p.
Real-World Problems. Adult learners are part of society; hence, they are not immune to major economic,
political, and cultural problems that exist in society at large, which are no laughing matter. The human
condition is replete with anxiety in which people are historically and socially situated. For example, the
collapse of hedge funds in 2007-2008 led to the subprime mortgage crisis and debt-driven collapse that affected
ADULT LEARNING AND HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT294
not only the United States (US) but also the whole world. As a result of the economic crisis, many people lost
their jobs (Stiglitz, 2013). The resulting bursting of the housing bubble caused real estate value to decline. The
US government bailed out banks and Wall Street, but not the ordinary people on Main Street. The International
Monetary Fund (IMF) and the German government gave different formulas to different European economies in
distress. As consumer demand decreases, commodity production likewise drops, which leads to the spiraling of
unemployment globally. In the meantime, climate change is taking place on a global scale. Overall, there is an
increase in uncertainty. In times of crisis, people of color, undocumented immigrants, undocumented workers,
and people of minority faiths became the convenient scapegoat.
On another front, many US military personnel were deployed to different parts of the world, from Iraq to
Afghanistan and elsewhere (Human Rights Watch, 2013). People affected by the armed conflicts include
civilians, the military, and their family members. Many countries are going through dramatic political change,
from Libya to Syria and Egypt (Amnesty International, 2013). Inside the US, US citizens are worried about
their right to privacy including in their telephone conversations and Internet activities are being violated
(American Civil Liberties Union, 2013; Greenwald, 2014). Because of all these developments, many
individuals experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All of these tragic and desperate human
conditions impact adult learners in formal, non-formal, and informal settings. Humor can be used both as an
instructional strategy and as a subject matter content to highlight these tragic realities.
Literary Criticism of King Lear and Lessons From Shakespeare
King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, but it is full of motifs and devices of comedy
because humor leads to laughter and “laughter is the result of a shift in perception that creates a sense of
pleasure” (Morreall, 1987, pp. 128-138). King Lear is a tragedy which destroys the guilty and innocent. It is
concerned with the passing of power from old to young. Old King Lear divides up his kingdom unfairly
between his three daughters, despises the only daughter who sincerely loves him, and suffers the consequences.
The Fool, throughout the entire time he is in the play, is attempting to point out these insane actions and delay
Lear’s insanity as much as he can.
The Fool uses riddles and jokes to convey his message to Lear. He acts as a natural fool who is a source of
fun. Erasmus (1986) explained the concept of a natural fool as “they are cheerful, playing, singing, and
laughing themselves, and bring pleasure and merriment, fun and laughter to everyone else … as if the gods had
granted them the gift or reliving the sadness of human life” (p. 109). The Fool crosses his limit by abusing his
employer because he is a licensed jester. Thus, King Lear is a study of folly, and in this context, the Fool seems
to be the wisest person on stage.
The Fool said that there are two fools and Lear is the greatest fool of the two. Lear has turned those who in
an ordered society should be subordinate to him into figures with authority over him. He has turned the ruled
figures into rulers. Thus, he has “unleashed the forces of disorder upon his kingdom” (Ghose, 2008, p. 189).
Should Lear refuse to be ruled and led, he will have to learn the hard way from his own mistakes.
Thus, the Fool acts as an “all-licensed critic who sees the truth about the people around him” (Welsford,
1935, p. 256). Using humor helps the Fool to unite the comic and the tragic scenes. How are readers and
students who study this dark tragedy of Shakespeare supposed to react to this clash of comic and tragic
scenes? To resolve this question, one may consider the real task of comic relief in tragedies. The Fool plays
the role of a wise man. He is an ideal fool who symbolizes a loyal counselor to the King (Bakhtin, 1941/1965).
ADULT LEARNING AND HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT 295
In summary, King Lear provides practical tools for instructors to consider injecting a dose of humor in their
Humor as a Tool to Talk About Tragic Situations
Given all the problems with which adult learners are confronted in their daily lives, instructors can explore
the use of humor in discussing harsh social realities. Humor can lighten the mood in the classroom. Moreover,
students learn multiple meanings in texts.
Nowhere in Shakespeare’s plays do the tragic outlook and dark humor confront each other so closely as in
King Lear. The Fool’s character, in the tragedy of King Lear, dominates this dramatic convention. Lear’s Fool
proves to be a completely “natural fool”. Far from being an idiot or a moron, he enjoys a privileged status
because of his unique characteristics as a “natural fool”. The Fool is the courtly jester whose main duty is to
evoke thoughtful laughter. The Fool is the character who stays with the King while he is falling, and throughout
the storm scenes. The Fool keeps telling Lear that he is a fool, and has become “nothing”.
The Fool is controlled by his own rules that are different from the people around him. The Fool’s
character has “something to do with a knowledge and sometimes a purpose which is exclusive to the Fool”
(Evans, 1972, p. 53). The Fool clearly knows the folly of feelings like those he himself acts from, compared
with the commonsense wisdom of the world. He realizes that his actual behavior, as well as bringing some
comfort to Lear, also reproaches him in a way he cannot afford to reproach him in words. The Fool is limited,
that is, as Orwell (1961) has pointed out, to a kind of folk-wisdom, which sees the world very sharply and
shrewdly and recognizes basic human realities that include basic human feelings—for what they are, but
which, it must also be said, always sees the world as it were from below. Goldberg (1974) insisted that “The
Fool cannot expect justice; indeed, he is clear-eyed about so much of life just because he cannot afford the
luxury of demanding more” (p. 90). The fool wants Lear to regain power and tries to make Lear gain insight
by his humor. In fact, tragedy, like comedy, has its own aspects. The main problem is that the Fool speaks
colloquial language which might disqualify his speech for tragic effect. But, Shakespeare was able to
reconcile the Fool’s lowly, unrhetorical talk to the lofty, heroic temper of this tragedy. His comments are
pregnant with tragic meanings and loaded with wisdom and knowledge.
The Fool, in King Lear, for the first time, plays a major role. According to Reibetanz (1977), “The Fool
surpasses all his predecessors in that Shakespeare manages here to make the clown a vital component of a great
tragedy” (p. 93). Bradley (1951) stated that the Fool is “one of Shakespeare’s triumphs in King Lear” (p. 311).
The Fool combines the main aspects of sweet and bitter folly. On the surface, his songs show his caustic
remarks on King Lear, but underneath, we find his true love for his master. “The Fool does not violate our
sense of dramatic propriety by what he says or what he does” (Goldsmith, 1963, p. 97). Martin (1987) stated
that the Fool is “perhaps not the only character in the play objective enough to realize the ironic nature of
human existence, (but) is the only one whose every utterance throbs this implicit refrain” (p. 61). The Fool in
King Lear is not involved in any action but gives humorous comments on the action of the play. Martin (1987)
argued that “The Fool’s statements do not significantly contribute to nor intensify the dramatic tautness, but
instead relieve the tension already built up” and “he expresses what Lear’s consciousness has not yet grasped;
hence, when Lear becomes mad, The Fool disappears” (pp. 22-23). The Fool’s action and humorous comments
do not change the tragic atmosphere of King Lear but intensify its tragic effect. Thus, the humorous comments
serve to heighten the tragic atmosphere of the play and provide comic relief to the characters, audience, and
ADULT LEARNING AND HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT296
students who study the tragedy of King Lear. In a similar vein, the use of humor can also be applied to teaching
and learning, either to amplify the tragic social realities (content) or to offer comic relief (teaching method) or
Conclusions and Implications
There are real-world lessons to be learned from Shakespeare’s King Lear. This paper explained that King
Lear was confronted with a tragic reality of giving up his land to his two daughters who deceived him.
However, the Fool used humor to comfort the King. Learning lessons from Shakespeare’s King Lear, this paper
discussed two main points: 1. It discussed the tragic reality of King Lear’s predicament and of adult learners;
and 2. It presented how humor can be used to teach difficult subjects, such as the tragic Shakespearean
literatures. As such, tension is reduced with the use of humor, which exposes and heightens the tragic reality
behind comic relief. Hence, tragic reality is exposed behind comic relief. Humorous comments heighten the
tragic effect by drawing attention to the contrast.
Implications of Applications of the Findings to Practice
This paper described the tragic reality of human condition (including economic crisis and war), lessons
from King Lear, and the use of humor. Three kinds of humor can be used to comfort the listeners (in this case,
learners): incongruity, release, and play. The superiority theory of humor is not recommended for use in
teaching and learning, as it borders on discrimination and bullying. In fact, Plato (2008) and Aristotle (1984)
considered that using humor to promote one’s superiority is unethical. Here lies the relationship of humor and
discussion about heavy and serious matters: The international economic, political, and cultural conditions affect
human lives. As people are experiencing hardships in their daily lives, not unlike King Lear’s, instructors can
use humor, such as the Fool’s comic relief, as part of the teaching and learning process. Shakespeare’s Fool
provides comic relief which reduces the dramatic tension both to the audience in the theater and to the adult
learners in classroom and organizational learning settings. In the final analysis, discussing a fictitious tragic
story or a real-world problem could be made less stressful and more enjoyable through the use of humor.
This paper concludes that, through thoughtful laughter, humor comforts adult learners by easing the
tension, but at the same time, intensifying the tension by exposing the reality in a comic way. Instructors can
use humor as a tool to understand complex issues in tragic situations, which facilitates learning in the classroom,
community, and organization settings.
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