Beginnings and Endings
Beginnings and Endings
Late twentieth-century commentators on the opening scenes of Shakespeare's plays often approach this topic from the perspective of audiences rather than readers. Focusing on theatrical effectiveness, these critics consider how spectators unfamiliar with a play might react to Shakespeare's initial representation of the dramatic world they are about to enter. Many critics point out that the information provided in Shakespeare's opening scenes is almost always incomplete or ambiguous, making it difficult for audiences to determine what is actually happening. Indeed, modern-day directors employ a variety of techniques to help playgoers begin their imaginary journey into the unique world of a Shakespearean play. A. D. Nuttall (1991) emphasizes the disorienting quality of many of Shakespeare's opening scenes and argues that the dramatist exploited the spectators' uncertainty during the opening minutes of a performance by immediately bewildering them. On the other hand, Shakespeare's initial scenes frequently provide clues to the forthcoming dramatic action, though the signs may be encoded so subtly that audiences will not notice them. However, M. J. B. Allen (1984) discerns in the opening scenes of Shakespeare's tragedies clear premonitions of their eventual endings.
In a wide-ranging discussion of Shakespeare's endings, Bernard Beckerman (1985) shows how the dramatist capitalized on audience expectations regarding the outcome, playing upon conventions and using them in unconventional ways. Beckerman also points out that several of the history plays contain denouements that are virtually tragic in form, while others terminate without any resolution, thus suggesting continuity of action rather than closure. In contrast with the endings of the histories, which have drawn little critical attention over the past thirty years, the final scenes of Shakespeare's comedies have been analyzed by a number of commentators. Zvi Jagendorf (1984), for example, in an evaluation of the endings of three plays he characterizes as “tragi-comedies,” regards these scenes as recapitulations—and resolutions—of the problems posed in the earlier action. Focusing on two of Shakespeare's early comedies, Deborah Curren Aquino (1986) similarly reads the concluding scenes of The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labor's Lost as reprisals or syntheses; she argues, however, that since the plots have been resolved before the final episodes, the playwright designed these scenes merely to entertain or amuse the audience until he brought the play to a close.
Adopting theoretical perspectives which were formulated by C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye, many commentators in the 1970s and 1980s emphasized the festive, harmonizing, or restorative nature of Shakespeare's comic endings. More recently, however, critics have challenged these approaches. For example, instead of finding harmony and clarification in the final scenes of Shakespeare's comedies, Jean E. Howard (1986) calls attention to the presence of complications, contradictions, and unresolved tension. She warns that by attempting to construct a single, unifying perspective on the dramatic action, audiences and readers may overlook the complexity of Shakespeare's comic endings. Also contesting orthodox views, Ejner J. Jensen (1991) asserts that late twentieth-century commentators have placed too much weight on closure in the comedies, and as a consequence they have relied on a play's ending for evidence of its central idea or “meaning.” He also remarks that critics have now begun to emphasize the dark or problematic nature of Shakespeare's comic endings.
Recent commentary on Shakespeare's tragic endings reflects a more uniform viewpoint. Walter C. Foreman, Jr. (1978) locates a series of elements common to most—but not all—of these endings: the tragic hero's acceptance of death, the establishment of a new order, an emphasis on the dynamic energy that has been lost with the death of the protagonist, and the relatively mundane or limited nature of the new order. In discussions that focus on individual tragedies, critics frequently connect a play's ending with its beginning. William C. Carroll (1981), for instance, argues that the fatalistic mood established by Romeo and Juliet's Prologue pervades the rest of the play, and that the conclusion sustains this mood, leaving us with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Similarly, Robert F. Willson, Jr. (1990) emphasizes the reflexive quality of the final scene of Hamlet, calling attention to echoes of the opening scene's style, thematic content, and dramatic action. In keeping with the pattern described by Foreman, Willson asserts that Hamlet's stoic acceptance of his fate and the restoration of order in Denmark are evident from the play's concluding lines. Thomas Clayton (1994) investigates how Othello's final lines affect our judgment of the Moor's nature; Clayton argues that they reinforce an interpretation of the hero as a sympathetic figure, particularly when they are linked to Desdemona's final words.
Of all Shakespeare's endings, King Lear's is the most celebrated. Indeed, it has attracted more critical interest than any other Shakespearean scene. Yet commentators remain divided about whether Lear's concluding lines express a sense of affirmation. In their discussions of the play's final scene, Derek Peat (1980), Stephen Booth (1983), and Phoebe S. Spinrad (1991) are all especially cognizant of audience response. Peat believes that from the opening note of uncertainty in the first scene of the play, audience confusion intensifies, then reaches its climax with the death of Lear. At the close, Peat maintains, Shakespeare gives us no assurance that order has been restored or that the future will be less bleak than the present. Booth describes the ending of Lear, after the king enters with Cordelia in his arms, as “the most terrifying five minutes in literature.” He suggests that the intensity of audience reaction to this outcome stems from our having forgotten—as have the characters represented on stage—about the fate of Lear and his daughter. Concerned, like Booth, with the question of why the final moments of Lear are so intensely poignant, Spinrad characterizes the ending as uncertain. But she proposes that in the concluding lines of the play, Shakespeare offers his audience a new kind of catharsis, an unconventional form of closure that cannot be encompassed by traditional dramatic theories.
Criticism: Beginnings: Overviews
SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Tragic Prefigures,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XVI, 1983, pp. 143-51.
[In the essay below, Willson asserts that the opening scenes of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth are, in effect, prophetic interludes. Willson argues that Shakespeare raises significant symbolic or thematic issues in each of these scenes by introducing a character—specifically, Horatio, Brabantio, France, and Cawdor—whose actions at the beginning of the play foreshadow the conduct of the tragic hero in a subsequent, climactic episode.]
Shakespeare's tragic openings, like those of other tragic dramatists, serve the ends of exposition. We must know of past quarrels between aged kings or of promotion decisions that have snubbed deserving fellows before we can begin to understand the motives of central characters and the courses of their actions. In King Lear, for example, the opening exchange between Kent and Gloucester (I.i.3-4) reveals that the king has already decided on the realm's disposition, casting ironic shadows on the trial of affection.1 But with a skill that is unmatched by his competitors, Shakespeare frequently uses his opening scenes as carefully designed interludes to present characters whose behavior prefigures that of the hero in later, climactic scenes. Through this method he achieves a degree of tension and excitement that enriches the play's...
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SOURCE: “Toys, Prologues and the Great Amiss: Shakespeare's Tragic Openings,” in Shakespearian Tragedy, edited by Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer, pp. 3-30, Edward Arnold, 1984.
[In the following essay, Allen comments on the diverse openings of eight plays—Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet—with particular emphasis on the degree to which the ending of each tragedy is inherent in its beginning. Allen apportions the fullest coverage to the opening scenes of Macbeth, which he judges to be the most dense and profound of all Shakespeare's beginnings.]
The Greek cosmologists first brought the experience of human beginnings, centred as they must necessarily be around the experience of birth, to bear on the metaphysics of time and existence: When did the world begin? When did time begin? Did they begin together? What existed before them? How can there be a before before time itself? These and other cognate questions were keyed in turn to the notion of a ‘cause’. Indeed the Greek word arché means ‘beginning’ but also ‘cause’ and ‘principle’. Inevitably the Greeks were led to the notion of the very first or prime cause as the only possible explanation for the ultimate beginning, though some were attracted to the vision of a great prime nothingness, the void or ‘Night’ of the Orphics....
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SOURCE: “Some Shakespearean Openings: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, The Tempest,” in The Arts of Performance in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Drama, edited by Murray Biggs et al., pp. 84-95, Edinburgh University Press, 1991.
[In the essay below, Nuttall evaluates the opening scenes of Hamlet, Twelfth Night,and the Tempest in terms of the challenge presented to Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists by the absence of a distinct, visual threshold between the playgoers and the actors on stage. He demonstrates how, in the early lines of these three plays, Shakespeare exploits this drawback—even heightens the sense of uncertainty—by creating openings that emphasize the indeterminacy of the dramatic action.]
It is said that those musical works which begin with a high distant call on the French horn are very hard on the performers. Openings are naturally anxious affairs, but horn-playing is peculiarly vulnerable to nervous tension; a catch in the breath issues in a horribly audible false note. Shakespeare knew from working experience that first lines are similarly charged with anxiety for the performers. This area of potential defeat he turned, like several others, into a field of victory. The actor playing Barnardo in the opening scene of Hamlet finds that, in addition to the usual hazards of uttering the first words of the play, he is being supplied by a dramatist who has chosen, as...
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SOURCE: “‘Beginners, Please’; or, First Start Your Play,” in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 1993, pp. 72-84.
[In this essay, first delivered as a lecture in Vienna in April 1992, Smallwood describes a series of Royal Shakespeare Company productions in which directors prefaced the first lines of text with various devices designed to promote specific interpretations, create atmosphere, or lead the audience into the world of the play. The critic points out that each of these techniques evokes the same question: where does a play begin?]
I want to begin in Vienna.1 In one sense it is 1991, in another it is 1604, but it looks late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century, and it sounds it too, with a Strauss waltz rather wheezily rendered on an inadequate band with too much brass about it, and couples dancing in a half-lit café before dispersing, a little mechanically, apparently in search of more intimate surroundings. The episode has taken perhaps a minute and then the scene, or rather the lighting, changes and we focus on a middle-aged, bewhiskered figure, little round spectacles on his nose, sitting on a couch, examining scraps of paper which he is taking from a green folder. He reads them through quite carefully, not hurrying over the process. We can see that they are newspaper cuttings, perhaps half a dozen of them. They are carefully replaced in the folder. Our middle-aged, bespectacled,...
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Criticism: Beginnings: Comedies
SOURCE: “The Opening of All's Well That Ends Well: A Performance Approach,” in Entering the Maze: Shakespeare's Art of Beginning, edited by Robert F. Willson, Jr., pp. 155-67, Peter Lang, 1995.
[In the following essay, Styan focuses on Shakespeare's stagecraft in the first scene of All's Well that Ends Well. He calls attention to specific ways in which the text underscores—and actors and directors may further highlight—Helena's grief and isolation. In addition, Styan maintains that the alternation of romance and realism that occurs throughout the play is first manifested in its opening lines.]
In the first scene of All's Well, Shakespeare's stage suggests that among its little group of people all is not at all well. This opening, indeed, is another striking example of the playwright's control of his actors at the outset of a play, and of course through them his audience. The action on stage totally complements what an audience is to perceive and understand from the beginning if the play is to go rapidly to work. This essay will therefore focus especially upon the essential signals of seeing and hearing that Shakespeare has built into his text in order that his initial intentions shall not be missed by actors or audience. The nature of those intentions, together with the hints about the genre and attitude of the comedy contained within them and what they foreshadow of things...
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Criticism: Beginnings: Late Plays
SOURCE: “The Beginnings of Pericles, Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen,” in Entering the Maze: Shakespeare's Art of Beginning, edited by Robert F. Willson, Jr., pp. 169-81, Peter Lang, 1995.
[In the essay below, Bergeron compares and contrasts the Prologues in Pericles, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and links the plays' Epilogues to their respective beginning speeches. He argues that while each of these Prologues expresses a moral judgment, it also calls on the spectators to form their own opinions of what they will see.]
Three of Shakespeare's final plays contain a formal Prologue and Epilogue: Pericles, Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen.1 Their subject matter differs radically as the first uses exotic material of romance; the second, somewhat recent English history; and the final one, medieval chivalric romance inspired by Chaucer. Each play begins with a choric figure who nevertheless points in different directions. I will suggest, oversimplifying somewhat, that Gower in Pericles emphasizes “narrative,” the Prologue in Henry VIII underscores “theatricality,” and the Prologue in Two Noble Kinsmen offers an amalgamation of these perspectives, tinged with a sexual metaphor. Shakespeare signals such possible distinction through Gower's references to “readers” of the text, the Prologue in Henry VIII's...
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Criticism: Endings: Overviews
SOURCE: “‘You that way; we this way’: Shakespeare's Endings,” in Mirror up to Shakespeare, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 44-54, University of Toronto Press, 1984.
[In this essay, Craik considers the manner in which Shakespeare employs stage directions and concluding couplets to achieve a sense of finality at the conclusion of a play's performance. Craik is particularly concerned here with the tragedies and the histories, but he also calls attention to the formal and informal epilogues of some of the comedies.]
This essay is concerned rather with the manner in which Shakespeare concludes a play's performance than with the manner in which he handles its dénouement, though it is not easy (or desirable) to consider these two aspects of dramatic technique separately. In both of them Shakespeare shows himself to be both artist and craftsman, aware of the final impression that he wants his play to make and equally aware of the conditions of the theatre in which he passes his daily life, as actor no less than as playwright.
While the comedies are to some degree admitted by Shakespeare to be fantasy, the tragedies and histories make a considerable claim, by their treatment, to be a realistic imitation of life. They therefore end with the powerful working-out of the human relationships upon which they have turned. To study their endings, then, is to see how Shakespeare theatrically...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare Closing,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VII, n.s., No. 3, Summer 1985, pp. 79-95.
[In the following essay, Beckerman surveys the final scenes of Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, and histories. In his analysis of these, he distinguishes between the resolution (how the narrative is unraveled) and the closing (the particular way the playwright conveys the sense of an ending.) Beckerman emphasizes that with regard to each of the dramatic genres, Shakespeare transformed the principles of accepted dramatic conventions even as he ostensibly observed them.]
By 1970, a remarkable change had come over theater audiences in New York. For the first time in the experience of regular playgoers, audiences became extraordinarily demonstrative. I recall precisely the first time I encountered this new behavior. It was at a performance of the revival of No, No, Nanette with Ruby Keeler. The wild reaction may have been a campy tribute to Ruby or a surprised appreciation at the durability of a musical from 1925. Whatever the stimulus, large sections of the audience received the finale with cries of “brava.” They stood up to applaud and in a kind of ecstasy poured a torrent of approval upon the astonished actors.
After this, whenever I went to see a play, I saw—and heard—similar enthusiasm. Cries of bravo—which hitherto had been the hallmark of the opera...
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Criticism: Endings: Comedies
SOURCE: “Patterns of Resolution in Shakespeare's Comedies,” in The Happy End of Comedy: Jonson, Molière, and Shakespeare, pp. 124-37, University of Delaware Press, 1984.
[In the excerpt below, Jagendorf analyzes the discovery scenes in The Merchant of Venice, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure in the context of the comic conventions of recapitulation and return. In each of these plays, Jagendorf notes, the final scenes are preceded by ones which feature a real or proposed substitution that complicates the plot; the satisfactory consequences of these exchanges, the critic maintains, are then revealed in trial-like, concluding episodes.]
Readers of Roman comedy are familiar with the exploitation of confusion about identity for the creation of deadlock and comic upheaval. Characters ignorant of who they are hold the key to many happy endings that are held up until someone arrives to identify them. In Terence's Woman of Andros, for example, the revelation of Glycerium's real name and status makes possible her marriage to the young man with his father's consent. A more complicated knot is created when one character is taken for another, the result of coincidence or intrigue. Such an exchange of identity makes likely more far-reaching consequences; the wife may share her bed with the god standing in for the husband (Amphitryon), the angry citizen may put his own...
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SOURCE: “The Sense of an Ending in Shakespeare's Early Comedies,” in Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, Vol. 7, 1986, pp. 109-21.
[In this essay, Curren Aquino discusses the concluding scenes of The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labor's Lost. She judges that in each instance, the final scene effectively crystallizes the themes, imagery, characterization, and dramatic action of the play as a whole.]
About Shakespeare's endings, Samuel Johnson wrote:
in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labor to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.
In the twentieth century, Ernest Schanzer has echoed Dr. Johnson's opinion in his commentary on A Midsummer Night's Dream: “For sheer economy and multiplicity of effect it [the first scene] has no equal in any of Shakespeare's opening scenes, on which he generally bestowed more thought and care than on any other part of his plays” (242). I would suggest, however, that Shakespeare's endings, particularly in the comedies, show a vigorous exertion of effort rather than a remittance,...
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SOURCE: “The Difficulties of Closure: An Approach to the Problematic in Shakespearian Comedy,” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan, edited by A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman, pp. 113-28, University of Delaware Press, 1986.
[In the essay that follows, Howard challenges theories of comic structure which assert that Shakespeare's comedies inevitably conclude with the restoration of social order and the harmonizing of disruptive or contradictory elements. Focusing on the final scenes of The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and The Merchant of Venice, Howard proposes that in these scenes Shakespeare interrogates comic conventions to demonstrate the hazards audiences will encounter if they ignore or suppress features of a play that cannot be reconciled with a single, all-inclusive interpretation.]
For those of us schooled on the work of C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye, the phrase “Shakespearian comedy” is probably forever linked in our minds with “green worlds,” “idiotes figures,” and “transformed societies.”1 Frye and Barber taught an entire generation of Shakespearian critics a way of comprehending Shakespeare's comic practice, and it was with an immediate sense of understanding that I recently read an article by Charles Sugnet that began with the author's assertion that he found it comparatively easy to teach Shakespearian comedy because its generic...
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SOURCE: “Crowning the End: The Aggrandizement of Closure in the Reading of Shakespeare's Comedies,” in Shakespeare and the Ends of Comedy, pp. 1-21, Indiana University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Jensen contends that late twentieth-century commentators have placed too much emphasis on closure in Shakespeare's comedies. He believes they have evaluated Shakespeare's comic endings more rigorously than those of his predecessors and contemporaries, tied the plays' meanings too closely to their endings, and disregarded complexities in the final scenes that run counter to a unified interpretation. In the course of his argument, Jensen provides a detailed review of orthodox positions regarding the “festive” endings of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, and recent critical emphasis on the dark or problematic conclusions of these plays.]
Over thirty years ago, John Russell Brown reviewed the course of “The Interpretation of Shakespeare's Comedies: 1900-1953.” In doing so, he located the central critical tendency of the works he surveyed in the “constantly repeated dictum … that the heart of Shakespeare's comedy lies in its characters.”1 This emphasis on character, he found, led to summary judgments about the plays' merits, including the view that “the endings of The Two Gentlemen, Much Ado, and Twelfth Night are … precipitous and unsatisfying.” Faced with...
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Criticism: Endings: Tragedies
SOURCE: “Tragic Death and Dull Survival,” in The Music of the Close: The Final Scenes of Shakespeare's Tragedies, pp. 1-28, University Press of Kentucky, 1978.
[In the excerpt below, Foreman identifies and discusses a set of features that he finds in the final scenes of Shakespeare's tragedies: the tragic figure's readiness for death, his or her spiritual or emotional isolation, the establishment of a new order in the world of the play, and the relative dullness of the characters who will administer this new order. Foreman also comments on three tragic endings that deviate from this pattern: Troilus and Cressida, Richard III, and Macbeth. Finally, he touches briefly on each of the tragedies whose concluding scenes are shaped by the motive of sexual love: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra.]
We that are young shall never see so much.
A dying man, early in one of Shakespeare's tragedies, tells us that “the tongues of dying men / Enforce attention like deep harmony”:
He that no more must say is listened more Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose. More are men's ends marked than their lives before. The setting sun, and music at the close, As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last, Writ in remembrance more than things long past.
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Criticism: Endings: Hamlet
SOURCE: “Hamlet: The Duel Within,” in Shakespeare's Reflexive Endings, pp. 1-20, Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.
[In this essay, Willson emphasizes the iteration, in Hamlet's final scene, of action, motifs, and language presented in the first scene. He further contends that by the end of the play, Hamlet has become a stoic, leaving Providence to direct events rather than trying to control them himself. In addition, Willson discusses the significance of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, and the resolution of the theme of revenge versus justice.]
hamlet. O! I die, Horatio; The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit: I cannot live to hear the news from England, But I do prophesy the election lights On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice; So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less, Which have solicited. The rest is silence.
In his famous 1765 Preface Dr. Johnson made this comment on Shakespeare's endings:
It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and, in view of his reward, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.
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Criticism: Endings: King Lear
SOURCE: “‘And that's true too’: King Lear and the Tension of Uncertainty,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 33, 1980, pp. 43-53.
[In the following essay, Peat focuses on the ambiguities and mounting anxiety in the final scene of King Lear. Audience response to this scene repeatedly alternates between hope and despair. Peat asserts that spectators with no previous knowledge of the play would be thoroughly confused by the tumultuous events taking place on stage during this scene, and would become so emotionally involved that it would be impossible for them to serenely view the deaths of Lear and Cordelia as signs of affirmation or renewal. Peat's discussion of confusion and uncertainty in King Lear also includes an analysis of the Dover Cliff scene.]
‘By the end of King Lear, we should see that Cordelia possesses everything that is genuinely worth having.’ This might be a quotation from Shakespearean Tragedy, but it comes from a recent book by John Reibetanz.1 The approach is new, but the conclusions are familiar: ‘through his sufferings Lear has won an enlightened soul’; ‘we protest so strongly against Cordelia's death because we are not of her world’; ‘Material goods are fetters and the body a husk to be discarded so that the fruit can be reached.’2 Reibetanz acknowledges the obvious debt to Bradley, but he is no ordinary disciple. He...
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SOURCE: “The Promised End,” in King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy, pp. 5-11, Yale University Press, 1983.
[In the excerpt below, Booth proposes that the ending of King Lear is terrifying because Shakespeare renders us powerless to call on any of the usual defenses by which we might avoid confronting it directly. Before Lear enters with Cordelia in his arms, the play has reached a formal conclusion, the critic points out, and, like the characters on stage, we have been so caught up in other events that we have forgotten about the King and his daughter. Unprepared for the narrative to continue—particularly in such a shocking fashion—we cannot set the ending apart, confine it, or comprehend it.]
The tragedy of Lear, deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare, is commonly regarded as his greatest achievement. I submit that King Lear is so because it is the greatest achievement of his audience, an audience of theatrically unaccommodated men. If an audience's achievement in surviving the harrowing experience of King Lear could ever reasonably have been doubted, it has been taken for granted since this superbly forthright note on King Lear in Samuel Johnson's edition of Shakespeare: “I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an...
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SOURCE: “Dramatic ‘Pity’ and the Death of Lear,” in Renascence, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 231-40.
[In this essay, Spinrad maintains that no formal dramatic theory or convention can adequately explain why the death of Lear is so profoundly moving. We weep, she suggests, because his death arouses our compassion: we feel that his suffering was undeserved.]
Despite centuries of the keenest critical analysis, there has been no real consensus on whether the death of King Lear is cathartic in the classical sense, redemptive in the medieval sense, retributive in the Renaissance sense, or futile in the modern sense. Audiences in the theater, however, reach a fairly simple consensus: they cry. Indeed, many of us may have experienced this anomaly at a performance of Lear: if not crying ourselves, then at least hearing the surreptitious sniffles of people around us—some of whom may just have spent a hard day in the classroom or at the keyboard examining the death of Lear as an academic exercise. In this essay I examine those academic exercises; and in seeming to dismantle each of them, I hope to show that they may be valid for other parts of the play, but not for what we cry over; that Shakespeare has denied us our expected forms of closure so that we may reach a kind of catharsis not covered by our standard dramatic theories.
Here I should note that when I speak of...
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Criticism: Endings: Othello
SOURCE: “‘That's she that was myself’: Not-so-famous Last Words and Some Ends of Othello,” Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 46, 1994, pp. 61-68.
[In the essay below, Clayton focuses on the final couplets uttered by Desdemona and Othello, reading these lines as affirmations that love unites the tragic pair in a single identity. With these four lines, Clayton suggests, Shakespeare evokes a poignant sense of pathos and enhances his presentation of the Moor as an essentially sympathetic figure.]
To those for whom Shakespeare's plays still have value as works of dramatic and poetic art that move and enlighten the receptive, the last words of his tragic protagonists and other major characters should be of special interest and importance as momentous and definitive, because they evidently were for Shakespeare, whether composing or revising, and beginning quite early on, in Richard III and Richard II, for example; but they seem to take on special resonance and significance in the later tragedies, notably A. C. Bradley's Big Four, and also Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens.1
Shakespeare constructed the ending of Othello in such a way that Desdemona and Othello both expire on the terminal note of a single heroic couplet, each concerned primarily and affectionately with the other....
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Criticism: Endings: Romeo And Juliet
SOURCE: “‘We were born to die’: Romeo and Juliet,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 1981, pp. 54-71.
[In the following essay, Carroll argues that the ending of Romeo and Juliet is announced at the beginning, and is repeatedly articulated in succeeding scenes. Pointing out significant deviations between the final scene of Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare's principal source—The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet—Carroll proposes that Shakespeare wanted to emphasize there is no escape from the tomb for the young lovers and that the only satisfactory means of memorializing their love is through dramatic representation.]
While Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage offstage, their one night in the sheets of love is shaded by the ghostly presence of winding sheets. Tybalt's death hangs over Verona, as old Capulet says to Paris:
Look you, she lov'd her kinsman Tybalt dearly, And so did I. Well, we were born to die. ’Tis very late, she'll not come down to-night.(1)
Indeed she won't, for she is dying sexually above even as her father pronounces his platitudes and arranges her hasty marriage to Paris. Juliet governs her own comings and dyings to the end.
Capulet's sententious wisdom, bracketed between a bow to a dead loved one and transactions with a new suitor, reminds us of...
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Berger, Harry, Jr. “The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation.” ELH 47, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 1-31.
Analyzes the portrayal of feudal kingship in Act I, scenes 2, 4, and 6 of Macbeth. From Berger's perspective, these scenes demonstrate that Scotland is beset by political conflict and instability, and that Macbeth's enemies are complicit in the evil that pervades the play.
Burns, Margie. “The Ending of The Shrew.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 41-64.
Challenges the notion that there is a lost or “missing” ending to The Taming of the Shrew. Burns points to structural, linguistic, and thematic parallels between the Induction and the final scene, as she traces the play's movement from hierarchical division to reciprocal exchange.
Butler, F. G. “Erasmus and the Deaths of Cordelia and Lear.” English Studies 73, no. 1 (February 1992): 10-21.
Interprets the ending of King Lear in terms of Renaissance views of life, death, and the human soul. Butler proposes that Gloucester's death is a liberation, Cordelia's is a sacrifice to atone for her father's errors and her own, and Lear's is a transformative one, because the once self-absorbed monarch dies entirely concerned with his daughter rather than himself.
Carroll, William C. “The Ending of...
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