William Shakespeare Beginnings and Endings - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Robert F. Willson, Jr. (essay date 1983)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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M. J. B. Allen (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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A. D. Nuttall (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5155 words.)

Robert Smallwood (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Beginnings: Comedies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Beginnings: Late Plays

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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T. W. Craik (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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Bernard Beckerman (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Zvi Jagendorf (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.]


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Deborah T. Curren Aquino (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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Jean E. Howard (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9362 words.)

Ejner J. Jensen (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Endings: Tragedies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Endings: Hamlet

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Derek Peat (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Booth (essay date 1983)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Endings: Othello

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Endings: Romeo And Juliet

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.]


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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2416 words.)