illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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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...

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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 byRomeo 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.

T. W. Craik (essay date 1984)

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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 reinforces the tragic fact, the death of the protagonist. His technique, however, varies from play to play.

The removal of dead bodies in a theatre without a curtain to lower between stage and spectators had usually to be written into the final lines. (Romeo and Juliet and Othello, which are exceptional, will be mentioned later.) In Julius Caesar, where Brutus's body is at the centre of the final tableau, its removal is not actually directed, merely implied, by Octavius's concluding speech, which follows Antony's tribute:

According to his virtue let us use him,
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within my tent his bones to-night shall lie,
Most like a soldier, ordered honourably.
So call the field to rest, and let's away
To part the glories of this happy day.


The somewhat similar ending of Coriolanus shows some interesting variations. Brutus's suicide, foreseeable yet attended by suspense as three of his friends refuse to kill him and the enemy draws nearer, is performed with resolute dignity. This is not a scene of violence. But Coriolanus's assassination, which Aufidius provokes him into inviting, is accompanied by mob outcries recalling the tearing of Cinna the poet, and when he falls, Aufidius stands on him (the direction is from the Folio). The shocked Volscian lords restore order and command Aufidius to remove Coriolanus's body with due honour. Aufidius assents:

My rage is gone
And I am struck with sorrow. Take him up.
Help, three o’th’chiefest soldiers; I’ll be one.
Beat thou the drum, that it speak mournfully;
Trail your steel pikes. Though in this city he
Hath widowed and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.
Assist. [Exeunt bearing the dead body of Coriolanus.
A dead march sounded.]


The stage action here (unlike that at the end of Julius Caesar) is carefully written into the speech: three captains and Aufidius are to carry the body; a soldier is to beat a dead march on the drum; the rest are to trail their pikes. After the final couplet, the single word of command, ‘Assist,’ sets all the action going. It also, by putting a rough edge on the couplet, adds a touch of unexpected realism to the expected formal ending.

Shakespeare had given the same rough-edged finish to Hamlet:

Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.


The ‘Exeunt’ of the Second Quarto is appropriately expanded in the Folio into ‘Exeunt Marching: after the which, a Peale of Ordenance are shot off.’ The earlier part of Fortinbras's final speech, like Aufidius's, exactly specifies what is to happen so that the audience can fully absorb the respect which is being accorded to the dead hero:

                    Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov’d most royal; and for his passage
The soldiers’ music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.


The ‘stage’ (that is, scaffold) is the one on which he was asked by Horatio to expose the bodies to view; its mention shows that he has accepted Horatio's claim to speak authoritatively of the bloody spectacle. Horatio's importance has been strongly emphasized in the last sixty lines, most obviously by his impulse towards suicide and by Hamlet's reasons for staying him. It is also notable that Fortinbras's approach is heard off-stage before Hamlet dies, Osric explaining that ‘this warlike volley’ is his salute to the English ambassadors. This motivates Hamlet's recommendation of Fortinbras as the next king of Denmark (why else should he be in his thoughts?), and the preliminary announcement of his arrival prevents the audience's suspicion that dramatic convenience has dictated it. Shakespeare's concern for a realistic effect and a slow tempo at the end of the play appears in the ‘after the which’ of the Folio's stage direction (which must reflect the stage practice) and also in ‘Go, bid the soldiers shoot.’ The guns are fired not in response to Fortinbras's wish but to his command, which a soldier has to go and deliver to the gunners while others are removing the bodies of Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes.

In Othello Shakespeare reverted to the couplet as conclusion. Lodovico, embodying the authority of Venice, speaks to Iago and, after him, to Gratiano and Cassio:

                                        O Spartan dog,
More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea!
Look on the tragic loading of this bed.
This is thy work.—The object poisons sight;
Let it be hid. Gratiano, keep the house,
And seize upon the fortunes of the Moor,
For they succeed on you. To you, Lord Governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture—O, enforce it!
Myself will straight aboard; and to the state
This heavy act with heavy heart relate.


The finality of the couplet is emphasized by the balancing of ‘heavy act’ with ‘heavy heart.’ There are by now no bodies requiring removal. Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello have all died appropriately on the bed, and at ‘Let it be hid’ the bed's curtains are closed (‘the object’ is not the bed itself but its ‘tragic loading’). It remains on stage after the actors have made their exit and probably also until after the spectators have left the theatre—unless the tragedy is followed by a jig, as was Julius Caesar when the Swiss traveller Thomas Platter saw it in 1599. The end of Romeo and Juliet is presumably to be managed in a similar way, though this is not made so clear by the lines. The dying Paris begs Romeo, ‘Open the tomb, lay me with Juliet’ (as he duly does), which indicates that Shakespeare is concerned to place all the bodies (of Paris, Romeo, and Juliet, not to mention Tybalt) where they can be conveniently allowed to remain at the final general exit. But the prince gives no order to close up the tomb (‘Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while’ V.iii.215, which might be interpreted in this sense, relates rather, in the context of his whole speech, to the passionate outcries of Juliet's parents and Romeo's father); furthermore, the visible presence of the bodies till the very end will provide a much-needed focal point while all the lengthy explanations are going on, and the prince's lines

Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!


seem to require the enemies to see, not merely to understand, the form that divine vengeance has taken. So if the tomb was closed—as it almost certainly was—this must have been done silently while the general exit was taking place, Shakespeare having missed his opportunity of writing it into the dialogue.

The dialogue culminates in the quatrain-and-couplet spoken by the prince, a lyrical conclusion in stylistic harmony with the sonnet which formed the prologue:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd and some punished.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.


These lines combine the functions of concluding speech and epilogue. The word ‘story’ is appropriate both to the recital of recent facts that the prince has just heard (as when Hamlet bids Horatio ‘tell my story’ or Kent tells Edgar ‘the most piteous tale of Lear and him’) and to the dramatized action that the audience has been witnessing. The prince's final couplet is directed outwards, to those in the pit and galleries as well as to those standing with him on the stage, and amounts to the rhetorical question, ‘Have you ever heard a more pathetic story than this?’

The final speech in King Lear, by contrast, is wholly addressed to the characters on stage (‘we that are young’ referring to Albany and Edgar, upon whose shoulders—Kent having resolved to follow his master—the government of Britain has now fallen):

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


‘Exeunt with a dead march’ is the Folio's direction, Albany's earlier command ‘Bear them from hence’ being now obeyed. The final tableau has had Lear and Cordelia at its centre; Goneril and Regan, after their violent deaths off stage, have been brought on earlier so that (as has often been noticed) Lear and his three daughters are all together on stage for the first time since the opening scene. It was perhaps to emphasize this visual effect that Shakespeare had Edmund borne off stage to die. He may also have considered that four bodies were quite enough to remove at the close. Furthermore, since it was Edmund's remorse that had prompted the attempt to save Lear and Cordelia, Lear's entry with Cordelia's body would demand an emotional response of some kind from him—and yet any such response would be an unwelcome distraction of the audience's attention. For the sake of completeness his death has to be reported to Albany, whose comment, ‘That's but a trifle here,’ reinforces the stage's emphasis on Lear and Cordelia. But the bodies of Goneril and Regan are not forgotten, for Kent tries to draw Lear's attention to them. Shakespeare thus ensures that there is no superfluous element in the close of the tragedy.

Macbeth ends with couplets which look confidently to the future, not dejectedly to the past. This is an unusual tragedy in that the hero-villain has been slain off-stage, his ‘cursed head’ being now presented to Malcolm as a symbol of the end of his tyranny: ‘The time is free’ (V.viii.55). If Macbeth's death had been given the prominence of inclusion in the final scene, Malcolm's subsequent accession might have seemed like anticlimax. Shakespeare further separates the two events by beginning the last scene with Old Siward's poignant response to the news of his son's death. He handles all this far better than he had handled the somewhat similar last scene of Richard III, where Richmond is given the crown at the very beginning of the scene and the safety of young George Stanley can hardly be of much concern to the audience, however much Richmond's concern for it is to his credit.

There is little resemblance between the presentation of Macbeth's head to Malcolm and that of Mortimer's head to Edward III in the last scene of Marlowe's Edward II. Mortimer has been executed at the young king's order in retribution for the murder of Edward II, which he has very recently caused: Macbeth had murdered Malcolm's father almost at the beginning of the play, and after his death he is denounced not as a murderer but as a tyrant (‘this dead butcher’ [V.viii.69] is not readily applied to the butchery of Duncan). There is more resemblance between the ends of Edward II and Richard II. In Marlowe's play not only Mortimer's head is brought in but also (at the young king's command) the hearse bearing his victim, on which the head is placed as a sacrifice to revenge:

Here comes the hearse: help me to mourn, my lords.
Sweet father, here unto thy murder’d ghost
I offer up this wicked traitor's head.


When the coffined body of Richard is presented to Bolingbroke, the resemblance adds to the ambiguity of Shakespeare's play, for the new king is not the late king's rightful successor and avenger but his supplanter and murderer. Exton, whose hand struck the fatal blow, emphatically gives him the responsibility: ‘From your own mouth, my lord, did I this deed.’ But Bolingbroke sees himself, and the situation, quite differently:

They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee. Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour,
But neither my good word nor princely favour;
With Cain go wander thorough shades of night,
And never show thy head by day nor light.
Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.
Come mourn with me for what I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent.
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.
March sadly after; grace my mournings here
In weeping after this untimely bier.


Being the king, he has the final word, and what he says goes. His grief and penitence may be perfectly genuine (though his relationship with Richard's actual murderer Exton is uncomfortably reminiscent of John's relationship with Arthur's supposed murderer Hubert), and his generous treatment of the Bishop of Carlisle has just raised him in our opinion, but even so, the end of the play is acutely uncomfortable. The final ‘Exeunt,’ I have little doubt, should take place in complete silence.

Richard III, culminating in Richmond's triumph, had probably ended with drums and trumpets. Parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI end in this way, with couplets so similar as to suggest that Shakespeare was falling into a formula:

Sound drums and trumpets and to London all;
And more such days as these to us befall!


Sound drums and trumpets. Farewell, sour annoy!
For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy.


But the end of 1 Henry VI, with a soliloquy for Suffolk, and a soliloquy wholly in blank verse at that, is strikingly unusual, so much so that it hardly seems like an end at all. Shakespeare's tragedies and histories characteristically end processionally, with or without sound effects. This convention (seen, for example, in 1 Henry IV) is subtly flouted in 2 Henry IV in order to dramatize the rejection of Falstaff. If Falstaff had not bulked so large in the play and its precursor, the ‘crown scene’ between the prince and his dying father and the prince's scene with his brothers and the Lord Chief Justice could have led straight on to a formal ‘coronation scene’ ending in the usual exhortatory processional manner. Instead, Falstaff's entry with his companions leads on to the prince's rejection speech, in which he demolishes Falstaff's hopes in over twenty lines; these culminate in a typical couplet-and-rough-edge cadence:

Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenour of our word.
Set on.


The effect is that of a false ending since, instead of the stage's being wholly cleared, Falstaff and his companions remain to resume their prose: ‘Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound’ (V.v.74). They in their turn must be got off stage, so we now have the return of the Lord Chief Justice to extinguish Falstaff's reviving hopes by ordering him to the Fleet. But this is not enough in itself to end the play, so we are also given his dialogue with Prince John about Falstaff's rejection and the prospect of a French campaign. I imagine that most readers, and many spectators, find this dialogue rather wooden, with Prince John telling the Lord Chief Justice what he knows already. The most that can be said for it is that it is a workmanlike way out of the difficulty that Shakespeare has made for himself by his striking dramatization of the rejection. The added epilogue—or choice of epilogues—seems a further indication that Shakespeare was doing his best to end his play in a definite manner as well as to advertise the forthcoming Henry V.

To end a play, as Haydn ends his ‘Farewell’ Symphony, with two players instead of the company's full complement is extraordinary for Shakespeare. He did it in The Comedy of Errors to make a comic point about the still-persisting confusion between each pair of twins; when the masters have left, the servants remain and, unable to settle the question of which is the first-born, depart hand in hand. The device is evidently appropriate to the dramatic material. But at the end of Troilus and Cressida Troilus's couplet

Strike a free march to Troy. With comfort go;
Hope of revenge shall hide our inward woe


is followed by Pandarus's entry (a thoroughly incongruous one on the battlefield) and his indignant repudiation by Troilus (in a couplet which, in the Folio, also concluded the scene where he brought Troilus Cressida's letter). It seems that the ending has been revised, at considerable artistic violence to the original version, in order to drag in Pandarus's epilogue and replace a tragic dignified ending with a satirical undignified one. Whether the violent reworking is a justified theatrical effect is debatable.

Shakespeare's epilogues are usually introduced with great propriety:

The King's a beggar, now the play is done.
All is well ended if this suit be won,
That you express content; which we will pay
With strife to please you, day exceeding day.
Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts;
Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.

This epilogue to All's Well That Ends Well resembles Jonson's epilogue to Volpone, where a principal actor speaks well-turned heroic couplets and alludes to his role. Others of Shakespeare's epilogues similarly exploit the shift from the world of dramatic illusion to that of everyday reality. Thus Puck, at the end of a play where magic and sleep have been intimately connected, invites the spectators to imagine that they ‘have but slumb’red here / While these visions did appear’ (V.i.414-15); Rosalind, who has spent much of As You Like It in the disguise of a youth and has not resumed her woman's dress till the final scene, says she would kiss the attractive men in the audience if she were a woman—being in reality a male actor; Prospero, having broken and buried his staff and drowned his book, appeals for favours that he now lacks the magic power to enforce. All three epilogues are distinct from each other in tone, and a brief summary can hardly suggest the subtlety of any of them, particularly Prospero's. But in all of them—as also in Time's prologue to the latter part of The Winter's Tale—a playful wit is an essential ingredient. The epilogue to Twelfth Night is exceptional in depending not upon wit but upon humour. The clown's song reveals itself to be an epilogue only in its final stanza:

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.


(Compare the same promise in the epilogue of All's Well that Ends Well.) The point, I think, is that until that stanza the clown's song, as a sequel to the final lines of the final scene, had seemed completely pointless.

To have an epilogue spoken ‘in character’ is far more consistent with the nature of comedy than with that of tragedy, where, even though the deaths are known to be ‘fabulously counterfeit’ (as Hieronimo expresses it in The Spanish Tragedy, preparatory to showing that in the case of his court entertainment they are not), there is little to be gained by underlining the fact. No one would wish for an epilogue spoken by Lear or Othello. The comedies, though each of them fully absorbs the audience into its world, are accorded a different kind of belief, the make-believe element being sometimes pointed by remarks like Fabian's ‘If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction’ (III.iv.121-4). Consistent with this is Shakespeare's trick of introducing blandly and suddenly some improbable event into the last scene, as when Don John's capture, Duke Frederick's conversion, and the imprisonment of Viola's sea-captain at Malvolio's suit are reported, and Antonio's ships are restored to him by a letter which Portia as good as admits to producing out of thin air. A curious feature of two of the last plays, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, is that they end not with the usual couplet (as Cymbeline does) but with blank verse, which Shakespeare had hitherto used as a conclusion only in 1 Henry VI and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Perhaps this avoidance of the formality of rhyme reflects an absence of sententiousness from Leontes and Prospero, the speakers of the final lines; and their final words, ‘Hastily lead away’ (V.ii.155) and ‘Please you, draw near’ (V.i.318), both imply further harmonious conversation between the stage personages once they have left our view. Prospero's return to the stage to speak his epilogue does not counteract that implication, since, as we have seen, he returns not as Prospero but as a subtle amalgam of Prospero and Actor-of-Prospero.


  1. All citations are to William Shakespeare. The Complete Works ed Peter Alexander, London 1951.

  2. Edward II ed H.B. Charlton and R.D. Waller, London 1933, in The Works and Life of Christopher Marlowe gen ed R.H. Case

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

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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 texture; we later remember the setting and action of the opening scene as if experiencing theatrical déjà vu. The thematic purposes of the tragic openings can be said to outweigh the expositional ones to a degree that makes them important beyond their length.2 In addition, the prefiguring approach serves the ends of Shakespeare the ironist. With the help of the opening scenes we are provided with considerable information about the potential tragic states of the heroes: Brabantio, for example, reacts in the same way Othello will to the lies and innuendos of Iago. The effect is one of a prophecy coming true, of history repeating itself, of human blindness failing to avoid well-known pitfalls. This important aspect of Shakespearean construction, in which the opening action takes on the quality of a prophetic playlet or interlude, deserves closer attention for both theatrical and critical reasons.3

To better understand Shakespeare's technique of prefiguring, I will examine the openings of the four major tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. In Hamlet we enter a world charged with confusion and anxiety. Chief among the figures in the scene is Horatio, who, as a scholar and friend to Hamlet, has been brought by the soldiers to speak to the Ghost. Horatio presents himself as a skeptic, unwilling to believe that the soldiers have seen anything other than an hallucination. His disdaining tone—“Tush, tush, ’twill not appear”—is intended to show the frightened soldiers that this scholar will not concede anything to mass hysteria. He must have concrete proof. Yet after the first appearance of the Ghost, Horatio's calm mood gives way to one of deep concern; Bernardo marks the change: “You tremble and look pale”—almost like a ghost, we might add.4

Horatio at first responds by giving a rational explanation of the Ghost's arrival. In lines 80-107,5 he lectures on the history of the quarrel between Old Fortinbras and Old Norway, finishing with the assertion that the Ghost must have come back to warn of the threat to Denmark presented by young Fortinbras. His learned manner also leads Horatio to instruct his listeners in the significance of “harbingers” that predict the falls of great princes like Julius Caesar. The speech recounting the chivalric duel serves an expositional purpose, telling us about the heroic stature of Hamlet's father and introducing as well the motif of son-avenger. There can be no question about the speech's importance if Fortinbras remains as a significant character in the play. As is evidenced by many stage and film productions, however, the speech may be deleted, without notable damage to plot or theme, if Fortinbras is likewise excised. In the second long speech, which has no discernible expositional purpose, Horatio unwittingly predicts the fall of Claudius (as well as pointing to the murder of Hamlet's father) by reciting the omens that appeared before the murder of Caesar. Both these accounts are historical, particular, and learned, but the first concerns an order of knowledge that is verifiable and factual, while the latter delves into superstition and legend. After the second appearance of the Ghost, Horatio again refers not to human but to supernatural events. In lines 148-56, he talks of the crowing cock recalling wandering spirits to their graves. The Ghost's departure seems to confirm this superstition, which is linked by Marcellus to the Christmas season, when the cock crows all night long and prevents spirits from stirring abroad. Horatio's response to Marcellus's words—“So have I heard and do in part believe it”—signals his transformation from a skeptic to at least a partial believer, from a scholar to a storyteller.

What happens to Horatio prefigures Hamlet's transformation from skeptic to believer, not specifically about the Ghost, but in terms of general philosophic disposition. The Hamlet we meet in the beginning of the play is genuinely skeptical about human nature, about his mother's loyalty, about Claudius's ability and right to rule. By play's end he has adopted a far more stoical attitude; his “readiness is all” speech is a sign of Hamlet's recognition of divine influence in human affairs.6 Horatio's close friendship with Hamlet, the only unsullied relationship in the play, suggests the parallel between the two conversions: both begin as questioners but end by realizing that the answers lie elsewhere, beyond their mortal ken. Horatio's qualified acceptance of Marcellus's explanation of the disappearance of ghosts during the celebration of “Our Savior's birth” (l. 159) gives evidence that belief is equated with faith.

In other details Horatio's behavior parallels Hamlet's. His decision to bring news of the Ghost's appearance to Hamlet, despite the pressing need to inform Claudius, foreshadows the hero's distrust of the usurping king. Although the soldiers of the opening scene do not articulate their distrust, they reveal in oblique comments such as Francisco's “I am sick at heart” that they suffer from the cancerous effects of Claudius's reign. To see soldiers and scholar agree in the decision to seek out Hamlet suggests that they regard him as the true king. As the soldiers have sought out Horatio to explain events that are beyond their understanding, so too they turn to Hamlet for light and leadership.

Thus Horatio may be regarded as a stand-in for Hamlet in the opening scene. He performs the plot task of outlining the quarrel between fathers and its potential effect on the sons; but his sudden transformation from skeptic to believer, from complete rationalist to entertainer of supernatural truth, represents the significant action of Act I, Scene i. When Hamlet later encounters the Ghost we witness a similar conversion, one which will determine the course of plot action. For both men the Ghost's appearance signals the need for movement against the cause of evil in the kingdom. That Horatio comes to share Hamlet's distrust of Claudius and to seek ways to ameliorate Denmark's condition are reasons for seeing him not simply as a devoted friend but as a type of Hamlet.

As in Hamlet, the hero is absent from the opening scene of Othello. Both opening scenes are set at night, moreover, creating moods of fear and foreboding. In Othello, however, the threat to peace does not come from a supernatural source but is of a kind that we might experience were we walking alone in the wrong part of town. This supercharged atmosphere seems the proper setting for Iago to conduct his first experiment in transforming a rational man into an angry avenger. Brabantio is Iago's victim in the opening scene, and the practicer uses precisely those techniques to bring him down that he will later use on Othello.7 By enlisting Roderigo's aid, Iago also exhibits his penchant for working through others to deceive his enemies. Iago as puppeteer is an image that Shakespeare imprints on our mind's eye in this bedlam-like opening.

Iago and Roderigo awake the “snorting citizens” with howls about the black ram tupping Brabantio's white ewe, an image that establishes a mood of invading animality. It is precisely the acquisition of this manner of speaking about Desdemona that will mark the perverted moral visions of both Brabantio and Othello. Here it serves mainly to introduce Iago and to elicit Brabantio's proud claim that Venice is not a grange. His position “above” at a window visually underscores the point: the vandals below are for the moment alien to the physical and moral setting. Like Othello's “Keep up your bright swords …,” this defiant statement by Brabantio smacks of wisdom and self-control.

As the scene progresses, however, and Roderigo describes the “gross revolt” (l. 131) made by his daughter, Brabantio rapidly loses the grip on his emotions. Indeed, the blinding speed with which the change takes place is dramatized in his call for light and for a thorough search of his house. Brabantio is the victim of a theft, and he reacts as did Shylock and Barabas before him. Of special significance is his reference in line 139 to his dream, which this “accident” has interrupted. Brabantio reveals a superstitious streak that tends to undermine his otherwise cool, stately manner. He has been dreaming of an event similar to the actual one; the congruence of reality and illusion proves too much for his reason. This reaction foreshadows Othello's superstitious outbreak when he traces the history of the handkerchief for Desdemona (III.iv.55-68). (We should also recall this dream when Iago tells Othello of Cassio's unlawful dream, full of lascivious details.) Iago's success in deceiving both Brabantio and Othello depends on bringing out the darker side of their imaginations. Their illusions seem to become truth when filtered through the animalistic prism set in place by Iago.

Brabantio's discovery of Desdemona's absence launches him into a fractionated monologue that mirrors his inner torment:

Now, Roderigo,
Where didst thou see her?—O unhappy girl!—
With the Moor, say'st thou?—Who would be a father?—
How didst thou know ’twas she?—O, she deceives me
Past thought!—What said she to you? Get moe tapers!
Raise all my kindred!—Are they married, think you?


These wild and whirling words foreshadow Othello's outburst in IV.i.36-44, spoken just before he falls into a trance. In Act I, Scene i, Brabantio rants because he believes that his daughter has deceived him, violating a bond of sacred trust. Othello too will feel deceived when he concludes, on equally flimsy grounds, that his wife has violated her marriage bond.

At the close of the scene, Brabantio has gathered his household to accompany him on his justice-seeking journey to the Senate. Before they depart, however, he embraces Roderigo, the fool whom he had earlier ridiculed, dropping thinly disguised hints that he will designate him as his son-in-law. This gesture signals Brabantio's total blindness, but it also foreshadows Othello's embracing of Iago as his lieutenant at the close of Act III, Scene iii. Both men take vipers to their hearts believing that they will help them to restore order and justice to their shattered worlds. Their kinship is powerfully forged in Brabantio's warning to Othello: “Look to her, Moor. … She has deceived her father and may thee” (I.iii.287-88).

Here, as in Hamlet, we witness a transformation of character that precurses the hero's transformation in the climactic scene. Hamlet's “The readiness is all” and Othello's “Now art thou my lieutenant” denote the critical shifts in perception that lead to the hero's fall. These moments take on special significance precisely because they are prepared for so skillfully in each play's opening scene. The expositional purposes served by the precursor figures prove to be far less important than their foreshadowing actions.

Lear appears to be the exception to the prefiguring formula: the King is not only present but prominent in the action of the first scene. Yet a close look at the course of events in Act I, Scene i, reveals that France's role can readily be described as precursing the climactic transformation in Lear's character. His presence lends to the opening scene the mood of experiencing the future in an instant as we see him behaving in a manner that becomes both king and kin. France's gesture of retrieving the jewel that has been dismissed “at Fortune's alms” foreshadows Lear's heart-wrenching “rescue” of Cordelia from the hangman's noose. Like Hamlet's new-found stoicism, Lear's appreciation of Cordelia's inner worth comes too late to save him—or her. The fact that it will come, however, is established by France's ritualistic assessment of the heroine's worth.

If we accept the opening scene of Lear as an inverted trial, in which justice is subverted and human beings are treated as devalued commodities, we can better understand the symbolic and thematic significance of France's gesture.8 Lear has parceled out the kingdom before he solicits expressions of love from his daughters. He exhibits no feeling for England as a spiritual entity but seems instead to regard it as an estate that he can use as barter for avowals of affection. When Cordelia frustrates Lear's attempt to award her the biggest prize by reducing the bidding to “nothing,” he then proceeds to auction her off, not to the highest but to the lowest bidder. Burgundy mirrors Lear's materialist beliefs by refusing to marry Cordelia without an appropriate dowry. (Having Lear and Burgundy walk off arm in arm at scene's end is as deft a touch of irony as exists in dramatic literature.) France, however, sees beyond Cordelia's worldly price and seizes upon her inner worth, thereby championing the thematic elevation of insight. His is the kind of insight, Shakespeare suggests, that kings should possess.

France's role can in fact be described as choric.9 He lectures Lear on the suddenness and unnaturalness of his change in affection for his daughter (ll. 113-23). He then instructs Burgundy in the unmingled nature of true love (ll. 237-41), playing as he does on the widely accepted notion that Burgundian wine was qualified with considerable water. What France sees clearly is that Cordelia herself is a dowry or prize, a fact that Lear does not come to realize until V.iii.8-25. In his speeches France champions health in human relationships as he appeals to Lear's and Burgundy's understanding of Nature's benevolent, sustaining force. In its rhythm and nuptial-like overtones, however, his speech to Cordelia most vividly anticipates the exchanges between father and daughter in Act IV, Scene vii:

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor,
Most choice foresaken, and most loved despised,
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon,
Be it lawful I take up what's cast away.
Gods, gods! ’Tis strange that from their cold'st neglect
My love should kindle to inflamed respect.

(ll. 253-58)

These lines are studded with paradoxes, each one pointing to the wealth of Cordelia's virtues. It is precisely this ability to reason in paradoxes that Lear will have to acquire before he can begin the journey to self-knowledge. In order to see better he will have to appreciate the intangible qualities—loyalty, compassion, love—that France attests to with such a sense of wonder. Just as Burgundy mirrors what Lear is now—blind, proud, materialistic—France mirrors what Lear will become following his bout with madness.

By stealing away England's “gem” without even making a bid, moreover, France achieves a victory that underscores Lear's failure as a king and father. It is a victory accompanied by true reverence; France's words waft like a warm breeze through the winter landscape of curses and banishment that Lear's rage has created. Like Lear's reuniting with Cordelia, however, this moment of victory is only momentary; it will be succeeded by scenes of terror and death that overwhelm the major characters. Neither France nor Lear proves capable of protecting Cordelia from the tidal wave of destructive ambition that the events of Act I, Scene i, precipitate. At the same time we should recognize that France's courage and audacity in the face of Lear's anger belong to a class of action that includes Kent's becoming Lear's servant, the servant stabbing Cornwall, and Edgar protecting his devastated father. Lear himself will assume the protector role when he gives shelter and comfort to poor Tom, an outcast who possesses “nothing” in worldly terms.

It should not be surprising that Macbeth, a play packed with symbolic imagery, opens with characters whose roles consciously evoke traits of the absent hero.10 The Witches strike the crucial note of equivocation—“Fair is foul, and foul is fair”—to prepare us for the sudden appearance of the bloody captain. His wounds bespeak the foul consequence of his fair behavior in battle. His account of the fight between Macbeth and the traitor MacDonwald vivifies the theme of equivocation—“Doubtful it stood”—and ends with the description of Macbeth quartering his opponent and raising his head on Scotland's battlements. This speech depicts Macbeth as a Coriolanus-like hero (another hero turned traitor), but it also looks ahead to Macbeth's own beheading. The connection between beheading and treason is more explicitly drawn by Ross in lines 48-56, where the subduing of the Thane of Cawdor is reported as having been achieved by “Bellona's bridegroom.” Ross's epithet refers to Mars, suggesting that Macbeth has behaved like a god of war, popping up miraculously in every part of the battlefield.11 Thus by the end of Ross's speech, we have a fully sketched picture of Macbeth as supernatural warrior, fierce opponent of traitors whose blood covers him from head to toe.

The overall effect of the scene, however, is to introduce characters who reflect various traits of Macbeth's usurping personality. The bloody captain represents not this Macbeth but his victims—Duncan, Banquo—and his avenger, Macduff. He is unable to report the battle between Macbeth and Cawdor, in which Ross's language is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest that we identify Cawdor's treason with Macbeth's. “Bellona's bridegroom,” for example, confronts Cawdor with “self-comparisons,” a word which in strict denotation means countermovements. But the connotation of “comparable minds” or “intents” can not be overlooked, especially when Ross adds to the ambiguity of the moment by referring to “rebellious arm ’gainst arm.” Is Macbeth's arm “as rebellious as the invader's”?12

Duncan's act of awarding Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor's title confirms the impression that Macbeth will inherit not just the title but the disposition to treason as well. Duncan's “What he [Cawdor] hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won” is almost a literal translation of “Fair is foul.” The irony of this ceremony concerned with the transfer of a title can be appreciated fully only later, when Macbeth realizes he has no heirs on whose heads he may place the crown. Like the fourth murderer, “the secret'st man of blood,” and Seyton, the Thane of Cawdor represents those figures whose corrupted natures generate a mood of treachery and death. Macbeth's stature will diminish—both figuratively and literally—until the Thane's traitorous gown fits him perfectly. Duncan, Macbeth's first and most “innocent” victim, unwittingly seals Macbeth's doom, and his own, by resting Cawdor's title on his shoulders.

In these four major tragedies, Shakespeare creates compelling opening scenes. They not only arrest our attention, arouse our emotions, and engage our intellects, they also reveal a design or purpose that prepares for our encounter with later scenes of climax and denouement. Foreshadowing is too general a term for this technique; prophesying seems more precise. The characters I have described—Horatio, Brabantio, France, and Cawdor—perform more than simply minor roles in these scenes. As proxies for the heroes, their actions are meant to represent in small the actions of the heroes in later scenes. The result of this design is a degree of tension and irony that contributes to the cathartic effect of the tragic moment. We not only feel more deeply as a result, we learn more about the significance of the tragic experience. In Horatio's conversion we have a model for Hamlet's, as both men move away from doubt toward belief. Brabantio's breakdown mirrors Othello's in that he allows his reason to be clouded by Iago's lascivious suggestions. France's passionate taking up of the castaway Cordelia looks forward to Lear's rediscovery of his best-loved daughter; both men learn to appreciate Cordelia through the comprehension of paradoxes. Cawdor's rebellion and death are in a sense transferred to Macbeth along with the Thane's title, underscoring the equivocal term “Fair is foul, foul is fair.” All these early “discoveries” prepare us for the moment when our attention is heightened and sharp. The interludes in which they occur are more than simple scenes; they are instead symbolic actions contrived to depict major thematic elements. To say that the purpose of these openings is mainly expositional is to ignore the critical foreshadowing or prefiguring aspect in Shakespeare's approach to tragic construction.


  1. Samuel Johnson, ed., The Plays of William Shakespeare (London, 1765), VI, 3, n. 1. Even if, as Johnson suggests, only Kent and Gloucester were privy to the plan, Lear's behavior in the scene is still open to the charge of self-indulgence.

  2. A. C. Bradley's statement, in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; rpt. New York: Meridian, 1955), p. 41, is perhaps the most simplified: he divides the action into three parts and identifies the first part as devoted to “Exposition.” Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage, 1957), p. 291, comes closer to the idea I am trying to convey when he describes the first speaker's responsibility to suggest “the quality which the subsequent events are to quantify.” But Burke does not see that first speaker as a prefigurer. See Francis Berry, The Shakespeare Inset (London: Routledge, 1965), pp. 41-43, for an analysis of Shakespeare's handling of exposition in The Comedy of Errors.

  3. Hereward Price, Construction in Shakespeare (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1947), p. 24, calls such scenes “key-notes,” because they announce some major theme in the play. He does not identify opening scenes as serving this purpose, however. I am chiefly indebted to the following studies for their useful analyses of scenic design: Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), and Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

  4. There are instances later in the play when Hamlet is described as ghostlike. See Ophelia's account of him looking as if he “had been loosed out of hell” in Act II, Scene i, and her moving assessment after he has urged her to enter a nunnery in Act III, Scene i. He certainly appears to Laertes to have returned from the dead at Ophelia's funeral.

  5. All citations are from Sylvan Barnet, gen. ed., The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

  6. See Edward Hubler, “Introduction,” The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in Signet Classic Shakespeare, p. 913.

  7. S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London: King and Staple, 1944), p. 76, observes that Iago's opening speech tells us more about Iago than about Othello. The speech and his subsequent actions give us all we need to know about Iago's attitude toward the hero.

  8. For a full discussion of inverted ceremony in the opening scene, see William Frost, “Shakespeare's Rituals and the Opening Scene of King Lear,Hudson Review, 10 (1958), 577-85. I have elsewhere argued that the opening may be profitably read as an auction that reveals Lear's blindness to spiritual worth. See Shakespeare's Opening Scenes, Salzburg Studies in English Literature, 66 (Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977), 133-52.

  9. Robert B. Heilman, This Great Stage: Image and Structure in “King Lear” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1951), p. 148.

  10. See William Blissett, “‘The Secret'st Man of Blood’: A Study of Dramatic Irony in Macbeth,Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959), 397-408.

  11. Using the epithet “Bellona's Bridegroom,” however, precurses Lady Macbeth's influence over the behavior of her warrior.

  12. Roy Walker, The Time Is Free: A Study of “Macbeth” (London: Andrew Dakers, 1949), p. 34.

Derek Peat (essay date 1980)

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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 admits his master's weaknesses, and emphasises them by considering precisely those areas Bradley ignored: the nature of the public and private theatres; Shakespeare's use and adaptation of contemporary stage tradition and the expectations of an audience moulded by regular playgoing. In the light of this, it is ironic that he reaches similar conclusions to the man who argued the play was ‘too huge for the stage’.3 Much less ironic is the fact that while I find most of Reibetanz's commentary thoroughly convincing, it leads me to an exactly opposite conclusion.

This is not so surprising; a survey of the criticism reveals it is in the nature of King Lear to stimulate contrary responses. There is a marked division between critics for whom the play makes an ‘affirmation’ and those who believe it does not.4 Reibetanz, who argues that the play ‘definitely points us to’5 Christian doctrine, obviously belongs with the former group, and I had better admit now that my own sympathies lie with the other side. This division of critical opinion is in itself, I believe, a direct result of the fact that King Lear forces every spectator to choose between the contrary possibilities it holds in unresolved opposition. Norman Rabkin's idea of the working of any Shakespearian play is an exact description of this particular one: ‘the dramatic structure sets up opposed elements as equally valid … and equally destructive, so that the choice that the play forces the reader to make becomes impossible’.6 Others have noticed this tension of irresolution. For J. D. Rosenberg ‘each assertion in the play confronts a counter-assertion and all interpretations contain the seed of their refutation’,7 and S. L. Goldberg puts it this way: ‘The outline of one thing is the boundary of its counterpart.’8 The penultimate scene reveals the working of the play in microcosm:

Here, father, take the shadow of this tree
For your good host; pray that the right may thrive.
If ever I return to you again,
I'll bring you comfort.
Grace go with you, sir! [Exit Edgar.
Alarum; afterwards a retreat. Re-enter Edgar.
Away, old man! give me thy hand: away!
King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en.
Give me thy hand; come on.
No further, sir; a man may rot even here.
What! in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all. Come on.
 And that's true too. [Exeunt.

(v, ii, 1-11)9

Edgar asks for prayer and Gloucester gives his blessing, but ‘the right’ do not thrive. Before the battle Edgar is certain of victory and makes a strong assertion, only to have the action contradict him. The audience's expectation of a happy ending, fueled by the reconciliation between the King and his daughter (and for Shakespeare's contemporaries supported by memories of Leir and Cordella's victory in the old play) is abruptly reversed. Since the faked ‘miracle’ at Dover cliff, many of Gloucester's lines have indicated patient acceptance of his lot, yet here he reverts to despair. Most important of all, in a play which questions everything and depends upon right choice, is the way the scene ends. Contrary positions are given equal validity and Gloucester's reply to Edgar's famous remark might stand as the epigraph for the play: ‘And that's true too.’

The point at which this process of juxtaposition comes to its climax is, appropriately enough, the moment when Lear dies:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, Sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

(v, iii, 306-11)

There are two distinct possibilities: either Lear dies believing Cordelia lives, or his heart breaks as he realises the shattering reality of her death. The possibilities open up a variety of interpretations. A Lear who believes Cordelia is alive may be transcending earthly limitations, suffering under the final self-deception of a man who still ‘but slenderly’ knows himself, or taking refuge from reality in madness. In contrast, an awareness of Cordelia's death may be the culmination of a process of deepening knowledge of the self and the world. There is, of course, a third possibility, that Lear dies uncertain whether his daughter is alive or dead.

The text supports all these possibilities. The five times repeated ‘never’ seems conclusive enough, but since his entrance with Cordelia in his arms, the king has had other speeches which move from statement through qualification to counter-statement:

She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives … 
This feather stirs; she lives!

(v, iii, 261-3, 265)

His final lines can be read as a similar move from one certainty to another, or as another example of his uncertainty.

The contradictory nature of the text is mirrored in the original editions. My quotation is the Folio version, but the Quarto omits the last two lines and contains the printer's formula for a death cry, ‘O,o,o,o.’ which suggests the king howling in anguish at his daughter's death. In the absence of evidence showing which ending Shakespeare favoured (if, indeed, both are his) all we can say is that while the Quarto supports one reading, the Folio allows others.

J. K. Walton makes his decision about the final lines after an examination of Lear's character and the development of the play. He concludes: ‘If we take it that Lear finally believes that Cordelia is alive, we alter the direction of the whole movement which has been taking place throughout the play, a movement by which he attains to an even greater consciousness.’10 Quite so, but in this play of reversals is there any reason to suppose Shakespeare did not ‘alter the direction’ himself? In the penultimate scene Gloucester reverses a parallel ‘movement’ in the subplot, and in this play subplot often mirrors main plot. In fact, as J. Stampfer points out, Gloucester's death ‘’twixt two extremes of passion’ can parallel Lear dying torn between his realisation of death and hope of life.11 The play provides evidence to support conflicting interpretations of Lear's last lines and it is not putting the cart before the horse to suggest that the decision we make about those lines finally determines the ‘direction of the whole movement’ of the play.

In performance what the audience see during Lear's death speech plays a major part in determining this decision. The actor responds to the change of tone after the final sonorous ‘never’ and there is a moment's pause as the button is undone. If this button is at Cordelia's throat, it may open to reveal the lacerations of the noose. Perhaps her mouth, to which Lear draws attention, falls open and utters ‘nothing’, not as a word but as an enduring silence. The relative stage positions, with the three daughters again surrounding their father, may complete the connection with the opening scene.12 Or the button may be at Lear's throat which makes his transition to Cordelia's body logical as the king, gasping for air, remembers his hanged daughter. Lear may remember something else. After his experience of ‘unaccommodated man’, the ‘this’ to which he draws attention may be his own flesh. If a supernumerary undoes the button, the king may appear subdued and clear-eyed, but if he addresses Kent as ‘Sir’, the audience may see a man losing his grip on reality. At this point blocking is of crucial importance. If Lear stands close to Cordelia, or kneels clasping her, his death is at the focus of the audience's attention, but the effect is quite different if he moves away to have the button undone. Then, his insistent commands turn the attention of all onstage, and of the audience, towards the body and away from himself. The shock of his death is far greater if, as he falls, heads are turned away. The final lines may not refer to Cordelia at all. In Peter Brook's production,13 Paul Scofield sat staring out blankly into the auditorium on his last ‘look there’. In death his eyes remained open.

In his study of the play,14 Marvin Rosenberg describes several other ways in which the death has been portrayed, but even my simplified list makes it clear that, working from the contrary possibilities of one key speech (and I've said nothing about how the lines are delivered) we can create several different plays. One of them was suggested by Bradley who believed an actor should ‘express, in Lear's last accents and gestures and look, an unbearable joy’ because he thought Cordelia alive: ‘To us, perhaps, the knowledge that he is deceived may bring a culmination of pain: but, if it brings only that, I believe we are false to Shakespeare.’15 Some years ago, Maynard Mack argued along similar lines: ‘Lear's joy in thinking that his daughter lives (if this is what his words imply) is illusory, but it is one we need not begrudge him … in a similar instance among our acquaintances, we would regard the illusion as a godsend, or even, if we were believers, as God-sent.’16 Bradley was a believer: ‘Let us renounce the world, hate it, and lose it gladly. The only real thing in it is the soul, with its courage, patience and devotion. And nothing outward can touch that.’17 This is magnificent, but it is essentially the response of a reader who has divorced the play's meaning from its immediate effect in the theatre. Despite his insistence on the dramatic context, Reibetanz does something similar when he states: ‘we should see Cordelia possesses everything that is genuinely worth having’. Perhaps we ‘should’, but I can't believe many spectators do.

Bradley, Mack and Reibetanz all share an assumption vital for their readings of the play: that the audience view Lear's final moments from a position of relative detachment and are, therefore, fully aware of the true facts of the situation. But what if the audience share the king's uncertainty? If they too look at Cordelia expecting some sign of life and find none as Lear falls, they are unlikely to view his death as a ‘godsend’ or to acknowledge that Cordelia has ‘everything’. The audience may feel they have nothing.

King Lear opens with a discussion about an impossible choice:

Kent. I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.

Gloucester. It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most; for equalities are so weigh’d that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety.

(I, i, 1-7)

Two possibilities are equalised and the play opens on a note of uncertainty. As the action develops, questions of ‘choice’ and ‘value’ become of paramount importance and the uncertainty intensifies, as Shakespeare leads the audience ever deeper into a world where they too must choose. Marvin Rosenberg suggests ‘The Lear world is a world of uncertainties’,18 but these uncertainties do not just exist within the play, they are generated within the audience. Shakespeare continually confounds their expectations and, at times, makes it almost impossible for them to determine what is happening onstage and why. The uncertainty that results reaches its climax in the final moments of the play. A full substantiation of these claims would require a great deal more space than this essay permits, so I will limit myself to a detailed analysis of part of act IV scene vi, Gloucester's fall from Dover cliff, and then return to the moment of Lear's death to offer an alternative to Reibetanz's ‘affirmative’ reading.19

The scene on Dover cliff caused Bradley to make an uncharacteristic point: ‘contrary to expectation, it is not, if properly acted, in the least absurd on the stage’. He added: ‘The imagination and the feelings have been worked upon with such effect … that we are unconscious of the grotesqueness of the incident for common sense.’20 Modern criticism has moved the other way. After G. Wilson Knight's formative essay ‘King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque’,21 the elements Bradley denied, the grotesque and the absurd, are those that are emphasised. Jan Kott has even read the scene in terms of contemporary absurd drama.22

How does the scene affect an audience? Do the spectators believe Gloucester is at the edge of a cliff? Alan C. Dessen gives a representative answer: ‘the fictional nature of the plummet from the cliff would be obvious to the audience’.23 Admittedly, in performance, the fact that there is no cliff is usually made obvious, but it strikes me that the working of the scene depends on our remaining confused about the existence of cliff and sea.24 Obviously, what the spectators see onstage is of primary importance. John Cranford Adams required some form of visual illusion and suggested that at the Globe Gloucester climbed a ramp—the property ‘mossbank’—and several other critics have felt the need for a symbolic indication of height.25 Jan Kott is content with a flat stage: ‘Edgar … lifts his feet high pretending to walk uphill. Gloster too lifts his feet as if expecting the ground to rise, but underneath his foot there is only air.’26 Neither the property nor the pantomime is necessary and without them the scene achieves a powerful ambivalence.

As it opens Gloucester poses the question about their true location:

When shall I come to th’ top of that same hill?
You do climb up it now; look how we labour.
Methinks the ground is even.
Horrible steep:
Hark! do you hear the sea?
No, truly.
Why, then your other senses grow imperfect
By your eyes’ anguish.

(IV, vi, 1-6)

Of course, on the platform stage the ‘ground’ is ‘even’ and we could point to the exaggeration on ‘horrible’ as a clue that what Edgar states is untrue, but there is an obvious disagreement and, unless he is given some clear visual indication by the actor playing Edgar, a spectator unfamiliar with the play could not be sure. Then follows Edgar's long and vividly descriptive speech on the view from the cliff. On the bare Jacobean stage with its scant properties, Shakespeare often sketches the scenery for the audience in a similar way. Normally, there is a consensus of opinion: what one character sees the others see and the audience therefore know the scene is as described. Here, Shakespeare uses the convention to secure a further effect, because Edgar describes the scene for a blind man who cannot corroborate the information. The audience are thus forced to make their own decision. Even Edgar's explanatory comment, ‘Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it’, gives no indication that the scene he described is not real, although it does raise other riddling questions. Just what is he up to? Does he intend to prevent Gloucester from jumping, or does he hope his father will change his mind if given enough time? An unfamiliar spectator may well think Edgar means to cast off his disguise at the last moment.27 The text offers just such a possibility on Gloucester's final lines before the fall: ‘If Edgar live, O, bless him! / Now, fellow, fare thee well.’ Edgar remains disguised and Gloucester falls.

For Shakespeare's contemporaries the shock must have been immense, because nothing had prepared them to expect this. In the source story in Sidney's Arcadia, the Paphlagonian king's son refuses a request to lead his father to the edge of a cliff, and this cures the king's despair for a time. Shakespeare reverses the source and this is not the only reversal here. Would the spectators recognise in Edgar and Gloucester an emblem of the Devil tempting Christ to leap down from the pinnacle of the Temple? If they did not think of this initially, they surely would later when Edgar suggests ‘It was some fiend’ that led Gloucester to the edge. In the Bible, the Devil promises that Christ will be unharmed if he jumps, but the whole point of the story is that Christ refuses the temptation. This is by no means the only reversal of a religious image in the play. The greatest of them all is the reversed Pieta after Lear enters with Cordelia in his arms (the daughter has earlier associated herself with ‘the Son’ in an echo of Luke, ii, 49: ‘O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about’). For the contemporary audience, the sight of a man damning his soul with a blessing on his lips must have had an impact it is hard for us to imagine.

At this point, then, perhaps the spectators are not struck by the ‘grotesque comedy’, but terrified by the possibility that Gloucester has actually fallen from a cliff. It is only now, after the event, that Edgar reveals it is all an illusion:

And yet I know not how conceit may rob
The treasury of life when life itself
Yields to the theft; had he been where he thought
By this had thought been past.

(IV, vi, 42-5)

As Edgar has trifled with Gloucester, so Shakespeare has trifled with his audience. What he presents is so ambiguous that, to an extent, they are placed in Gloucester's situation: they too must trust the eyes and word of another, because they can't see for themselves.

Edgar's lines resolve the uncertainty about the cliff, but how are they spoken? Does he look on impassively as his father attempts suicide (did he expect him to jump?), or even though there is no real danger is he aware that he gambles with a human life? His next lines suggest the latter, as Shakespeare makes everything uncertain once more. Perhaps a man may die if he merely believes he has fallen from a cliff: ‘Alive or dead? / Ho, you sir! friend! Hear you, sir! speak!’ (ll. 45-6). For a moment the audience share the mounting anxiety evident in the broken rhythm, but Gloucester is not dead: ‘Thus might he pass indeed; yet he revives.’

The scene is obviously a great theatrical tour de force, perfectly geared to the stage for which Shakespeare wrote: an open stage surrounded by the audience, on which illusion was created by the actors not by scenery. The proscenium stage is so much a part of the theatre of visual illusion that I suspect the scene can never attain its full power upon it. This may be why John D. Rosenberg finds it ‘a remarkable piece of virtuoso stagecraft that does not quite come off’.28 I don't agree, but I think his uncertainty is a direct response to Shakespeare's creation, because this scene exhibits precisely that tension created by contrary possibilities of which I spoke earlier. It strains the resources of the theatrical illusion to breaking point and there are few moments when our ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ is challenged so directly. How can an audience believe a flat stage is a hill? How can they believe Edgar when they know he is already involved in a deception? They are reminded of this at the scene's beginning and Gloucester's suspicion might well suggest that all Edgar states is untrue:

… your other senses grow imperfect
By your eyes' anguish.
So may it be, indeed.
Methinks thy voice is alter'd, and thou speak'st
In better phrase and matter than thou didst.
You're much deceiv'd; in nothing am I chang'd
But in my garments.
Methinks you're better spoken.

(IV, vi, 5-10)

Then, as Gloucester seems on the point of some discovery, Edgar describes the view from the cliff. If his father hears the change in Edgar's voice, but doesn't hear the sea, then the sea doesn't exist. Or does it? The audience's attitude shares something of the duality of Gloucester's ‘And that's true too’: they half believe the cliff is real while half suspecting it is all an illusion. John Cranford Adams comes close to my perception of their double-vision: ‘listening with Gloucester's ears the audience will share his illusion … Looking with Edgar's eyes, however, they will know that no precipice exists.’ This expresses something of the tension I find in the scene, but for Adams the balance has already settled: ‘Never for a moment is the audience expected to believe that Edgar has brought Gloucester to the edge of the Cliffs.’29 My point is that the scene precludes such certainty. Until after the fall, Shakespeare does not allow the audience to make up their minds.

The tour de force continues as Edgar convinces his father that everything the audience suspected was real, is real indeed. There is much more that could be said of this amazing piece of theatre, but I want especially to note the way Shakespeare leaves the audience in uncertainty for so long and then allows them to witness a character who seemed dead return to life.

The final appearance of Lear with his daughter in his arms is an enormously powerful image. It has become a theatrical tradition that the severed noose hangs from Cordelia's neck, but the tradition begs the question: do the audience believe she is dead? The direction in both Quarto and Folio, ‘Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms’, leaves this question open, but the reader of a modern edition may find the issue prejudiced by editors who follow Rowe and insert the word ‘dead’ after ‘Cordelia’. In the theatre there are no such signposts.

The preparations for Lear's last entrance have been carefully made. Edgar's return from the battle (V, ii) is the first of a series of shock entrances that culminate in the king's final appearance. From this point, Shakespeare creates tension between an awareness of impending catastrophe and the possibility of a ‘happy’ resolution. As John Reibetanz suggests, the audience are ‘suspended between hope and despair’ because ‘Shakespeare invites a kind of double perspective: we follow the action as it progresses towards both its actual and its possible conclusions.’ This seems to me exactly right, but Reibetanz adds: ‘and we wait with some anxiety for the final stroke that will determine the shape of the whole’.30 No audience in the theatre remains so detached: during this scene of mounting suspense, their emotion is intense. At the end, detachment is precisely what they are denied.

As the last scene opens, Shakespeare establishes the dual response the action will continue to evoke. Lear's ‘birds i' th' cage’ speech inspires hope, but while they respond to the beauty of the words, the audience remain aware of another listener, Edmund. His presence casts doubt on Lear's vision—he has already announced that the king ‘Shall never see’ Albany's pardon (v,i,65-8)—and he interrupts with the voice of stark reality: ‘Take them away’ (v, iii, 19). Tension mounts throughout the scene as the pendulum swings between hope and despair. Immediately after Edmund despatches the murderer, hopes revive when Albany demands the captives, only to be damned again by Edmund's politic answer:

                                         … they are ready
To-morrow, or at further space, t'appear
Where you shall hold your session. At this time
We sweat and bleed … 

(v, iii, 53-6)

and the Captain has instructions to act ‘instantly’. Albany maintains the possibility that ‘right may thrive’ by arresting Edmund and offering to fight himself, if the challenger fails to appear. As he predicted, the forces of evil begin to prey on one another as Regan succumbs to Goneril's poison, but what has happened to Lear and Cordelia? The question remains unanswered as Shakespeare creates other sources of suspense and uncertainty. The challenger must ‘appear by the third sound of the trumpet’.31 The trumpet sounds, but no one appears. As Albany is about to step forward, a trumpet sounds within and a man in armour enters. A spectator unfamiliar with the play may guess this is Edgar, but he cannot be sure, even when he hears this master-of-many-voices speak. After Lear's unexpected defeat, the audience must wonder whether the challenger can win. In his film version, Peter Brook imaged the uncertainty by dressing the brothers in identical armour, so it was impossible to distinguish which was which. Albany's cry ‘Save him! save him!’ (l. 151) is certainly given point if he cannot determine who is down.

Edgar's victory boosts the audience's hopes, but the unrepentant Edmund tips the balance the other way:

What you have charg'd me with, that have I done,
And more, much more; the time will bring it out:
’Tis past, and so am I.

(v, iii, 162-4)

Perhaps it is already too late. The possibility of salvation recedes during Edgar's long explanatory speech, and the audience are torn ‘’twixt two extremes of passion’ as they hear Edmund's tantalising response to the news of Gloucester's death:

This speech of yours has mov'd me,
And shall perchance do good; but speak you on;
You look as you had something more to say.

(v, iii, 199-201)

Edgar seems to be about to announce the king's fate:

This would have seem'd a period
To such as love not sorrow; but another,
To amplify too much, would make much more,
And top extremity.
Whilst I was big in clamour came there in a man

(v, iii, 204-8)

but he brought no news of Lear. It was Kent who, like Gloucester, breaks under the power of emotion: ‘His grief grew puissant, and the strings of life / Began to crack’ (ll. 216-17). Edgar ‘left him tranc'd’ and the audience suspect he has joined the growing ranks of death. Suddenly a man rushes on with a bloody knife and Shakespeare engineers the moment so the audience think Cordelia is dead, but it is Goneril's death he announces, so hope remains. Then comes an even more startling entrance: Kent appears. As the climax approaches, hope and despair are held in almost simultaneous opposition and Kent's entrance is a case in point. It promotes hope because he has returned from the brink of death, and if he can others may, but his words provoke despair because he has only returned to die: ‘I am come / To bid my king and master aye good night.’ Albany remembers what the audience have never forgotten, but there is a pause while the bodies of Goneril and Regan are brought on and then continuing confusion and delay:

Quickly send,
Be brief in it, to th' castle; for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.
Run, run! O, run!
To who, my Lord? Who has the office? send
Thy token of reprieve.
Well thought on: take my sword,
Give it the captain.
Haste thee, for thy life.

(v, iii, 244-51)

Just when it seems Lear and Cordelia will be saved, the king makes his final entrance. John Reibetanz believes: ‘Shakespeare has … prepared us for the play's final, pitiful tableau by associating Cordelia with Christ: the mortal result of “my father's business” was the best known fact of Renaissance spiritual life.’32 I would have thought the best known fact of spiritual life was the resurrection rather than the crucifixion. Christianity depends upon the fact that the dead Christ in Mary's arms will rise again. I am not suggesting that Cordelia is a Christ-figure, merely that the tension created by the reversed Pieta stems from an emblem of death that contains a promise of rebirth. The audience are reminded of this when Lear says, if Cordelia lives ‘It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows’ (l. 266). Reibetanz locates many elements from Romance literature which relate King Lear to the Last Plays, and the possibility of a return to life, which is realised in those plays, is precisely the connection. Throughout the remainder of the scene, the possibility that Cordelia lives remains open and the audience continue to alternate between hope and despair. In this world of uncertainty, this is the greatest uncertainty of all. As I suggested earlier, Lear's speeches reveal a pattern of assertions, qualifications and contradictions (a familiar pattern in this play of reversed expectations) and this creates the audience's ambivalent response. Shakespeare's contemporaries must have wondered whether Cordelia would revive for a moment as Desdemona had done. In this play there are two precedents for a return to life: Gloucester's revival from a state resembling death,33 and Kent's recovery from his trance.

The counter-argument is that Lear's confusion is not shared by the audience, because they do not view the scene through his eyes. However, the onlooker's comments provide little guidance. Kent and Edgar voice the audience's confusion: ‘Is this the promis'd end?’ ‘Or image of that horror?’ Albany is almost speechless: ‘Fall and cease’ and after this no one except Lear comments on Cordelia. During the dialogue between Kent and Lear, references to death accumulate: Lear ‘kill'd the slave’ who was hanging his daughter; Caius is ‘dead and rotten’ (but no, he has returned from the grave as Kent); Goneril and Regan are dead and so is Edmund. At exactly the point where the spectators decide it is all over and Cordelia is dead, there is, as John Shaw suggests, a typical concluding speech. ‘The wheel has come full circle’ as Albany resigns the crown with an echo of Lear's opening words. The speech appears to move towards the concluding couplet:

All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings bitter woes(34)

but the couplet is broken: ‘O! see, see!’ and Lear delivers his final shattering speech with its unbearable, unanswerable, question: ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?’ (ll. 306-7). As I suggested in the beginning, again he moves from certainty to uncertainty, from despair to hope. For an audience who have been involved in a similar process, his death is a moment of absolute confusion. Even as they direct their attention to Cordelia, Lear falls. If for a second their hopes of life were reviving, this is the cruelest reversal in the play. Reibetanz believes they view ‘Lear's final moments’ ‘through the steady eyes of Edgar’, but the only steady eyes, as it turns out, belong to Kent. Edgar does not believe Lear is dead and his impulse is to hope for life: Kent on the contrary prays for death. The opposition is typical of the play. While the audience agree with Kent that Lear has suffered enough, they share Edgar's hopes and may even hear echoes of his words over Gloucester at Dover (the stage positions may complete the connection):

He faints! My Lord, my Lord!
Break, heart; I prithee, break!
Look up, my Lord.
Vex not his ghost: O! let him pass; he hates him
That would on the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

(v, iii, 311-15)

When Edgar decides ‘He is gone, indeed’ and Albany gives the order ‘Bear them from hence’, the audience are finally certain: it is finished. They are wrong. Shakespeare creates one last vivid image. Albany removes the crown from his head (this is Marvin Rosenberg's fine reading)35 and says: ‘Friends of my soul, you twain / Rule in this realm, and the gor'd state sustain.’ Do Kent and Edgar stand each with a hand on the crown in a repetition of the moment in scene one (l. 139) when Albany and Cornwall did likewise? The play has demonstrated the terrible results of that first division of power and now there is a second. Or is there? Kent's final speech is usually played as his refusal of the crown (after all, he opposed the original division of power) and Edgar's speech is often a reluctant acceptance. There is a marked contrast between Kent's thoughts on death and Edgar's on youth, but the young man's words may imply he also refuses. The play ends as it began on a note of uncertainty:

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no.
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(v, iii, 321-6)

There is no emphasis on the restoration of order and no expressed hope in the future. On the contrary, the lines emphasise a general sense of diminution. With Lear's death something irreplaceable has gone out of the world and those who remain are smaller beings who can ‘never see so much, nor live so long’. As the death march sounds, death finally holds dominion over all.

John Reibetanz believes: ‘Edgar's desire to “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” … shows that he has recognized the great value that resides in Cordelia's plainness, as opposed to her sisters' pleasing surfaces; and his words bring us to the same recognition.’36 It would be remarkable if Edgar reached such a conclusion, since he has neither heard Cordelia speak nor occupied the stage with her until the final scene. The idea that any audience can sit back and respond with such ‘clear-eyed moral insight and judgement’37 strikes me as equally remarkable. Dr Johnson offers an excellent description of what happens at a performance of King Lear and it is ironic that he is describing the effect on a reader. The play, he says, ‘fill[s] the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope … So powerful is the current of the poet's imagination that the mind which once ventures within it is hurried irresistibly along.’38 The comment seems particularly applicable to the final scene, and it is this ‘tumult’ that precludes the affirmation for which some critics argue.

Bradley concluded that we realise ‘our whole attitude in asking or expecting that goodness should be prosperous is wrong; that, if only we could see things as they are, we should see that the outward is nothing and the inward is all.’39 Fine sentiments, but the audience can't ‘see things as they are’, can't even determine whether or not Cordelia lives, so how can they feel she is ‘set free from life’?40 For Bradley (and Reibetanz who follows him almost exactly) ‘what happens to such a being does not matter; all that matters is what she is’.41 This distinction is crucial to both critics’ arguments, but it is one no spectator makes. For Bradley, Cordelia is ‘a thing enskyed and sainted’ (my emphasis),42 but the dramatic structure Shakespeare creates ensures that the audience care intensely about what happens to her.

In an excellent essay, Nicholas Brooke accounts for the response of the affirming critics in terms of the kind of duality I've explored: ‘Action and reaction are equal and opposite … the sense of life in the presentation of death is the source of all this impulse to affirm.’43 I would rather say ‘the possibility of continuing life’, because it is precisely because Shakespeare never takes up this possibility that some critics (like Tate before them) feel they must. As Brooke suggests: ‘Hope springs eternal. It had better.’44

In the face of the uncertainty generated by the ending, it is natural to seek refuge in a dependable personal value, and it is because the play leaves the contraries unresolved that it forces us to look within ourselves and find there what we can. John Reibetanz believes ‘ King Lear directs us to a realm of meaning that exists outside the Lear world’45 and for him this meaning is Christian, but where the play directs us depends upon where we have the desire and the capacity to go. Shakespeare has left us with no single signpost. The play provokes a choice, but it makes none. However, while we may argue that the contraries remain unresolved and the questions unanswered, we should beware of suggesting that King Lear is, in our modern sense, ‘open-ended’. Even Bradley admitted that pessimism is ‘what we feel at times in reading’46 and in performance this feeling is a great deal more pronounced because of the tension of uncertainty.


  1. John Reibetanz, The Lear World: A Study of King Lear in its Dramatic Context (Toronto, 1977), p. 121.

  2. Ibid., pp. 108, 122, 121.

  3. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; repr. 1969), p. 202.

  4. L. C. Knights uses the word ‘affirmation’ in the essay in Some Shakespearean Themes (London, 1959), but following Bradley's idea of ‘The Redemption of King Lear’ (p. 235), many critics have argued that the ending is positive because Lear is redeemed through suffering. Several of these interpretations view King Lear as a ‘Christian’ play: Oscar James Campbell, ‘The Salvation of Lear’, English Literary History, 15 (1948); John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (1949); Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare and the Reason (1964); R. B. Heilman, This Great Stage (Baton Rouge, 1948) and G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1959).

    On the other side are those who find no evidence of redemption and who stress the horrors of the final scene. Among the most notable are: W. R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, Calif., 1966); Barbara Everett, ‘The New King Lear’, Critical Quarterly, 2 (1960); Helen Gardner, King Lear (John Coffin Memorial Lecture, 1967); S. L. Goldberg, An Essay on King Lear (Cambridge, 1974); John Holloway, The Story of The Night (1961) and Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1972).

  5. Reibetanz, The Lear World, p. 120.

  6. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York and London, 1967), p. 12.

  7. John D. Rosenberg, ‘King Lear and his Comforters’, Essays in Criticism, 16 (1966), 144.

  8. S. L. Goldberg, An Essay on King Lear (Cambridge, 1974), p. 163.

  9. References are to the New Arden edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (1952; repr. 1967).

  10. J. K. Walton, ‘Lear's Last Speech’, Shakespeare Survey 13 (Cambridge 1960), p. 14.

  11. J. Stampfer, ‘The Catharsis of King Lear’, Shakespeare Survey 13 (Cambridge, 1960), p. 4.

  12. Harley Granville-Barker noted this connection in his Preface. See Prefaces to Shakespeare (1947; repr. Princeton, 1965), pp. 17-18.

  13. Stratford-upon-Avon, 1962. The treatment of this moment in Brook's film of King Lear was quite different.

  14. Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear, pp. 318-21.

  15. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 241.

  16. Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (1966), p. 116.

  17. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 273.

  18. Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear, p. 6.

  19. In what follows I attempt to see the play from the viewpoint of a spectator who knows nothing of King Lear in order to recover something of its initial effect. I am indebted to Marvin Rosenberg's concept of the ‘naive spectator’ which he used in his work on the play, but did not describe in full until his recent study of Macbeth (The Masks of Macbeth, Berkeley, 1978). While I owe much to his insights and method, I think his approach holds some dangers—he stages the play before audiences who have never seen it before, his ‘naive spectators', and then questions them about their reactions. He probably takes into account changes in language, culture, theatrical traditions and architecture that all modify the play's effect, but even his word ‘naive’ is revealing. I assume the original spectators were far from this. I assume they recognised references to other plays and to contemporary events and that their expectations of the probable development of a play they were attending were moulded as much by their experience of similar plays, as by the play in hand. Shakespeare, like any dramatist working in a living tradition, could depend on this. He traded on their sophistication rather than their naivete.

  20. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 203.

  21. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930).

  22. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1967).

  23. Alan C. Dessen, ‘Two Falls and a Trap’, English Literary Renaissance, 5 (1975), pp. 291-307, p. 303.

  24. See my ‘G. Wilson Knight and “Gloucester's Leap”’, Essays in Criticism, 23 (1973), pp. 198-200.

  25. John Cranford Adams, ‘The Original Staging of King Lear’, Folger Shakespeare Library Joseph Quincey Adams Memorial Studies (1948), p. 330. Alvin B. Kernan favours a ‘low step’, ‘Formalism and Realism in Elizabethan Drama: the Miracles of King Lear’, Renaissance Drama, 9 (1966), p. 60. Waldo F. McNeir prefers a fall from ‘a booth stage’, ‘The Staging of the Dover Cliff Scene in King Lear’, Studies in English Renaissance Drama, ed. McNeir (Baton Rouge, 1962), p. 97. Harry Levin opts for ‘a single step or a low platform’, ‘The Heights and the Depths: a scene from King Lear’, More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (New York, 1959), p. 98. Dessen has a useful discussion of all these views and he favours a flat stage.

  26. Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, pp. 112-13.

  27. Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear, p. 264.

  28. Rosenberg, ‘King Lear and his Comforters’, p. 142.

  29. Adams, ‘The Original Staging of King Lear’, p. 330.

  30. Reibetanz, The Lear World, p. 115.

  31. The Folio reading. In the Quarto, no trumpet answers within and Edgar enters ‘at the third sound’. The business recorded in Folio seems calculated to increase suspense.

  32. Reibetanz, The Lear World, p. 111.

  33. Notably Lear's awaking in the ‘reconciliation scene’ echoes Gloucester's words at Dover: Gloucester. ‘Away, and let me die.’ (IV, vi, 48); Lear. ‘You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave’ (IV, vii, 45), so we might cite this as yet another precedent for a return to life.

  34. John Shaw, ‘King Lear: The Final Lines’, Essays in Criticism, 16 (1966), pp. 261-7, p. 264.

  35. Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear, p. 322.

  36. Reibetanz, The Lear World, p. 121.

  37. Goldberg's comment on those who ignore the effects of performance and stress ‘self-knowledge attained through suffering’, p. 156.

  38. Dr Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W. K. Wimsatt (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 125.

  39. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 272.

  40. Ibid., p. 270.

  41. Ibid., pp. 271-2.

  42. Ibid., p. 264.

  43. Nicholas Brooke, ‘The Ending of King Lear’, in Shakespeare 1564-1964, ed. E. A. Bloom (Providence, R. I., 1964), p. 87.

  44. Ibid., p. 87.

  45. Reibetanz, The Lear World, p. 120.

  46. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 228.

Zvi Jagendorf (essay date 1984)

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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 son in chains, thinking him to be a slave who has tricked him by standing in for his young master (The Captives). Such mistakings approach seriousness by creating situations that would be irreversible if not for some saving grace or lucky revelation at a crucial moment. In his tragicomedies Shakespeare comes as close as possible to dramatizing the irreversible consequences of such exchanges and his model for such a transaction is the substitution of one body for another in the encounter of sex.

The actions of exchange and substitution of one person for another underlie the tragi-comic climaxes of The Merchant of Venice, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure in a special way. In the two latter plays the act upon which the ending movement depends and which it mainly judges is an act of sexual intercourse with a woman substituted for the intended partner. In the first play, the ghoulish yet sincere exchange of Antonio's body for the forfeited bond does not indeed take place but in its stead other seemingly irrevocable transactions are made that repeat in a minor key the crucial acts of the play and link them to the happy end. In all three plays the near fatality of an act of exchange epitomizes the many dualities of tragi-comic resolution. It is both absurd and nobly unselfish, an act of blind lust and of rightful consummation, a trick of comic convention and a commentary on character, irrevocable and yet a release.1

The law of exchange is the natural law of the commercial world of Venice where money and goods change hands and credit is extended in return for a bond that itself will turn into money on a given date. This is the natural cycle of business transactions controlled by law and custom and endangered by fortune. By agreeing to Shylock's “merry bond” Antonio symbolically undermines the impersonal practices of business, going even further than the generosity of “what's mine is yours” to the extreme emotional and spiritual commitment of “my life is yours.”

The exchange of money for goods is an unending cycle, the aim of which is profit. The substitution of a body for one factor in the transaction makes the cycle stop before a potentially tragic exchange that is a grotesque parody of a business deal. Antonio's substitution of his body for the debt of 3,000 ducats is, structurally, a simpler form of the tragicomic knot than the parallel acts of Mariana and Helena. The women's act is real; they hand over their body to the lust of a predator and, losing the blood of virginity, redeem their enemy lover. Antonio exploits all the pathos of such an act:

Repent but you that you shall lose your friend,
And he repents not that he pays your debt;
For if the Jew do cut but deep enough,
I’ll pay it instantly with all my heart.


However, he does not have to spill his blood to redeem his friend. The loss of maidenhood, while irrevocable, avoids tragedy through marriage while the exchange of a life for a debt cannot be digested by comedy. So the crucial act does not take place in The Merchant of Venice, but in its stead a symbolic analogy occurs as its sequel and creates the knot that the resolution must untie. Portia, who has given everything to her chosen lover—“Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted” (3.2.166-67)—makes the final gift of her body dependent on the redeeming of Antonio's debt. Meanwhile the exchange of rings stands for the postponed consummating embrace. But the connection between the redemption of the debt and mutual possession in marriage is not as simple as that between Antonio's adoption of the debt and Bassanio's successful search for a bride. Antonio's forfeit of his body made possible his friend's success as a lover; Bassanio's requiting that generous act, even hypothetically, is falsely symmetrical. His oath protesting that he would give up his life, his wife, and all the world is heard with understandable irony by Portia:

I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.


For Bassanio is not his own man. Even his body is not his to give since it belongs to his wife, who has his ring. Any requiting of Antonio's friendship becomes a betrayal of his marriage. The two obligations are seemingly contradictory; they can be reconciled only by the trick of the substituted woman, which in all three plays is the condition for the male victim's ambiguous act of wrong-doing and redemption. An act of treachery, it turns out, may simultaneously be its opposite, just as giving away a ring may, in comic circumstances, also be giving it back:

                                         … when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence;
O then be bold to say Bassanio's dead!


Thus Bassanio, who does symbolically what Antonio is saved from doing, is saved from the consequences of his act by the double presence of the figure of the “young doctor of Rome,” of Portia's claim and Antonio's, of male and female.

The Merchant of Venice is not a play that scatters indications of ending along its way. For instance, the bond between Shylock and Antonio, unlike Bertram's extreme conditions for bedding Helena, bears no hint in its own wording of its subversion. The ending movement, initiated by Portia's tying the consummation of her marriage to Antonio's release from the bond, is in fact an attempt to solve the relationship between the unilaterally self-sacrificing act of male friendship that begins the play and the mutual obligations of married love that it makes possible but that supersede it. That a difficult choice must be made is clear from Bassanio's dilemma with the ring. The play ends well by contriving a congruency between the genuine split in the man and the sacrificial doubleness of the woman, or between the man's harmless breach of faith and the woman's benevolent mischief.

In the other two plays the male wrongdoers are forced to reconcile their lust for one woman with their possession of another. Their own blind act serves both purposes and their evil intention is redeemed by its satisfactory outcome. Bassanio, whose courtesy and loyalty overcome his love vow, cannot in the one act express both friendship and love but must be made to seem an adulterer in order to earn his happy ending. Bassanio's “guilt” in the ring scene puts him in a position vis à vis Portia analogical to that of Antonio vis à vis Shylock. He too has broken a bond and deserves death (in lover’ rhetoric) or more prosaically, the horns of cuckold:

Now, by mine honor which is yet mine own,
I’ll have that doctor for [my] bedfellow.


Antonio's second binding points the parallel again. These repetitions are a reversal of the earlier binding and trial because the source of both “credit” and mercy is now Portia instead of Shylock.

Portia finally fills all possible positions vis à vis the hapless men: wronged wife, mysterious sweetheart, judicious advocate, source of credit and mercy. It is she who is “double” and not Bassanio, the target of her accusation. As such she can easily change places with herself, return the ring, and solve everything. But the initial, disturbing asymmetry remains. The self-sacrificing friend for whom Bassanio was prepared to forfeit wife and all is the odd man out. His second and excessive offer to bind his soul upon the forfeit for Bassanio's faith is a genuine but unserious gesture. He has no more role to play, for Portia's credit is given without forfeit and he has become a pawn in her game. Thus the liberation of Antonio also frees Bassanio from his tie to the older man and the conflicting obligations of friendship and marriage are resolved by making both men clients of Portia.

Unlike the other two darker tragi-comedies, the crucial acts of forfeit and bloodletting do not take place in The Merchant of Venice. Antonio does not give his body for his friend, nor does he spill his blood, as Mariana and Helena do to seal their status as wives. It is the avoidance of the serious transaction that makes the ending of this play a lighter affair. In its stead there is its artificial image in the coda of the rings, which exposes earlier choices and repeats the gesture of forfeit but only formally and without pain.

The very name All's Well That Ends Well points to a tension between the happy ending and the not-so-happy events that it compensates for.2 Twice Helena must remind her partners in her project that “Though time seem so adverse and means unfit” (5.1.26), the end “is the renown” (4.4.36) and will justify the means by which it was achieved. In this play it is the patient plotting of a loving and understanding woman that turns the “abhorr’d ends” of a trifler who contrives against his own nobility into the hallowed end that he was fleeing:

Bertram: A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee. (Exit)
Diana: For which live long to thank both heaven and me!
You may so in the end.


This transposition of ends (exchanging the irresponsible deflowering of a virgin for the consummation of a marriage) is the result of a redeeming act of substitution—“this deceit so lawful” (3.7.38) that converts bad into good without demanding the full price of recognition, neither at the moment of encounter nor at the end.

The crucial act of this play, the hidden encounter in Diana's bed, is morally two-faced. As a destructive act of lust it has no consequences because the lust remains a purpose, a wicked meaning, more in the head than in the deed. As a beneficent fact of consummation it does have consequences—the pregnancy of Helena and the fulfillment of the seemingly impossible conditions of Bertram's letter. But the initiator of the act, whether we stress its sinful or redeeming aspect, remains blind, unaware of his shame (act 4) as he is laconic in his acceptance of guilt in the final scene. Although this lack of awareness in Bertram has been considered a weakness by many,3 it is in keeping with the play's insistence that man is judged by his acts rather than by his intentions and with the nature of the critical sexual encounter that makes beneficent use of the lover's silence, blindness, and ignorance.

The elaborate final scene of the play is disappointing if we expect a scene of recognition. It lacks the wonder of discovery and, as Bertram takes the center, develops into an unpleasant investigation of his pretensions and self-indulgent evasions. The shock of revelation that transfigures so many of Shakespeare's comic endings is absent. In its stead there is a curiously impersonal exposure of Bertram's guilt by stages until the crisis of incomprehension summed up by Diana's cryptic lines brings about the intervention of Helena:

… he's guilty, and he is not guilty.
He knows I am no maid, and he’ll swear to’t;
I’ll swear I am a maid, and he knows not.


Helena is the meaning of Diana's riddle just as she, bearing ring and child, is the answer to the seemingly unanswerable challenge of Bertram's letter. This resolution, like the clever answer to a riddle, is primarily a matter of words and hidden logic, not feeling. The paradoxical formulations of Diana (“Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick. / So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick,” 5.3.302-3) do not, as in the romances, compress and strain into a line of verse a complete and astonishing turnabout of fortune. Rather they draw attention to the trick around which this resolution is built. It is this act that informs all the paradoxes and cryptic formulations of the play's final sequence. It is behind the elaborate and circular interrogations about the ring, and its peculiar nature helps to explain the flatness of the ending.

The encounter between awareness, total or partial, and blindness in varying degrees is fundamental to most kinds of comedy. It is the condition of the most primitive joke or trick played upon a victim, and much sophisticated, it underlies the illusions and misreadings of intention and action in the subtlest of comedies. The bed-trick is essentially a primitive practical joke with serious consequences. Blindness and awareness, victim and hunter are set in clear and diagrammatic opposition in the neat and tendentious setup of darkness and silence in the bed. What differentiates it from the simple practical joke is the physical involvement of the “joker”; the woman in the sexual encounter is both the player of a trick and the object of lust. She is an observer of her victim and yet a participator in an act that changes her own status. Intellectually superior because she knows, she is physically subject to the man who “knows” her carnally though he does not recognize her.

The implications of sexual knowledge without recognition are not ignored by Shakespeare. They are painfully analyzed by Helena, who makes us feel the copresence in that moment of enjoyed passion and abuse:

… But O, strange men,
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen’d thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night; … 


What is unpleasant here is that this base form of knowing should be the key to the happy end and that the protagonist/victim Bertram, having blindly engendered it, is left by the dramatist on that level of knowledge until the curtain falls. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the erotic confusions of the night produce a state of exhaustion out of which the resolution can follow with the rhythmic logic of day following night. The audience is left to make the connections between the madness of the erotic chase, the recollections of the lovers, and the stability and fruitfulness of the marriage bed. In All's Well That Ends Well blind lust is not a prelude or foil to consummation but accompanies it and is indistinguishable from it. This ironic salvation through blindness marks Bertram for the rest of the play and severely limits his chances of attaining any satisfactory recognition. Even his base companion and moral parallel, Parolles, is observed in a moment of truth as he is forced to come to terms with himself, to know himself a braggart. It is the denial of this self-knowledge to Bertram that characterizes the final scene of the play.

This scene seems to move in a way not intended, indeed specifically rejected by those who would control it. In the brief prologue the King makes it clear that the bitter past is to be forgiven and that complaints about Bertram's behavior will be suppressed:

We are reconcil’d, and the first view shall kill
All repetition.


However, repetition is just what the scene engineers. Although the past is buried by the King along with Helena the dialogue cannot move in any other direction. What directs the movement of the play to its final confrontation is not so much a knowing character as the fact of the consummation that throws up evidence (the rings), produces the riddles, and throws into ironic relief the angry ignorance of the King and the forced maneuvers of Bertram.

“All this may be good drama, but it is bad psychology,” says W. W. Lawrence of the apparently unnecessary elaborateness of Shakespeare's denouement.4 The postponement of the confrontation between Bertram and Helena seems to him unjustified by anything but the desire for a coup de théâtre of the kind that final scenes in comedy tend to provide. Dr. Johnson, on the other hand, found that Shakespeare was “hastening to the end of the play”5 and precipitating the action. Both are in fact noticing the same thing: the denouement's apparent lack of interest in feeling and the seeming lapse into convention as the vindicated wife picks out her man again. Certainly Shakespeare's source in Painter is far more direct; the narrative simply brings Giletta to her husband's court to reveal herself and her children and repeat her story.6 Dramatic tradition, on the other hand, demands revelation step by step. Certainly in comedies this stage-by-stage advance to the obvious recognition is a formula exploiting the laughable blindness of the personae to what is obvious to us. Yet in Shakespeare, perhaps most markedly in his last plays, the stages of the final recognition are an enactment of something less formal than moral—a process of awakening.

In All's Well quite clearly no awakening takes place. There is no major affirmative note at the end of this sequence that would make of its stages steps on such a lucid path. The protagonist has come to the final scene without self-knowledge, a bearer of false values and yet already saved. To succeed as an optimistic and harmonious ending, the denouement would have to bridge the gap between the blind knowledge of sex and the self-knowledge of discovery. This is structurally impossible because the intervening motif of regret or repentance is missing. As a second best, and more realistically in keeping with the play's mood and the protagonist's nature, the denouement recapitulates in detailed sequence instances of Bertram's falseness, mocking him at the very moment of revelation with his continued lack of self-knowledge:

… But for this lord,
Who hath abus’d me, as he knows himself,
Though yet he never harm’d me, here I quit him.
He knows himself my bed he hath defil’d, … 


Bertram's defenses penetrated anew by each twist in the scene are here totally down. His sin and salvation, the “mingled yarn, good and ill together” (4.3.71-72), are one: the former he chose, the latter chose him. Diana's speech juxtaposes Bertram's ignorance, his thoughts of abuse and defilement and his redeeming act of generation. Thus the King's stern words to the slippery youth turn out to have a fair meaning:

Sir, for my thoughts, you have them ill to friend
Till your deeds gain them; … 


The ignorant deed does produce the rational end, but the name and the thing are still separated and in his last speech the play's constantly deluded protagonist makes his love dependent surprisingly on more knowledge:

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.


J. L. Calderwood is right when he calls the final scene a “gloss on the bed-trick.”7 It is in fact a demonstration of its happy consequences but also a recapitulation of its irresolvable paradox of perversion and fulfillment. The substitution of one body for another in the dark makes of sin an illusion and a reality of marriage insomuch as we concentrate on the deed alone. At the end, when the characters confront each other in awareness as well as in daylight, the disturbing, unruly energy of sex is still there in Helena's speech next to the evidence that would harness it:

O my good lord, when I was like this maid,
I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring, … 


The ring does make a circular progress from Bertram and back to him and this might imply harmony like the return of the ring in The Merchant of Venice. But the encounter upon which this potential harmony is based is analyzed too vividly, is too alive to fit tamely into the formal solution. Bertram in being “kind” then was only being true to his baser natural instincts and no miracle has transformed them.

In Measure for Measure the bed-trick is used in an analogous way to foil evil and facilitate ending but the ideas that radiate from the act and are focused in it are of a different kind. In the denouement of this play is a good example of how Shakespeare clothes a stock device of comic resolution with meaning, thus linking the traditionally formal and self-sufficient end with the deepest concerns of the play.

There is a fundamental opposition in the play between two kinds of exchange. One kind is hard and unyielding; this is the meting out of punishment for crime, injury for injury, and measure for measure. This kind of exchange is potentially catastrophic because in its strictness it may entail death for the offender. The other kind of exchange tends to undermine catastrophe and strictness by exploiting the old device of substitution. Thus instead of an Angelo for a Claudio there is a Ragozine for a Claudio, and instead of a raped Isabella there is a betrothed Mariana in the bed. The comic exchanges represent the benevolent devices and exploitation of accident that resolve deadlocks and turn either/or situations into traps with an escape hatch.

The multiple substitutions of the end, therefore, need to be seen in the context of the important situations of exchange and substitution that form the backbone of the plot. Then we will understand how the device takes on some of the resonance of an idea.8

The opening gambit of the play is itself an act of substitution. Angelo is put in the place of the Duke. He is in fact called “substitute” (5.1.133, 140), but at the beginning the Duke puts it in the most pointed way:

In our remove be thou at full ourself.


The traditional comic use of the substitute figure is to solve problems, to fit into crucial slots and remain passive. Here at the opening of the play the substitute is encouraged to be active and independent and so the problems of mortality and mercy are created in order to be resolved at the end by an assortment of more conventional substitute figures. Angelo's taking of the Duke's place and his extreme interpretation of his authority create the kind of confrontation characteristic of the middle action of the play. The judge is placed opposite the sinner and asked whether he has ever been in his position:

Whether you had not sometime in your life
Err’d in this point which now you censure him,


This figure is used with effective monosyllabic bluntness by Isabella:

If he had been as you, and you as he.
You would have slipp’d like him, but he, like you,
Would not have been so stern.


These hypothetical changes of place are of course hints of the great reversal to come when Angelo does become as Claudio. Thus far, then, the Duke's temporary abdication has created a situation in which it has become possible for characters to speculate radically on the artificiality of the separation between judge and offender and reverse them in their minds.

If change of place creates the situation and the possible exchange of moral opposites complicates it, the more conventional exchange of a woman's body for a proffered favor creates the dilemma that only the bed-trick can untie. This time Isabella and not Angelo is at the center and the suggested transaction is the substitution of her virginity for her brother's redemption, or the payment of her virginity to redeem his forfeited life. The similarity of temper that critics have often noted about Isabella and Angelo9 is reinforced by our understanding of the formal similarity of their positions vis à vis the offender. The precise Angelo will not put himself in the criminal's place to save him though he later finds himself imitating his crime. The chaste Isabella will not put her body in the criminal's place (Angelo's power) to save him though she later finds someone else to imitate her there. She certainly has strong arguments to support her refusal but it still looks selfish in the light of the most powerful, if only evoked, substitution of this central part of the play. For it is surely Christ's sacrifice of himself, the placing of his body in the grip of death, that saved all the souls that were forfeit once to the law that doomed them as sinners. The remedy is mercy but it is brought to man by Christ's yielding himself up to save his brother. This is the unequal exchange that is the antithesis of tit for tat and measure for measure. It is a godly privilege or a martyr's. Its absoluteness cannot fit into the natural human world of comedy where the substitutions and exchanges that now begin as the action reaches its crisis are the familiar tricks played by the virtuous to beat evil at its own game.

One can judge Shakespeare's awareness of the conventionality of the device and his turning that artifice to advantage in the incident of the substitute head. Angelo's wickedness is combated by two tricks of substitution: Mariana in Isabella's place and somebody's head instead of Claudio's. But in the latter case the traditionally passive decoy of such situations, Barnardine, rebels against his role:

I swear I will not die to-day for any man's persuasion.


And so the hard-pressed politicians of virtue have to make use of a timely casualty to supply the deputy Angelo with the deputy (Ragozine) of a deputy head (Barnardine). The human conflict with the convention (Barnardine's refusal) makes the lucky chance more plausible and more serious.

The discovery scene in all three tragi-comedies is a judicial probe into the past, using a triallike procedure to follow closely the evasions and lies of the offender until he is brought face-to-face with the redeeming consequences of his crime. In The Merchant of Venice the trial of the rings is lighthearted, a joke with certain serious connections to Bassanio's dilemma; in All's Well the trial explores the disturbing mystery of blind knowledge in sex. In Measure for Measure, the longest and most elaborate of them, the trial juxtaposes the disguise of Angelo and the pretenses of Isabella and the Duke in a complex recapitulation, the formal purpose of which is to create a deadlock composed of the accumulation of frustrated endings that reveal Angelo's guilt and compromise him but depend on the “coup” of the Duke's intervention for release into action.

The awareness of the criminal is the most important structural datum of this scene.10 Unlike Bertram and despite the limited number of speeches he is given in the scene, Angelo's conscience is awake, we know, and the encounter is therefore a subtler one than that of All's Well. The protagonists are more of a match for each other. Because of this the scene is also less ceremonious, less formal and more chaotic. The Duke's plan to proceed with Angelo “By cold gradation and weal-balanc’d form” (4.3.100) is hardly carried out, for a ceremony is less personal and more distanced than the passionate play-acting of this final scene.

The two major confrontations with Isabella and with Mariana reenact in a distorting glass Angelo's two critical moments—his temptation and his fall. The temptation is replayed according to Angelo's version of its consequences:

Who will believe thee, Isabel?


Isabella's denunciation, part true and part play-acting, brings out the secret only to delay revelation. The Duke's ironic rejection of her charges—

                                         … it imports no reason
That with such vehemency he should pursue
Faults proper to himself.


—and Mariana's contradicting them create the deadlock and frustration needed if the “coup” of the Duke's unmasking is to work. The power of the true ending depends on the energy stalled by the false endings. Thus Mariana's unveiling, a formal gesture accompanied by formal language—

This is that face, thou cruel Angelo,
Which once thou swor'st was worth the looking on;
This is the hand which, with a vow’d contract,
Was fast belock’d in thine; … 


—is lost in Lucio's joke and in Angelo's evasive speech. The deadlock of frustrated endings comes to a head in the exit of the Duke and the appearance of the mysterious Friar. Here is the central situation of the play in one picture—the Duke absent, the despair of the suppliants, the impossibility of convincing the public that the judge is the villain. Thus in one scene the Duke has again set up the essence of the action: his absence and return. But this time his return is violent, a turnabout to stop all further change:

Thou art the first knave that e’er mad'st a duke.


Then the gesture of unseating Angelo completes the return:

We’ll borrow a place of him.—Sir, by your leave.


The Duke's unmasking and assumption of his rightful place as ruler and judge expose the foregoing action as a trial lacking only a sentence to bring it to completion. This is the point in the play where the given facts of source material and comic convention put the most strain on artistic logic. Basically the reprieve of Angelo and the revelation of the substituted head are the facts of plot that do away with the tragic knot and replace it with a comic finale. But they are not transparent or isolated tricks. They depend on Isabella's intervention, a moment of real and difficult choice that, formally, counters the strictest exchange proposed by the Duke (“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!” 5.1.409) with the hypothesis, secretly true, which would make that exchange unnecessary:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn’d
As if my brother liv'd.


Isabella, by kneeling for Angelo's life, puts herself in Mariana's place—“Sweet Isabel, take my part”—thus making up for her inability to put herself in her brother's place earlier in the play, and rewarding Mariana for taking Isabel's part in the bed.

The revelation of the last benefactor of cunning exchange—Claudio—puts the seal on the device and links it clearly with the tragicomic ethos. The stern resolution of “like doth quit like” is commuted to the comic solution of “Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well.” (5.1.496). The balancing mutual cancellation of the former contrasts with the imbalance of evil producing good. This has happened thanks to the device of substitution, which draws the sting of both lust and murder by having them spend their force on the wrong object.

The substitutions and exchanges that in farce would be the consequence of accident and luck determined by polished geometries of plot are here both a cunning tactic to test and combat evil on the level of plot and, on a symbolic level, represent the alternative to the lex talionis, which would only exchange blood for blood. “Like quits like” is based on a primitive equation of injuries; the other exchanges produce good out of evil, no equation this time but a form of change.

Although we do not hear Isabella's assent to the Duke's offer of marriage, there is more than conventional propriety in his proposal. The self-surrender and mingling of flesh in the sacrament of marriage is the closest a Christian can come, in the natural world of comedy, to transcending self. “What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” (5.1.537) is the fairest and most hopeful proposal of exchange in a play whose title posits an exchange as severe as it is irrevocable.

The scenes of discovery we have discussed all lead us to contemplate the past, whether that be the past just enacted on the stage or the remoter past of the story's beginning. If the comedies of circular journey go back to the beginning, the tragi-comedies end with a scene of trial whose purpose it is to expose in a cunning and roundabout way the misdeeds that dominated the middle action and created the crisis. Such final scenes dramatize the serious principle that acts have inevitable consequences, which is modified by the comic principle that there is a device to counter every evil intent.

The happy ending of forgiveness comes when the shameful actions of the past have been reconstructed in full and in public. It is an extreme juxtaposition and puts an enormous strain on our expectations of the sinning characters who straddle contrary experiences of exposure and release without undergoing a process of conversion. Thus they remain what they always were, cast clearly against the background of their recapitulated misdeeds, but released by a duality in the misdeed itself and the generosity of others.11 This is one of the most important significances of the conventions of recapitulation and return at the end of these plays. They enable the dramatist not just to explain the intricacies of the knot or complete a formal pattern, but to entertain the mind of his audience with the conflicting claims of happy change and ironic consistency. The new beginning that the end of comedy so often proposes cannot be really new. In the case of tragedy, death or disaster clear the scene for a fresh start, symbolized by the accession to power of a new king. In these comedies the survival of all the characters begs the question that the recapitulation and the figure of return make more specific. How much weight do we give the fiction of change, based as it is on such unpromising material? …


  1. Criticism has mostly dwelt on the absurdities, to a modern taste, of the device. A. P. Rossiter, for instance, in Angel with Horns (London, 1961), 125, says that the “inquiringness” of the problem comedies makes for a tension between the device itself and our curiosity about the minds of those who take part in it. Critics with a more historical bias like W. W. Lawrence in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (London, 1969), find the device's acceptability in its currency: “they were current in the story-telling of his own day” (p. 97). Studies of the thematic relevance of the device are less common, but see James Black, “The Unfolding of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 119-28.

  2. In an enlightening article, Ian Donaldson (“ All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's Play of Endings,” Essays in Criticism 27 [1977]: 34-55), analyzes the thematic use of different conceptions of end and ending in the play. He does not focus, as I do, on the act of exchange, which makes a good ending of a bad intent.

  3. For example, G. K. Hunter in the introduction to the New Arden edition of the play (1967), pp. xlvi-xlvii, who finds Bertram a success on the level of Jonsonian caricature but incoherent on any deeper level.

  4. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 78.

  5. Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson [New Haven, Conn., and London, 1968], 7:400.

  6. William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, Novel 38 in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 2 (London and New York, 1958). The relevant passage is on p. 396.

  7. J. L. Calderwood, “Styles of Knowing in All's Well,Modern Language Quarterly 25 (1964): 293.

  8. James Black in “The Unfolding of Measure for Measure,” is one of the few critics who take seriously the device of substitution, especially Mariana's for Isabella. See 124-26.

  9. See Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York, 1965), 100. Schanzer quotes, though he does not agree with, Quiller-Couch's view that Isabel and Angelo are “two pendent portraits or studies in the ugliness of Puritan hypocrisy” (105).

  10. See Bertrand Evans's subtle analysis of this awareness in Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), 209. Evans describes Angelo as “a figure at once odious, comic and pathetic: supposing himself guilty of heinous crimes of which remembrance tortures him, but which he is convinced he can keep hidden, he is truly guilty of no criminal acts, but all his intents are known to the authority who can call him to account.”

  11. Mary Lascelles, in Shakespeare's “Measure for Measure” (London, 1953), 157, makes the point succinctly: “To will, and to do harm are, according to the logic of Shakespearean tragi-comedy, distinct.”

Stephen Booth (essay date 1983)

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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 editor.”1 If my sensations could add anything to Johnson's, I might relate that I myself first read the last scenes of King Lear while undergoing a sophomore survey course in which I was taking on a full semester's reading in the twenty-four hours immediately preceding the final examination; it was about three o'clock on a spring afternoon, and I sat in a chair in a stuffy library and cried. I had already read a pound and a half of certified masterpieces that day; I read as much more before dawn; but with this one exception I was moved by nothing beyond the sophomoric ambition to become a junior. Further testimony to the singular power of the last scenes of King Lear is presumably unnecessary. An effort to account for that singularity may well seem just as unnecessary, but I think the reasons why we are so upset by the end of Lear—specifically by the death of Cordelia—appear to be more obvious than they are.

The context in which Johnson introduces his personal response suggests that his distress was ethical; Johnson took Shakespeare's purpose to be

to impress this important moral, that villany is never at a stop, that crimes lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin.

But though this moral be incidentally enforced, Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles. … A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.

In the present case the publick has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. [VIII, 704; the italics are mine]

Disappointment of our hopes and of our natural ideas of justice accounts handsomely for our shock at Cordelia's death; that explanation makes perfect sense. But—in the unlikely event that King Lear has anything to teach us—it may be the necessity of recognizing that what makes sense may not be true. Literature abounds in instances in which virtue miscarries—Little Eva, Little Nell, Little Emily, little Macduff, the little princes in the Tower—but, though we may be moved by disasters that befall innocents, our emotion does not ordinarily spill over into terror at the works that contain those disasters. If the power and intensity of our responses to the last moments of King Lear do not result from what happens, they may result from when and where it happens.

These are the last words of Act IV; the speaker is Kent: “My point and period will be thoroughly wrought, / Or well and ill, as this day's battle's fought” (IV.vii.96-97). This speech—which functions similarly to similar ones in Julius Caesar (V.i.112-25), Othello (V.i.128-29), and Macbeth (V.iv.16-21)—virtually announces something the play has been telling us for over an hour: as Dover has been the destination of the characters, the inevitable battle there is the destination of the play.

At the beginning of V.iii, the last scene, that battle is over, and Lear and Cordelia are led away as captives; they are in urgent danger of death at the hands of Edmund's henchman. When Albany enters with Goneril and Regan, the play is clearly far from over. Although Albany's speech to Edmund (“Sir, you have showed to-day your valiant strain …” V.iii.40-45) starts out in the standard fashion of victorious generals putting final touches to plays, Albany immediately turns his attention to the object of ours: he demands that Edmund turn Lear and Cordelia over to him. Edmund's smooth answer increases our fears for them; Edmund urged speed on the assassin, and now he says, “they are ready / To-morrow, or at further space, t'appear / Where you shall hold your session” (52-54). We fear that Albany may be diverted from his purpose; we have no reason to suspect that we will ourselves forget about the greatest unfinished business of the play. Albany is indeed diverted. He is not taken in by Edmund, but he does forget Cordelia and Lear to challenge Edmund's presumption. Thereupon the play and our attention imperceptibly skew toward the superimposed love-triangles (Edmund/Goneril/Regan; Edmund/Goneril/Albany):

Sir, by your patience,
I hold you but a subject of this war,
Not as a brother.
That's as we list to grace him.
Not so hot!

[59-61, 66]

The focus of our attention now is Edmund. And we are smoothly led into the ceremonial conclusion Edgar has arranged and for which he has carefully prepared us: Edgar's trial-by-combat against Edmund. Edgar's victory—the triumph of virtue—has the feel of dramatic conclusion, and the lines that follow it offer an anthology of familiar signals that a play is ending: Edmund confesses and emphasizes the finality of his situation: “What you have charged me with, that have I done, / And more, much more. The time will bring it out. /’Tis past, and so am I” (163-65). Edgar reveals himself (170), and passes a hollow but summary-sounding moral:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.


The easy readiness of Edmund's agreement (“Th' hast spoken right; ’tis true”—174) combines with the brothers' exchange of charity (166-67) to give their dialogue a quality comparable to the resolution at the end of a piece of music. Edmund then makes an almost explicit announcement that the dramatic entity is complete: “The wheel is come full circle; I am here” (175). Albany sounds like any one of dozens of rejoicing personages tying off the ends of a play by inviting narration of the events leading up to the hero's epiphany:

Methought thy very gait did prophesy
A royal nobleness. I must embrace thee.
Let sorrow split my heart if ever I
Did hate thee, or thy father.
Worthy prince, I know't.
Where have you hid yourself?
How have you known the miseries of your father?
By nursing them, my lord. List a brief tale;
And when ’tis told, O that my heart would burst!


Edgar's account concludes with information new to us; he tells us once and for all what becomes of Gloucester:

… some half hour past, when I was armed,
Not sure, though hoping of this good success,
I asked his blessing, and from first to last
Told him our pilgrimage. But his flawed heart—
Alack, too weak the conflict to support—
’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.


Edgar's narrative is obviously complete. But five lines later he continues—in a passage whose superfluity the Folio text can seem accidentally to vouch for by omitting it.2 He begins on a line that summarizes my point, “This would have seemed a period”:

This would have seemed a period
To such as love not sorrow; but another,
To amplify too much, would make much more,
And top extremity.
Whilst I was big in clamor, came there in a man,
Who, having seen me in my worst estate,
Shunned my abhorred society; but then, finding
Who ’twas that so endured, with his strong arms
He fastened on my neck, and bellowed out
As he'd burst heaven, threw him on my father,
Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
That ever ear received; which in recounting
His grief grew puissant, and the strings of life
Began to crack. Twice then the trumpets sounded,
And there I left him tranced.
But who was this?
Kent, sir, the banished Kent; who in disguise
Followed his enemy king and did him service
Improper for a slave.


This passage—in which Edgar begins with the events of “some half hour past” and works back to the beginning of Kent's history—is a chiasmic reprise of Edgar's chronological account of his own activities in disguise (it even echoes the word burst and the idea of bursting, which framed the earlier account). The passage winds up and ties off Kent's story as the previous one had Gloucester's, and, although Edgar never says that Kent is dead, the parallelism—particularly that between the substance and placement of the assertion that Gloucester's heart “Burst smilingly” (200) and the assertion that the strings of Kent's life “Began to crack” (218)— does say so. The Kent story is over.

Eight lines later, as the fates of Goneril and Regan are being reported, Edgar casually says, “Here comes Kent”; Kent enters, and a finished chapter continues.

Kent's first sentence violently aborts the ceremony of theatrical conclusion that began when Albany called the herald to supervise the formal combat between Edgar and Edmund:

Kent. I am come
To bid my king and master aye good night.
Is he not here?
Albany. Great thing of us forgot!


Albany's ridiculously phrased (and thus disconcertingly comic) cry of surprise is curiously appropriate to an improbable theatrical situation in which the characters onstage have forgotten all about the focal figures of the scene.

That we, the audience, could also have forgotten about Lear and Cordelia seems even more improbable, but I think audiences do just that. For the audience, the smooth ceremony of conclusion presumably collapses only moments before Kent ends it for the characters. As Edgar was putting a precise period to Kent's history, a gentleman entered with a bloody knife:

Help, help! O, help!
What kind of help?
Speak, man.
What means this bloody knife?
’Tis hot, it smokes.
It came even from the heart of—O, she's dead


Edgar's questions are our questions and open our minds to a forgotten need for help (note that the gentleman, whose message is that Goneril and Regan are dead, has no practical use for the help he asks). The imperfection of the gentleman's response to Edgar's questioning invites an audience to supply “Cordelia” to complete the interrupted phrase “from the heart of.” When the gentleman does explain his distress—and when the play ambles on to sum up the careers of Goneril and Regan—the audience, though of course relieved that its immediate fears for Cordelia have not been realized, is likely to remain upset about Lear and Cordelia—perhaps not only upset in its concern for two virtuous characters in danger, but also upset in being the only party to the play that is concerned. Some nebulous uneasiness for the audience may also result from a sense of having gathered itself mentally in preparation for leaving a theatre where a play has formally concluded while its substance is still in urgent progress.3

Even after the characters have remembered that the main business of the play is unfinished, the audience's travail continues. All the different plots and subplots have tumbled out on the stage at once, and the characters leap from focus to focus like the mad Lear of earlier scenes. The frustration of the audience—which alone can focus its attention on the one vital action to be taken—is scrupulously intensified by Shakespeare; his care is epitomized by the parenthetic plea for haste with which Edmund delays the syntactic completion of “quickly send to the castle”:

I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send—
Be brief in it—to th’ castle, for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.
Run, run, O run!
To who, my lord? Who has the office? Send
Thy token of reprieve.
Well thought on. Take my sword;
Give it to the captain.
Haste thee for thy life.
[Exit Officer.]


A moment later: Enter Lear, with Cordelia in his arms, and the most terrifying five minutes in literature have begun for the audience.

I submit that audiences are not shocked by the fact of Cordelia's death but by its situation and that audiences grieve not for Cordelia's physical vulnerability, or for the physical vulnerability of humankind, but for their own—our own—mental vulnerability, a vulnerability made absolutely inescapable when the play pushes inexorably beyond its own identity, rolling across and crushing the very framework that enables its audience to endure the otherwise terrifying explosion of all manner of ordinarily indispensable mental contrivances for isolating, limiting, and comprehending. When Lear enters howling in the last moments of the play, Shakespeare has already presented an action that is serious, of undoubted magnitude, and complete; he thereupon continues that action beyond the limits of the one category that no audience can expect to see challenged: Shakespeare presents the culminating events of his story after his play is over. …


  1. Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, 2 vols., vols. 7 and 8 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven, 1968), 8: 704. Subsequent quotations from Johnson are also from Sherbo's text.

  2. Although the independent integrity of the Quarto and Folio texts of King Lear has been established by the work of Michael J. Warren (“Quarto and Folio King Lear, and the Interpretation of Albany and Edgar,” in David Bevington and Jay L. Halio, eds., Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature [Newark, Del., 1978], pp. 95-107), Steven Urkowitz (Shakespeare's Revision of King Lear [Princeton, 1980]), and Gary Taylor (“The War in King Lear,Shakespeare Survey 33 [1980], 27-34), all my references to King Lear are to Alfred Harbage's Revised Pelican Text of 1969. This discussion, thus, is based on the traditional, now familiar King Lear of modern editions—a King Lear editorially derived, usually, as in the Pelican, by supplementing the Folio text with lines from the Quarto. In basing my essay on Harbage's conservative conflation, I am not merely being old-fashioned or merely being lazy. Unfortunately, the altogether persuasive demonstrations by Warren, Urkowitz, and Taylor cannot imply a corollary by which one simply uses the Folio Lear (or, less reasonably, the Quarto Lear).

    Granting that we have in the past been foolishly presumptive about the originals that lie behind the seventeenth-century printed texts, both those texts are faulty. The Folio text of Lear is, like the more blatantly corrupt Quarto, obviously deficient—not only deficient when measured against some hypothetical Platonic original dimly visible in a conflation of the two versions, but deficient in its own terms. For example, in the Folio text of I.iv, Lear asks the Fool to teach him the difference between a bitter fool and a sweet one, but the Fool's lesson is missing: as reported in the Folio, the Fool's response is “Nuncle, give me an egg, and I'll give thee two crowns.” And there is no logic to Then in Lear's “Then let them anatomize Regan” in the Folio text of where no arraignment of Goneril precedes it.

    The traditional editor-made conflation can no longer be assumed to approximate Shakespeare's intent, but—as a practical text for criticism—the conflation appears to come closer to doing so than either of the more authoritative texts that provide its raw material. Even after scholarly texts of Q and F are readily available, our idea of the two “real” King Lears will presumably be comparable to our now discarded idea of the mythical single lost one: we will still be dependent on editor-made texts for performances of either of the two Lears and on heavily and speculatively annotated texts for reading them.

    Moreover—and more importantly—my topic in this essay is in fact neither of Shakespeare's King Lears but the King Lear familiar to students of the play and, at least in this century, familiar to playgoers for whom ad hoc abbreviations of the edited conflation are played. This essay—an essay not on the greatness of Shakespeare but on the greatness of King Lear—is concerned with the King Lear in which, throughout the history of modern scholarship, that greatness has been perceived (and which remains great, no matter how it came into being). I am, in short, concerned here with our King Lear—shaped though it is by accidents and editors—rather than either of Shakespeare's.

    This whole matter of the texts of Lear is philosophically vexing and will remain so. Fortunately, however, my thesis in this essay is not materially dependent on my choice of text. That, I believe, is true—even though, since I make an issue of the extreme length of King Lear, and since editorially conflated texts are about a hundred lines longer than the Q text and almost three hundred lines longer than the F text, my thesis could seem to depend very materially indeed upon my decision to use the Pelican text. In fact, because my concern is not with the literal duration of the play—how long it takes to say out all its lines—but with how long the play feels, the addition or subtraction of a hundred or even three hundred lines does not much affect my argument. The F text, the Q text, and modern conflations all seem unbearably long, and seem so for reasons essentially unrelated to the actual length of the play.

  3. King Lear is now so famous that even people seeing or reading it for the first time know a lot about it. The mere fact that we know—if only from the categorical title the play received in the 1623 Folio—that this is The Tragedie of King Lear is by itself enough to tell a modern audience more about “the promised end” of King Lear than my discussion allows for. More importantly, my discussion makes no allowance whatever for distinctions between first impressions of King Lear and the responses of audiences and readers who see or read the play for the second, third, fourth, fifth … time. The issue is vital and complex—so complex as to warrant a digression that would make an unreasonably awkward bulge in the discussion that occasions it. I therefor reserve it for an appendix: Appendix 1, “On the Persistence of First Impressions,” pp. 119-25 below [in King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.]

Deborah T. Curren Aquino (essay date 1986)

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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, a heightening rather than a shortening of labor. It is, moreover, formal integrity, not the ends of plot structure per se, that governs the effort and labor.1

In a study of The Merchant of Venice, James Siemon claimed that Shakespeare's construction of the final act so as to form “a complete ritual restatement of the body of the play” was experimental and unique, for none of his plays, whether written before or after, made use of the final act to reprise the whole (208-209). According to Siemon:

Act V begins again with Act I, with the hero's pursuit of the heroine, and reenacts, in precisely legalistic terms and in a social ritual (that is a trial), the legal impediment of the hero's success. Bassanio has sworn that “when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence,” and has then promptly given away his ring to an importuning stranger. Portia's case is airtight, as Shylock's had seemed to be, and it finds its resolution in charity and love, in reconciliation. … The last act … festively and ritually reenacts the pattern of threat, release, and reconciliation which the preceding acts have dramatized.


But certainly the seeds for such a “complete ritual restatement” are present in earlier comedies.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, in fact, might just as easily lay claim to being the first comedy to provide a fifth act reprisal as MV. Consider, for example, the order in which the four major groups of characters (Theseus and Hippolyta, the young lovers, the mechanicals, and the fairies) make their appearance, an order which parallels the way they were introduced in the play. The tripartite division of the act also mirrors the play's movement from daylight to night and back to day by the end of Act Four, and the spatial movement from Athens to the wood and back again to Athens. Lines 1-105 recall the opening conversation between the royal lovers, Hippolyta's demonstration of feminine intuition and common sense, and Theseus' charge to Philostrate to provide revels. At the beginning of the play, Theseus wanted entertainment to pass the days and nights before the nuptial ceremony; in the final act he wants something to pass away the three hours between “after-supper and bed-time” (5.1.35).2 The second division (lines 106-370), also the longest, parallels the longest section of the play, the nighttime world of the wood which extends from Act Two through the first ninety-four lines of Act Four. Just as disorder, confusion, and disharmony prevailed in the wood, so now, for all Theseus' gracious words, theatrical chaos erupts. As others have noted (Clemen xxxiv-xxxvii and Mehl 46), the interlude dealing with Pyramus and Thisby, which like the middle acts of the play is about love in the moonlight, burlesques the story of the four young lovers lost in the wood. The final part of the scene from line 371 to the conclusion brings the benedictional arrival of the fairies, which corresponds to the arrival of order in the fourth act when Theseus' appearance accompanied the dawning of a new day. Where that order was diurnal, social, and legal, the final order resonates with the eternal, natural, and spiritual.

Key iterative images like moon, eye, play, and dream are present, as is one of Midsummer's chief compositional principles, antithesis. The first twenty-seven lines of Theseus' and Hippolyta's dialogue deal with such opposites as illusion and reality, falsity and truth, the ordinary and the strange. The performance of the interlude itself raises questions concerning the relation between art and life, imagination versus fact. The “palpable-gross play” is immediately juxtaposed to the wondrous, strange entry of the ethereal world of the fairies. The bergomask, a lively rustic dance, stands in sharp contrast to the lyrical music of Oberon and Titania and their entourage. Puck's references to shrouds and graves, pointing to the end of the life cycle, counter Oberon's blessing of the bridal beds and prayerful good wishes for healthy children, the beginning of the cycle.

But as David Young has so cogently shown in his study of MND, a principle of fluidity also permits a commingling of opposites without abandoning the individual makeup of the elements so commingled. While Young's focus is not the final act per se, I think this principle of interpenetration clearly pervades the scene from beginning to end—perhaps never as graphically as in the Fairy Queen's embrace of Bottom in Act Four, but present nonetheless. I have in mind such moments as the Prologue's failure “to stand upon points” (5.1. 108-18) which results in lines and sentences running into each other; the synaesthesia informing “I see a voice / I can hear my Thisby's face” (192-93); the direct interaction between the actors and the newlyweds which blurs the dividing line between illusion and reality; and finally, the invoking of the imagination so as to allow the courtly audience, after its numerous interruptions of the show, to enter into its spirit and to be caught up in the story:

Theseus: This passion, and the death of a dear friend would go near to make a man look sad.

Hippolyta: Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.


In moving from mockery to commiseration, the audience moves from detachment to engagement, from separation to oneness with the actors. What Theseus said earlier about “musical confusion” (4.1.110) and Hippolyta about “so musical a discord” (4.1.118) accurately describes the final scene, where opposites are set up in a way that admits but rises above juxtapositions to suggest interpenetration, one antinomy “translating” into another. In the much-quoted line about the strange “story of the night” which grows to something of great constancy” (5.1.23-27), Hippolyta taps right into the compositional rhythm of the play, acknowledging contrasts while sensing a fluid commingling that precludes rigid polarization.

Like the charade depicted in the fifth act of MV, the final act of MND does not so much resolve the plot structurally as provide us with divertissement,3 an elaborate entertainment to while away the time between the technical resolution of the plot (which occurred in Act Four) and the actual point of closure.4 In MND, the entertainment takes the form of a play within a play. And like the conclusion of MV, the final act of MND goes beyond the level of divertissement to suggest a formal microcosm of the whole.

In the present essay, I would like to discuss how Shakespeare anticipates the fulness of these fifth act reprisals in two apprentice comedies, The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labor's Lost, where in neither case is the final scene crucial for the “deknotting” of the action. By the end of the penultimate scene of Shrew, Petruchio has happily tamed his Kate, and Lucentio has securely won his Bianca. In LLL the quadruple forswearing of the young men (4.3) shows clearly that the academy, if it ever really existed, is now most certainly a thing of the past. The final scene of each may also be described as divertissement, taking the form of an extended wager in Shrew and a masque and a pageant in LLL. But as with MND and MV, divertissement fails to penetrate their formal value as microcosms of their respective wholes. Let us now turn to a closer examination of the microcosmic “sense of an ending” (Kermode) in Shrew and LLL.

Throughout The Taming of the Shrew, as part of his method, Petruchio subjects Kate to a series of tests or, more accurately, obstacle courses: the indecorous behavior on their wedding day, the deprivation of food and sleep, the less than chivalrous rescue from a “miry” place, the peremptory dismissal of the tailor and the haberdasher, the catechism on the moon versus the sun, and the “mistaken” perception of an old man as a “fair lovely maid.” He favors the imperative as his general mode of utterance, giving commands left and right. Gradually Kate moves from feistiness to a more tempered state, appearing quite tamed by the end of Act Five, scene one. That they have made their peace by this point is clear from the words they direct at each other. Sensing a good show in the making in the comic confrontation between the false Vincentio and the true, Petruchio says to Kate: “Prithee, Kate, let's stand aside and see the end of this controversy” (5.1.61). The volitive subjunctive softens the imperative force; Petruchio does not so much command Kate as express a wish that they stand together and watch. Near the end of the scene, when Baptista and the legitimate Vincentio venture indoors with Bianca and Lucentio, Kate echoes Petruchio: “Husband, let's follow, to see the end of this ado” (5.1.141). They both know a good entertainment when they see one. Petruchio is perfectly agreeable but does make one small request. He wants a kiss. Kate, standing on principles of decorum, is reluctant to oblige. Her hesitancy has nothing to do with the object of the kiss, only with its propriety. But as soon as Petruchio threatens to leave, she lovingly replies: “Nay, I will give thee a kiss; now pray, thee love, stay” (5.1.148). The word “love,” the first time Kate has thus addressed Petruchio, connotes affection and endearment. Petruchio, it seems responds in kind: “Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate: / Better once than never, for never too late” (5.1.149-50). These lines, particularly in their couplet formation, suggest a close, a completion. The shrew has been tamed and all looks promising.

But Shakespeare does not end the story there. Instead, he provides an additional 190 lines that manage to replay the major action of taming a “froward” woman. In the final scene, Petruchio once again engages in his typical modus operandi, a series of tests couched in the imperative mode:

Say I command her come to me.


Go fetch them [the other woman] hither. If they deny to come,
Swinge me them soundly forth unto their husbands.
Away, I say, and bring them hither straight.


Katherine, that cap of yours becomes you not.
Off with that bable, throw it under-foot.


Katherine, I charge thee tell these headstrong women
What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.


Come on, and kiss me, Kate.


Moreover, these tests occur in the context of a wager. Since the whole play has been in some sense a wager—a betting to see if anyone could or would marry Kate—this final gamble to determine who has married the “veriest shrew of all” (5.2.64) reprises the entire action of the play. And while the contest is technically won by line 99 when Kate enters, and formally recognized as such at line 112, Petruchio is not yet ready to call it a day. The show goes on as he milks his triumph for all it's worth in his continued tests of Kate's obedience. There is something hyperbolically extravagant about this wager, a point accentuated by Baptista's raising the winnings from one hundred crowns to twenty thousand (5.2.112-113). To this financial extravagance, we may add the extended, almost never-ending contest itself, and the rather exaggerated overkill of Kate's final speech; all of which captures the hyperbolic strain that permeates the play, most notably in the discourse and conduct of Petruchio and Kate.5

The banquet scene shows the essential qualities of the two leading characters in microcosm. We see both Petruchio's zest for living and wiving it well in Padua, and Kate's independent spiritedness, most visibly apparent in her conduct toward the other women. As she does in the fourth act, Kate acquiesces to each of Petruchio's commands, not in any meek or docile manner but in energetic, confident, and strong fashion. Although her final speech articulates the Renaissance doctrine of order and the orthodox view of marriage, Kate appears dominant rather than subordinate. Given the chance to exercise her tongue, she makes the most of this new-found opportunity; her speech, filled with imperative force, is the longest in the play. No one shuts her up until she is ready to be silent.

The finale also recapitulates patterns of thought and imagery. For example, competition—whether it be of husband versus wife, suitor versus suitor, or bride versus bride—runs throughout the play from the induction where the vying is among animals (Ind.1.16-29) to the last scene where the competition is to determine who has won the best wife. Petruchio's talk of hawks and hounds (5.2.72), along with similar references in lines 52-56, continues the hunt imagery first introduced in the Induction and then reiterated in Petruchio's second soliloquy (4.1.188-196). The play's commercial motif pervades the banquet scene in references to crowns (5.2.70, 71, 113), marks (35), losses (113), dowries (114), cost (128), payment (154), and “assurance”:

Petruchio: Well, I say no; and therefore for assurance
Let's each one send unto his wife
And he whose wife is most obedient,
To come at first when he doth send for her,
Shall win the wager which we will propose.


Iterative words like “shrew,” “froward,” “duty,” and “obedient” reverberate throughout the last scene.7 Finally, there is the pattern of changing places, roles, and identities. It began with the trick played on Christopher Sly. It continued through Tranio's disguise as Lucentio, the substitution of a new couple for the abruptly departed new bride and groom in Act III (Berry 62), Petruchio's becoming a “shrew” in order to “kill Kate in her own humor” (4.1.180), the mistaking of a false Vincentio for the true, and the trompe l'oeil that took the sun for the moon and an old man for a “budding virgin” (4.5.37). The pattern culminates in the major inversion of Kate and Bianca, when the supposed shrew exchanges places with the supposed ideal woman. Nowhere is exchange or inversion more succinctly summed up than in Baptista's promise of a new dowry for Kate: “Another dowry to another daughter, / For she is chang'd, as she had never been” (5.2.114-15).

Early in the play, Tranio provides the prototypical line for the main action: “Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends” (1.2.271-275). There is much mighty striving in The Taming of the Shrew—physical, mental, and verbal. The commands “to her Kate” and “to her Widow” (5.2.33-34), uttered with gusto in the last scene, capture the farcical pugnacity informing the play's plot, characterization, and thought. But there is also much eating and drinking, activities that suggest a social truce, a communal accord.8 The concluding scene, which brings together all the characters except the tailor and the haberdasher (and those of the Induction), depicts both striving and feasting along with the emotional states associated with such conduct, tension and amiability. In doing so, it manages to reiterate words, phrases, motifs, and characteristic behavior. Through its series of tests and imperatives, its hyperbolic vein, and its competitive, wagering spirit, the conclusion captures the energy and dynamism of the play's rhythm. In short, it reprises the whole process of the taming of a shrew.

By the end of the fourth act of Love's Labor's Lost, what action there is in the play is virtually over.9 The young men, having been found out, are willing to ring the death knell for their academy. They intend to go wooing in an atmosphere of “revels, dances, masks, and merry hours” (4.3.376). The final scene becomes one long interlude of merry pastime—wooing games, wit combats, and two theatrical presentations (the Masque of the Muscovites and the Pageant of the Nine Worthies). As C. L. Barber noted in his seminal study of Shakespearean comedy, the play is filled with a sense of game:

What is striking about Love's Labor's Lost is how little Shakespeare used exciting action, story, or conflict, how far he went in the direction of making the piece a set exhibition of pastimes and games. … Shakespeare is presenting a series of wooing games, not a story. Fours and eights are treated as in ballet, the action consisting not so much in what individuals do as in what the group does, its patterned movement.


This spirit of game and festivity is crystallized in the final scene, beginning at line twenty-five where we find a compositional metaphor for the entire play, the tennis match: “Well bandied both, a set of wit well played.” There follow references to cards (67), hunting (69), dice (233 and 326), backgammon (462), pastimes and pleasant game (360), and Christmas comedy (462). Games and sports, as Barber's statement indicates, are marked by a principle of patterning that penetrates to the heart of the play's very rhythm. This patterning results from the abundance of verbal schematization and the numerous symmetrical pairings of characters, repeated situations, and stylized encounters, all of which suggest artifice and formality rather than naturalness and spontaneity. The play is extremely repetitive, to the point of rigid symmetry, appearing—as Margreta de Grazia has so aptly noted—“syndronomic.”10

The final scene is no exception. In it, we find four sets of wit combats in which each courtier is paired with the wrong lady (220-261). In each case, the gentleman is verbally dominated by the woman. Boyet, as mediator (178-194), personifies the repetitive principle when he goes back and forth between Rosalind on one hand and the King and Berowne on the other, repeating their words verbatim until he arbitrarily stops (194). The second instance of quadruple forswearing in the play is noted by the ladies in serial fashion (281-285). We find not one theatrical production but two, and at the conclusion, not one song but two. Rhyme and schemes of repetition flourish. In their reiteration of phrases, lines like the following underscore the pattern of symmetrical repetition:

Prepare, madam, prepare!
Arm, wenches, arm! … 


But what, but what, come they to visit us?
They do, they do; and are apparell'd thus,


They will, they will, God knows,


How blow? How blow? speak to be understood.


Rosalind succinctly sums up the pattern when she says, “We four indeed confronted were with four” (367).

A major pattern informing the play (and one, to the best of my knowledge, not noted elsewhere) is that of separation and departure. It is first introduced in the opening scene when Berowne appears, at least for a while, as an outsider: “Well, sit you out; go home, Berowne, adieu” (1.1.110). It is echoed in the second act when the ladies speak of completing their task quickly and then returning to France (2.1.109-10). They never entertain the possibility of an extended stay in Navarre, let alone the thought of any permanent union with the men in the future (2.1.112). Throughout this scene we find passages showing alienation rather than détente: the confrontation of the Princess with the King (90-113 and 128-178), that of Katherine with Berowne (114-127), and that of Rosalind with Berowne (180-193). All three encounters end abruptly with sudden departures, the last two standing upon no ceremony whatsoever (127 and 193). Thus, the only meeting of the ladies and gentlemen before the final one in the last scene shows them at odds with each other. By the end of Act Two, scene one, there is a stalemate, each side waiting until the next day when the necessary documents will be delivered. At the end of the play there will again be a stalemate, each man being forced to wait until a year has passed before challenging the ladies anew. When the women reappear in the fourth act, they repeat their plan to depart for home: “On Saturday we will return to France” (4.1.6). Holofernes accents this pattern of quick departure and going off in different directions when he says, “Away, the gentles are at their game, and we will to our recreation” (4.2.165-66). The King's words at the end of Act Four: “Away, away no time shall be omitted” (4.3.378), along with those of Holofernes at the end of the penultimate scene: “Most dull, honest Dull! to our sport; away!” (5.1.155), not only continue the pattern of quick exiting but constitute a prologue of sorts for the concluding scene.

In Act Five, scene two, the sense of (what we might call) “awaying” is most prominent, not only in the frequency of the word “away” itself, but also in the rapid proliferation of other words and passages that either denote or connote departure or division.11 A listing of such references follows: depart (1, 156), go (60, 280, 478, 509, 625, 794), cross (138), divorce (150), gone (174, 182, 183, 311, 671, 672), part (57, 220, 249, 811), adieu(s) (227, 234, 241, 265), farewell (264, 736), break off (261), withdraw (308), leave (418, 872, 882), take away (572), and stand aside (587). To these we may add the Princess's “whip to our tents” (309) and “liberal opposition of our spirits” (733), along with Berowne's “I will not have to do with you” (428) and “Neither of either; I remit both twain” (459). Not once but several times in the last scene does Shakespeare show that the matches desired by the men do not seem to be in the cards. Separation rather than togetherness is constantly stressed. When Mercade appears with his grim tidings, the Princess's response is directly opposed by the King's. Where one insists on departing for home, the other insensitively urges remaining in Navarre. The required tasks or penances which will separate the ladies and gentlemen for a year soon follow. After the rigidly juxtaposed seasonal songs, reminiscent of medieval débat,12 Armado pointedly verbalizes this pattern of parting: “You that way; we this way” (931). Apartness, separation, and alienation, instead of fusion, harmony, and togetherness, have enjoyed more than adequate preparation. Shakespeare has not suddenly pulled the rug out from under the gentlemen or, for that matter, the audience. The signposts have been there all along, only to be magnified and multiplied in the concluding scene.

As in The Taming of the Shrew, all the main characters are present for the grand finale and conform to the self-image projected in earlier scenes. Berowne, from the beginning, has functioned, at least in part, as a choric figure pointing up the foolishness of the academy. So in the last scene he chorically comments on the men's verbal folly of:

Taffata phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-pil'd hyperboles, spruce affection,
Figures pedantical. … 


At the end of the play, it is he who notes the atypicality of the conclusion: “Our wooing doth not end like an old play: / Jack hath not Gill” (874). Boyet repeats his role as middle-man (174-194), a role in which he has had much practice (2.1.81-88, 194-214). The ladies remain as witty and sharp as ever, and the men as a group are as obtuse and superficial as they have always been. Thinking that one can secure “a world-without-end bargain” in a matter of moments—and right on the heels of a death announcement—is both foolish and gauche.

Key patterns of imagery and topics of thought are also reiterated. The martial imagery of Boyet (261) in its reference to arrows and bullets is most appropriate since the play depicts not merely a battle of the sexes but of wits. In such a battle, words are the weapons and must be rapier sharp. Boyet's words recall the Princess's talk of “civil war” (2.1.225-26) and the battle cries of the King and Berowne (4.3.363-66). The word “roes” (309) harks back to the hunt episode in the fourth act. The witty banter of the women (11-20) and the verbal skirmish of Rosalind, Berowne, and the King (200-06) replay the light/dark imagery so prominent in the opening scene. From the beginning, in the concept of “devouring Time” (1.1.4) and in words like “tombs” and “death,” there has been an underlying serious strain; the whole point of the academy, after all, is to allow the young men a way of achieving immortality. The divertissement marking the end of the play brings on the figure of death in the person of Mercade and resounds with sobering concepts and percepts: gallows (12), melancholy (14), death (146, 810, 815, and 855), butcher (255), sickness (280), shrouds (479), plague(s) (394, 421), grief(s) (752, 753), lamentation (809), groans (864), mourning (744, 808), and hospital (871).

The play's concern with fame and immortality is graphically parodied in the young men's response to the “Pageant of the Nine Worthies.” This concern with fame points up a temporal motif that runs through Love's Labor's Lost. Time is recognized as limited and quantifiable on one hand, and as eternal and immeasurable on the other. In the first four acts, the characters speak of tomorrow (2.1.165), a week (1.1301), a month (1.1.302), three days (1.2.129), and three years (1.1.16, 24, 35, 52, 115, 130). But they also speak of legendary figures who have achieved immortality, and of the seasons (1.1.99-107). So too in the final scene, we find mention of a clearly demarcated temporal span of one year (eight times in the eighty lines from 797-877) as well as of a more rhythmically expansive time in “world-without-end bargains” (789) and the concluding seasonal songs.

A motif of failure or labors lost is a strong undercurrent in the comedy. Berowne, in his disparagement of the academy, first articulates it. Then, we hear of the violation by Costard and Jacquenetta. The first meeting between the gentlemen and the ladies does not bode well for future relations. Misdelivered letters indicate labors gone awry. The final scene gives more of the same, only on a larger scale; in fact, the last scene is a prolonged series of labors lost or “thwarted expectations” (Carroll 81): the Masque of the Muscovites, the catastrophic Pageant of the Nine Worthies, and the courtiers' ultimate failure to secure the ladies in marriage. The Princess calls attention to this pervasive pattern of failure when she says: “Their form confounded makes most form in mirth, / When great things laboring perish in their birth” (520-21).

Finally, if the play is a “feast of words,” as Ralph Berry notes in his claim that “words compose the central symbol of LLL” (73), then the last scene is quite fittingly word conscious. This is evident in Berowne's speech on “taffata phrases” and “russet Yeas,” and in the ladies' preoccupation with linguistic precision (188-190, 195-97, 234, 321). Moreover, the very words that are iterative in the scene—“wit,” “mock(s) ('d) (ing),” “mocker,” “mockery,” “challenge,” and “word” itself—sum up the major concerns of the play as a whole.13

Formality, artifice, stylization, symmetry, and repetition are at the center of Love's Labor's Lost and they are “choreographed” most appropriately in the final scene. In reminding use of the vows that marked the beginning—only now to be taken more seriously—and in having the women urge the gentlemen to come and challenge them again in the future, Act Five, scene two reiterates the play's mythos, or perhaps I should say its dianoia (i.e., the element of thought or what Aristotle in his Poetics describes as “the power of saying whatever can be said, or what is appropriate to the occasion” (232).) Like the comedy which it ends, the scene is largely an interplay of word and idea, not event and action.

Like the final movement of a symphony, which repeats earlier themes, the endings in the texts under discussion recall what has gone before. Each concluding scene dynamically synthesizes the individual elements that make up its respective play, with verbal echoes, reprisals of action, and restated ideas coming together to yield a miniature of the whole. Helen Gardner has said, “In Shakespeare's four great tragedies, when his imagination was working at its highest pitch, Shakespeare relates his beginnings to his ends particularly closely” (48). It would seem that in his early years Shakespeare was capable of doing the same thing. Contrary to James Siemon's claim, the ending of MV is not unique; nor is it the first in Shakespeare's canon to make use of the final scene as both divertissement and microcosm. What comes to fruition in the earlier MND was well anticipated in Shrew and LLL. In all three, Shakespeare's sense of an ending shows not a slacking of effort but an outpouring that vies with his distinguished opening scenes in providing a key to each play's form. The endings reveal a sustained comprehension of design—no small talent, especially for a style that had not yet reached maturity. Look again, Dr. Johnson, wherever you are!


  1. By “formal” I mean the Aristotelian principle of uniqueness that shapes and informs matter and is thus responsible for the “whatness” of the object in question; for example, “the Midsummer Night's Dreamness” of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Plot structure, however, deals specifically with the process of tying and untying dramatic knots of complication. Form is inclusive of but not limited to such a process. Formal integrity, then, is not any mechanical sum of parts but a dynamic synthesis that yields the totality to which we respond.

  2. The Riverside Shakespeare. All subsequent references to the plays will be from this edition.

  3. The term is Harry Levin's. At a 1980 Folger Institute seminar, Professor Levin referred to the final scene in LLL as divertissement.

  4. As Anne Barton states, “In terms of plot, this fifth act is superfluous. Almost all the business of the comedy has been concluded at the end of Act IV” (219).

  5. For a fuller treatment of this hyperbolic mode, see Ralph Berry (63-71).

  6. The verb “assure” and the noun “assurance” occur at several points in the play, and always in the context of betting, bargaining, and vying for supremacy. See, for example, 2.1.123, 343, 345, 379, 387, and 396.

  7. The following figures are taken from the Spevack Concordance. In this and subsequent notes, wherever two numbers are indicated, the first refers to the frequency of occurrence in the play as a whole; the second, to the frequency in the last scene; shrew (8, 2), froward (8, 4), duty (16, 7), obedience/obedient (8, 5).

  8. The word “eat” (and by extension its variant “eaten”) occurs eleven times in the play; “feast” and “drink/drinking” occur six times each. In no other comedy do the words “eat” and “feast” appear as often. The comedy that leads in its references to drinking is Twelfth Night (fifteen times).

  9. Harry Levin has suggested that Act Four, scene three is the denouement, the final act serving as a kind of epilogue (Folger Institute Seminar, 1980).

  10. “Syndronomic Language in Love's Labor's Lost,” unpub. paper presented at the seminar “The Character of Verse and Prose in the Early Plays, 1590-95,” Second Congress of the International Shakespeare Association, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1981. The famous eavesdropping scene (4.3), with its multiple sonnet readings, withdrawals, asides, and comings forth for the purpose of reproach, is perhaps the most elaborate example of symmetrical repetition.

  11. The word “away” occurs twenty-seven times in the play as a whole, eleven times in the last scene. Only Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well, two problem or dark comedies, have a higher total frequency of twenty-eight and twenty-nine respectively. Both, however, fall short of the eleven occurrences in the final scene of LLL, each having only nine. A survey of the Concordance's entries for a small sampling of words—away, exit, part, leave (as in taking one's leave), depart, farewell, adieu, and go/gone—shows that in no other comedy does the final scene reverberate with so many references to departure as does the conclusion to LLL. The total figure for the words listed above is forty; The Comedy of Errors has the next highest total (eighteen), followed by The Merchant of Venice (sixteen) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (fourteen).

  12. William Carroll believes that LLL “can profitably be read as a debate on the right uses of rhetoric, poetry, and the imagination; extraordinarily self-conscious, the play ultimately exemplifies and embodies, in the final songs, what has only been discussed before. The term ‘debate’ is justified by Shakespeare's use of the medieval conflictus between Spring and Winter at the end, but it defines a principle of structure in the play as well” (8). Where Carroll has incisively focused on the microcosmic quality of the final songs, I have chosen instead to deal with the final scene as a totality.

  13. The actual figures are as follows: wit (32, 11), mock/s/'d/ing (16, 15), challenge (7, 6), and word/s (48, 18). The words “mocker” and “mockery” occur once and only in the final scene.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. New York: Random House, 1954.

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. 1959. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Barton, Anne. “Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 217-221.

Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare's Comedies. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Carroll, William. The Great Feast of Language in Love's Labor's Lost. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.

Clemen, Wolfgang, ed. A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: The New American Library, 1963.

Gardner, Helen. The Business of Criticism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.

Johnson, Samuel. Johnson on Shakespeare. Vol. 7 of The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. Ed. Arthur Sherbo. New Haven: Yale UP, 1968.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theories of Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1957.

Mehl, Dieter. “Form and Function of the Play Within a Play.” Renaissance Drama 8 (1965): 41-52.

Schanzer, Ernest. “The Moon and the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream.University of Toronto Quarterly 24 (1955): 234-246.

Siemon, James. “The Merchant of Venice: Act Five as Ritual Reiteration.” Studies in Philology 67 (1970): 201-209.

Spevack, Marvin. A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare. Hildersheim: Olm, 1968-70.

Young, David. Something of Great Constancy: The Art of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Vol. 164 of The Yale Studies in English. New Haven: Yale UP, 1966.

Bernard Beckerman (essay date 1985)

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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 audience—became common. Standing ovations, at one time a rarity reserved only for the brightest star, became routine. A social change had taken place. The conventional, muted, supposedly discerning meeting between the end of a play and its audience had turned into an exuberant celebration of playgoing. Yet, for some reason, this tremendous shift in behavior aroused little critical attention. It and the larger subject of which it is a part—that is, stage closure—were (and remain) virtually unexplored.

And that is all the more surprising since the subject of closure, at least as it concerns poetry, has received so much attention ever since Barbara Herrnstein-Smith published her book Poetic Closure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968). Surveying the main types of lyric poetry, Herrnstein-Smith examined the way formal and thematic elements function separately and jointly to unify a poem. “Closure,” she observes, “gives ultimate unity and coherence to a reader's experience of [a] poem.” It does so by providing “a point from which all the preceding elements may be viewed comprehensively and their relations grasped as part of a significant design” (p. 36). Literary critics have generally accepted her approach and, stimulated by her work, have gone on to apply its principles to further study of lyric poetry and fiction. As for the drama, few writers have touched the subject, and no one has devoted extensive analysis to it.

Analyzing closure in theater, however, poses quite different issues from studying closure in poetry or the novel. The dramatist's power to conclude a work is no less awesome, but it is of a different order—more diffuse in its exercise and more overwhelming in its potential effect. All the people involved in performance—writers, directors, actors, designers, composers—help to mold the end. The playwright may determine the direction and outline of a conclusion, but only through rehearsal is it given the potential shape that comes into being before an audience. But even this description of a theatrical ending is incomplete. The actors, who are the principal means for expressing the collective power of a dramatic performance, are engaged in two diametrically opposed processes. On one plane—that of illusion—they play their parts as though they know nothing of the future. Each moment is a spontaneous engagement in an event whose consequence can be guessed but not known. They also operate on another plane. They know precisely what will happen next and, more than that, how it will happen and how they will behave moment by moment until the very last instant. Closure in the theater then is the result of two opposing actions: improvisation and premediated enactment.

These opposing modes of action reflect, yet transcend, the audience's own existence. The knowing-unknowing way of living portrayed by the actor reflects our fundamental uncertainty about whether we are controlling events or being controlled by them. In a large sense we know our final end, and cannot avoid it, yet in our daily existence we have the illusion of immortality. The two sides of the actor mirror this awareness, and by virtue of possessing two sides, he transcends existential limitations. Indeed, he appeals to us because he transcends them. This is most evident in tragedy where the dead hero always rises, as if to mock the tears we shed for him. Thus, the power of a theatrical finale lies in the illusion of witnessing an end that is—as modern criticism would have it—subverted. We are deeply gripped by a dramatic event, we share its finality, and then we surmount it.

Something more should be said about the playwright's power to bring a work to a close. While in one sense it is the playwright who determines a play's ending, in another sense his conception is extraordinarily vulnerable. As we know, the playwright can only exercise his power by sharing it with others—actors, mainly. In fact, the only way the playwright can control the future of his characters and exercise power over them is by surrendering it to others. Ideally, creative power in drama is invisible. For the audience, events arise spontaneously from the thoughts and passions of the characters. How they get out of their predicaments or settle their conflicts must seem to emerge from the organic give and take of relationships. When the author and the actors manage this effectively, the conclusion seems to be the natural consequence of events rather than the arbitrary ordering of a plot. But to order events with inner logic is not easy. Not only must the writer hide his controlling hand, he must also hide, or at least mitigate, the theatrical conventions that shape his conclusions.

A play's outcome is especially subject to convention. Partly through the title of a work, partly through the tone of the early scenes, largely through its familiarity with generic types, the audience has a shrewd notion of how a play will end. Implicit in that notion is not only a directional code that suggests the possible avenues a work might take, but also a moral code that tolerates a range of values to be affirmed, either tacitly or explicitly. This sense of the ending may not always be accurate. An author may introduce something unexpected, as Shakespeare did when he gave the story of Lear its first unhappy ending. But such extreme surprise is rare. More often, the author stays within the understood limits of a generic type and, within those limits, satisfies expectation while exciting surprise.

Working within these limits, an author seeks to satisfy communal demands while giving a play his own personal signature. This tension is peculiarly theatrical. Because of the immediacy and massiveness of an audience's reaction, a playwright ends his show under a sort of compulsion. He cannot avoid coming to terms with his time and community. He can massage his public. He can disturb and then mollify it. He may even outrage it. But no matter his stance, he must confront that public because it will confront him. How he does so, whether by adhering to cherished conventions or by inventing new variations on old routines, is the measure of his mind and art.

Even so superior a playwright as Shakespeare worked within these limitations when shaping the conclusions of his plays. By conclusion, I mean the entire last section of a show. In the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, that usually means the last scene. Shakespeare's last scenes vary considerably in length. They run from the brevity of 33 lines in Part II of Henry VI to the longest scene in any of his plays, the 920-line finale of Love's Labour's Lost. Generally, the last scenes of the histories are shorter than those of the comedies or tragedies, but if half the plays have final scenes with less than 200 lines, most of the finales in the major tragedies, specifically those of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra, run from 350 to 400 lines.

Given action of this varied length, it is hard to equate the ending with an entire scene. Yet many of the scenes, even those of considerable duration, telegraph the message that they are concerned with matters of closure. Twelfth Night does so by bringing Orsino to Olivia's door after he has been in his palace throughout the play. As You Like It does so by gathering all the lovers together as Rosalind has promised to do. Thus, the final scenes, however long, begin the act of closure. Their length, on the other hand, separates the settlement of outstanding conflicts and the establishment of identity from the actual matter of closing the play. As a result, in order to address the subject of closure as a whole, we have to distinguish between two aspects of it. One aspect most commonly treated by critics involves the resolution of the dramatic action. The resolution deals with the way uncertainties and confusions in the narrative are dispelled. It may involve a final battle between deadly enemies. It may require unraveling a mystery. It may, in the histories, depend on a momentary cessation of fighting before energies are redirected. In all of these cases the resolution is the culmination of events that have beset the characters throughout the play.

Because resolutions exhibit a neatness in ordering the disruptions of the action, they can betray, even in Shakespeare's case, the hand of the writer moving his pieces into place. To avoid such danger, Shakespeare—especially in his last plays—delegates to a character his own function of arranging the finale. First Paulina in The Winter's Tale and then Prospero in The Tempest are his playwright-surrogates for winding up the action. Moreover, because the resolution is the point where the separate threads of action meet, it usually is the time when the greatest number of characters come together. Whether they assemble by chance or design, they often are participants in some kind of formal ceremony, such as a sporting duel between Hamlet and Laertes before the King, Queen, and court or a civic reception for the returning Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure. The inevitable movement of the narrative leads to a lesser or greater spectacle that heightens the excitement of the approaching end.

The other aspect of stage closure is the closing itself—the dynamic and specific way the actor-performers bring a play to an end in relationship to an audience. Closing in this sense embraces not only the final moments of a play, but also the manner in which the actors deal with audience as audience, how the stage space is recharacterized after the play's end—does it change from fictional space to a platform for taking a bow, for instance—and how the audience disengages itself from the performance. Because closing involves all these factors, it is extremely difficult to determine exactly when a performance ends. Is it when the last words of the text are spoken? When the last gesture is made? When the leading lady takes a bow? When the applause dies out? When the audience leaves the theater? These questions suggest that a play subsides, rather than ends.

Although they are connected aspects of final scenes, resolution and closing offer different insights into dramatic art. Resolution, though certainly central to drama, is a characteristic of all narrative. Romance, film, the novel, the long poem, all share with drama common features of narration, and though each genre realizes its resolutions in different ways, at the level of content, they overlap considerably. That is why criticism of drama has often been indistinguishable from criticism of fiction when both focus on the discussion of narrative.

Theatrical closing, on the other hand, cannot be discussed in the same terms as fictive or poetic closure. Closing a dramatic action involves, as we saw, the separation of the illusionary from the actual. It also involves the audience's shift from submission to mastery as it approves or withholds approval of a show. In short, the existential condition that comes into play when a theatrical performance closes is unlike any other form of closure. It unites dramatic idea, theatrical realization, and human response. The dramatic idea is the scheme or plan of performance adumbrated in the text. Theatrical realization embraces the precise way the dramatic idea is projected upon the audience. And human response is the result of the way the audience's accumulated attitudes and predispositions find spontaneous release. Thus, a stage closing is that point in theatrical time when text, performance, and context intersect most explicitly.

In poetry—lyric poetry particularly—what we might call the resolution is virtually synonymous with the closing itself. Closure is thus concentrated. But in drama the resolution and the closing may or may not be congruent. As we shall see when we examine Twelfth Night, the conventionally happy resolution is counterpointed by an equivocal closing. This separation of resolution from closing affords Shakespeare a number of strategic choices. Through the closing he may confirm the sentiments of the resolution. Or, on the other hand, he may comment upon them ironically. The separation also permits directors the opportunity to undermine conventional relationships between a resolution and its closing. With the upsurge in the women's movement in the 1970s, for instance, several directors altered the closing of Measure for Measure drastically. The traditional sequence was to have Duke Vincentio complete his cleanup of Vienna by asking Isabella to marry him. Although Shakespeare provides no words of reply for Isabella, most actresses signify acceptance. But in recent productions, when the Duke assures Isabella in his final line that “What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” (V, 1,532),1 Isabella stands unmoved, contemptuous of what she regards as his patriarchal gambit. So radical a reinterpretation is possible precisely because directors can isolate the closing and treat it as an independent theatrical statement.

Seen in terms of the separate stories that lead to them, Shakespeare's resolutions are enormously diverse. Each story unwinds in a distinctive way that may have parallels but no demonstrable connection with each other. But this thematic perspective—thematic here used in Herrnstein-Smith's sense of content—has a complementary perspective, the formal, and while Shakespeare does not let us easily divorce the formal from the thematic elements in his work, we can still identify a cluster of components that reappear in many of his final scenes.

I must start with the most obvious of distinctions. Comic resolutions end in marriage or the promise of marriage; tragic conclusions end in death. So conventional are these resolutions that the thematic substance of marriage and death has long assumed a formal triteness. The conventionalities of marriage and death, however, do not constitute the actual resolutions. They merely serve as terminal points for them. The resolutions themselves consist of the acts that lead to marriage or death. In Shakespeare's work each kind of act has its typical features.

At the heart of virtually every Shakespearean comic resolution is an unmasking. This is well known, so I need touch on only a few aspects of unmasking. Naturally, it takes different forms in different plays. In Much Ado About Nothing, it is literal: Claudio renews his marriage vows to a masked lady, who unmasks to reveal that she is Hero, the Hero that was dead. In parallel business, Benedick must ask Beatrice to reveal herself. More common, however, is the unmasking of a disguised figure, whether Julia in the early Two Gentlemen of Verona or Rosalind and Viola in the mature comedies. One of the more adroit stagings of an unmasking scene occurs in Measure for Measure, when the Duke as a hooded friar is unmasked by Lucio to the astonishment not only of Angelo but of the entire population of Vienna as well. In this, as in all the unmasking of disguised figures, the unmasking is the climax of preceding confusion. Therefore, it is not the mere unmasking that is crucial to the resolution, but the agency through which it is effected and its placement in the unfolding action.

Here we come to the matter of how the resolution is engineered. While it may proceed from the give and take of contending parties, it is more likely to come about through some mediating agent. Some agents function as investigators to search out abuse or settle confusion. Such are the figures of the Duke in Measure for Measure and the King in All's Well That Ends Well. Orsino, while initially merely a visitor to Olivia, gets drawn into judicial interrogation. All these characters, as men of authority, have it in their grasp to control and direct investigations. Early in his career Shakespeare uses relatively undefined figures as controlling investigators (the Abbess in The Comedy of Errors and the Friar in Much Ado About Nothing). In his middle comedies they are more central. Rosalind is the true mover in As You Like It, though Shakespeare attaches the god Hymen to her in order to enhance the quality of her power and give it more resonance. In his later romances, as I have pointed out, Shakespeare stage-manages his resolutions through characters such as Paulina and Prospero. Paulina has the royal power ceded her by Leontes, and with it she effects an unmasking analogous to the unmasking which brought Hero back to life in Much Ado About Nothing. Paulina's stage management is wonderfully elaborate. Her first unmasking is to draw the curtain and reveal the “statue” of Hermione. That statue does not wear an actual mask, but it wears what we might call a semiotic mask. Its sign of statue hides the person within the sign. Only when Paulina calls for music and orchestrates Hermione's movements is the mask of the statue gradually and miraculously dissolved. Prospero's action is somewhat more direct. Through his magical power, he can safely unmask himself and so retrieve his ducal power and mete out justice. One suspects that Shakespeare finds this unmasking too easy; to elaborate this inevitable self-revelation, he has Prospero unveil the perfect emblem of romantic comedy, the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand chastely playing chess.

Already it is apparent that Shakespeare does not follow a system so much as juggle components. So far the juxtaposition of a powerful agent with the act of unmasking produces one of two kinds of activities. Coming early in the resolving process, the unmasking leads to a trial at which hearings are held and judgment delivered. The sequence of unmaskings in All's Well That Ends Well produces steps in an ongoing trial before the King. Other trial resolutions occur in Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, and, to a lesser extent, in Twelfth Night. Paulina's resurrection of Hermione, on the other hand, is not so much a trial as a test. Through her step-by-step revelation of the still-living Hermione, Paulina is bringing to a close the sixteen-year test of Leontes's contrition for his deadly jealousy and subsequent fidelity to his queen's memory. Those plays where the resolution is more a test than a trial include Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, and, most strikingly, The Taming of the Shrew. Kate's speech of submission, delivered to her sister and Hortensio's new wife, wins the wager for Petruchio, a wager that is a test for all women.

Accompanying these core components of the comic resolution are three others that are less instrumental and more circumstantial. First, most of the comic resolutions effect explicit reconciliations between enemies (as between Falstaff and Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor) or lead to family reunion (as in The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest). Reconciliation and reunion also throw light on the nature of marriage as accomplished in Shakespeare.

In about half of his sixteen comedies, the romantic resolution not only involves marriage but also what we might call remarriage. Couples who have been severed by events or suspicion renew their vows. Portia gives her ring a second time to Bassanio and extracts a second vow of faith from him—in effect, she remarries him. Kate's submission to Petruchio substitutes a true marriage for the first forced marriage, as Helena's second claim on Bertram indicates that a second, truer marriage may take hold. Most exquisite and moving of the remarriages in Shakespeare is that of Hermione and Leontes. As in his other plays, in The Winter's Tale Shakespeare lets the sanctification of remarriage shed its light upon first marriages, upon the spring romance of Perdita and Florizel and upon the autumnal wedlock of Paulina and Camillo. He thus fulfills one of the most conventional features of a comedic resolution, and at the same time transforms it. Marriage may be the haven of naive lovers, but remarriage is the haven of lovers who have undergone the trials of affection and still love. Besides reconciliation, the comic resolutions often include a request or a promise that the entire story of the events leading to the resolution be told, although only in one play—the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet—does he have a character actually tell that story. Among the comedies, more than half include such a provision.

The last of the comic components—one that appears only occasionally but that is still implicit in most comedies—is an actual or promised celebration. The reason celebration is not mentioned more often may be that we are dealing with a vestigial feature, so deeply embedded in tradition that it need not be articulated all the time. A Midsummer Night's Dream is the only comedy to give full scope to celebration. In that respect, as in those features previously mentioned, it is atypical.

A look at comic resolutions reveals that while we cannot speak of a Shakespearean formula for resolving narrative, we can speak of a cluster of components that recur with sufficient frequency to be considered set pieces in a theatrical game. As a theatrical device, unmasking would seem to promote dislocation because it produces extreme shifts in relationships. Yet it has a magical quality that brings preceding events into line with one another. In addition, the supporting elements of reconciliation, recital of past events, and celebration complement the unmasking and give the ensuing realignment of forces remarkable stability. The comic closing either rounds off or challenges this stability.

In tragedy, we find a parallel process of composing a resolution out of recurrent components. The components, of course, are different. All the tragedies include deaths; at their close the stage is usually laden with bodies. Of the ten plays listed as tragedies in the Folio, two close on one body, and six on two or more bodies. The bodies are visible marks of the tragic action, and include the tragic hero or, in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, one of the two tragic heroes. Interestingly enough, even in the two plays where no corpse is actually left on stage, a sign for the body appears. In Macbeth the sign is Macbeth's severed head; in Timon of Athens, it is the epitaph brought to Alcibiades by an illiterate soldier. These signs represent inverted heroes or perhaps heroes whose tragic dimension is flawed. Timon so wills his own death that he can hardly be deemed a victim of fate or of forces greater than he. As for Macbeth, by the final scene he has so lost the acute human sensitivity evident early in the play that the figure who finally dies is a truncated man, most fittingly represented by a part of him. The fact that Shakespeare concludes his quasi-tragedy of Richard II by bringing on Richard's body in a coffin indicates that Richard's tragic stature, too, is severely qualified. All these treatments of dubious heroes emphasize in reverse how much weight Shakespeare places upon the display of the tragic hero and the response of others to him or her.

Set against the dead hero in the tragic resolution is the living heir of the tragic action. In the early plays, such as Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, this heir is not necessarily an opponent of the hero or even a figure strategically contrasted to him or her. But in the principal tragedies, the heir is a victor, often the chief opponent of the hero, or at the very least a person of significantly contrasting personality.

Unlike the resolution of comedy, the tragic resolution does not primarily concern the unraveling of narrative. More often it stresses reactions to the tragic events. Among the recurrent reactions are two that occur with such frequency that we have to regard them as inevitable components of the tragic resolution. Virtually all tragedies include an elegy spoken over the fallen hero. Occasionally, where appropriate, execration replaces eulogy, as in Malcolm's comments on Macbeth and his fiendish queen. Otherwise, even in the anomalous situation of Coriolanus defying the Volscians in Corioles and recalling how he beat them single-handedly, his enemies follow his murder with words of praise.

Along with an elegy, we find provision for the future. By provision for the future, I mean the statement made or the action taken, almost invariably by the surviving leader, to confirm his rule, often by taking charge of the hero's remains or memory, as in Hamlet. Fortinbras explicitly claims sovereignty when he asserts that he has “some rights of memory” (V, 2,378) in the kingdom of Denmark. In Othello, on the other hand, it is Lodovico acting for the Venetian state who assigns Othello's house to Gratiano and Iago's punishment to Cassio. Settlements of these sorts range from the firm restoration of moral authority in Macbeth to the exercise of power politics by men like Alcibiades and Octavius. It is the balance struck between pairs of components that gives a tragic resolution its characteristic quality and sets the ground for the closing. The spirit of the dead hero interacts with the concrete presence of the victor while the elegiac impulse vies with pressure to validate political and social authority. These elements, like those in comedy, tend to promote stability. In tragedy, however, it is not always certain when the elegiac and provisional statements of a character are genuine and when self-serving. Moreover, the tragic resolution moves more directly into the closing than the comic resolution does, giving tragic closure less room for irony and more inclination toward unity of effect.

So far I have said little about the resolutions of the history plays. These are more difficult to categorize. Several of the histories contain resolutions that are essentially tragic in form. Closest to the standard tragic resolution is the last scene of Richard II, in which the hero's body is represented by the coffin brought in by Exton. It is poised against the presence of the victorious survivor Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke delivers a negative eulogy of Richard by cursing Exton's act and then vows to expiate his guilt by leading a crusade to recover Jerusalem. Richard III and King John, in somewhat less realized forms, offer tragic resolutions also. Of all the histories, only Henry V has a resolution that could be construed as comic. It ends in promised marriage, but lacks an unmasking, unless Henry's playacting as a tongue-tied lover can be regarded as an unmasking. What reconciliation there is, and one might call the peace treaty between France and England a kind of reconciliation, is coercive rather than free, likely to induce ironic doubt in all but patriotic Englishmen.

As for the remaining histories, they have stopping points rather than conclusions. Generally lacking the simplest rudiments of formal closure, they stress continuity of action. At the end of Henry IV, Part I, the King gives orders for pursuing the remaining rebels, and at the end of the second part, an epilogue promises to continue the chief characters in a new play. Except for this predisposition for pointing to the next action, the last scenes of the history plays have no common set of components. That lack of patterning coupled with the pseudotragic forms of three of the histories argues for the generic incompleteness of this type of play. It appears to me, indeed, that Shakespeare abandoned the genre before he determined its appropriate closing features.

Turning back to the comedies and tragedies, we find that the regularity so widespread in the resolutions is not necessarily repeated in the closings. This is especially true of the comedies. Early in his career, Shakespeare makes little effort to cultivate the ending as a distinctive feature. More often than not, he depends on a clever quip to wind up a play. Sometimes it will be delivered by the Dromios as they exit “hand in hand, not one before another” (V, 1,424) to close The Comedy of Errors. Elsewhere, the closing couplet will be Master Ford's as he assures Falstaff that “you yet shall hold your word, / For he [that is, Ford] tonight shall lie with Mistress Ford” (V, 5,231-232). When the final quip is absent or—as in The Taming of the Shrew—tiresome, then comedy ends with a conventional confirmation of marriage or a lame joke. Of course, actors can do something even with the dullest of quips, but even with the best of his jokes Shakespeare does little to enliven the closing in his early comedies.

In the middle and later comedies, however, Shakespeare designs formal closings such as epilogues, songs, and dances to heighten the last moments of a play. Of the fourteen plays listed as comedies in the Folio, half have such formal closings, and this half tends to include the more popular works. The major comedies at the end of the sixteenth century, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, end in dance, song, or epilogue. Although he never exactly duplicated the way he used a formal closing, Shakespeare kept experimenting with them to achieve various effects. In what may well be his first use of the formal closing in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he introduced all possible permutations. Eager to try all types of closure, Shakespeare must have found the mix less than satisfying since he never concocted so rich a conclusion again.

Nevertheless, the closings of A Midsummer Night's Dream are instructive. Despite Theseus's insistence that the mechanicals’ rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe needs no epilogue, the frame play includes a dance (the called-for Bergomask), a song with accompanying dancing, and finally an epilogue. These closings—like an endless coda—carry the audience through the dream and into the light of day. In doing so, these successive closings do not function in ways parallel to the individual forms in other plays. Much Ado About Nothing and, probably, As You Like It end in dancing, but their dances anticipate weddings to come, and so are prenupital celebrations. The Bergomask in Dream, on the other hand, is a grotesque dance which, however seriously presented by Bottom and his crew, must provoke hilarity in the courtiers and undercut the romance of the recent weddings. This kind of dance echoed what we have reason to believe was common practice in the public playhouse. The relative infrequency of reference to dance at the end of play texts may not be an accurate index to the appearance of dance in closings. From the Swiss traveler Thomas Platter we know that the performance of Julius Caesar he saw on September 21, 1599, was followed by four performers, two in men's clothes and two in women's, who “danced according to their custom with extreme elegance.”2 Presumably what he saw then was widespread practice, for he attended another performance which was also followed by dancing. Thus, it may very well have been routine for all shows to have a formal closing in dance. Since we know little about the way audiences applauded or responded to the finale, dancing may have served to focus and stimulate audience reaction.

The song that contributes to the closing of A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of three to end a comedy. In this play the song enjoins the fairies to bless the bridal beds of the three couples. The quarto gives the lyrics as a speech by Oberon, but the distinct marking of the lines as a song in Folio confirms its musical character, at some date at least. In its continuation of the blessing intended by Oberon and Titania, it is in harmony with the entire closing, leading naturally into Puck's epilogue. Therefore, although the Bergomask provides contrast with the next two phases of closing, the song and epilogue seamlessly charm the audience and graciously ask its good will. In doing so, the fairies and Puck retain their fictional status, and even though Puck addresses the audience directly, he does so in his stage person; indeed, he plays with the audience's notion of Puck's nature. Together, the song and Puck's epilogue combine dreamy tranquillity and gentle playfulness.

The management of song and epilogue in A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, is opposite to Shakespeare's use of final songs and epilogues in his other comedies. Especially peculiar are his two uses of song, one at the end of Love's Labour's Lost, the other at the end of Twelfth Night. The function of song in the former is somewhat less strange than it is in the latter but that may be merely because the entire resolution of that play is strange. As Berowne dryly remarks, “Our wooing doth not end like an old play” (Love's Labour's Lost, V, 2,864). Instead, he and his fellow academicians must undergo a twelve-month test before they can win their ladies. It is, therefore, not entirely surprising that the lyric dialogue proposed by Armado lacks the sunny notes of a light comedy. Spring sings of cuckoldry; Winter sings, ironically one supposes, about rural labor in icy weather that somehow produces a merry note. The touch of common life at this concluding moment may be a wry comment on the refined court and meant to recall the sanity of Costard and Jaquenetta who see through the self-deception of the amorous courtiers. The result is that, although the song by its placement and natural rhythm may provide formal closure, the obliqueness of the irony reiterating the unconventionality of the romantic conclusion leaves an unresolved note vibrating in the air.

This unsettled note is more in evidence at the end of Twelfth Night. Despite the unappeased anger of Malvolio, the spirit of reconciliation prevails. The play ends in conventional happiness, at least to the extent that Viola winning Orsino and Olivia securing a look-alike husband means happiness. Most productions do not underline the fact that Orsino and Olivia must adapt their affections to circumstance, though the text would permit such emphasis. It is Feste's song ending the play, however, that strikes the most discordant note of the last scene.

The song's refrain, “for raine it raineth every day,” no matter how appealing its melody, can hardly mean to cheer us. The lyrics sketch a questionable existence as Feste successively sings of childhood, coming to man's estate, marrying, and getting drunk. His last comment that “the Play is done” and that the actors “will strive to please you every day” is somewhat laconic. When we recall that similar lyrics are sung by the Fool in King Lear, we sense more keenly its ambiguous placement at the end of a comedy. That Feste is the one to sing the song further signals a bizarre message. In the course of the play he has sung a love song, a catch, a dirge, each one in response to a request by others. Is this last song his own message to us? Or does he comment on the entire play? However ambiguous the implications of the song, its use for closing the performance of Twelfth Night cannot help but cast a shadow over the audience's final response.

More traditional and more usual as a form of closing is the epilogue. Once widely used to close interludes as a frank appeal for favor and an affirmation of loyalty, the epilogue began to disappear in the 1570s and 1580s. In Shakespeare's plays, it no longer is a bald plea for approval but a clever exchange between player and playgoer. A Midsummer Night's Dream, as we saw, contains a fairly conventional request for favor. The epilogue of All's Well That Ends Well, on the other hand, poses the charming contradiction of a king begging for applause. But the epilogue is short and rests on a simple conceit. The epilogues of The Tempest and As You Like It, by comparison, engage in extended byplay, and do so by establishing in each case differing relationships between the performer and the audience.

Prospero, speaking the epilogue of The Tempest, maintains his character as Duke of Milan, but as a duke shorn of his power, depending on the audience's kind breath to waft him home. Throughout the address, the actor keeps his fictional persona despite his direct contact with the audience. By contrast, Rosalind, the epilogue of As You Like It, starts by confessing that it is rare to see the lady an epilogue of a play. Presumably the actor speaks in his persona of Rosalind. But after conjuring the gentlewomen and then the gentlemen to like the play, the player says, “If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not” (Epilogue, 16-18), thus confessing his masculinity. This playing with gender and the appearance of gender makes an exquisite conceit. For an Elizabethan audience, there are delicious resonances in a Rosalind who protests that she is a woman only to insist he is a boy. Following as it does the character's change from the male Ganymede to the female Rosalind in the resolution, this slipping from Rosalind to the boy is a special bit of theatrical magic. Unfortunately, contemporary actresses of Rosalind, though they can induce a generalized mood of playfulness in the epilogue, cannot delineate the nice shades of gender that depend on a boy actor. In other words, Shakespeare's closing in this instance is beyond us.

In all the formal closings that we have examined so far, except this last one, Shakespeare keeps his players in character. That is, he does not breach the fictional frame. In allowing his boy actor to cross the line that separates fiction from nonfiction, he delighted his audience by teasing it. He gave us a glimpse of the performer as performer. But for all his supposed metatheatrical interests, Shakespeare rarely breaches the fictional frame. The only other time he does so in an epilogue is at the end of the second part of Henry IV. The speech there is unlike any other epilogue by Shakespeare. Spoken by a dancer, according to Pope, its integrity has long been doubted. Some editors consider it a pastiche, parts of which different players delivered on different occasions. Shakespeare himself, one editor suggests, spoke the first paragraph. But whatever its history, this epilogue does not adhere to any of the types Shakespeare used elsewhere and in that regard further testifies to the lack of structural definition in the history plays.

When we turn to the tragic closing, moreover, there is no direct contact with the audience. Nor does Shakespeare ever use a formal closing for tragedy. Instead, he insists on an inviolate mimetic frame. That does not mean that he makes no attempt to have a specific effect upon an audience. Rather, he sublimates that effect. He depends upon the context of the fictional events overlapping the context of the audience's experience. The closing then works by association and resonance as well as through the formal properties of a theatrical coda.

From hordes of plays that preceded his, Shakespeare inherited the moral closing. The sixteenth-century interludes in particular blended the victory of virtue with prayers for the Queen, the nobles, and all estates. Such praise was routine, whether conveyed through the clever conceits of John Lyly and George Peele or asserted homiletically by schoolmasters and divines. A few years, however, separated these obvious bids for favor from the indirect Shakespeare closing, and these few years saw the equivocal and dazzling finales of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. Nevertheless, Shakespeare did not immediately adopt either the ambivalence that concludes The Spanish Tragedy or the vestigial morality that terminates Doctor Faustus. His early tragedies are not blatantly moralistic, although it is true that the pseudotragic King John closes on a patriotic blast by the Bastard. As I stated earlier, the tragic resolution usually includes provision for the future. What more natural than that provision take on a moral tone. In Romeo and Juliet that provision is double: embracing peace between the feuding families and providing a memorial for the dead lovers. Of the major tragedies, the closing of Macbeth is the most explicitly virtuous. Given the tragic hero as villain, this is to be expected. Like King John, Macbeth confirms established values through Malcolm's presence as the final speaker, a presence that not only recalls Malcolm's demonstration of moral purity in the third scene of Act Four, but also links the action of the play to the reigning monarch in Shakespeare's day. Similarly, Richard III contains the healing words of Richmond which link early Tudor rule to the late Tudor sovereignty of Elizabeth. Because Richard and Macbeth are succeeded by divinely sanctioned leaders, the closing need only utter pious expressions and strike inspirational notes to work its effect. In this respect, the closing completes and rounds off the resolution.

If these closings confirm established values most explicitly, a number of tragedies close on a kind of affirmation centered on the individual rather than on God or the nation. In these the dead are intrinsically important. Whereas in Macbeth, death is trivialized by the intrusion of the tyrant's head, and in Richard III no corpse lies on stage, this next group of tragedies stresses the tension between the fallen tragic hero and his successor.

The successor brings or at least represents coherence and order. We may respect him but do not necessarily admire him. On the other hand, the tragic hero, now a corpse, is the object of a complex and often profound absorption. Inevitably, there is a tension between our feelings for the hero and our acceptance of the successor. Hamlet and Fortinbras, with Horatio as mediator, are probably the most neatly balanced figures in this regard. The fact that Fortinbras praises and honors Hamlet keeps the tension from becoming confrontation. Instead, the potential for ambiguity is reduced by the way Shakespeare has Fortinbras assume the role of mourner.

Hamlet shares with Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Richard II a closing in the form of a cortege or dead march. Textual closure is thus given concrete physical expression, and because of that, such a closing affords insight into the critical relationship between text and performance.

The open stage of the Elizabethan public playhouse made the disposition of corpses a practical necessity. The dead march is the answer—or it became the main answer in Shakespeare's mature tragedies. From Richard II onward, he inserts a line in the last speech of the play to cover the removal of the hero's body. “Take him up,” says Aufidius of the dead Coriolanus. “Within my Tent his bones tonight shall lie,” announces Octavius of Brutus. “Take up her bed,” orders a more mature Octavius, referring to Cleopatra. Fortinbras's instructions are the most elaborate: “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage … Take up the body.” Shakespeare's care is evident when one compares such lines to the endings of Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. Despite the laden stage in each case, neither play contains adequate directions for removing the bodies. Throughout the tragedies, moreover, the absence of instructions for removing bodies other than those of the tragic heroes suggests that the call to take up the body is not inserted merely for technical reasons, as a cue for raising the bodies, but to initiate the payment of respect, a respect effected through a processional departure.

In most contemporary productions, however, the staging has altered the balance between fallen hero and surviving leader. Modern stage lighting makes it unnecessary to carry out the dead. Instead, a properly timed fade-out not only appears more effective than a procession but also avoids any possible embarrassment in bearing the body. A closing that fades out also permits greater control over focus. Recent productions of Julius Caesar, for example, often end with a spotlight on Octavius to stress his rise to political prominence. Spotlighting, though compelling, tends to alter the balance between hero and survivor. In a procession with the dead hero raised high and the survivor preceding or following the bier, emphasis is inevitably thrown on the tragic figure. In a fade-out, with the survivor standing over a fallen body, emphasis is more likely to be thrown on the victor.

In all the plays which close with a dead march, the procession is a sign of reverence, however different the overtones may be from one play to another. The way the body is raised, how it is carried, what music is played, how the survivor relates to the body—all of these factors refine the final impact of the tragedy. Fortinbras and Horatio share the hushed duty to be paid to Hamlet. Even in Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, the former antagonists of the dead speak elegies over them. These ennobling conclusions, most graphically represented by the prospective statue of Romeo and Juliet that will hallow the lovers, reconcile the diverse sentiments leading to the closing in order to effect an emblematic harmony. They are subtle equivalents of the propagandistic closings of Macbeth and Richard III.

Significantly different, however, are the closings of Julius Caesar and King Lear. They project mixed signals, for Shakespeare uses the traditional components of the tragic resolution and closing ironically in order to undermine the iconic harmony of the endings. The finale of Julius Caesar is at once simpler in formal structure than Hamlet's, yet potentially more subtle in its effects. Defeated and pursued, Brutus persuades Strato to help him commit suicide. The last segment of the play commences with the victorious entrance of Antony, Octavius, and their captives, Messala and Lucillius. The first business of this segment involves confirmation of the manner of Brutus's death. Only then does Antony eulogize Brutus. Thus, the action is split.

Pronouncing an elegy and making provision for the future are components of a tragic finale, as we saw. In this case, the functions are divided between Antony and Octavius. Antony is the one to deliver the justly famous eulogy, “This is the noblest Roman of them all.” Octavius, on the other hand, is the one to make provision for the future by taking Brutus's men into his service. Furthermore, he appropriates Brutus's body by ordering that it be taken to his tent. How the conflicting messages of Antony's respect and Octavius's political action are related to Brutus's corpse is a matter of staging. But by vesting the conventional elements of the tragic ending in different figures, Shakespeare undermines the more common tone of reconciliation and heightens a subtextual dislocation.

To what extent Shakespeare's audiences recognized these ironic signals is impossible to say. But the conventionality of his tragic ending—a conventionality much more evident in a repertory system—suggests that audiences would have been sensitive to changes of nuance. Octavius, as the last speaker, would surely be seen as more powerful than Antony and as a foreshadowing of Antony's ultimate defeat. Moreover, the contrast between Antony's respect and Octavius's politicking makes Brutus's death both tragic and ironic.

Of all the tragedies, King Lear displays most acutely the way Shakespeare plays upon convention, a point vividly demonstrated by the differences between the quarto and folio versions of the last scene (V, 3). The recent view that in these two versions we are dealing with Lear at separate stages of development further justifies what is evident from an examination of tragic closings alone. Most obvious of the differences in closing between Q and F is that in Q the last speech is spoken by the Duke of Albany and in F the same lines are delivered by Edgar. In giving the last lines to Albany at first, Shakespeare was following the convention of making the highest ranking person the last speaker. By reassigning that speech to Edgar, as I believe he did, Shakespeare was accenting the utter disruption of order and the leaderless condition of the state. “This change,” according to Steven Urkowitz in Shakespeare's Revisions of King Lear (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), “is consistent with other variants in the Folio increasing Edgar's role in the [last] scene while reducing Albany's” (p. 125).

A second—and equally important distinction between Q and F—is the addition of one and a half lines in F. In Q Lear dies after he says, “Pray you undo this button, thanke you sir, O, o, o, o,”3 In F, however, he goes on: “Do you see this? Looke on her? Looke her lips, / Looke there, looke there” (F. p. 309). The effect of these additional words is to make Lear's final state of mind equivocal, an effect that has aroused considerable controversy as to whether or not Lear dies deluded about Cordelia's death. Folio extends the gentleness of “Pray you undo this Button. Thanke you Sir,” into an agitated interruption, “Looke there, look there,” so that instead of closure in Lear's death, there is uncertainty and bewilderment.

These changes move the closing of King Lear further in the direction along which it is otherwise aimed. The elegy over Lear is indirect. “Vex not his ghost,” cries Kent. “The oldest hath borne most,” remarks Albany-Edgar. As for the future, twice Albany endeavors to arrange for it. First, he delivers a stiff speech of concern for Lear and assurance that all friends will “taste the wages of their vertue.” But he appears to be interrupted by Lear's grief. Moments later, after Lear's death, Albany gives the conventional order, “Beare them [Lear and Cordelia] from hence,” and then tries to arrange a shared rule in the realm. His effort is futile. Kent ignores Albany's offer, announcing that he means shortly to follow his master.

As we can see, Shakespeare uses the usual components, not to effect reconciliation but rather to prevent any harmonization of the diverse forces that gave rise to this moment. Thus, when Lear's and Cordelia's bodies are raised and all “exeunt with a dead march,” as the Folio stage direction specifies, we have a procession not only of the bodies but also of the mourning Kent following the old king into death. The closing of King Lear thus establishes a structure of implication that fulfills the tragedy and yet comments on tragic closing in general. As a continuation of the play's resolution of Lear and Cordelia's fortunes, the closing confirms their defeat in battle. But there was another resolution: Edgar's defeat of Edmund in a trial by combat. Truth should emerge from such a trial, and so it does in Edgar's victory. That victory, however, as the closing shows us, is empty. Truth in this case cannot redeem suffering. In addition, the closing reverberates in a larger context. Albany's failure to offer a convincing provision for the future is only the most obvious clue to the fact that King Lear's closing is an ironic critique of the more comforting closures of other tragedies. Neither praise nor foresight can mitigate what Lear has endured.

As we survey Shakespeare's closing of his plays, we see a remarkable variability in his handling of common elements. In general, as he goes forward in his career, he does seem to make his closing more contradictory, more complex, readier to produce divergent signals that are likely to arouse mixed response. He also creates more profound conclusions, willing to forgo verbal tricks in order to plumb audience sensibilities. But based upon his endings, it is impossible to detect any firm notion of morality or philosophy. Macbeth ends in a moral universe, moreover a universe where morality and politics can coexist. King Lear, written not very much earlier, pictures a universe devoid of justice and purpose. Shakespeare embraces the possibilities of both worlds but does not privilege either. All we can say is that at the formal level, Shakespeare has some vision that the essential elements needed to complete our lives are reconciliation, thought for the future, elegiac praise, and narrative wholeness. But on the thematic level he embraces the most varied perspectives. This disjunction between formal elements and thematic perspectives may be his most lifelike attribute, however. Human actions are limited and recurrent; what these actions tell us is forever changing.


  1. Except for King Lear, all quotations from Shakespeare's plays come from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (The Complete Pelican Shakespeare), ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).

  2. As quoted in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), II, p. 365.

  3. Quotations for King Lear come from the Folio and Quarto 1608. In Q, Lear is mistakenly given Kent's line as his last utterance: “Breake hart, I prethe breake.” All passages cited from F appear on page ff. 3. See The First Folio of Shakespeare, prepared by Charlton Hinman (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1968), p. 817. All references to Q pertain to page L4r of King Lear, The Quarto of 1608 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939).

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

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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.

Aristotle, however, was the first systematic theoretician of causes, and his most distinguished, though controversial, contribution was the notion of an end cause, the object and goal towards which each thing would tend as its perfection, its perfecting or final cause. This notion is inappropriate to many analytical situations, but it is still integral to our conceptions of biological growth and adaptation, to our theories of maturation and even internal intellectual development, and therefore to the many phenomena to which the notion can be figuratively applied, as to the growth of human societies, of art forms, of a scientific theory, and so forth. Medieval scholastics were fond of arguing from what they considered to be the undeniable evidence of the end cause operating in our quotidian experience of ourselves and the world to the existence of the ultimate end cause, the goal of universal desire and action, animate and inanimate alike, namely God. In other words the existence of an end that is also a cause, an arché, a beginning, constituted one of the best arguments, the teleological argument, for God's existence. For Aristotle's end cause remains a paradox: it is the end which is there from the beginning; it is the cause of the beginning, is the ultimate, the prime beginning; and yet it remains the cause of all that follows from and on the beginning and eventually of the end itself. God as the end cause of all things is necessarily the beginning of all things and thus the universal cause, the beginning of beginnings, the end of ends, the end of all beginnings.

All this seems straightforward enough in the abstract. But what happens when we apply it to actual human affairs and to their beginnings? Ethicians have tended to assume that man is consciously goal directed, that his day-to-day choices, particularly in matters involving duty, right and wrong, responsibility and sensitivity to others, always have ends in view. Dramatists and novelists know otherwise; for they are attuned to the instability, if not the absolute undeterminability, of man's understanding of his own ends and particularly when caught up in a sequence of precipitous actions. A gulf exists between what is immediately understood and what is ultimately understood; between the beginning that is experienced as the beginning and the beginning that is understood in light of the end. But in certain imaginative contexts, and most notably in tragic drama, we are privileged as spectators to understand something of the end at the very beginning, even if it remains at the rudimentary level of knowing what happens. And there are certain tragedies such as Oedipus Rex whose beginnings are so encoded that we can return from repeated experiences of their ends—and not just of their plot dénouements, but of the words, images, sounds, and juxtapositions, of the extra-narrative events accompanying them—and read off adumbrations, premonitions, fore-echoings of these ends in the beginnings. We can even at times share in the Leibnizian fantasy of seeing the whole of the end monadically contained in the beginning. In such cases we are accorded a godlike vision and the dominant effects are achieved through dramatic ironies: we watch a protagonist with no knowledge of his end, or even more tantalizingly with a partial premonitory knowledge of his end, anticipating the future unconsciously or subconsciously by way of a chance word, or metaphor or symbolic action. Sometimes we admire the acuity of his near-misses in future perception, of his half-knowledge; more often we pity his failure of awareness, his imperceptivity to warnings and signs, his self-inflicted inner blindness. Such plays are at one end of the tragic spectrum; we might refer to them as plays whose ends are fully anticipated in their beginnings. Of such a kind, arguably the masterpiece of the kind, is Macbeth, where Shakespeare attains an extraordinary intensity and complexity almost from the first word, the kind of intensity and complexity we associate with symbolist poetry and which seems to demand the same kind of critical explication as such poetry.

To the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, the three witches materialize to pose their first question:

First Witch:
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch:
 When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
Third Witch:
That will be ere the set of sun.


The reiterated when inaugurates a play dominated by a concern with the circumscription of future time, with ‘mortal's chiefest enemy’, Hecate's ‘security’, and with the riddles that deny such security. Macbeth's fixation on the future manifests itself not only in his compulsive piling of deed upon deed in an attempt to secure the throne by desperate prevention, but in his obsession with the grammar of riddles, with the conditionals, concessives, and future subjunctives that explore his fears, hopes, projections, volitions, speculations and choices; with such complex modes as the Second Witch's ‘When the hurly-burly's done, / When the battle's lost and won.’2 Since time is the universal solvent for Macbeth, he too will want to know when, not merely as a temporal event but as a necessary condition. Significantly, it is only after the whens of their entrance that the witches can pose their next question:

First Witch:
Where the place?
Second Witch:
Upon the heath.
Third Witch:
There to meet with Macbeth.


The question meets in fact with a profoundly ambiguous answer, since the heath is not a real ‘place’—particularly if we have Rannoch Moor in mind with its ill-defined desolation, its awesome imprecision—and the question of place is clearly subordinate to the witches' need to determine the exact moment of the next meeting in time.

Just as the Second Witch's ‘When the battle's lost and won’—lost by Cawdor and won by Macbeth, lost by Cawdor and won by Macduff—has firmly implanted the when pattern in our minds, so the witches' final lines, ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air’, regenerate the question of when in terms of metaphysical values. We are compelled to ask when is fair foul and foul fair; when are they so equated. Ironically, of course, they will already be equated: when Macbeth crosses the heath on his way to Forres and observes, ‘So foul and a fair a day I have not seen’; when Banquo comments on Macbeth's ‘rapture’ at the witches' triple apostrophe, ‘Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?’; and when we eventually see Lady Macbeth as the living embodiment of foulness in the fair, of the murderess in the hostess. In thus alerting us to the equivocal relationship of fairness and foulness and to the fact that each has become the other, the witches alert us from the beginning to the world of antinomian paradoxes and oxymora, a world created by an obsession with when as if it were independent of all other questions and presupposes what we might call a palimpsestical time that preserves the past even as it adumbrates the future, is linear and cyclical, circumscribed and free, that can be lost and won in an instant by the same bloody man.

As Macbeth rides towards the witches, the Sergeant describes the battle day at Fife to the court party. A strange figure, he is considerably more complex than his predecessors in Aeschylean and Sophoclean tragedy, the anonymous messengers. Malcolm introduces him as a warrior who had personally defended him; in this respect he prefigures other Scots captains who will flee to England to enlist in Malcolm's cause. When he arrives he is bleeding profusely. As such he is the first bloody man in a play dominated by bloody men: the regicide, his victim, Banquo, the murderers, Macduff. As a man whose blood has been fairly spilt, whose blood is fair, he recounts the deeds of another putatively fair man of blood against men of foul blood. The prefatory epic simile of the ‘two spent swimmers that do cling together / And choke their art’ anticipates the self-destruction the Macbeths will call down upon each other, choking themselves to moral death in their attempt to become one in deed; and it also anticipates of course the image of the sanguine ocean that is central to the later stages of the play.

The Sergeant isolates two combats: the one with Macdonwald, the other with Sweno. First he narrates the hand-to-hand encounter between the merciless highlander and brave Macbeth: the one ‘Worthy to be a rebel, for to that / The multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him,’ a man upon whom Fortune like a whore had smiled; the other deserving his noble epithet of ‘brave’ and utterly disdainful of Fortune. In the event Macbeth becomes the more merciless, and the initial contrast between ‘merciless’ and ‘brave’ becomes no more valid than the superficial contrasts between ‘lost’ and ‘won’ and ‘fair’ and ‘foul’. Fortune may smile on Macdonwald's damned quarrel but the battlefield is her brothel: he ends the day unseam’d from the nave to th’ chops, his head stuck upon the battlements. In its entirety the account anticipates Macbeth's transformation from ‘a valiant cousin’ into ‘a gentleman’ who had betrayed the absolute trust of the king and is worthy now only to be a decapitated rebel.3

After the rout of the kerns and gallowglasses, Macbeth and Banquo both engage Sweno, the Norweyan lord. The Sergeant's description becomes more passionately complex as it draws our attention to the ‘doubling’ and ‘redoubling’ which trammels Macbeth:

As cannons overcharg’d with double cracks, so they
Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.
Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,
Or memorize another Golgotha,
I cannot tell—
But I am faint, my gashes cry for help.


The disturbingly ambivalent reference to the Crucifixion aligns Macbeth, though still in his prelapsarian bravery, with Christ's persecutors. The bleeding Sergeant becomes by association Golgotha's victim, whose gashes cry for help as the gashes of the saintly King of the Scots and of his grooms are to cry out that very night. The situation is given a further twist by Banquo's role. As another eagle after the sparrows, another lion after the hares—and the disproportions are significant given the ultimate triumph of naked babes and unarmed innocence—he is paired with Macbeth. The future alone will enable us to distinguish the true eagle from the kite, the lion from the jackal. The Sergeant's image cluster seems to associate Banquo with the Roman soldiers at Calvary, but ultimately we must associate him with their victim-victor, the ‘warrior’ of The Dream of the Rood who ascended the Cross; for Banquo's 20 trenched gashes will bleed far more hauntingly than the Sergeant's bandageable wounds and his sacrifice be much closer in spirit to Golgotha's. Throughout this description we are made aware of the role played by the sacrificial victim in a scene ostensibly committed to honouring the sacrificer and of the Sergeant's gift of blood as the first witness to Macbeth's success at Fife. But the Sergeant survives and his role will be assumed and then transmogrified by Macduff, who will end the play by recounting another battle deed and need no surgeon afterwards.

The Sergeant exits forever and the Thane of Rosse enters to complete the triptych. Macbeth is now Bellona's bridegroom, the husband-to-be of the savage war goddess, the Lady Macbeth of Scene V. His opponent is either Sweno, or more ironically and plausibly since Rosse refers specifically to a ‘rebellious’ arm, the rebel Thane of Cawdor whose very name onomatopoeically suggests the raven croaking the fatal entrance of Duncan under Macbeth's portals. The two combatants confront each other with ‘self-comparisons’, aping their mutual moves like reflections, ‘Point against point, rebellious arm ’gainst arm.’ ‘Rebellious’ here does double duty, since it is no longer clear which arm is loyal and which traitorous. Each warrior is not fighting another so much as an extension of himself; each circles his own doppelganger, lunging and parrying with one and the same sword. Cawdor and Macbeth are for the moment matched so exactly that Macbeth emerges as the victor from a bout of murderous shadow boxing. This suggestion is given immediate point by the transference of title, the new and old Cawdors uniting in both victory and defeat:

No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive
Our bosom interest. Go, pronounce his present death,
And with his former title greet Macbeth.
I’ll see it done.
What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won.


Of this triptych of descriptions at the beginning,4 two by the Sergeant and one by Rosse, Rosse's is the most obviously ironic, since the language itself of self-comparisons invites instant circumspection and analysis, but the Sergeant's are the more remarkable in that they proceed from the lips of a wounded man who is a victim on the winning side. They chart the three stages of Macbeth's future career where combat with a manifest enemy is succeeded by the mêlée and carnage of the fight with the Norwegians, which is in turn succeeded by the hand-to-hand encounter with a warrior who is a psychological self-projection. Thus the battle's progress prefigures Macbeth's defection from legitimate war against the king's foes to the wanton slaughter of Scotland's sparrows and hares to the self-slaughter on the high hill of Dunsinane. In narrating the events of one day of battle it also adumbrates the history of an individual after that battle. The modalities were after all established by the witches from the onset:

When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

There were always to be two battles and no true victory until the second. In hindsight the first battle was far from noble, since, though the king's foreign enemies were crushed, his greatest enemy was victorious. After the seemingly heroic sketches of Scene II, the first words of Scene III tell us what really happened:

First Witch: Where hast thou been, sister?
Second Witch: Killing swine.

We have been listening to the deeds not of Hector but of Ajax.

In many ways Macbeth is Shakespeare's cosmogony, for he is concerned there with the birth of that most intricate and unfathomable of all worlds, the world of human decision. No other play he wrote is so obsessed with the how and the why a course of action begins. Hence the continuing fascination of the theatre-goer with the relative values we should assign to the motivatory force of the witches, of Lady Macbeth, of a long premeditated ambition in Macbeth, of a sudden craze for power that comes upon him when time and place convene, of the impact of Malcolm's investiture with the princedom of Cumberland. Ultimately, however, these are tangential issues; for what is really at issue is the mystery of the birth of criminality itself. Macbeth is transformed before our eyes from a noble thane into a butcher with a fiend-like queen. We watch the process with a special fascination since Shakespeare has managed to present us with the illusion of truly organic change, of inward psychological degeneration, of a continuous life-like process that moves before our eyes and is never perceived as a series of stills. We seem to be witnessing the beginning in the beginning instead of having to uncover vital clues from the past, as is the case with Hamlet and with Oedipus. The play begins when Macbeth's choices begin; and it is surely the dramatist's triumph that he can focus our attention so sharply on Macbeth's freedom, on his deliberation and choices, even as he endows each scene with formidable ironies generated by our knowledge of what will eventually happen and how. With Oedipus a similar network of ironies had pointed to a sense of inexorable fate, of man's predestined helplessness to alter the unfathomable decrees of the gods. That we do not have this sense of predetermination and yet perceive the ubiquitous ironies is Macbeth's special achievement. For no other Shakespearian play contains so much of its end in its beginning, is so circular and self-contained, and yet affirms so eloquently the validity of human reason and the freedom of the will. No other play as a result is quite so fiercely moralistic, so magisterial, about the human condition: even as we know what will happen, we vehemently believe in Macbeth's power to reshape his future course and to reject his destiny as a regicide.5

Conceivably we might argue that the beginning of Macbeth is so dense, so fraught with fore-echoes and premonitions, so chock-full of ironies and palterings, that it constitutes a premature climax. After repeated experiences of the play, we bring too much to bear perhaps on the beginning; reading each line, each word, each sound too scrupulously, too curiously. In doing so we create something that is so intense, self-contained and symbolically complete that it becomes a dramatic poem in its own right. The ironies become so immediately prepotent that the experience of the beginning is effectively end-stopped. Knowing what we do from past readings of the play, we are dazzled to the point of blindness by the beginning's anticipations; we no longer see it just as a beginning but as a beginning dominated by its end, as simultaneously a beginning and an end. It becomes impossible to return to the pristine experience of accompanying Macbeth in not seeing the ironies, or at least most of them, until it is too late. And certainly it is true, as the sequence of actions and events later unfolds and the various premonitions of the beginning are validated, that the verbal texture becomes less concentrated, less connotative, less hallucinatory: what was infolded becomes unfolded, what was a knot becomes the long unwinding thread of destiny, what was a mysterious and awesome cipher becomes gradually interpreted and loses much of its primitive power, the power we always associate with the idea of the most contained in the least, of the tree in the seed, of the explosion in the gunpowder grain. But to be overwhelmed by the anticipatory force of the beginning is only a momentary, or at least a passing experience, the result sometimes of too much critical activity, too much precision in our mental footnoting, too nephritic a sensitivity to transient images that are intended to haunt us only much later. For no one perceives the beginning as imploding, as collapsing under its own too great a weight. The impact rather is explosive: we are hurtled forwards by the play's concern with future time and future choice, with what will be done and might be done; we are not permitted the time to consider too precisely, to hallucinate too freely, to hear too many echoes. Even so Shakespeare achieved a delicate balance. Of all his beginnings it is I believe the most profound, the most metaphysically exploratory, symbolically the richest precisely because it comes so close to being a climax, to fully articulating its end. And it is not surprising that the weight of the play which it begins is shifted so much further forwards than is the case with any of the other tragedies.

Shakespeare's other tragic openings, though to a lesser extent, are still encoded. However, our sense of his conscious exercise of control, his imaginative deliberation, not only over the narrative but over the metaphysical elements varies considerably.6 Sometimes we detect or at least suspect a failure on his part to conceive of his opening material in any particularly interesting or dramatically effective way; sometimes we see him concentrating on rhetorical and modal concerns rather than psychological or metaphysical ones; sometimes we are well aware that he is manipulating our reactions by withholding important information from us; and sometimes he seems to be entering upon the beginning with us, setting forth into a shadowy world where little is understood and where the basic determinations of genre and underlying structure have yet to be made by the material itself working in its own way and in its own time. In most of the beginnings, nevertheless, we are tantalized, though to varying degrees, by certain premonitory effects, by the felt presence of the end.

This is, unfortunately, not the case with Titus Andronicus. The tribunes and senators enter aloft and the contending brothers, Saturninus and Bassianus, enter from opposite sides below; Marcus Andronicus holds up a crown as the brothers press their irreconcilable claims. The effects are simple and predominantly visual. We are expending time in vain if we search for nuances, subtleties, ironies, for any kind of subtext. Straightforwardly the beginning tells us what we need to know, and we are engaged at the simplest rhetorical and narrative levels; it is workmanlike, but unremarkable; it serves adequately as a point of entrance into the play but no more.

If this can be ascribed to Shakespeare's immaturity as a tragedian, immaturity cannot account for the unravelling beginning of Timon of Athens, a play written, it is almost universally agreed, at the very height of his powers. The initial impression of Timon's opening is its controlled artificiality. The hyperboles, the ornate literary conceits, the posturing and affected business, all these perfectly reflect the atmosphere of flattery and fulsomeness that surrounds ‘A most incomparable man, breath'd, as it were, / To an untirable and continuate goodness’ and possessed of the greatest magic of all, the magic of ‘bounty’. The Poet's eulogistic description of the Painter's sketch of Timon as one that ‘tutors nature’ obviously points to the yawning disparity between such a painted man and the real man, between that which sets out to be livelier than life and life itself. His words are proleptic; for not only the true but the false too will be seen to have tended upon Timon's ‘good and gracious nature’. Some betrayal is at hand, some turn of fortune's felloe, some precipitate reversal that will set ‘the foot above the head’. But the Poet's and the Painter's immediate invocation of the figure of Fortune is so literal, so extended and so explicit that the opening mystery is effectively dispelled. As they rapidly construct the play's allegorical framework, the initial atmosphere of spidery sycophancy and deceit, of fogging hyperboles and busy attendance is blown away to reveal a simple abstract conflict between Bounty and the turn of Fortune's wheel, an abstract conflict from which the play will never really manage to free itself.

Hindsight is easy of course and it is otiose perhaps to maintain that the failure of Timon as a play was predictable from the failure of its beginning to develop on its own terms. It is not a question certainly of being given too much of the story at the beginning, but rather of the failure subsequently of other metaphors, other ideas, other strategies to loosen the stranglehold exercised by the image of Fortune. It seems that Shakespeare was defeated in a way by the magnitude and intractability of one idea; and the complexity of the opening's verbal surface manages to resist the onset of this idea for only a brief while. The end in this instance ruined the beginning in the beginning.

Another potentially ruinous abstraction, the idea of Fate conceived of in the most rigid Hardeian terms, was in the forefront of his mind when he set about the composition of Romeo and Juliet. But he hit upon the strategy of the ‘double’ beginning that not only fully subjugated the abstraction to his dramatic ends but enabled him to explore a dialectical vision not so much of tragedy itself as of the relationship between comedy and tragedy. Romeo and Juliet thus became his first unqualified success as a tragedy and its beginning prophetic of the infinitely more complex double beginnings of Hamlet and Macbeth.

The idea of Fate dominates the prologue but Shakespeare has subjected it to the special rigours and dynamics of the sonnet form. Evocative superficially of love, of Italy, of the dolce amarezza of Petrarch—and the differences between the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean rhyme schemes and the structure they subtend is immaterial at this point—the form is ultimately concerned with the whole notion of a volta, of the turn that antithetically folds two ideas the one upon the other, of the wit that must serve unhappy passion, idealized and crossed. The doom-laden story he carved out from the quarries of Bandello's story and Brooke's poem, of the fearful passage in fair Verona, of the death-marked passage of adolescent love, of the warring households and their fatal loins, this story star-blasted by its abstraction is subjected not only to the musical formality of the sonnet form, but to its argumentativeness, to its search for the counterturn, to its intrinsic dialecticity, which Shakespeare was to key in this instance to a dualistic metaphysics. The mention of the two hours' traffic of the stage7 points forwards to this dualism from the onset, to the hour of joy and the hour of sorrow, of Verona and of all without Verona's walls, of the moonlit orchard and the noon-scorched piazza, of the amorous turn and the duelling counterturn, of Mercutio the poet of Queen Mab and of Mercutio the grave man. Significantly the sonnet that begins the second act lacks most of these dialectical dimensions and seems to be almost wholly unattuned to the dualistic vision they subserve.

From the sonnet prologue we immediately pass to Sampson and Gregory with their swords and bucklers and their loud-mouthed, circumspect cowardice and their strings of quarrelsome puns:

Gregory, on my word, we'll not carry coals.
No, for then we should be colliers.
I mean, and we be in choler, we'll draw.
Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.

It is significant that the scene begins with such puns, for lying at the heart of the love story is something closer to paronomasia than to some great cosmic paradox. For all its serious possibilities and its later transformation into the Liebestod, the Elizabethan pun on ‘dying’—Cleopatra with her celerity in dying—remains the source essentially of comic delight, of play, of the courting wit. It is significant too that the play's concern with violence—the violence of love and the violence of hate—begins in a comic key, with the biting of thumbs and the fingered fig; for the play will only modulate away from that key gradually and it seems to me reluctantly. The deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt are as witty as they are tragic. At least they begin in the Nurse's world, in her bawdiness and innuendoes, in her gossipy energy, in her vulgarity and street-bred shamelessness; only falteringly do they pass over into the sonnet world of Romeo and of Juliet with its passionate fateful music and its aristocratic closure.

Clearly the two openings depend and comment upon each other: the two households both alike in dignity are served by men that will not carry coals. But the openings' dependence is hardly organic: they establish a formal pattern of bold contrasts where we are struck by the chiaroscuro rather than by the subtlety of the design. Even so, it was a memorable achievement, for not only was it theatrically effective, it enabled Shakespeare to retain something of his comic vision in the very process of perfecting a tragedy. When we juxtapose the sonnet's lyricism, formal harmonies, midnight tonalities and intrinsic wittiness with the fortuitous logical-illogical punning and the calculating indecisiveness of Sampson and Gregory, we begin to see stranger and more complex patterns than those formed by the intersecting lines of Fortune's mapping of man, patterns that take us beyond the confrontational notions of love and of fate. We might argue that the double beginning of Romeo and Juliet may reflect, to a degree, a genre indecision on Shakespeare's part. Was this story to consist of a tragic duel between Capulet and Montague, or was it to retain crucial elements from the world of bully Bottom, of fluting Thisby, of the roaring civil lion, and the crannied hole or chink?8 More plausibly we can argue that it represents something much more interesting and experimental: the attempt of someone who was already a master of comedy to enter upon the tragedian's world without losing the resources of comedy and most particularly of its language, its bawdiness and its traditional fascination with serendipities and lucky chances, with puns in words, in actions with coincidences.9

With the beginnings of the three Roman plays, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare seems to be less concerned with uncovering the seeds of future action than he is with discovering what we might call the future rhetoric, with anticipating the how rather than the why or where or when of the end. Hence the fascination that the rhetorical language of all three plays exerts over us, the formal figures and tropes, and the essentially operatic attitudes they embody. Even so there are some signal differences in their deployment of this rhetoric.

If the prevailing device of Romeo and Juliet was the free-ranging, vespine pun, that of Julius Caesar is interrogatory in nature. Many have remarked the anachronistic thronging of the Roman streets with Elizabethan artisans, tradesmen in a sixteenth-century holiday mood, idle creatures on a labouring day. But we are struck by the tribune's concern to ascertain the trade of everyone they encounter, the reiterated question being ‘what trade?’ This concern for careful differentiation of each individual and his trade is belied, however, by the crowd psychology that obviously predominates, by the loss of individual differentiation among the cruel men of Rome. Unlike those in Romeo and Juliet, the puns and jests that accompany the replies are not intrinsically significant: they do not point to a comic matrix for the play, the quibbling is never metaphysical.

Of genuine significance on the other hand are the many rhetorical questions that do not merely punctuate this opening but form the very basis of its structure: ‘Is this a holiday?’ ‘What, know you not … ?’ ‘Where is thy leather apron and thy rule?’ ‘Wherefore rejoice?’ ‘Knew you not Pompey?’ ‘Have you not made an universal shout?’ ‘And do you now put on your best attire?’ The rhetorical question establishes itself immediately as the dominant figure. For it is the question that voices the opinions and feelings of the questioner and does not really expect an answer; that generates emotion and is a form often of incremental repetition; and that tends, ironically, to lead to more and more answers disguised as questions until finally released in rage, in the violent action of ‘Go fetch fire. Pluck down benches. Pluck down forms, windows, any thing’ (III.ii.257ff.).

The question that obsesses the tribunes is the political one. Isn't Pompey also present in Caesar's triumph? How can one rejoice in what is Pompey's loss rather than Caesar's gain? The identical question will be asked by Antony when Caesar has fallen and Brutus and Cassius have culled out their own holiday. In an exhortation manifestly lacking in questions, and therefore in stark contrast to what has by now been established as a rhetorical norm, is Flavius' concluding apostrophe to Murellus to help him keep Caesar at ‘an ordinary pitch / Who else would soar above the view of men / And keep us all in servile fearfulness.’ For eventually even the rhetorical question must compel some men to decisions, must compel them to answer to their own hearts.

Though simple, the opening is theatrically effective: its tidal motion, its noise, its harangues and passionate recriminations, its evocation of past pomp, past holidays, past acclamations, all these make for a richly rhetorical rather than an exploratory or ironic beginning. Operatically dominated by the tribunes’ emotional questions, it points to conflict broadly conceived: to Caesar versus Pompey, to plebeians versus patricians, to holiday and triumph versus murder and mourning, to the single leader and the jostling, many-headed crowd. And it points to conflict in the public and political world, the world that is always dominated by the rhetorical question. More workmanlike than the opening of Romeo and Juliet, it is less complex in its endeavour, less daring in what it sets out to do. Solidly successful, it eloquently attains its goal of showing us Caesar's huge wing outstretched and ready for imping, but tells us nothing of the ends of Brutus and Cassius except possibly that they too may be witnessed in the interrogatory mode.

Julius Caesar's two Roman successors likewise have highly rhetorical beginnings that establish a modality and style that is also basically forensic in structure and epideictic in intention. They anticipate the end by way of form rather than content and orchestrate our attitudes and sympathies by deploying particular figures. It would be going too far to suggest that Shakespeare conceived of the lives of the ancients as similar in many ways to speeches, and of the patterns of their destinies as reflected in the underlying patterns and figures of formal eloquence; but in all three Roman plays certain figures do seem to dominate our attention and our awareness of the plays' fundamental orientations is particularly keyed to what we might call their public language, the language of politics, of war, of altercation and debate.

Coriolanus commences with the plebeians agreeing in precipitate repetitions: ‘Speak, speak. Resolv’d, resolv’d. We know’t, we know’t.’ The ill-considered absoluteness of this agreement anticipates Coriolanus' absoluteness and the absoluteness of most of the attitudes dramatized in the play. We soon understand that the cause of the conflict is the surfeit in the belly, the superfluity of grain in the barns of the nobility, and the leanness in the limbs of the artisans, leanness reflected or conveyed in the ferocity and crudeness of the First Citizen's antithetical, lacerated style: ‘our sufferance is a gain to them’; ‘Let us revenge this with our pikes, ere we become rakes’; ‘If the wars eat us not up, they will.’ The Second Citizen's attempt to suggest that Coriolanus ‘cannot help’ his nature, that the extenuating circumstances of his character must be taken into consideration, is rapidly drowned out by the shouting from the rebels on the other side of the city, and by the arrival of Menenius.

From the menacing antitheses of the First Citizen we pass to formal fable. But built into the belly allegory are two contradictory traditions of interpreting the polity of the body.10 On the one hand is the tradition, as indeed the First Citizen assumes, of the ‘cormorant belly’ and the ‘kingly-crowned head’, a tradition that elevates the head and subjugates the belly and corresponds to what the medieval and Renaissance worlds acknowledged as the normative view of their relationship. On the other hand is the view that crowns the belly in the head's despite, the view voiced by Menenius in Plutarch's life of Coriolanus. At stake of course is the very nature of the senate and people of Rome. Every thinking member of Shakespeare's audience would have been struck by the fact that Menenius' version, though speciously persuasive and internally consistent, was nevertheless the incorrect, the heretical, the dangerously heretical version. For any allegory that elevated the stomach over the heart or head was obviously portraying a topsy-turvy, chaotic vision of things where the great chain of correspondences had been swept aside by the wolf of appetite. We thus have an irreconcilable conflict between the First Citizen's correct vision of the belly as the sink of the body, and Menenius' incorrect vision of it (and therefore of the patricians) as the granary of the state, an organ that has usurped both heart and head. This conflict is underscored by the contrast in their styles: the First Citizen's is microscopically obsessed with playing one word off another; the Senator's is telescopically concerned with allegory and universal figures. They too seem irreconcilable.

The fable itself goes far beyond the plebeians’ hunger and the patricians’ grain: it suggests the ultimate Thyestean nightmare, the cannibalistic devouring of one's enemies that turn out to be one's friends, or worse still one's children, one's own flesh. For Menenius' belly quickly ceases to be, as the First Citizen correctly realizes, an organ of the body, and becomes an organ (almost an organism) in the body, a monstrous growth that receives and hoards all the available nutriment and increases parasitically as its host declines. Interestingly it is only much later in the play that another, wholly antithetical vision of the belly dawns upon us as more relevant than this Menenian vision of it as a wholesale and retail distributor of food. Later it is the belly as the womb of Rome, the Volumnia pregnant with rebellion, a Rome where there is no longer room enough, and that gives birth to every mother's son, that comes to dominate our attention, replacing entirely the earlier vision of the belly as maw. The rhetoric, that is, will find different uses for the same figure as it continues to argue and persuade. The encounter ends abruptly with Menenius' stubbing of the Big Toe of the Assembly:

For that, being one o’ th’ lowest, basest, poorest
Of this most wise rebellion, thou goest foremost.


It is an ineffective rhetorical ploy; it can only serve to further antagonize.

The beginning of Coriolanus is ominous, electric, strident. Like Julius Caesar's it is concerned with political and class conflict, but the antagonism is more absolute, the confrontation more savage. The rhetoric asks far fewer questions than it does in the earlier play and turns instead to the latent, cancerous paradoxes that feed upon human pride and ambition, human abuse of privilege and power, ultimately upon human suffering itself. Unlike the rhetorical questions of Julius Caesar, however, those in Coriolanus demand answers, want actions and decisions here and now. The incipient violence of the First Citizen's language particularly is striking: it stays with us long after the fable of the belly has been compelled to feed on itself in the figure of Martius. The citizen disappears but his fierce antitheses survive as the rhetorical norm of the play: translated into action they become the uncompromising pride and anger that mammocks a butterfly and that flutters the dovecotes in Corioli and Rome alike. The fable presented itself as an alternative rhetorical norm and was found to be wanting: the toe does indeed go foremost. The content is lost in the hubbub of insurrection, but the form remains.

In Antony and Cleopatra's beginning the destructive is abandoned for the generative paradox, paradox that is not antagonistic to the allegorical and fabular dimensions both of Antony and Cleopatra themselves and of their love affair but profoundly dependent upon them. Wedded together the questions and the antitheses become a dialectic of paradox, a forensic fantasy that seems endless, that will always seek to persuade, and whose repetitions are not, like those of Coriolanus' First Citizen, aggressive or rebarbative but epideictic, wonder-producing: ‘Look where they come! Take but good note. … Behold and see.’ Behind many of the opening paradoxes lie rhetorical questions; they could indeed be the answers to such questions. It is almost as if Shakespeare could find no other way of contemplating the life of Antony but by way of rhetorical questions and their paradoxical answers. The resulting dialectic provides us, however, with a wealth of instances rather than analysis, with a gorgeous blazon of paradoxes rather than a penetrating enquiry into the nature of paradox and of its relationship to human change and destiny.

Philo's passionate inaugural speech obviously takes us into the middle of a conversation where Demetrius has just said something to prompt a ‘Nay.’ Whether this signifies a straightforward denial, or some kind of weaker qualification such as ‘Yes, but’ or ‘Well, it is more than an ordinary love affair’, we cannot tell. Probably it is a kind of affirmative denial that points to the conversation having been a pro et contra, a judicious consideration of Antony's actions in Egypt. Critics have often remarked the connotations of the ensuing phrase, ‘o’er-flows the measure.’ The twin notions of over-abundance, of exceeding the mean, of exceeding even the ability to measure at all, and of liquidity, of the element that naturally exceeds itself and knows no measurement, these more than suggest Cleopatra and the liquidity of her emotions and decisions, they suggest another world entirely where men's measurements cannot pertain nor the laws of the baser element on which he lives. Philo describes Antony's eyes in the past looking in long radii over the files and musters of his troops, in their measured, serried, calculable ranks—and the plating of Mars suggests the same notion of containment and measure—but now in their dotage ‘bending’ and ‘turning’ their gaze upon a tawny front. The image of the fierce linear glance down lines of men has been replaced by that of the bent, deflected, suppliant gaze. Moreover, the eyes themselves, instead of glowing with the light reflected from the armour of the ranks they hold in review, have become dimmed by the darkness of Cleopatra. Silently but rhetorically we ask, how could this have happened?

True, the image of Antony's heart heaving in battle with martial exertion and rending the buckles of his armour does present us with the notion of going beyond measure; but there is no accompanying suggestion of liquidity, the buckles ‘burst’ suddenly from his chest as if they were missiles. Moreover, the heaving heart is counterpointed not so much to the image of overflowing water which precedes it as to the images of the bellows and fan that follow: both instruments move air not the hot valorous blood that the heart pounded through Antony's chest in great fights. A few moments later we see Cleopatra's eunuchs fanning the air about her, as later we hear from Enobarbus how the smiling Cupids fanned the delicate cheeks to make them glow; we recall too the moment when the air and Antony were almost identified as he whistled in the market place to the wind that yearned to gaze on Cleopatra. Again, we ask rhetorically how could this armed man become a fan? his pulsing blood become the air?

Philo breaks off and demands that we witness for ourselves: we behold and see the huge upright pillar of the world bent and turned upon itself, a hunched strumpet's fool and yet Mars at his ease. The entire speech is extraordinarily rich and evocative because of the contrasts and counterpointing that organize its imagery: Mars and the gypsy, the measure and the flood, the musters of war and the tawny countenance, the buckles and the bellows, the heart and the fan, the pillar and the fool.

When Cleopatra and Antony enter, the paradoxical questions and the greater paradoxes that supply the only answers to such questions fly back and forth between the lovers themselves and serve as their medium of discourse. Echoing Philo, Cleopatra attempts to seduce Antony with the double doubt: Is this love (or lust), and if it is love (or lust), then how much love (or lust) is there? Antony answers by emphasizing the unanswerableness of such hypothetical interrogation: only beggars measure love, only men lacking love can be concerned with quantity; to find their love's limit they will have to find not only a new world but a new heaven also, a new cosmos. And suddenly a messenger, that archetypal though anonymous figure in this play, arrives from the old world with news from ‘the scarce-bearded Caesar’ or ‘the shrill-tongued Fulvia’, news that we never hear since the wrangling queen makes it an occasion to rally Antony by quarrelling with him, to chide him into extending the bourn of love still further.

The scene ends, as it had begun, with Philo and Demetrius chagrined for Antony. It has now become evident that Demetrius is the visitor and Philo the resident; and therefore that Philo is the observer most closely attuned to Antony, to what he was and is; that he is the one who suffers must acutely the pangs of friendship, of philia, and feels most poignantly the loss of that great property which still should go with Antony. Though we have seen Cleopatra, our eyes remain focused on Antony: it is his friends not hers that we have overheard; it is his passion, his dereliction, his refusal to hear the messengers, his dotage that intrigues us at this point, not her charm, not her coquetry. The rhetorical questions and the real ones are all centred on him, and he not Cleopatra evokes the initial paradoxes for answers. As Philo suggests, it is not important that we anticipate what will happen to Antony but that we see what has already become of him. At the end of the play when our gaze is turned exclusively upon Cleopatra we continue to ask the same rhetorical questions and to contemplate the same paradoxical answers as we did at the beginning with Antony. For the rhetoric of the beginning and that of the conclusion is one and the same: it answers questions to which there are no answers by transposing them to the key of paradox. The end and the beginning both burn on the water of a river that overflows the measure.

Othello and King Lear present us with beginnings of a very different kind. In both Shakespeare seems to be withholding important information from us deliberately, refusing us vital clues of both a factual and a psychological or rhetorical nature. Both beginnings are masterful theatre, but for reasons that are almost diametrically opposite to those that pertain for Macbeth. Shakespeare is clearly not concerned with alerting us to a myriad ironies in these openings, but delimiting their functions and therefore the range of questions we can ask: they reveal only portions of their ends even as the palpable degree of control that Shakespeare is exercising over them makes us well aware that the ends have been weighed and measured in their entirety and their causes assigned, his radically altered ending for the Lear story being the most obvious case in point.

Even so, the beginnings of Othello and of King Lear themselves diverge. The one follows in the footsteps of Richard III in that it presents us immediately with a strutting villain, a swingeing rhetoric, and a certain satanic jocosity; the other is superbly restrained, oblique, an antechamber scene that gives little intimation of the coming horror but provides us with only one or two premonitions of division and a vivid portrait of just one man, a father introducing his folly. In both we suspect that the ends are contained in these beginnings, but we have no means of extricating them; their significance is to a large extent sealed, their music in the minor key.

Othello's title encourages us to anticipate an Adriatic world of passion, of crime, of oligarchic cunning, of Titianesque colour, of Aretine lust. Roderigo enters with his great stringed purse, a scrotal sack that Iago can hold on to impudently. ‘Shouldst know of this. … If ever I did dream of such a matter.’ Of what? We are listening to something that we do not understand, to Iago's hatred of someone; a someone who we gradually learn has a lieutenant, to whom three great ones off-capped on Iago's behalf, who loves his own pride and purposes, who constantly resorts to bumbast circumstance and epithites of war, who has nonsuited Iago's mediators, who has already chosen his officer. And the gossiping, engaging malice turns to a Cassio, a Florentine, an arithmetician, a man with bookish rhetoric who never set a squadron in the field, a prattler apparently without practice. At last Iago emerges in his ancient's colours as the practised man, a man able to practise on men, a soldier practised in the rhetoric of practice. In the very last line of the opening speech we discover the ‘someone’, the ‘he’, is the Moor, the Moor who chose the theoretical man over the practical and whom the practical man can find no cause to love or follow except to exact a revenge, ‘to serve his turn’ upon him. With contemptuous honesty Iago declares himself the villain, the seemer-so with his peculiar ends. But the contempt is rococo not withering, a hatred stuffed with its own epithites and circumstantial conceits, with its own bumbast of scorn and resentment, its own hyperbolic Nymlike honesty: ‘I am not what I am.’

Roderigo suddenly switches key by introducing the notion of ‘a full fortune’ awaiting the ‘thicklips’ but only ‘If he can carry’t thus.’ Again we have no idea what he is talking about; yet, clearly, it is no longer Cassio's appointment. As pieces of information are gradually, even fortuitously presented to us, we acquire a vivid, and in the event substantially accurate, picture of Iago's character, but not of his plot; interestingly so, for it is character that causes Othello's downfall, not fate, not circumstances, not plot. Indeed, as has been frequently noted, Iago's plot, unlike Richard of Gloucester's induction dangerous, is an opportunity that is seized, something snatched up with the handkerchief, a careless trifle that Claudius or Hieronimo would probably have scorned.

Finally we receive another clue: ‘Call up her father.’ Again, we are thrown into doubt as to who the ‘he’ or ‘hes’ are in the rapid series of references that follow:

Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies. Though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on’t,
As it may lose some color.


The ‘he’ seems to refer, initially at least, to the father; but with the words ‘poison his delight’ it can begin to refer to Othello as well, indeed must begin to. For there is no particular reason why Brabantio should be delighted or joyful, and every reason why Othello should. Retrospectively all this becomes clear, but at the time we are kept in a state of continuing uncertainty and provided with too little information to follow up the clues we are given. We cannot be quite sure of what we are overhearing and yet we are being made privy to a private, secret conversation that gradually emerges as a conspiracy; the interlocutors know precisely what they mean, what they intend to do, to whom each ‘he’ and ‘his’ refers. The beginning closes with the rousing of Brabantio to a terrible summons.

We have been introduced to a recognizable situation: a villain with a gull, plotting to bring down his lord, Othello, probably his rival Cassio also, and possibly somehow the daughter of a Venetian senator. Diabolic and cheerful, the villain is also a master hyperbolist, possessed of a vigorous anti-rhetorical rhetoric, and determined to execute a private revenge against a public figure, though in a manner as yet unknown to us, and perhaps still undecided by the plotters themselves. By the time Brabantio emerges in his nightgown, we have forgotten the opening image of Roderigo as a great purse, its strings in Iago's castratory hand.

Even as the audience thronged before the stage of King Lear with preconceptions derived from the older Leir play, they were introduced not to the principals but to the underworld of rumour and surmise that has begun to swirl around the ageing king and his latterday decisions. There is already division in the kingdom. Kent notes that hearsay says the King prefers the Duke of Albany over the Duke of Cornwall.

But Kent's prefatory clause, ‘I thought the King’, also suggests the King's unpredictability. Later we discover that the King has decided to third not halve his kingdom, and to endow Cordelia with the best third. And yet, as we shall also discover, the division does turn out to be between Albany and Cornwall in the persons of their wives. Ironically, that is, the rumour will hold true, not because of its own perspicacity but because of the King's waywardness. Ironically too, it is Gloucester who cannot detect a jot of difference between the King's affections: ‘curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety.’

We turn to the moiety of Gloucester's two sons. Kent's question either suggests doubtful recognition, or it is a gambit of courtesy that allows Gloucester the option of acknowledging the bastard if he so chooses. Gloucester admits to being brazed to the point of being able to jest, even to brag, about the night of Edmund's conception, an act it turns out of supreme folly, and asks naively ‘Do you smell a fault?’11 Kent replies with a choice compliment to Edmund from which Shakespeare, notably it seems to me, has excluded any hint of irony or premonition. In contrast to Macbeth, he does not want us to suspect the very ground we walk on, to intimate that the future course of events will have any other beginning than the King's decision to divide his kingdom. However rash and incompetent Lear may have been in the past, however slender his self-knowledge, his tragedy is not predetermined: it will follow only upon his decision to divide and not to rule. None of the lines in this opening scene bears the premonitory dread of those that initiate Macbeth. Deliberately they defy too subtle a reading, too minute an examination.

Unexpectedly Gloucester adverts to Edgar and the ‘order of law’, primogeniture and due of birth. Surely Kent would know of Edgar, if not of Edmund? Yet apparently not. Both Gloucester's sons have been kept hidden. For a moment the young whoreson and the old Kent, the false and the true, acknowledge each other before Gloucester turns to whisk him away: ‘He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again.’ Of all the many meetings in this play, this one, ironically, is the least significant. Kent and Edmund never again acknowledge each other, never directly cross paths. There is not even good sport at their meeting: nothing of Kent's outspoken honesty and courage comes across here, nothing of Edmund's natural vitality or wit or rebelliousness. Strangely perhaps both characters are presented to us out of character, out of their natural elements even; they are pale preliminary sketches of heads that will ultimately assume fearful and memorable profiles. The only character to emerge in character is Gloucester: the fallen man with his lusts, his garrulity, his lack of judgement, his ambiguously paternal status, his acknowledgement both of the law and of the fault that cannot be undone. He turns to the sound of the trumpet's sennet to witness the division of the kingdom, the division of the world he inhabits, of his castle, his life, his very identity: he turns his nose to the stench of the King's great fault.

Thus we have been exposed to the subplot: to its everyman hero, to its villain, and, by virtue of mention and notice, to its saint. Additionally, we have been introduced to one of the play's few survivors, though one, ironically, who has little role, if any, to play in this subplot. The prose of the scene's discourse, prose, incidentally, without any signal rhetorical indebtedness to Lyly or Nashe or Cicero or Caesar, with its lack of any pronounced rhythms or wordplay or conceits or antitheses, points to a contemporary Elizabethan setting, not to the ancient Merlin-haunted, pagan, mythical Albion with which the play is ultimately concerned. Arguably, of course, the scene is the quiet before the storm: imperceptibly almost our eyes begin to focus on the fairness, the falseness and the whoresomeness of Edmund, on the son who has been acknowledged by his brazen father, who speaks with civil tongue, who must away again, who has a brother by order of law some year elder than he, who was conceived in good sport, who rounded out a fair womb, who came saucily into the world before he was sent for, and who now studies deserving. Like the beginning of The Winter's Tale, this beginning evokes on the one hand the world of normalcy, of natural rhythms, of friendly intercourse between man and man, of courtesy, of fathers and sons, acquaintances and friends. On the other hand it evokes the image of a shield with two sinister bars: the King's division and the return of the whoreson. Shakespeare was deliberately restraining his energies, confining himself to the quietness and familiarity of unstudied prose, entering in upon the play through an inconspicuous side-door. He presents us with the Elizabethan court before its confrontation with an Asiatic tyrant, a half-mad geriatric king of wrath with his three fairy-tale daughters, raging against the monsters of Niederheim, enmeshed in a cosmos of correspondences where he must bear all things patiently like Job to the very end.

Finally there is Hamlet, which has, along with Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, a particularly complex and evocative beginning, though one that strikes us as far less premeditated, not artistically of course but philosophically, the state of indecision, or indirection, in which we remain throughout the opening being prophetic of the play's larger concern with indecision. Our sense is not that Shakespeare is holding back information in any manipulative way; but rather that he is allowing the scene to develop according to its own dynamics, to reveal itself as it will, to unfold by its own laws and write itself. Patently, the beginning is not all-revealing, and from its ambiguities, sounds and images we cannot tease out the whole story of Hamlet. Rather we are brought into the play as men, not as goods or possessed of godlike knowledge, in order to explore the faint glimmers of dawn in the prevailing darkness. In other words, Shakespeare makes for the middle path; he creates a beginning considerably more revealing than the beginnings of Othello or King Lear, but less encoded and fraught than that of Macbeth. It conceals as well as reveals mysteries, not in the way that Iago conceals his true intent, but in the sense that the scene's inner logic seems to remain at times as tantalizingly intangible to the dramatist as to us. In its gradual revelation of the dark secrets of the past, there are few of the sudden, lurchingly sudden, insights of Macbeth: it is a drama of delay where we are in the main prevented from attempting the kind of instantaneous Sophoclean readings that the later play forces upon us. And as it summons up the past, it too has recourse to a double beginning.

The play opens with the newcomer challenging the guard on duty though we ordinarily assume that the guard will make the initial challenge. Hence Francisco's refusal to answer Barnardo's ‘Who's there?’ and his own counter-challenge, ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.’ Even so, it is Francisco who identifies Barnardo, not Barnardo himself. This opening confusion takes only a few seconds, but it is premonitory of the hunter-hunted, challenger-challenged reversals of the climax. Midnight is traditionally associated with the supernatural and with subliminal experience, but we are struck nevertheless by Francisco's unexpected addition to an expected observation: ‘’Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart.’ The sickness at heart suggests foreboding, fear, a psychological malaise, something inwardly colder than the external bitterness of the air too frigid for a mouse to stir. Suddenly we realize that Francisco had watched alone. Before departing he, not Barnardo, challenges Marcellus and Horatio and this time receives a different pass-word.

The overall effect of this series of encounters is to heighten the uncertainty. Each relationship seems fluid: who is the guard, who the challenger? who is coming, who going? what are the passwords and why are they different? why is Francisco sick at heart? Across the network of order, efficiency, regularity, recognition that we associate with the whole notion of changing the guard flicker the uncertainties and fears that must also accompany such change, the dread of the foe disguised as friend. The dominant mode so far has been the question as challenge: we are in a martial context, unnaturally awake at the time of natural sleep, vigilant in the dark. But we have no notion yet of the enemy's identity or whereabouts. The guards have been posted on the battlements in the dead of night to watch it seems not so much for an enemy onslaught as for a spy or traitor, an enemy who materializes from the cold itself. But what is the connection between the prince of the play's title and this castle and this watch? Are they watching as his loyal servants or his enemies? Admittedly, the action is too rapid for us to clearly formulate these questions; they come as almost instantaneous fears, as perhaps barely distinguishable components in a mood of uncertainty rather than as recognizable questions, but later surely they will require answers.

The second stage of the beginning commences with Marcellus’ ‘What, has this thing appear’d again to-night?’ ‘Thing’ connotes something not human, perhaps not animate; yet it appeared as if it were living. It is a ‘thing’ because Horatio cannot define it not because it is necessarily inhuman or inanimate. Barnardo answers punningly (but we assume unwittingly so): ‘I have seen nothing.’ Thus Horatio emerges as a sceptic, a doubter and a rationalist in this context of credulity and praeternaturalism: ‘Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy.’

Marcellus makes us suddenly aware the ‘thing’—‘a dreaded sight’—has already been seen twice before. For the moment we do not know the circumstances, merely that Horatio must be convinced by seeing for himself: he must both ‘approve’ the eyes of Marcellus and Barnardo and also ‘speak’ to what is now specifically identified as an ‘apparition’ that cannot or will not speak until spoken to. As Horatio asserts boldly ‘Tush, tush, ’twill not appear’, our eyes strain to pierce the granular darkness: we tensely watch the minutes of the night. The suspense builds. While everyone sits down to hear a story that will ‘assail’ the ears, as later the Mousetrap will assail the ears of Claudius and Hamlet's tirade the ears of Gertrude, the story passes from relation into enactment: that which was to assail the ears begins to assail the eyes, the words become visualized. At the stroke of one—and we assume the precedent holds good from the previous occasion—the bell drowns out the words upon the ears as the ghost appears beneath the star that's westward from the pole, the time, the bell and the star constituting an astrologically propitious moment for its materialization.

Immediately ‘it’ is associated with the king that's dead: ‘it’ is like but cannot be that king. As the ‘scholar’ Horatio is enjoined to speak to, that is, to question ‘it’. Though a sceptic and rationalist he is clearly the privileged interrogator: the ghost will only answer a scholar and only a scholar will know what to ask of it, only he will have sufficient learning, specifically demonological learning,12 to ask the correct questions in the correct way. For the ghost ‘would be spoke to’, though Barnardo and Marcellus do not know how or what to ask it. The beginning comes to a close with Horatio's demand for identity, ‘What art thou?’, essentially a repetition of the ‘Who's there?’ of the play's very first line. True to his doubt, Horatio hastens to distinguish between the ‘thing’ and ‘that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march’, a form which the thing is now usurping as it usurps the time of night. ‘Offended’ by these pejorative distinctions, the ghost ‘stalks away’, the motion denoting anger, regal impatience, disappointment with the questioner and his questions. Though the ghost ‘would be spoke to’ it has refused to speak, or cannot speak to Barnardo, Marcellus, and now to Horatio who desperately cries out ‘Stay! Speak, speak, I charge thee speak!’ The ghost does not answer, will not thus be charged.

Up till now, there has been no question of the ghost's theological status; we are concerned solely with its identity and with its silence. And yet, like Hamlet's long opening silence while Claudius deals with Voltemand and Cornelius and then with Laertes, this silence is clearly enforced; eventually it will unpack its heart with words. An intruder has challenged the watch and will not unfold himself, an intruder who seems to be, ironically and confusingly, the very king, or something like the king, of the castle, alive though dead and buried, the friend and the foe, the commander of the vigil and yet the quarry of that vigil. Horatio, the sceptic, has been compelled in an instant to believe: the sensible and true avouch of his own eyes has dashed aside the questions that sprang to his tongue when the story merely assailed his ears; the ‘thing’ has become more than ‘fantasy’.

Throughout this beginning the pace is precipitous, the mode questioning, the reorientations sudden and unexpected; our ability to interpret each word and gesture is constantly subject to revision or reversal, our understanding of what is going on dubious, temporary, provisional. It is not simply a question of Shakespeare's having led us into the realm of the supernatural, but rather of his presenting us with everything as aetiologically doubtful and ambiguous, even the time frame. For the ghost is from the past, from the dead and buried, in their figure; and yet he is not dead, does not stay unmoved, stalks through the present of the guards’ instant challenges and instant replies. This battlement present, however, is one of anxiety, of inadequate information, of vigilance, not the hedonistic present of Herrick's rosebuds. Into this other transitory and ominous present comes the even more ominous past, armed cap-a-pe, challenging identification, wanting to speak and to be spoken to, silently proclaiming itself as more truly present, as more truly a cause, than the nervous challengers on the edge of time in that dark, cold, high place. It has already begun and yet it seems about to begin.

Hamlet's beginning is a Gordian masterpiece where we are captured by the very lack of information and drawn into a subliminal world of doubt, intrigue, mystery and dread; where our imaginations strain to enter into a beginning that is no beginning in itself, but merely the beginning of our understanding. When the ghost stalks away we know it must return; for it is an illusion that will and will not stay, the final cause from which and also for which the beginning had begun. And yet it will not release us; it demands that the beginning begin all over again with another guard, another night, another challenge, another scholar to question it on the stroke of one as he gazes at the northwest sky. Our questioning and engagement deepen as we gradually come to realize that this is not the real beginning at all, that another beginning has yet to come, make answer and be not offended, that the beginning must begin again.

The double beginning with which Shakespeare first experimented in tragedy with Romeo and Juliet has thus given birth to a labyrinthine double beginning which does not begin, which cannot begin at the beginning. Only with Macbeth a few years later did Shakespeare begin at the beginning and then only, as we have seen, with a devastating and omnipresent sense of the end.

Some conclusions. Obviously we must continue to be struck by the diversity of the tragic openings, and by the fact that Shakespeare never deigned to repeat an old success. This was not only because of his love of artistic experiment and dramatic variety but also because his understanding of what constitutes a beginning was constantly changing and developing. Different plays were begun in different ways because their matter presented different facets to his gaze even as he subjected the very notion of a beginning itself to scrutiny. Certain questions, however, constantly present themselves. How long is the beginning? When does it end? Does it seem to be merely the first stage in a series of actions or somehow complete in itself? What tense orientation dominates it? What does it reveal to us most: plot, character, mood, genre, setting, theme, symbol, modality, diction, style? And, most pressingly of all, how much of the end is present in the beginning? Is it in fact itself a kind of end? Clearly, most of these questions are retrospective, and mainly those we ask in the study not the theatre. At the time of actual enactment we remain uncertain or even in total suspense as to the kind of beginning we are witnessing. In particular extreme cases we might not be able to characterize the beginning until the play is over, hindsight alone providing us with a clear enough perspective. And it is precisely the experience of continuing uncertainty—the awareness of the beginning's present uninterpretability—that makes the witnessing of a play more compelling for most people than the contemplation of philosophical principles (in the fullest sense of archai).

Many of the more general points made in this essay could no doubt be brought to bear on any number of openings, epic, comic, tragi-comic, pastoral, pastoral-epic, the whole Polonian list. Nevertheless, they were generated by a concern with Shakespeare's tragic openings; for it is here that the notions of beginning and of end come into sharpest focus. Because endings are so important in tragedy, their force fields dominate their plays, though in varying and complex ways. All radii lead towards them and they constantly suggest themselves, even as we have seen, in their beginnings. Perhaps pre-eminently in their beginnings; for we keep wanting to read the play into the beginning, to outwit or outdistance the dramatic events by anticipating or overanticipating them in the beginning, even when we lack sufficient knowledge to do so, when, that is, the dramatist consciously thwarts our attempts and compels us to wait upon his delaying of revelation. This, I believe, is inevitable. For the whole notion of a tragedy is predicated on the assumptions that the culminating catastrophe had a beginning and its inception can be traced back to a particular time and place, to a particular set of circumstances; and that, moreover, if one returns to these circumstances, one can unravel the premises and conditions without which the tragedy would and could not have happened as it did, and thus discover eventually the beginning of the end.13

In the theatre, unquestionably, the touchstone of success is the beginning's independent effectiveness, its intrinsic interest, not the sense that it has been contrived only to suggest its end. The dramatist must strike a felicitous balance, that is, between writing a scene that has no prospective meanings and one that has so many that it ceases to be immediately interpretable at all. Ideally he will strive for something that has both instant and premonitory force. But the ‘mix’ will vary from play to play. In some we will be constantly alerted to the end even as we are fascinated by the dynamics of the beginning; in others the end will be only dimly descried and then perhaps only after we retrospectively retrace our steps to look at the beginning more closely in light of what we have subsequently learned; in still others we may be prevented or deliberately misled from perceiving the end. Nevertheless, it is the felt connection between the beginning and the end that, I believe, is the hallmark of tragedy. For we feel continually impelled to read more and more into the beginning, and are often inspired to do so the more the material is familiar to us. Often perhaps we read too much into the beginning, we overload its circuits. This tendency is not peculiar to literary critics, however: it is part of the very texture of shared theatre experience that goes back to the Greeks; part of the fundamental process of understanding tragedy, of recognizing tragedy as tragedy.

Whether the beginnings intensify the desire for foreknowledge, to the point even of overwhelming us with too many possibilities, making us prematurely godlike; whether they anticipate the modality of the end by way of their rhetoric and figures, attuning us to the style rather than the substance of the tragedy; whether they contrive to thwart our desire for foreknowledge by evasion, subterfuge, false clues, or simple protraction; whether they provide us with anticipatory meanings that we can explore as men witnessing the actions and dilemmas of men without assuming godlike powers; whether they fail to achieve any of these levels of intent, the point remains that we feel the need to search for a subtext, for causal significances, for the anticipated end in the beginnings. This is a legitimate, ineluctable, certainly in the case of Shakespeare supremely rewarding obsession with aperture.14 For it is precisely our sense of the connection between beginning and end, however diversely it appears, that can harrow us with fear and wonder (to draw upon the old Renaissance terms) when we witness a tragedy in art, or indeed occasionally in life, if we can trace back the tragedy's sequence to some complex cause, to some beginning's knot intrinsicate. However climatic our sense of the absolute ending in tragedy, our sense of this ending's beginning and therefore of its aetiology, whether clearly or obscurely perceived, is equally overriding. That is, the primary cause remains the teleological, the end cause first formulated by the Stagirite, and the cause underlying one of the most elegant of all the arguments for God's existence, and therefore for the existence of man, who, for Shakespeare at least, was made in God's image.


  1. All references in this essay will be to The Riverside Shakespeare (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1974), textual ed. G. Blakemore Evans.

  2. ‘Done’ is one of those, often quite simple, words which quickly become resonant in the play and soon possess a symbolic life of their own. ‘Done’, ‘undone’, ‘Duncan’, and ‘Dunsinane’ are all part of Macbeth's ‘doing’ and ‘undoing’.

  3. Just as Macbeth eventually becomes Macdonwald, so Macduff eventually becomes the pristine Macbeth. As the armed head of the first apparition, he escapes from the second great slaughter at Fife where he loses the body of his family in order to become Valour's second minion and the conqueror of her first minion. On one side is the helmeted head of the King's champion, on the other the severed head of the traitor. Resolution comes, that is, when the proper head has been joined to the armed body, when the deceptively similar pieces in the bloody jigsaw have been distinguished and assigned correctly.

  4. It is interesting that the finale also constitutes a triptych of battle episodes: the fight with young Siward, the fight with Macduff before he reveals the nature of his birth, and the fight to the death.

  5. The play raises many of the same issues in this respect as Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

  6. Robert F. Willson, Jr, in his Shakespeare's Opening Scenes (Salzburg, 1977), p. 5, argues, to the contrary, that ‘Shakespeare seldom omits something from the opening scenes simply to surprise or outwit his audience. We are consistently kept fully informed about necessary details, generally because Shakespeare strives for maximum ironic effect.’

  7. In The Tempest, of course, the traffic is said to last four hours, the time twixt two glasses past the mid season and six (I.ii.239-240).

  8. Kenneth Muir, in his The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1977), pp. 68-77, has drawn our attention to the medley of tragic and comic materials Shakespeare probably drew upon for his treatment of the Pyramus and Thisby story, including of course his sources for Romeo and Juliet.

  9. See in particular Susan Snyder's fascinating study, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton, 1979), esp. pp. 57-70.

  10. See the interesting analysis by Leonard Barkan in his Nature's Work of Art: The Human Body as Image of the World (New Haven, 1975), pp. 95-109.

  11. Later, of course, he is forced to smell his way to Dover.

  12. One of the most poignant aspects of Faustus’ fall from grace is his failure to question the demons correctly or to understand their answers.

  13. I doubt whether one could ever predicate such an intimate connection, metaphysical in its essence, between beginnings and ends in comedy.

  14. As opposed to closure; see Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York, 1967), ch. 3, esp. pp, 82-9.

A. D. Nuttall (essay date 1991)

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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 it were, to live dangerously on his behalf: to have him tremble for a fraction of a second on the edge of farce. Hamlet begins, not with the Ghost of Hamlet's father, but with the ghost of a joke:

barnardo Who's there?
francisco Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

A change in the shading—or the lighting—could transform this, swift as it is, into a familiar comic routine. The sentry, issuing his sonorous challenge, is answered not by a stranger but by a fellow sentry whom he has come to relieve. If the comic structure were more emphatic, we could say that Barnardo is first made a fool of and then, with marvellous rapidity, the same treatment is extended to Francisco (for he, absurdly, challenges Barnardo). One might infer that, since Barnardo has not yet formally taken over from Francisco, he is not yet on duty and that his first words are therefore not a sentry's challenge but a civilian's (alarmed) enquiry. Even if this is the case, the words fall into the pattern of the sentry's challenge (Francisco in reply immediately points out that Barnardo has, so to speak, stolen his line); the point is rendered finer still by the fact that Barnardo is a sentry, coming to take up his post.

Directors often complain about the way modern audiences laugh at the conclusion of The White Devil. It is possible that they always did. Webster in the address to the reader prefixed to the published version complains that the first audience failed to understand him. The ‘ignorant asses’ at that dismal performance (at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell?) in 1612 may well have angered the author as much by their laughter as by their unresponsiveness. A fine control of the ‘horrid laughter’ appropriate to revenge tragedy may always have been difficult. William Empson thought that the special mystery of Hamlet arose from an initial technical problem of just this kind: that Shakespeare was asked to write a new version of Kyd's (?) old play, to please an audience which, while it was genuinely enthusiastic, was ‘tickle o’th'sere’ (that is, slightly too ready to laugh); Shakespeare's response was to ‘pipe off’ the laughter in episodes of histrionic pastiche, retaining all the while a power to freeze all those smiles by confronting the audience with something it could not begin to understand.

I have described the opening of Hamlet as if the dramatist has deliberately doubled the anxiety of the actor by tripping him up, on his first entrance. There is a sense, however, in which scripted mistakings relieve the pressure on the actor. As soon as the audience intuits that all this is part of the play, is authorially designed, the faint absurdity becomes not his but that of the character he is playing. The first horn-call of Hamlet is flawed, but the composer has decreed that it should be so. It is hard, indeed, to avoid a sense of theatrical self-reference in Francisco's third speech. ‘You come most carefully upon your hour’ (I.i.6), but, as I have argued elsewhere (Nuttall 1988), Shakespeare has already, in the first two words, mobilised both laughter and laughter-killing fear. By the time the play is over we know that the question, ‘Who's there?’, was in a manner prophetic, for standing behind Francisco, in the darkness, is a dead king, a most potent negation, having the power to undo the social fabric of Elsinore, to involve others in his own un-being. Perhaps since we know from Lodge's Wit's Misery (1596) that the old play of Hamlet contained a ghost (Lodge, 1963, vol. IV, p. 62), Shakespeare could count on thoughts turning in that direction at the very first words of the play. Before he uttered the first words of the drama, did Barnardo glimpse something or someone other than Francisco? Yet, in any case, the answers supplied by the ensuing action are non-answers, for the essence of the Ghost is that he has no essence. We therefore never really move from the interrogative mood of Barnardo's first speech to an indicative resolution. His question remains truer than other people's answers.

Thus, even as the actors enter the public arena of the theatre, emerging with creaking of boards and rustling of costumes in broad daylight before a crowd of onlookers, a sense is created that we are somehow able to watch the passing of these same figures from the familiar world into the unintelligible world of death. It is often alleged (though with decreasing confidence) that the Elizabethans had no doubts about life after death. Shakespeare relies in this play on our not knowing what death means; on this radical uncertainty the entire shadow-fabric of the drama is raised. Whereas Lear says, ‘When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools’ (, the stage on which the actors arrive at the beginning of Hamlet is the dark obverse of that to which Lear alludes. The audience itself, in a good production, experiences a disembodying fear. The laughter is stillborn.

It may be that the artistic practice of beginning not at the obvious first term of a series but part-way through is a Greek invention. Aristotle had only scorn for the low poet who thought artistic unity could be attained merely by recounting ‘all the things that happened to Theseus’ (Poetics, 1451a), and Horace was never so Greek-minded as when he coined the approving phrase, in medias res (Ars Poetica, 148). After the Greek example even those poets with the strongest drive toward a Hebraic natural origin (Milton, say) have felt obliged to avail themselves of the peculiar dynamic of the in medias res opening. Spenser defers to it completely in the opening of his thoroughly Elizabethan Faerie Queene. Note that I exclude here those Greek tragedies that begin at a point within a known, inherited myth, since in such cases there may well be no disorientation at all. It may be said that the distinction between Homer and Sophocles is a little elusive, since the Iliad begins at a certain point in the Trojan story and Oedipus Rex at a certain point in the Theban story. But no one in antiquity records any sense of surprise at the customary Greek tragic playing off of plot against myth. Individual plays could have disorienting openings. Aeschylus' Agamemnon begins, notoriously, with an apparently empty stage, but then the watchman, lying dog-wise on the roof, is suddenly noticed (Denniston and Page, 1957, p. xxxi). But this is a special theatrical effect. The surprise does not flow simply from the fact that the play begins at a late point in the Trojan story. The most majestically developed English drama of the Middle Ages, the great cycles of mystery plays, exhibit a powerful impulse to begin from the ‘deep’ beginning of all things. Such a beginning must be from that which has no prior beginning. The York Cycle opens with the soliloquy of God, a soliloquy which is also an announcement of self-hood. The playwright has no thought of plunging in medias res. Instead he finds that he must stress not so much the immortality of God as his ‘birthless-ness’:

I am gracyus and grete, God withoutyn begynnyng,
I am maker unmade, al mighte es in me … 

(Beadle, 1982, p. 49)

We are here as far as one can well be from the artfully interventionist opening of, say, Othello.

The epic in medias res opening remains, so to speak, the central feat of formal art, against the ordinary logic of a ‘natural beginning’. Meanwhile, however, outside the canonical lineage of epic, other less assertive modes of initial disorientation were developed. Chaucer's Book of the Duchess opens not so much in medias res as in medias sententias; the reader, who seems rather to overhear than to hear, is admitted to a stream of rambling reflections on the horrors of insomnia. It is instantly clear that the reader is not being addressed: rather one senses that this monologue may have been going on for some time. In Shakespearian drama it is fairly common for plays to begin in mid-conversation. When figures enter talking, the presumption is that they were talking before they entered.

Ask an ordinary, educated person how King Lear begins and you will probably receive the answer, ‘The play begins with an old king dividing his kingdom.’ In fact it begins, not with the ceremonial entrance of the king, but with a low-key, gossiping exchange between Kent and Gloucester. One needs to be fairly alert to take in the drift of the first words of the play: ‘I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.’ The actor is given very little in the way of a formal send-off by the dramatist—not even the stiffening tempo of verse. It may be said that the first thirty lines or so of King Lear are mere ‘filler’, designed to occupy the time in which an unruly audience is settling down (corresponding, perhaps, to an orchestral tuning-up). But the lines contain important information, concerning both the political world of the play and the question of Edmund's parentage. The Winter's Tale begins, in a somewhat similar fashion, with gossiping courtiers. All this suggests (after all that we have said about unwanted laughter) a surprisingly docile audience, which will fall silent at the first appearance of the actors—even when those actors (in this contrasting strongly with most late medieval drama) appear strangely negligent of their real-life auditors, to be wholly preoccupied by their own concerns. It may be that the audience was brought to order very simply, by a trumpet-call or the striking of a staff upon the stage. In which case the notable thing is Shakespeare's studious exclusion of the event from the inner texture of his frame. As far as I know, the surviving evidence (for example, Dekker's The Gull's Hornbook) points to an association of trumpets with formal prologue openings but tells us nothing about ‘low-key’ openings. (Chambers, 1923, vol. IV, p. 367; vol. II, p. 542).

Such a style of opening is the reverse of rhetorical: though Shakespeare, the master-rhetorician, knows very well that people can be made to listen with a different sort of attentiveness to words which they conceive to be addressed, not to them but to someone else. The queer false privacy of proscenium arch theatre is already well developed, on the projecting stage of Shakespeare's Globe. In like manner, it is surely a mistake to think that the scripted ‘improvisations’ of the figures labelled A and B in the text of Fulgens and Lucrece, or the irruption of Ralph from the audience in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, are a simple continuation of the sort of improvisation achieved by the young Thomas More. William Roper tells how ‘at Christmas-tyde the boy More would sodenly sometimes steppe in among the players, and never studyeng for the matter, make a parte of his owne there presently among them, which made the lookers-on more sporte than all the plaiers beside’ (Roper, 1935, p. 5). The behaviour of this brilliant, loved and applauded little boy contrasts strongly with that of the children in More's own Utopia, written years later: they are required to stand at table, keeping absolutely quiet, waiting to be given food by the adults (More, 1965, p. 142). One may guess, moreover, that the actors, perhaps, did not feel so warmly about little Thomas. Scripted pseudo-improvisation, meanwhile, presupposes a high degree of docility in both actors and audience. But such audiences (as we know today) can still laugh in the wrong places.

It will be evident that Hamlet does not conform exactly to what we have described as the in medias sententias mode. Instead of an overheard continuity we have a pivotal movement (one sentinel replacing another), crisis replacing stasis at the very inception of the drama. Nevertheless, we enter the world of the play after the first two appearances of the Ghost, though before its crucial encounter with the Prince. The further development whereby ordinary disorientation is suddenly extended into absolute mystery (life appropriated by death) might be supposed something essentially tragic. Yet there is a curious equivalent in comedy.

Twelfth Night opens, indeed, with a major chord, struck by the fantastical Duke in melancholic soliloquy, but at I.ii the play has what might be called a secondary opening:

What country, friends, is this?
This is Illyria, lady.
And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother, he is in Elysium.

Barbara Everett has said of this exactly what needs to be said: ‘Illyria is a name and a place that from the first maintains its own mocking half-echo of Elysium, a place of death as well as of immortality’ (1985, p. 295). ‘Illyria’ may draw on other remoter echoes—‘idyll’, ‘delirium’ (both words extant in English in Shakespeare's time, neither used by him), but Elysium is the word he planted in our minds. Viola, as she makes her first entrance on the stage, is half-bewildered by a strange thought: that she ought to be—perhaps is—dead. Barnardo in his opening, nerve-stretching speech, was instantly wrong-footed on a point of personal identity. Viola is similarly wrong-footed but this time even more fleetingly, on a question of context, which in its turn throws into question her own identity as distinct from her brother's. In Hamlet we have a lurking emissary from beyond the grave; Viola wonders conversely why she has not followed her drowned brother, and then, with the echoic word ‘Elysium’, the dramatist plants the further, fainter thought that Viola may herself be a new arrival in a place of (strangely happy) death. In both plays our responses are quickened by a sense of death as an alternative world, eerily coinciding with the palpable unreality of dramatic performance (creaking boards, Illyrians). Yet what I earlier called the fictional ‘lighting’ of the scene is indeed quite different. Hamlet begins in an imagined darkness, Twelfth Night, I.ii, in strange brightness. It is noteworthy that so complex a feat of emotional overlapping can be accomplished with such simple language, yet it is so. ‘Illyria’, while it echoes ‘Elysium’, also figures as its living antithesis, so that the dominant character of the situation for her is its incongruity.

It is easy to ‘hear’ in ‘What should I do in Illyria?’ an echo of Et in Arcadia ego. Erwin Panofsky in his famous essay on the phrase (1955) did not succeed in tracing it back before Guercino's pastoral death's head, which may belong to 1623, the year of the Shakespeare First Folio. Panofsky argued that, by the rules of Latin syntax, the phrase properly means, not ‘I too have lived in Arcadia’, but ‘Even in Arcadia, I (death) am’ (p. 296). Anne Barton (1972, p. 164) cited the Latin phrase, and the two great Poussin paintings in which it occurs, with reference to the momentarily disorienting intrusion of the idea of death towards the end of As You Like It. Yet it is in the early, marvelling sequence in Twelfth Night, in which Viola finds herself new-lighted in Illyria, like the sea-stained Odysseus in Phaeacia, that Shakespeare comes closest to the cadence of the Latin phrase.

It may seem that my argument has doubled back and consumed itself, the transcendent world of the dead now cancelled by a bright land of happy, living persons. But we must not allow the proper ambiguity of the scene to be lost. Elysium, like the Christian Heaven, is itself ambiguous: a place of dead people; a place where people find, to their joy, that they never died. Thus Viola's marvelling at the incongruous brightness of her surroundings does not automatically or unequivocally enforce the ‘corrective’ answer, ‘She never died at all.’ In a student production of Twelfth Night directed by Edward Kemp in Oxford in 1987, Viola entered Illyria at the beginning of I.ii by appearing over a wall and descending a ladder into the world of the play. Although we can be reasonably certain that the original Elizabethan actor did no such thing, the device caught very exactly and economically the ‘liminal’ feeling of the scene. With her first words Viola crosses some magic threshold.

Shakespeare has found a way to turn the nervousness of the actors and the uncertainty of the audience to account. His method is to involve both parties in far larger uncertainties. Performances, qua performances, are real physical events, making clamorously importunate demands upon our senses, yet at the same time the events displayed are not real events. This paradox of absence-in-presence is so familiar as to be normally almost unnoticeable. But Shakespeare reactivates the latent oddity by associating it with other antitheses: life/art, waking/dream, being/unbeing, life/death. These in their turn can release further paradoxes: art may be more vivid than that quotidian existence, the undiscovered country may be lit by a brighter sun than shines on us. That is why, instead of employing some dramatic equivalent of the in medias res opening of classical epic, he finds his way, via various versions of what I have called the in medias sententias opening, to an entry not so much into the midst of (known) things as between things, or between whole orders of things. The ordinary indeterminacy of Elizabethan and Jacobean staging, with its rudimentary scenery and correlatively high demands upon the imagination of the audience, is made the vehicle of an ontological indeterminacy.

With Twelfth Night we allowed the notion of an opening to extend as far as I.ii. With The Tempest we must allow it to extend still further into the play. We begin fortissimo, with a crashing of chords. We are plunged in the centre of the storm which gives the play its name. The over-riding voice is that of the tempest itself, not of the human agents. There is here no difficulty over the securing of audience attention since, according to the Folio stage direction, the first thing we hear is thunder. I suspect that the force of this particular audacious opening has been paradoxically diminished by the rise of electronic wizardry in the twentieth century. In some present-day productions of The Tempest the sound effects are so overwhelming as to turn the actors into twittering, almost inaudible ghosts of themselves; the original coup de théâtre is intolerably coarsened.

The dialogue is as informal, as lacking in overt rhetorical address, as the low-key gossiping openings we have already noticed, but here the human agents, for all their shouting, are further reduced, to mere confused panic. At line 62 comes the cry, ‘We split, we split, we split!’, and the audience knows that the ship is wrecked. Can we say that at the beginning of the play we see the ship wrecked? The question is of some interest because it turns out later (V.i.224) that the ship is perfectly all right (whether because magically reconstituted or because the wreck was some sort of illusion, James, 1967, p. 30). It is virtually certain that the King's Men did not contrive to overturn the stage at this point. The trap was too small to have been of any use. Instead we may suppose that they relied on the auditory sense. In this they could be reasonably secure: in drama of the period the authority of the ear is higher than that of the eye. Irwin Smith writes that when a nocturnal scene was presented at the candle-lit Blackfriars theatre, all the artificial illumination was unchanged, though the character (night-shirted, carrying his own candle), would speak of darkness (1964, pp. 302-3). Audiences were educated to respond to verbal indications of action or situation (which is why the ‘Dover Cliff’ episode in King Lear is so disorienting—Edgar's vertiginous speech compels, as it were, an excess of assent). ‘We split!’ will therefore be believed. Moreover the words may well have been accompanied by some sound as of rending timber. The slightly odd Folio stage direction a couple of lines before, A confused noise within, has usually been taken, since Capell's commentary, to refer to the quick-fire exclamatory speeches which immediately follow, but it is just possible that it points to some non-human sound effect—say, a creaking. At IV.i.138, the masquing spirits heavily vanish To a strange, hollow and confused noise. There the noise is almost certainly inhuman. It must be weird and a little alarming—a piece of Jacobean avant-garde theatre. Further, the moment at which the spirits ‘heavily vanish’ may place some strain on our earlier confidence that the stage itself did not move. After all, we are dealing with a play which post-dates the leasing in 1608 of the second Blackfriars theatre (candle-lit performances, ‘transformation scenes’). What if, both in I.i and IV.i, Shakespeare once more succeeded in exploiting a technical problem—this time the presence of some over-ingenious mechanism—either by deliberately throwing away the oil-can or by ‘covering’ with some louder noise, to induce yet another species of disorientation? In I.i, however, the sailors are all, manifestly, still in place after the confused noise has been heard. It may also be salutary to recall G. F. Reynolds (1940, p. 43) on the scene in The Two Noble Ladies (1619-23) in which two soldiers crossing a river are drowned in full view of the audience; we could easily have inferred from the text some minor miracle of illusionism but we happen to know how it was done: two Tritons entered and dragged the soldiers away.

With the beginning of I.ii we pass into the alternative shock of a strange tranquillity, from the wreck to the unhurried conversation of father and daughter. The contrast of ‘volume’ is so marked as to make us doubt momentarily the reality of what we just ‘witnessed’. This intuition is reinforced as Miranda tells us, in her first speech, that the whole episode may have been an effect of (Prospero's) art. All this, to be sure, operates at the subordinate level only; the dominant impression is that Miranda has witnessed, as we have witnessed, a shipwreck.

Yet a certain ‘ecphrastic colouring’ persists in the speech—a sense, that is, that we are listening to the description of a work of art rather than a reaction to a real disaster. ‘O I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer’ (I.ii.5-6) somehow suggests what we in the twentieth century have learned to call ‘audience-empathy’. The disaster with ‘no harm done’ (I.ii.14) succeeds in anticipating various psychological explanations of the pleasure of theatrical tragedy. The way Miranda gazed at ‘the brave vessel, / (Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her)’ (I.ii.6-7), and the way she gasped at the fate of the ‘poor souls’ (1. 9), seems not wholly unlike the way Leontes' soul is pierced by what he takes to be a statue of Hermione ( Winter's Tale, V.iii.34). We may think also of the speech of the third servant on the painting of Daphne, in The Taming of the Shrew:

Or Daphne roaming through a thorny wood,
Scratching her legs that one shall swear she bleeds,
And at that sight shall sad Apollo weep,
So workmanly the blood and tears are drawn

(Induction, ii, 56-9).

The special oxymoron of ‘weep’ and ‘workmanly’ is absent from Miranda's speech, but ‘by your art’ is only a few lines away.

Meanwhile the sense we found in Twelfth Night of passing through death by water to another world recurs here. The life of the Island is not our life. When in II.i the castaways enter, as Viola entered in I.ii, amazed to find their bodies and their clothes intact, they see the Island differently: one sees lush greenery while another sees a barren landscape (II.i.54-6). Once more, Shakespeare exploits the visual indeterminacy of Jacobean scenery. There is a line in Virgil which is commonly assumed to describe the condition of the dead:

Clausae tenebris et carcere caeco
(Shut up in darkness and a blind prison.)

(Aeneid VI.734)

In fact it is uttered by one of the inhabitants of Elysium (which has a larger sky than ours, VI.640) to describe the inhabitants of our world. When Prospero invites Miranda to cast her mind back to ‘the time before’ (I.ii.39), to the real, living world of Milan, the image is not, as we might have expected, of a far-off, brilliantly illuminated picture, watched from the shadows by exiled spirits. Instead we have the line that haunted Keats:

What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?


The dream-island is brighter than the political reality.

In The Tempest the threshold between sleep and waking is exploited to the same end, becoming indeed a place of transit where we may feel the dream could cross. The wakings in the play all lay stress on the equivocal character of perception at such moments: we may think here of Gonzalo and others at II.i (the arrival in this strangely transposed Elysium), and the sailors in V.i. Miranda compares her dim memory image of the ladies who attended her with a dream (I.ii.45), and Prospero, in the play's most famous speech, finally links the ideas of sleep and death (‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’, IV.i.157-8). The effect is rather of a cycling movement than of a linear imaginative drive to an unequivocal resurrection. Caliban, after all, having woken, cried to dream again. At the end of The Tempest the pastoral pattern, whereby a golden world, having been applauded, is at last eagerly exchanged for a return to court, is followed.

This essay discerns no single ‘law’ or ‘deep structure’ in Shakespearean openings, though it has been concerned with a certain pattern of affinity, by which even plays as generically opposite to one another as Hamlet and Twelfth Night may be linked. Shakespeare who endlessly recycles his imaginative intuitions rarely if ever repeats himself. The drift of this essay has been to find a strange equivalence between the world of the dead and various versions of Fairy Land. One may think of the medieval poem, Sir Orfeo, in which the ancient story of Eurydice undergoes a Celtic transformation, so that she is carried off to the world of the dead by a band of fairies. In Shakespeare, none of it will, so to speak, keep still. If the eye is allowed to wander, it will notice that in A Midsummer Night's Dream my notion of ‘lighting’, whereby an initially tragic conception is altered by a simple increase in illumination, is entirely overthrown, since in the Dream the silvan pastoral is made nocturnal. Shakespeare is not even thrifty enough to confine his openings to the beginnings of his plays. In The Merchant of Venice there is a secondary opening, at the end of the play, into the ‘old money’ lovers' Paradise of Belmont, once again nocturnal but now lifted high in the air, above the sordid traffic of Venice, a little nearer the ever-singing stars. I have pursued my reason not to a conclusion but to a bardolatrous O altitudo! Meanwhile, it all has its funny side:

sir andrew 
Begin fool. It begins ‘Hold thy peace.’
I shall never begin if I hold my peace.
sir andrew
Good, i’faith. Come, begin.

(Twelfth Night II.iii.66-8)


All references to Shakespeare are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Aeschylus (1957) Agamemnon, ed. J. D. Denniston and D. Page, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Aristotle (1972) Poetics, introduction, commentary and appendices by D. W. Lucas (the corrected reprint of the edn. of 1962), Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Barton, Anne (1972) ‘As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending’, in Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer (eds.), Shakespearean Comedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 14, London: Edward Arnold, pp. 160-80.

Beadle, Richard (1981) ed., The York Plays, London: Edward Arnold.

Chambers, E. K. (1923) The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Empson, William (1980) ‘Hamlet’, in his Essays on Shakespeare, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 79-136. This essay is a revised version of ‘Hamlet When New’, Sewanee Review, 61 (1953), pp. 15-42, 182-205.

Everett, Barbara (1985) ‘Or What You Will’, Essays in Criticism, 35, pp. 294-314.

Horace (1901) Q. Horati Flacci Opera, ed. E. C. Wickham, rev. H. W. Garrod, Oxford: Clarendon Press (no page nos.).

James, D. G. (1967) The Dream of Prospero, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lodge, Thomas (1963) The Works of Thomas Lodge, 4 vols. (a re-issue of the Hunterian Club edition, Glasgow, 1883), New York: Russell & Russell.

More, Thomas (1965) Utopia: The Complete Works of St Thomas More, vol. IV, ed. Edward Surtz and J. H. Hexter, New Haven: Yale University Press. This edition, begun in 1963, is still incomplete.

Nuttall, A. D. (1988) ‘Hamlet: Conversations with the Dead’, Annual Shakespeare Lecture to the British Academy, Proceedings of the British Academy, 74, pp. 53-69.

Panofsky, Erwin (1955) ‘Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition’, Meaning and the Visual Arts, New York: Doubleday, pp. 295-320. This is a revised version of ‘Et in Arcadia Ego: On the Conception of Transience in Poussin and Watteau’, Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer, eds. Raymond Klibansky and H. J. Paton, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931, pp. 223-54.

Reynolds, G. F. (1940) The Staging of Elizabethan Plays at the Red Bull Theater, 1605-1625, Modern Language Association of America, General Series, no. 9, London: Oxford University Press.

Roper, William (1935) The Lyfe of Sir Thomas More, knyghte, ed. Elsie Vaughan Hitchcock, Early English Text Society, no. 197, London: Oxford University Press. This work was written about 1556 and first printed in 1626.

Smith, Irwin (1964) Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse: Its History and Design, London: Peter Owen.

Virgil (1969) P. Vergili Maronis Opera, ed. R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1991)

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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 dramatic theories, I am addressing the elemental explanations that we normally use as teachers of and commentators on Lear itself: those theories, in other words, that may be heard in almost any classroom or read in any review. Indeed, if I am correct in my interpretation of what is happening in the play, analysis in terms of formal critical theory is counterproductive, since even modern theories of “indefinition” or lack of closure do not apply to a play that confirms and upsets several forms of expectation at once. As in Shakespeare's other great tragedies, there is always a “yes, but” to anything we can say about Lear, including the fact that there is always a “yes, but.”

No matter which dramatic or philosophical theory we attempt to explain the play by, we will find that we must discard part of the play in order to make the theory fit. In the classic Aristotelian formulation, for example, we expect to see a man like ourselves, a mixture of good and bad, make a tragic mistake, gradually come to anagnorisis (self-knowledge), and die or at least undergo a symbolic maiming and exile in a kind of expiation of his error. Note that I have used the term “tragic mistake” rather than “tragic flaw.” Aristotle himself puts it this way:

[P]ity is aroused by someone who undeservedly falls into misfortune, and fear is evoked by our recognizing that it is someone like ourselves who encounters this misfortune. … This would be a person who is neither perfect in virtue or justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity; but rather, one who succumbs through miscalculation.

(Poetics, xiii, 21-22)

In this sense, as O.B. Hardison points out, katharsis itself may be translated as “clarification” as well as “purgation” (Poetics, vi, 116). In the Renaissance, of course, this meaning was often overlooked, and the tragic hero was seen to have a flaw in the generally accepted sense (Montano, 55-56, 73).1 Whatever the translation of hamartia, however, Aristotelian “pity” is predicated on the hero's anagnorisis; and we all too often give King Lear credit for more enlightenment than is justified by the text, in order to justify the “pity” of the audience.

Does King Lear learn anything? Maybe—but he quickly forgets it again if he does. The moments put forth by Aristotelian critics as Lear's enlightenment are usually his remarks about his subjects during the storm, his concern for Kent's and the Fool's well-being at the doorway to the hovel, and his reconciliation with Cordelia. W.F. Blissett, indeed, refers to Lear's “charitable concern for the Fool as fellow creature” as a “heavenl[y] alchemy,” suggesting a more than natural transformation pleasing to the gods (see Blissett 109 and Andresen 145-68). And Lear's words about his subjects seem to carry this transformation from the private to the public sphere as well:

Poor naked wretches … 
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this!


His words to Cordelia, too, “Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish” (4.7.84), seem to acknowledge his fault and accept forgiveness. But these are, in truth, isolated incidents, and even in their own contexts may not be as unequivocal as we try to make them.

Certainly, Act 3, scene 4 (the scene of the “poor naked wretches”) is the only time Lear evinces any sympathy with the unfortunate. By the time he meets the blinded Gloucester in 4.6, he is more callous than when he began, making horrifying jokes about Gloucester's empty eye-sockets: “I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid; I'll not love” (4.6.135-37). The pity we feel in this scene is for both old men, each blind in his own way—and the pity is fostered by the horror at what Lear is saying. Although it is true that Lear uses the images of blindness as an introduction to his satire on the moral blindness of a badly governed society, the satire neither invites Gloucester to participate in it nor implicates Lear in the bad governance. Furthermore, the references to adultery, whores, and tattered clothes in the satire are perhaps too pointed toward Gloucester's background and present condition to give him comfort. In short, this scene rather undercuts than supports any idea about Lear's new compassion for his subjects; Gloucester, after all, is one of those subjects, and in fact has come to his sorry condition partly because of the division of loyalties forced by Lear's only nominal abdication. Whatever self-knowledge Lear seemed to have before, it is gone now.

As for Lear's reconciliation with Cordelia, we must remember that each time he has left one daughter, he has tried to see more good in the next; he glosses over Regan's flaws after he has cursed Goneril, and he may very well be following a pattern of increasing attempts to see good in any one of his daughters who will protect him from the others. What we may be seeing, in other words, is more wish-fulfillment than real recognition. But at any rate, his impulse toward reconciliation does not survive this scene. At his death, there is no recognition of anything—not the fact of Cordelia's death, not his own faults, not even poor Kent, who has undergone so many hardships for his old master. Twice people try to tell Lear that his faithful servant Caius is his equally faithful servant Kent; and twice Lear ignores them. He does not ask Kent's forgiveness as he asked Cordelia's; he does not thank Kent for his help; he simply does not register Kent's existence at all.

In response to critics of the pessimist school, who see in this dual and final lack of recognition the futility of a blind universe2 Maynard Mack points out that self-delusion in the face of loss is one of nature's palliatives to pain:

Lear's joy in thinking that his daughter lives (if this is what his words imply) is illusory, but it is one we need not begrudge him on his deathbed, as we do not begrudge it to a dying man in hospital whose family has just been wiped out. Nor need we draw elaborate inferences from its illusoriness about the imbecility of our world; in a similar instance among our acquaintances, we would regard the illusion as a godsend.

(Mack, 69)

But no matter how many excuses we may make for Lear in his final grief and madness, the fact remains that there is no classic “recognition” here in any sense of the word. The Aristotelian formula simply does not hold up.

Purists may object that Renaissance authors did not follow the classic formula, that in fact Othello (say) and Macbeth do not know themselves any more than Lear does at the end. To a certain extent, this is true. But in the Renaissance formula, the death of the tragic hero takes on a retributive note, with other characters describing the faults of the hero in explanation of why he must die. And in the concluding lines, order is carefully restored to the society that has been torn asunder by the mistake or flaw of the protagonist. Does this happen in Lear? Again, not really. The surrounding characters make no mention of Lear's original errors, and although Albany claims that “All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deserving” (5.3.303-05), the surviving good people on whom the restoration of order must devolve seem curiously unwilling to take on the responsibility. Kent declines, hinting that he soon must die in order to follow his master; and Edgar gives a short speech odd in more ways than one:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


Looked at objectively, this is an equivocating speech, neither accepting nor rejecting the call to duty; following as it does on Kent's refusal, it implies a second unwilling ruler; and the fact that it is given to Edgar rather than to Albany in most editions, flies in the face of the Renaissance convention of having the highest ranking person give the final words. Furthermore, what Albany has just proposed (“Friends of my soul, you twain / Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain” [5.3.320-21]) is exactly the kind of divided rule that caused all the trouble in the first place. The only real restoration has been that all the worst villains are dead; the hope for the future, in terms of Renaissance dramatic convention, is rather undercut than stated—although the hope is there.

Some critics who seek closure in Renaissance dramatic terms try to brush away this uncertain ending, either by ignoring the second split of the country or by giving the last speech to Albany and insisting that it says more than it really does. Others try to minimize the nature of Lear's original mistake so that reconciliation is not required here, having been accomplished earlier. Rocco Montano, for example, sees Lear as “a generous, impulsive person” whose breaking up of the kingdom would not have been perceived as all that bad, and whose misfortunes come entirely from the evil of his daughters rather than his own faults (ch. 11). What such a view does (and perhaps Montano's is more extreme than others in the group but is certainly representative) is to move the retribution and recognition back into previous scenes, so that the villains' deaths and the reconciliation of Gloucester and Edgar carry out the expected closure. Lear's death, then, becomes a sort of epilogue to the real ending.

But this will not do. If closure has been achieved before Lear's death, in dramatic terms we should not be required to cry at an epilogue. Furthermore, Lear's relative guiltlessness can be defended only if we look solely at his folkloric casting off of Cordelia. But there is more to Lear's fault than harsh treatment of a daughter. Renaissance audiences, contra Montano, would probably have been just as horrified to see Lear dividing the map of Britain and breaking his crown in half at the beginning of this play as they were during similar scenes in other plays—for example, Hotspur dividing up the kingdom in 1 Henry IV or the tug of war over the crown in Richard II. And it cannot be denied that this division of the kingdom causes many of Gloucester's problems as well as Lear's. The blinding of Gloucester, we must remember, stems from the dilemma of conflicting loyalties that he is thrown into by the divided rule of his land. So the Renaissance formula will not work either.

Shall we try, next, to fit the ending into a Christian formula?—the redemptive death that atones for everyone's sins and brings on the providential restoration of order? We have already seen that order has not been restored with the usual closure; but more to the point, what does Lear's death add to what has already happened? Long before Lear dies, the villains have destroyed themselves; and Edmund has undergone a deathbed repentance that would be more dramatically effective if his dying words had managed to save Cordelia after all. Furthermore, in order to maintain the pattern of the innocent who dies for everyone else's sins, Cordelia rather than Lear must be the victim—and sad to say, neither we nor the on-stage audience focus on Cordelia's dead body in the last scene, but rather on what effect that dead body has on Lear. Her death certainly does not redeem him; as we have seen, he breaks down into denial and despair over it rather than coming to recognition and repentance through it. So the Christian formula does not entirely work either.

But now, I have seemingly dismantled every attempt that critics have made to bring some closure to an excruciatingly painful scene. The assumption must be that I agree with those moderns who see the world of Lear as a futile and meaningless one, whose every good impulse is destined for disaster, and whose every note of hope is undercut by futility. Unfortunately, pessimistic critics must leave out just as many parts of the play as must the optimistic ones.

Despite my quibbles over the restoration of order at the end of the play, the fact remains that the villains are dead; that Edmund has repented; that at least Albany will be left to rule, with Edgar as his good counselor. And as Rolf Soellner points out, “Edgar's general capacity for feeling and his strength to translate it into sympathetic action make him the most conspicuous learner and teacher” (Soellner 298. See also Calderwood 12).3 But there is more to look at hopefully than the physical defeat of evil and the physical survival of a few good men. Something very important has been happening to people on stage throughout the play, something that is supposed to happen as well to the off-stage audience at the end of it.

Critics often note the action of the nameless servant who leaps to Gloucester's defense during the blinding scene; Kenneth Muir, indeed, sees this action as “the turning point of the play. The killing of Cornwall brings into the open the sex-rivalry of Goneril and Regan and so leads to their destruction and that of their lover” (120). But there is more import to the servant's action than the turning of the plot, and he is not the only servant who takes action. Notably, directors who want to emphasize the supposed absurdity of Lear's universe almost uniformly omit one short but significant scene: the aftermath of Gloucester's blinding, when the two remaining servants “fetch some flax and whites of eggs / To apply to his bleeding face” (3.7.106-07). Without this scene, despite the first servant's act of heroism, we bridge directly from the act of cruelty into Edgar's plunge from what he thinks the worst into still worse—the sight of his blinded father: “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” (4.1.27-28). Gloucester's despair, then, seems natural; aside from the rash act of a servant who may be an anomaly in this dark world, the world contains nothing but oppressors and victims. And if Cornwall is dying (a fact that the audience does not know yet), the man who has wounded him is dead as well, and has not kept him from gouging out Gloucester's other eye.

True, the two servants who assist the blinded Gloucester are absent from the First Folio as well as from pessimistic productions of the play. However, the scene is generally accepted by most modern editors as one of the genuine Shakespearean passages in the two Quarto editions and is accordingly included in the text of the play (albeit in square brackets) rather than in appendices of variants or corruptions. At any rate, choosing a version of a scene can be as much of an ideological decision as making a deliberate omission, addition, or transposition; and modern directors can hardly be termed slavish followers of the text, whether Folio or Quarto. The point is that in order to maintain a predominantly pessimistic atmosphere in King Lear, the scene with the two servants must be omitted.

Unless such an omission is deliberately chosen, then, there are those other two servants between the blinding and the meeting with Edgar, the servants who, if they cannot save Gloucester, will at least try to help him in his pain. Like the First Servant, they have probably gone along with miscellaneous cruelties for years—perhaps out of fear for their lives, perhaps out of fear for their jobs, or perhaps, like too many of us, out of the thoughtlessness about such things that being around them all the time leads to. And yet they act at this point, at no profit and some danger to themselves, to help a wounded man. Where such impulses exist, the world cannot be utterly lost. What those impulses are, I will address in a moment.

It is probably fruitless, and counterproductive as well, to try to impose dramatic closure on the scene of Lear's death, even if the closure we impose is a statement about absurdity. Not only do all the attempts belie the text, but they also belie the very unclosed pain that we feel in the theater. (Remember, people cry.) Nor, for that matter, should we categorically deny the play any closure at all, a denial which is an absolute itself and therefore a form of closure. We do have conventional forms of closure provided for us, but they are provided for other parts of the play. Gloucester is the Aristotelian hero who errs, undergoes suffering for his error, comes to anagnorisis, and dies reconciled (also see Perret 89-102). Edgar is the Christian hero who is taught and strengthened by suffering, and who then both saves and is saved by his father, whose redemptive death he narrates almost like a homily. Renaissance retribution overtakes Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, and Edmund, whose very evil is shown to be self-defeating—with the added Christian hope that even the most evil (Edmund) may repent at the end. And the example of Cordelia shows that it is possible to remain good, even when provoked by evil. But the old King wanders through the play in contrast to all these proper workings-out of dramatic convention, and when he dies, we are left, dramatically speaking, with nothing. Will nothing come of nothing? Or is something left after all, something so conventional indeed that we have forgotten the convention?

To answer this question, let us go back to the blinding of Gloucester, and specifically to the two servants who lead Gloucester offstage and try to ease his pain. Significantly, these are not Gloucester's servants but Cornwall's, as we learn from the First Servant's cry to Cornwall:

Hold your hand, my lord!
I have served you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.


They are not defending their master in helping Gloucester, nor are they seeing Cornwall's character for the first time; in fact, as Cornwall's servants, they may indeed view Gloucester's actions as treasonable. It should be noted, too, that they are taking risks in helping Gloucester—the same risks that Gloucester took in helping Lear. They are, in fact, as heroic as their partner who tried to stop Cornwall, if perhaps with a different kind of heroism. What, then, prompts such moral outrage in them that they risk their lives for a virtual stranger? I should like to suggest that their initial emotion is something nobler than pity; it is compassion—the sorrow we feel even for someone who does not deserve it, simply because he is in pain. Pity may lead us to shake our heads sadly; it may cause us to moralize on the cruelty of the world or the retribution that people bring down upon themselves; but compassion makes us want to do something, whether the person for whom we are doing it deserves it or not.

And there is a suggestion later in the play that even these servants are not anomalous in this supposedly cruel universe; in 4.5, Regan's reason for wanting to find Gloucester and have him killed is not simply gratuitous malice; it is a recognition that people are indeed capable of compassion:

It was great ignorance, Gloucester's eyes being out,
To let him live. Where he arrives he moves
All hearts against us.


Will all these hearts that are moved have any bearing on the outcome of the last battle between the forces of good and evil in the play? Maybe; maybe not. We do not know whether any of them join Cordelia's forces, and at any rate Cordelia's forces are defeated. But what we do know is that they are having the same reaction to Gloucester's suffering that the servants of Act 3 have had; and they were moved to heroism of one kind or another.

This, then, is why we must leave Lear's death alone, as his friends do on stage, and as we do off stage in the theater. To explain it away by dramatic convention is to falsify it and to deny ourselves the new kind of catharsis that it provides. Whether we see the disappointments and futilities at the end of the play as the sign of an absurd universe that annihilates all our efforts, a call to action in despite of a cruel universe because only the virtues work to ameliorate that universe in any way (Colie, “Energies” 119, Muir, 139), a stoic hardening of ourselves to give up even the “joys of resignation” in order to find perfect resignation to pain,4 or a Christian reaffirmation of the survival of the good—whatever we choose to find is essentially a circular argument: the thing we were prepared to find in the first place. As Derek Peat points out, “the decision we make about [the final scene] finally determines the ‘direction of the whole movement’ of the play,” and few of those decisions actually inform our behavior in the theater. Audiences do not behave with optimism, pessimism, resignation, or even “relative detachment” (45-46). As we have had occasion to note before, audiences cry. No explanations we may bring to bear on the play change that observable fact.

And yet, we cannot blame ourselves for wanting an explanation; the sight of suffering makes us, like the on-stage audience, want to do something about someone's pain. We cannot and perhaps would not draw a sword and jump to Lear's defense, as the First Servant does for Gloucester; we cannot and perhaps would not even risk our lives to bring him medicine, as the other two servants do for Gloucester; we do not need, I hope, to have our hearts hardened against evil as those citizens do who watch the passage of the blinded Gloucester. But perhaps we need to be shaken out of our dramatic expectations at the end; to weep for a poor, bare, forked creature who has not earned our tears; to weep without explaining our tears. If we can do that, we do have closure. We have learned a new kind of heroism so old that we have perhaps forgotten it: love not just for friends, but for enemies, and for the battered stranger at the side of the road: the heroism of compassion.


  1. Rocco Montano claims that Renaissance playwrights had only a limited sense of Aristotle, as filtered in a secondary descent from Euripides through Seneca, and that Elizabethan theater “developed on bases of its own … very distant from the Aristotelian system.” I think it closer to the observable truth to say that the Aristotelian system was incorporated into those other systems than to assume it was tacked on or misappropriated.

  2. William R. Elton is part of this school, and cites Stoll, Orwell, Leech, G.B. Harrison, Holloway, Kott, and others as being in agreement with him….

  3. James Calderwood thinks slightly less of Edgar: “Edgar will not create a new order or discover the previously unapprehended relations of things, but he will keep the world intact for one more day.” Despite his low opinion of Edgar's lack of aesthetic perception and heroism, the fact remains that when the world is falling apart, we need people to hold it together, even if only “for one more day.”

  4. An idea advanced by Blissett in what I am tempted to call the euthanasia school of criticism. As Blissett describes Lear's “captivity” speech to Cordelia, “Lear has one last, hidden attachment to life: it is detachment, contentment of mind. He has not resigned the joys of resignation”—and so has to go through the horror of the death scene to accept lack of resignation as the ultimate resignation.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Andresen, Martha. “‘Ripeness Is All’: Sententiae and Commonplaces in King Lear.” Colie and Flahiff 145-68.

Blissett, W.F. “Recognition in King Lear.” Colie and Flahiff 101-116.

Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 5-19.

Colie, Rosalie L., and F.T. Flahiff, ed. Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974.

Colie, Rosalie L. “The Energies of Endurance: Biblical Echo in King Lear.” Colie and Flahiff 117-44.

Mack, Maynard. The World of King Lear. Excerpted in Adelman 56-69.

Montano, Rocco. Shakespeare's Concept of Tragedy: The Bard as Anti-Elizabethan. Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1985.

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.

Peat, Derek. “‘And That's True Too’” ‘King Lear’ and the Tension of Uncertainty.” Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 43-53.

Perret, Marion D. “Lear's Good Old Man.” Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 89-102.

Soellner, Rolf. Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1972.

Jean E. Howard (essay date 1986)

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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 features had been so well defined by prior critics such as Frye, Barber, and Kott, whereas he did not feel that so clear a map had ever been provided for Shakespeare's handling of the tragic genre.2

Most readers of the present essay, I am sure, are familiar with the specific theories of Frye and Barber. What I propose to do here is neither to rehash nor to refute those theories but, rather, to reflect on some of the implications of their large-scale adoption as a frame through which to see individual plays. In particular, I want to consider how reliance on certain premises of Frye and Barber can lead us to minimize some aspects of the comedies, most notably the degree of unresolved turbulence and contradiction present in these plays and present in the audience's aesthetic experience of them.

Of course, the work of Barber and Frye differs in many ways, and to group these critics together can be misleading; nevertheless, it does seem to me that they both share an inherently conservative and relatively unproblematic view of the comedies. For both, these plays are primarily vehicles for testing and confirming social order and sexual difference by a purely temporary confounding of both.3 Turbulence, misrule, and Saturnalian confusion erupt within the plays only to give way before the reimposition of order and traditional values. Barber quite explicitly suggests that the social stability of Shakespeare's Elizabethan rural background—a stability profound enough to tolerate temporary disruptions in the form of holiday inversions of order—was the origin of the balanced aesthetic vision he sees in the festive plays, an equilibrium disturbed only in the problem comedies of the early Jacobean period.4 Frye, by contrast, emphasizes the mythic and universal dimensions of the comedies, not their relationship to a specific culture, and he tends to homogenize the entire comic canon, finding more similarities than differences among the early comedies, the problem comedies, and the romances, while privileging the romances as Shakespeare's highest achievement in the genre.5 Both Barber, however, in studying the festive comedies, and Frye, in considering Shakespeare's entire comic oeuvre, treat the plays as a mechanism for containing the eruption of the chaotic and the disorderly within a social and aesthetic system. Not only do characters move from confusion to clarification, but so does the audience, as challenges to traditional modes of thought and belief are played out and defused before its very eyes.

What I would like to question is the adequacy of this serene view of Shakespearian comedy, even of the so-called festive plays. Without wishing to suggest that all comedies are uniformly problematic, I do think that criticism of the comedies has not sufficiently acknowledged their problematic dimensions, that is, the presence within them of conflicting generic codes and cultural norms that resist easy harmonization. Some of the most interesting recent work on the comedies has shown, for example, that these plays are not solely concerned with the mythic realm of man's timeless and collective existence, as Frye has suggested; nor, as Barber has argued, are they related to the larger culture simply as dramatic transformations of the rituals of Elizabethan holiday; rather, they are inextricably bound up with the contradictions and discontinuities of the Elizabethan cultural matrix, sometimes mediating or harmonizing conflicts and sometimes merely reflecting them.6 Consequently, rather than problem-solving mechanisms that express turbulence only to tame it, even the festive comedies frequently function as problem-posing structures that produce aesthetic experiences marked as much by rupture and discontinuity as by the serene harmonization of contradictory elements. It is with the problematic dimensions of the viewer's experience of the comedies that I wish chiefly to deal in this paper, in part by making use of the work of Wolfgang Iser on the way texts are assimilated by readers. It is my contention that the wrong kind of reliance upon generic approaches to Shakespearian comedy, such as those developed by Frye and Barber, can result in our projecting upon these plays an image of harmony that masks their discontinuites and the instability of the viewer's imaginative closure of them. To support this contention I wish in particular to look at the endings of several comedies and evaluate the difficulties they present a viewer attempting to assimilate all of the final elements of a particular work into a satisfying gestalt.

Before turning to specific plays, let me say a word about Iser, whose theories concerning the assimilation of texts by readers seem to me of interest to Shakespearians, even though Iser writes primarily about novels and not about drama. For Iser, all aesthetic objects have only a virtual existence and are the products of the controlled interaction between text and reader.7 He argues, correctly I believe, that rich texts, as opposed to those that are trivial or propagandistic, require readers to complete the aesthetic object by themselves supplying what is unsaid within the work itself. In constructing meaning, the reader is guided by the strategies of the text in his attempts to create a consistent and coherent image from the welter of literary norms and cultural perspectives present in the work. All rich texts involve the reader in the process of producing a sequence of new images or gestalts as the reading of each new textual segment reveals information that alters the significance of what has come before. The reader is driven along in the reading process by the desire to “close the gestalt,” to bring all the pieces of the text into a satisfying configuration in his mind. If closing the gestalt is too easy, that is, if the text is too explicit in laying down instructions for the production of meaning, the reader feels cheated, uninvolved, or bored. If, on the other hand, the text strongly resists closure, the result may also be boredom or frustration or, ironically, the production of rigid interpretations that block out the intrusion of new and disturbing information. Iser most often cites modernist texts, such as those by Joyce and Beckett, as works which resist closure, but he acknowledges that such texts can exist in any era; and he does not assume that “good” literary works necessarily produce in the reader a state of equilibrium and harmony. For him the only literature that is deficient is that which leaves the reader with little to do and which leaves open no possibilities for change in the reader. Such change, Iser argues, occurs when the reader confronts the literary and cultural norms of his own or another culture “depragmatized” by their inclusion in a literary work, that is, removed from the everyday context in which their validity is assumed, so that they can be held up for interrogation. The result may be a change in the reader's attitude toward or relationship to these norms.8

While I doubt that there are many Shakespearian dramas that are unsatisfactory in the sense that they are too easy to assimilate, I do believe that a good number of the comedies are more difficult to reduce to a satisfying coherency than has generally been acknowledged. By way of example, consider The Taming of the Shrew, a very early play, but one that reveals in a relatively simple fashion how difficult it is to establish a single interpretative perspective from which to master the turbulence of the text. Initially The Taming of the Shrew sets for the audience the task of examining, by way of ongoing juxtaposition, two women who seem to sum up two competing cultural conceptions of the female. The fair Bianca is described by all as everyman's dream of Petrarchan perfection; the shrewish Kate as everyman's image of the female harpy. The genius of the play is to make the audience progressively more aware of the insufficiencies of these conceptions of the female to accommodate the reality of either woman (Kate finding it in her heart, for example, to protest the wanton abuse of servants, and Bianca finding in her gentle heart the capacity to deceive her father and flout her husband's wishes); gradually, the audience reverses its initial assumptions about the relative value of the two women. One need only experience, in sequence, the initial wooing of Kate in act 2, scene 1 and the wooing of Bianca in act 3, scene 1 to realize that Kate, even in her untransformed shrewish condition, summons up the wit and energy of the male, while Bianca evokes supine obeisance and contrived love rhetoric. In short, the shrews of the world may be worth the winning and the “good” girls may not. To use Iser's terms, contemporary cultural conceptions of the female have been brought into the literary work in order to depragmatize them and open them to the audience's reexamination.

But, of course, the destabilization of the audience's easy assumptions about shrews and princesses, and about Kate and Bianca as examples of these types, is only one of the play's strategies. If the shrew in this work clearly becomes the more vital and interesting character, nonetheless, the middle portion of the play prevents the audience from a reverse romanticization of the shrew, as it is forced to assimilate, through Petruchio's instructive assumption of the traits of the shrew, the pernicious consequences of the unbridled exercise of selfish willfulness. Though the farcical tone of Petruchio's actions in his country estate mitigates our sense of their brutality, certainly they are meant to show Kate—and to show us—how unsatisfactory is a relationship based on the perpetual assertion of personal will and the reflexive defiance of others. As Petruchio exclaims in frustration: “Evermore cross’d and cross’d, nothing but cross’d!” (4.5.10).9 Nothing can come of a relationship based solely on personal willfulness. The task for the audience is to imagine, and for Kate and Petruchio to embody, a more perfect male/female relationship than that based either on shrewish combat or the artificial and deceptive posturings of Petrarchan courtship. The last actions of the play tentatively help the audience construct such an image as we see Kate and Petruchio playfully exercising their wits together upon the hapless Vincentio, negotiating together in the streets of Padua for the mutual fulfillment of their desires (he gets the kiss he seeks; she the chance to follow the Vincentio party to her father's house and to her wedding feast); and teaming up together to win a match against the world in the play's closing moments. Watching these actions, we begin to sense that two strong-willed people can play with and not against one another in the fulfillment of separate, but mutually accommodated, desires.

As everyone knows, however, the last events of act 5, particularly Kate's final speech, raise disturbing questions about the exact nature and the exact value of this new image of mutuality. It is as if this last speech deliberately foregrounds contradictions that are inherent in the play from the beginning but that are repeatedly displaced from the center of the audience's attention: for example, the inherent contradiction between comedy's typical emphasis on conformity and this play's emphasis on individuality, and the potential conflict between personal sincerity in the presentation of self and this play's emphasis on the social mastery to be gained through successful role playing and disguise. These contradictions come to the fore as one realizes that there are, and traditionally have been, two quite contradictory ways to interpret and deliver Kate's last speech. Each implies a different way of synthesizing all the divergent perspectives of the play into a final gestalt. To use Richard Lanham's suggestive terminology, in part what is at issue is whether the speech is a reflection of a serious or a rhetorical being—that is, whether it is a straightforward expression of belief by a stable, unitary self speaking with sincerity—or whether it is a playful manifesto delivered by a woman whose true self is unknowable or a fiction, being no more than the sum of those roles assumed in different circumstances.10 By examining in some detail the function of the speech in the audience's imaginative closure of the drama, we can see how Shakespeare makes difficult an all-inclusive harmonization of the play's diverse materials.

Certainly the speech can be delivered “straight,” as Kate's unironic summation of what she has come to believe about men and women. Frye and Barber have argued, for example, that in comedy the highest wisdom is found in the eschewal of idiosyncracies and the embrace, on a heightened level of awareness, of communal norms. By such reasoning, when Kate's antisocial humor has been exorcised, her unironic acceptance of a socially approved, hierarchically subservient relationship to Petruchio simply signals her increased maturity and her ultimate difference from Bianca, who never really accepted such a role but only appeared to do so.11 Such a reading, however, is unsatisfying in so far as it forces us to ignore or suppress aspects of the play that previously received great weight. In short, we close the gestalt by surpressing what will not fit. For example, a sincere and straightforward delivery of the speech makes of the vital and energetic Kate a simple reciter of truisms. Embedded in the speech is a dense tissue of Renaissance commonplaces about proper hierarchy in family and state and about the mutual duties, within that hierarchical relationship, of husband and wife. In a play that so richly debunks conventional perspectives on experience, this speech propounds conventional wisdom, cultural clichés.12 Delivered straight, it suggests that even the least conventional of couples—and Kate and Petruchio have surely seemed that—finally finds fulfillment by embracing the common wisdom of socially inscribed roles: he the benevolent prince/husband and she the adoring subject/wife. Further, the speech thus delivered suddenly short-circuits the audience's meaning-making activities. We are handed a “message,” rather than being invited, as elsewhere in the play, to create meaning from partially rendered perspectives. Perhaps most significant, such a delivery ignores the enormous emphasis the work has heretofore placed on self-conscious role playing as an aspect of maturity and an expression of self-mastery.13 From this perspective, it is only if Kate is now the playful mistress of her public role and of the power that successful manipulation of it brings that her growth is complete and she becomes the normative figure her centrality implies she is intended to be.

The alternative reading of the speech, of course, stresses just its ironic or playful potential. It can be delivered to the stage audience in a tone of triumphant comic vengeance. If a playful and exultant Kate speaks the lines to onstage beholders who are miffed and amazed by turns, we infer that she who was once the self-destructive prisoner of the role of shrew has learned how to discomfort old enemies by the ostentatious manipulation of a new role, that of obedient and subservient wife. She has become playful and self-conscious about roles as Petruchio has been playful throughout the drama. Such a reading draws together different strands of the drama than does the “straight” reading, but it, too, must ignore or beg certain issues to achieve coherence. First, such a delivery leaves Kate's “real views” opaque. We simply cannot know how great or how small is the distance she places between her private views and those she publicly espouses. Second, a playful reading of the speech blurs the distinction between Kate and Bianca that the play has heretofore so carefully maintained. Bianca is, after all, the play's great mistress of self-serving disguise whose sincerity is ever in question. Such considerations argue for a Kate sincere, at least, in her love for Petruchio and her willingness to undertake the accommodations that would make a marriage work. But if sincere in these regards, why not in all?

While I myself feel that what I have called the “playful” reading of the speech is more interesting and more ideologically acceptable to me than the “straight” reading of it, I nonetheless am forced to admit that neither reading allows me to synthesize in perfect harmony all elements of the aesthetic experience; and I am less concerned to argue that one view is more correct than the other than to highlight the way the speech functions to complicate the play's entire exploration of the relationship of men to women, individuals to social roles, and of role playing to sincerity. The interpretive crux is deceptively simple to state: at the play's end the audience must come to terms with a perplexing foray into commonplaces and preachiness by a heroine previously noted for neither in a play that heretofore has undermined the sufficiency of simplifying schemata. The difficulty arises as we attempt to assimilate these anomalies, which requires a conscious interpretive act, an attempt to make the speech consistent with what we expect from comedy and with what this play has previously revealed to us about Kate and Petruchio, about conventional perspectives on reality, about the benefits of role playing, and about the dangers of seeming. That neither directors nor critics have ever been able to agree about whether the play is best closed by an ironic or a straight rendition of the speech is only surprising if one subscribes to the view that Shakespearian comedy is primarily a vehicle for problem solving and that the ending of such a comedy should leave the audience serenely in possession of simple truth. Choose we must, but the very act of choice with which Kate's speech confronts us is one that makes us self-conscious about the contradictions that are embedded in the play: for example, the inherent tension between comic expectations concerning conformity to socially prescribed roles and this play's emphasis upon the human impulse to play with roles and to assert individuality through their subversion or self-interested manipulation. It is, I think, difficult to link Kate's last words to the rest of the play in a way that lets the Kate-Pertruchio relationship take shape in our minds as a happy harmonization of all competing perspectives and desires. As we wrestle with the speech, trying to tame its potential to disrupt our desire for a perfectly harmonious conclusion, we are led—not away from the problematic—but into it.

Now what I wish to argue is that the local difficulty we experience in assimilating Kate's final speech, which challenges our consistency-making strategies and makes us self-conscious about the difficulty of creating a final synthetic gestalt from materials that are partially opaque and potentially contradictory, is writ large in many of the comedies and not just in this early play and not just in the problem comedies. Often the very conventions so well mapped by Frye and Barber that invite us to approach the comedies with a strong set of interpretive expectations are the very features undermined or challenged within the plays themselves, resulting in a troubling and open-ended theatrical experience for the audience. By way of demonstration, I wish to compare the meaning-making tasks facing the audiences of The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, the former grouped by Barber among the festive plays and the latter a text generally agreed to be problematic both in terms of its handling of certain psychological and thematic issues and in terms of the aesthetic experience it evokes. My point will be to underline for both works those elements of discontinuity or rupture in the audience's assimilation of the theatrical event that make it hard for us to interpret it solely in terms of a single generic code and that make the experience of both works something infinitely more troubling than a serene march toward clarification.

Measure for Measure is a problem for readers and audiences in large part because it repeatedly evokes comic expectations only to make us aware of a gap between those expectations and features of the play (structure, characterization, and even style) that refuse to fit within the comic frame. Invited to assimilate the play's action in terms of a dominant generic code and yet unable to do so without strain, critics have handled the resulting tension in various ways. Some have denied that the play is problematic and have argued that it is a straightforward comedy if properly viewed; others have complained that it is a botched comedy; others, finding their attempts to read the play by comic codes meeting strong resistance, have argued that the play best fits into yet another generic category, such as tragicomedy.14 Who is “right” seems to me a less important question than asking why this text evokes such divergent responses and what relevance our critical struggles with the play may have for the study of Shakespearian comedy in general.

I feel that Measure for Measure deliberately toys with our expectations about comedy in order, in part, to make us aware of our desire for an interpretive framework with which we can in some fashion master the intractable aspects of the text. In this regard, Measure for Measure puts the audience in an analogous position to those great seekers of ordering systems within the text: the Duke, Isabella, and Angelo, each of whom wants life to be tidier and more tractable to human design than it proves. In the end what the audience may be forced to recognize is that truth and rigid formulas seldom keep company and that vital art refuses to yield the truth of its turbulence to a reified schema.15Measure for Measure thus constitutes a perfect opportunity for considering whether our rage for a totalized textual meaning and a harmonious aesthetic experience does violence both to the Shakespearian artifact and to the theory of art implied by it.

The assimilation of Measure for Measure by the audience is from the start conditioned by comic expectations. As Michael Goldman has argued, Measure for Measure at first looks very much like a comedy.16 A city is diseased; lawlessness and unrestrained sexual appetite run rampant; and the legalistic surrogate ruler installed to quell disorder is himself suspected by the real Duke to be a seemer. What we expect is that, vice having run its course and the surrogate ruler having been exposed as a hypocrite, the benevolent father figure, Vincentio, will step in to redeem Vienna from disorder. And in a certain broad sense, that is what happens. The last scene of the play returns Vincentio to power, unmasks the hypocrite Angelo, redeems the city from lawlessness by calling the guilty to account, while tempering legal excess by mercy and redeeming sexuality from lust through marriage. However, time and again critics have found the last scene false and unsatisfying. As I hope briefly to show, this response results from the fact that here, as elsewhere in the play, a gap opens between our comic expectations and the textual details that should confirm those expectations, leaving us unable to trust the sufficiency of the comic gestalt we have been invited to construct.

To take but a few examples from early in the play, consider the characterizations of Angelo and Isabella—characterizations that have struck many readers as somewhat discontinuous. On the one hand, Angelo appears at first simply to be the antisocial idiotes figure: legalistic, puritanical, and self-righteous. But his is not the comic folly of a Malvolio but, rather, a monstrous vice that leads him to the threshold of rape and to the supposed execution of Claudio for sleeping with a woman out of wedlock, though this is exactly what Angelo intends to do with Isabella. In the middle sections of the play, under the pressure of Angelo's tyrannous lust, both Claudio and Isabella face decisions and must cope with emotions of genuinely tragic scope. But just as their situations are at their most intense, in comes the disguised Duke, deus ex machina fashion, and begins his abortive series of attempts to fix what is disordered, in the process halting the psychological dynamics unfolding within and among Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio. Quite justly one might ask: What am I watching? Is this a comedy, a tragedy, or neither? Are Isabella and Angelo primarily to be regarded as full-fledged psychological portraits of repressive personalities or simply as two-dimensional counters in the Duke's chess game? It is as if the comic situation had grown beyond predictable proportions and then had been abruptly and self-consciously returned to a comic course by means of the Duke's intervention, an intervention stylistically signaled by a sudden descent into prose and even into doggerel. But the very abruptness of the transition, the emergence of the Duke as comic dramatist, and the subsequent marginalization of the psychic traumas we have been watching unfold merely serve, in Iser's terms, to depragmatize the very norms of comedy and make them conscious objects of examination. Are they, for example, sufficiently inclusive to handle the psychological turbulence that we have glimpsed in the fictive world of Vienna? What truths of experience can they not capture? When are they formula and not vision?

A further feature of the play that stands in the way of an unself-conscious imaginative realization of it according to comic codes is its insistent polarizations. Richard Fly has called it a play of failed mediation in which no figure emerges to bridge, in true comic fashion, the divides that separate the social community and the psyches of individuals.17 Characters, for example, who speak the wordless language of the body, such as Juliet, are rendered nearly speechless in the play's action or deal in lies (Lucio) or gibberish (Elbow and Froth); those whose tongues are eloquent, such as Isabella and even Angelo, either do not understand the language of the body or speak it only in the idiom of lust. Characters either brook no restraint or are hamstrung by a neurotic inner system of prohibitions. Either utter lawlessness or tyrannical legalism holds sway in Vienna. And the character Vincentio, upon whom, much more than upon Isabella, devolves the task of synthesis and healing, remains, as Richard Wheeler has recently argued, inadequate to the task.18 That audience and critics need to have him serve as the play's regenerative healer is signaled by the elaborate defenses for his actions assembled in the literature on the play, but the fact remains that as a comic redeemer he all too often replicates in his failed schemes the rigidity and the lack of human understanding characteristic of Angelo, that as a merciful dispenser of justice he overreacts to the jibes of Lucio, and that as a promulgator of marriage his professed disinclination for women makes perplexing his own unanswered marriage proposals and his very view of marriage, since it seems as often a punishment as a celebration in his hands.19 In the end, the audience is prevented from seeing embodied in any one character a convincing norm of behavior, that comic synthesis of divergent perspectives so richly embodied, for example, in Rosalind of As You Like It.

The last scene of the play is simply the final example of both the constant reflexivity of this play and the problems it poses for its harmonious assimilation by the viewer. I would argue that in the last scene the marriages and marriage proposals, the doffing of disguises, and the apparent mingling of justice and mercy, passion and the legal institutionalization of passion in marriage, are gestures toward a comic conclusion evoked, not for our uncritical assent, but for examination. Persistently, details and omissions disturb or call in question our hope that the intractable human problems broached in the work have been solved: Isabella has spoken eloquently for mercy for Angelo, but she has not embraced marriage and the life of the body that implies; Angelo has confessed his great crimes, but he, too, seems unenthralled by his rapid marriage and pleads, self-punishingly, for death, rather than life; the Duke, open now to marriage and actively “staging himself” in the people's eyes, still cannot rise above his anger at the lying, but insightful, Lucio; and the low-life characters of the work give no evidence of a repentance that will make unnecessary the subsequent reimposition of the law's full rigor or another descent into moral chaos. Such details make the comic ending seem half a lie, a wish, more than a fact; and they force the audience to recognize how hard it is to reconcile the great polarities of this work: body and soul, mercy and justice, scope and restraint, passion and its control.

This conclusion does not necessarily mean an artistic failure on Shakespeare's part, but it does force the audience into a self-conscious examination of the generic codes it relies upon for its meaning-making activities and of its need for art to provide a tidier world than experience generally affords. Form and matter are at war throughout the play in a way that forces the audience to participate in the struggles of the characters to reconcile, usually unsuccessfully or unconvincingly, the discontinuities of their own natures. The gaps between scope and restraint, chaotic passion and the rigid codification of experience by moral and legal codes, are mirrored in the theatrical experience by the gap between the harmonizing comic perspective and the intrusive details—such as Isabella's speechless silence in the face of the Duke's unanticipated marriage proposals—which undermine that comic perspective. The work remains resistant to harmonious totalization with the viewer's imagination much more profoundly than does The Taming of the Shrew. It invites the audience to feel a tough-minded skepticism about the tractability of our deepest social and psychic dilemmas, but also to feel a heightened awareness of the potential gap between the coherent paradigms we seek to impose upon art and the untidy challenges to those paradigms that art can pose.

Many readers would agree with what I have been saying about the play and about the difficulties that face an audience attempting to harmonize the literary codes and the thematic polarities deployed within it. But what about one of the truly festive comedies, one of the plays written between A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night? In order to talk about what is problematic in the assimilation of these texts, I have somewhat arbitrarily decided to focus on The Merchant of Venice, though others, certainly Much Ado about Nothing, also bear special examination. At first glance The Merchant of Venice certainly appears much more congruent with Barber's notion of a coherent festive comedy than does Measure for Measure. It has, for example, in Belmont a “green world” lacking in Measure for Measure, unless one counts the misty unreality of Marianna's moated grange, and in Portia the typical wise and accomplished heroine we are accustomed to encountering in the early comedies and whose function is largely usurped in Measure for Measure by the enigmatic Duke. In fact, the most recent full-scale study of The Merchant of Venice, Lawrence Danson's The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice”, indicates by its very title the congruence of his approach with that of Barber.20 Both read the play as an indictment of legalism and greed and a celebration of the riches of love and Christian mercy as they receive their fullest embodiment in Portia and her estate at Belmont.

On the other hand, not all responses to the play have been so certain of its moral vision. Danson begins his book by discussing at length what he calls the Janus-faced criticism the play has evoked, especially since the arrival on the nineteenth-century stage of not a grotesque and comic Shylock but of a tragic Jew, victim of Christian oppression.21 Critics who find Shylock's victimization at the heart of the play focus on the flaws and hypocrisy of the Christians and on the pathetic plight of an alien abused by an intolerant majority, stripped of his identity, and tricked by a woman most notable for her arrogant delight in controlling others. The difference between the two readings is that one emphasizes every instance of Christian goodness (such as the mercy granted Shylock, Portia's reverence for her father's will, the generosity of both her and Antonio) and every instance of Jewish evil (such as the blood bond, Shylock's confusion of his daughter with his ducats, his vengeance), while the other emphasizes every instance of Christian cruelty or hypocrisy (such as Gratiano's responses at the trial, Antonio's spitting upon Shylock, Bassanio's fortune-hunting instincts) and every instance of Jewish victimization and nobility (such as Shylock's “I am a Jew” speech, his emotion at the sale of Leah's ring, his forced conversion).

Of course, neither approach to the play—the celebratory or the cynical—necessarily casts all issues in the black-and-white terms I have been suggesting. Those who see the play celebrating Christian virtues often acknowledge that many Christians in the play are flawed, as does Danson himself, and those who stress Shylock's victimization frequently acknowledge the monstrosity of the emotions that emerge in him as a result of his ill treatment. Nonetheless, both approaches to the play save the audience from the anxiety of incoherence by establishing a dominant interpretive perspective from which to view the play's action. Neither approach is on the face of it absurd; each reveals above all, however, the truth of Iser's assertion that the audience's desire to build a consistent perspective upon the textual action can lead inevitably to the disregard or distortion of elements that do not fit neatly into the developing gestalt which the audience constructs during the theatrical experience. And, as Iser has noted, a text strongly resistant to harmonious totalization leads often to the imposition of the rigid formulas of allegory such as we find, for example, in Barbara Lewalski's reading of the play in terms of Old Testament Law and New Testament Grace.22 Indeed, there is about much interpretation of the play a strangely defensive or strained cast, as when Danson, in arguing for the harmony of the play, asserts that there is absolutely no reason to believe that Portia and Antonio are rivals for Bassanio's love, or when he asserts that to believe that Portia “tips off” Bassiano in the casket scene is simply to make nonsense of the play's comic structure.23 Certainly Danson is right to assert that the play's status as comedy creates the expectation of the noble heroine and a selfless Antonio, though Danson himself argues that Antonio is intolerant and lacking in Christian charity toward Shylock until the trial scene. But to argue that because the play is listed among the comedies means that all local cruxes in the play can be resolved by recourse to comic theory is false unless one assumes that individual comedies are simply particular embodiments of a Platonic ideal comedy and that Shakespeare's master idea of comedy precludes the possibility of contradition and discontinuity within the aesthetic structure. I prefer to see the evocation of comic conventions in the work as one important textual element feeding into the reader's actualization of the aesthetic object, but not the only element; and with James Kincaid I would argue that the generic approach to literature, obviously of immense value in the interpretation of texts, too often founders on the assumption that any work is an unmixed manifestation of any genre and that the function of literary criticism is the ferreting out of the true generic code and the suppression or marginalization of conflicting codes.24

Clearly the dominant generic code in The Merchant of Venice is comedy, but as in Measure for Measure, it is not always easy to assimilate all the action of the play in terms of that code. The two plays, however, do not cause identical problems for the viewer or reader. What is striking about The Merchant of Venice, considered as comedy, is how difficult it makes the establishment of definitive differences between characters, locales, and motives—differences upon which the creating of harmonious comic perspective must rest. If Measure for Measure is an example of a play that lacks mediation, The Merchant of Venice is overly mediated in the sense that apparent differences continually reveal an underlying sameness. In the Vienna of Duke Vincentio warring elements in the human condition are never successfully bridged by a higher synthesis. In The Merchant of Venice everything turns into its opposite at some point so that meaningful differences are obliterated. As a result, the reader's efforts to create satisfying distinctions between Jew and Christian, the selfish and the generous, the harsh bonds of law and the gentle bonds of love, are repeatedly thwarted in ways that stymie those consistency-building strategies which are based on the expectation that comedy celebrates the triumph of redeemed mankind over the pernicious and antisocial impulses which divide and debase it. If, in the simplest terms, Christian and Jew remain largely indistinguishable throughout the play, then the reader at the very least may be driven to conclude that the harmonies of heaven are impossible to achieve with the deformed instruments of earth, or, put more archly, that the notions of difference upon which societies and audiences base their categories of good and evil and their codes of exclusive privilege, can be simply defensive fictions created to mask a frightening sameness. The experience of the text thus becomes problematic in that it confronts the reader with the inadequacy of strategies of meaning-making based on pervasive notions of differences within the fictive world of the play and hallowed by the comic conventions so often evoked to explain away the puzzling aspects of this particular text.

Take, for example, the play's distinctions concerning money's worth and value. At first view, Christians give and Jews hoard; Christians value people over money and Jews do not. Hence Antonio hazards his very life to supply the needs of his friend and Shylock ruins widows and orphans to increase his wealth. But, as the play unfolds, overt Christian generosity begins to appear as a disguised manifestation of selfishness. Antonio gives Bassanio money in order to bind the young man to him. Witness the guilt-inducing note he sends to Bassanio at Belmont and his martyr-like behavior at the trial where he quite explicitly establishes a love triangle with Portia for Bassanio's affection: “Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death; / And when the tale is told, bid her be judge / Whether Bassanio had not once a love” (4.2.275-77). Portia, in her turn, having been pursued by Bassanio to recoup his fortunes, reminds him after the casket scene that he has been “dear bought” (3.2.313) and then uses her bounty to bind him and others to her.25 At the play's end, having stripped Shylock of half his gold and determined the ultimate disposition of the rest, she feeds Jessica and Lorenzo the “manna” (5.1.294) of gold and gives Antonio “life and living” (5.1.286) with the return of his wealth. Shylock, though he would not give Leah's “for a wilderness of monkeys” (3.1.122-23), remains the play's most overtly avaricious figure, but gold is Christian sustenance as well, and a mighty source of power and obligation.

Take, too, the play's crucial distinction between Christian mercy and Old Testament legalism. In the trial, Portia fittingly shows Shylock the pernicious consequences of legalism untempered by humility and then evokes mercy from the Christians. What they offer feels very like vengeance disguised as its opposite. The Duke grants Shylock his life but calls attention to the fact that he does so to show the difference between Jewish and Christian spirits. A pardon so self-righteously granted seems more a gesture of pride than of spontaneous mercy arising from a sense of man's universal folly in the eyes of God; and a minute later the Duke's pardon is made conditional upon Shylock's conversion to Christianity. That conversion, technically effected for the salvation of Shylock's soul, strips the Jew both of his identity and of the opportunity to embrace willingly the promise of grace. Shylock is compelled to convert, to forfeit half his wealth, and to lose ultimate control of the rest. That he “deserves” such torment may be true, but if every man is treated as he deserves, who would escape whipping? Christian charity should drop more sweetly upon the court of justice.26

Finally, consider the play's distinction between fallen Venice and the graced Belmont. That Venice is degraded by mercantilism and legalism is clear; that Belmont is different becomes more difficult to believe as the reader moves toward the play's final act. Not only does money figure prominently in Belmont's life, but so do bonds. Portia's father has bound her to observe the terms of his will, and she binds Bassanio to the terms of his pledge with rings. Shylock's merry bond was meant by him in deadly earnest, and so is Portia's sport in act 5, for by it she confirms that her dearly bought husband will be hers and not Antonio's. Her mercy and bounty can flow when the literal import of the ring pledge—thou shalt have no other Gods before me—has been insisted upon and confirmed.

Repeatedly this play offers distinctions that upon examination turn out not to constitute differences. The play's structure, with its insistent alternations between Venice and Belmont, implies differences between these locales. The play's generic codes imply differences between antisocial forces of disorder and comic forces of order. The play's language is studded with oppositions: Christian/Jew, mercy/law, bounty/greed. But the experience of reading the play confounds these categories and expectations of difference, making it hard for the reader to achieve a perspective on the play by which either the liberal or purist concretizations of the action can be maintained without strain. In the end, it is the ironies and not the harmonies of the play that are its most striking feature.

Not all Shakespearian comedies, of course, make the task of closure so difficult for the audience as the particular plays I have chosen to discuss. And yet there are a number of comedies, both written early in Shakespeare's career and written late, that yield readily to the kind of analysis I have undertaken in this essay. I think, for example, of the anti-comic entrance of Marcade and the deferred marriages of Love's Labour's Lost that prevent the viewer from enjoying the expected satisfactions of seeing each Jack with his Jill and invite us to reflect on the gap between desire and fulfillment so familiar both in the world as we live it and as it is so often represented in Shakespeare's comic creations. Or I think of the more severe disjunctions of Pericles, a play that simultaneously invites the audience to interpret its events as a confirmation of a benevolent providential order and as a revelation of the fictiveness of such an order. Or I think of Much Ado with its unstable intermingling of romance and realism, which invites actualization in terms of competing conventions and expectations. To deal in detail with these or other plays is beyond the scope of this essay, but I suggest that there is still much work needing to be done before we understand fully the complex nature of the aesthetic experience Shakespearian comedy affords.

By indirection I have also been arguing that it is not sufficient to use a reified conception of how the comic genre typically works to explain away anomalies that contradict our expectations. In my view Shakespeare frequently uses comic conventions in order to problematize them, that is, to test their efficacy to embody convincingly the full range of human situations he wished to dramatize and to make his viewers aware of the dangers of relying upon any formula to interpret material that feels like a vision of truth precisely because it resists schematization. When we experience most of Shakespeare's comedies, what we experience are aesthetic objects that resist our desire to domesticate their energies by a too easy synthesis of their fundamental discontinuities and contradictions, whether those discontinuities are expressed, as in The Taming of the Shrew, as a gap between man conceived of as a serious or as a rhetorical being; or, as in Measure for Measure, as a gap between an idealized notion of order and concrete manifestations of continuing disorder; or, as in The Merchant of Venice, between abstract systems of difference and concrete manifestations of sameness. As the reader tries to bridge the discontinuities, he can fall back upon an ordering perspective that suppresses incoherence through an act of will bolstered most often by recourse to arguments about how comedy must work, or he can confront with heightened awareness his own need for such coherence and perhaps transcend it. In any case, for me the challenge afforded by these, as by all great texts, is their ability, not to solve problems, but to make us live with a heightened sense that the problematic is the inescapable element in which we live and move, even in the theater.


  1. The fullest statement of each man's views is contained, respectively, in Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959) and Frye's A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Harcourt, 1965).

  2. Charles Sugnet, “Exaltation at the Close: A Model for Shakespearean Tragedy,” Modern Language Quarterly 38 (1977):323-35.

  3. While Barber quite explicitly sees Shakespearian comedy, like Elizabethan holidays, as serving the social function of releasing and exploring chaotic impulses in order to clarify, by contrast, the value of traditional order (Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, pp. 3-15), Frye severs Shakespearian comedy and romance from a specific social context and purpose. He is concerned with the way the events of comedy serve a dramatic end: enact a story. Yet for Frye, too, though he denies that comedy is either didactic or even very concerned with “the real world,” comedy serves to reveal and affirm an irrational desire for a world in harmony with nature and desire, and triumphant over the forces that threaten its realization (see A Natural Perspective, esp. pp. 121-24).

  4. Only in the character of Falstaff does Barber see a threat to the old verities too profound to be exorcised easily. He argues that Falstaff's banishment is a failure precisely because the sophisticated London world of Henry IV, Part II is too far removed from the values of the countryside and too permeated by the opportunism Falstaff represents for the reconstitution of traditional values magically to be effected by his banishment. See Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, pp. 213-21.

  5. Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. viii.

  6. I am thinking, for example, of such studies as Robert Weimann's Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimensions of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), which argues that the Shakespearian public theater was an arena for the negotiation of complex conflicts arising from a society in rapid transition. His book was first published as Shakespeare und die Tradition des Volkstheaters; Soziologie, Dramaturgie, Gestaltung (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1967). Pursuing similar ideas are Louis Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981):28-54 and Leonard Tennenhouse, “The Counterfeit Order of The Merchant of Venice,” an essay included in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 54-69. Montrose and Tennenhouse see in plays such as As You Like It and Merchant of Venice reflections of Elizabethan uneasiness about primogeniture, patron-artist relations, the relationship of court to country, and the place of wealth in a society based on venture capitalism and on Christian ethics. Similarly, contemporary feminist and psychoanalytical criticism of the comedies has seen in them reflections of the age's contradictory attitudes toward women. See The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980) and Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Such studies represent a convincing challenge to the notion that the relationship between the plays and Elizabethan culture is either unimportant or simple.

  7. For the fullest statement of Iser's views see The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978), first published as Der Akt Des Lesens: Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung (Munich: Wilhelm Frank, 1976), and also his subsequent article, “The Current Situation of Literary Theory: Key Concepts and the Imaginary,” New Literary History 11 (1979):1-20.

  8. For a discussion of how extratextual systems of thought or paradigms are incorporated in a literary work in a state of suspended validity so that their premises can be examined, see Iser, The Act of Reading, pp. 68-79.

  9. All quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  10. For his extremely interesting discussion of the ongoing tension in the Western literary tradition between “serious” and “rhetorical” conceptions of the self see Richard A. Lanham's The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).

  11. Irene G. Dash, in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), pp. 33-64, discusses how the play has been repeatedly adapted for the stage in ways that make of Kate simply a boisterous and unsympathetic shrew whom we wish to see tamed and whose final speech thus requires presentation as a sincere reflection of a fundamental and necessary change of attitude. It is not, however, only pre-twentieth-century productions that present the speech in this fashion. In Joseph Papp's 1978 version in the Delacort Theater in Central Park, Meryl Streep, who played the role of Kate, also delivered these lines “straight,” attesting to the continuance of this particular theatrical tradition in our own time.

  12. For an insightful discussion of the way in which this play mocks convention, see Alexander Leggatt's Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), pp. 41-62.

  13. In Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), pp. 58-93, J. Dennis Huston argues that the drama is a celebration of “the power of play” and that Petruchio liberates Kate from her humor by teaching her to play.

  14. Roy Battenhouse in “Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement,” PMLA 61 (1946):1029-59, and Robert Hunter in Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), are two critics who stress the play's unifying Christian themes and really do not see it as a “problem.” Harriet Hawkins in “‘The Devil's Party’: Virtues and Vices in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978):105-13, sees the play as a failure because the second half of the work does not resolve the sexual and psychological issues broached in the first half. Arthur Kirsch in “The Integrity of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975):89-105, sees the play as a tragicomedy enacting the happy fall in which tragic experience leads to comic salvation. The differences among these critics are indicative of the continuing debate over both the play's success and its generic status.

  15. For a fuller exploration of the metadramatic aspects of the play and of the Duke as a schematic dramatist who is the object of considerable irony in the play see my article, “Measure for Measure and the Restraints of Convention,” Essays in Literature 10 (1983):149-58.

  16. Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), esp. pp. 164-65.

  17. Richard Fly, Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976), esp. pp. 63-74.

  18. See Richard Wheeler's Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 122-24. Having indicated a number of interpretations offered of the Duke, Wheeler argues that each view “seeks an order of inner coherence in Vincentio as the dramatic center of Measure for Measure that is not fully realized in the play's comic movement” (p. 123).

  19. Clifford Leech in “The ‘Meaning’ of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 3 (1950):66-73, argues at length the case against Vincentio as Godlike redeemer. Both Battenhouse, “Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement,” and Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness, muster defenses in his behalf, arguing that his role as Duke, and therefore as God's agent on earth, justifies both his assumption of the disguise of Friar and his persistent meddling in the lives of Isabella, Angelo, Claudio, and Marianna. Donna B. Hamilton in “The Duke in Measure for Measure: ‘I Find an Apt Remission in Myself’,” Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970):175-83, argues that Vincentio is a flawed character who must and does come to terms with his limitations in the course of the drama, an argument in some ways analogous to that of Louise Schleiner in “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure,PMLA 97 (1982):227-36. Schleiner argues that the Duke is fallible but well-meaning in his quixotic attempts to imitate Providence.

  20. Danson, The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

  21. Ibid., pp. 1-18.

  22. Barbara Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962):327-43.

  23. Seeking to discredit the notion that Antonio and Bassanio's love for one another is of a homosexual nature and to discredit the idea that Antonio and Portia are in competition for Bassanio, Danson writes: “Now The Merchant of Venice is a play in which harmonies are discovered where only discord had seemed possible, and its dominant figure (whether in details of imagery or in the implied shape of the fable as a whole) is the circle, ring, or round. The love of Antonio and Bassanio chimes in that harmonious round, as does the love of Bassanio and Portia. But to suppose a competition between Antonio and Portia introduces a discord more intractable to resolution than that of Shylock, the unmusical man, himself. So it is not the realism nor the humanness, but the consequent introduction of this irreconcilable competition, that leads me to reject the psychosexual explanation for Antonio's sadness” (Harmonies, pp. 38-39). In other words, such possibilities are impossible because they would destroy the harmony Danson postulates as a given of the play. Again, in arguing that the song sung as Bassanio chooses is not a deliberate clue to the choice he should make, Danson writes: “if the play is to remain a romantic comedy rather than a farce or a neatly disguised satire, then the idea that Portia tips off Bassanio has got to be dismissed. It is an idea contrary to the expectations properly aroused by the dramatic and literary conventions the play exploits” (p. 118). Again, the appeal to the dictates of an overarching comic intention is used to explain away details that do not fit.

  24. James Kincaid, “Coherent Readers, Incoherent Texts,” Critical Inquiry 3 (1977):781-802, esp. p. 784.

  25. Harry Berger in “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981):155-62, argues that Portia constantly strives to gain power in this play by showering others with gifts that put them under obligation to her.

  26. R. Chris Hassel, Jr., in Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), argues that The Merchant of Venice is anomalous among the romantic comedies in that its chief characters are remarkably lacking in humility and in the true Christian charity that comes from the recognition of man's universal folly. See esp. his chapter “‘I Stand for Sacrifice’: Frustrated Communion in The Merchant of Venice,” pp. 176-207.

Criticism: Beginnings: Comedies

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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 to come, will, it is to be hoped, emerge.

In at least two respects the theatrical exposition of All's Well is unusual. First, unlike its companion problem comedies, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, All's Well opens with prose and not verse—and with a prose that imposes a rather ponderous and enigmatic style of speech that is not intended to be readily understood, one suspects, by either a modern or an Elizabethan playgoer. Shakespeare's opening words are usually transparent, intended to hit the audience directly between the eyes (or ears); so what is he up to? On the one hand the choice of prose for the dialogue suggests that it must seem domestic, naturalistic, human—if a little pompous, or at least inflated, to mark the social standing of the Countess of Rossillion and her household (simple, prose clarity will follow soon enough). The audience is to share thus far the scene's rather stiff mood of mourning and parting.

On the other hand the element of the enigmatic, the supressed and mysterious, is, curiously, also present—a certain riddling that begins with the famous first thematic line of the play from the Countess (who is entered in the Folio as ‘Mo.’, i.e., ‘Mother,’ throughout this first scene):

In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.


This play will have to do with leaving home and coming back, with giving birth and with dying, although it remains to be seen whether the mother or the son is to be satisfactorily recycled by these related processes. But by no means is that the end of it. Lafew will shortly strike up with his news of the King of France's sickness by quibbling about gaining or losing hope and time:

He hath abandoned his physicians, madam, under whose practices he hath persecuted time with hope, and finds no other advantage in the process but only the losing of hope by time.


Not only the King, of course, but also Helena will be teased by her hopes under pressure of time. For both of them, the issues will be those of life and death, although we shall have to wait until the end of the play before the enigma of hope and time is resolved; then we shall hear more enigmatic lines like:

Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick.
So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick.

(V. 3. 291-2)

And when Helena first speaks of her grief, in what appears to be an aside (knowing nothing of such a technicality, Shakespeare of course did not mark his text with this directive), she does so in yet another riddle:

I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too.


The audience will learn soon enough what she means by this subtlety when she is alone with us. But so much double talk! Yet how seductive and challenging it can be, catching and holding our attention (at least for quite a time), and alerting us to the fact that there's a great deal in all this discourse that is left unspoken, perhaps only to be heard between the lines.

Nevertheless, why did Shakespeare write his opening lines in prose? The answer to this, too, we shall learn soon enough when we hear the kind of verse spoken later by the Countess and, especially, Helena. The truest and most personal thoughts—as opposed to the surface formalities and proprieties of this household—will issue and ascend as poetry, and those thoughts that are the most hidden, possibly the most profound of all, will be accorded (surprise!) rhyming, ringing, couplets. Helena's play will therefore seem to proceed on two levels, the first superficial, even cold and cruel, and the second on the warm level of her deepest desires, constituting almost an expression of her dreams.

As we look over the text, we, like any readers, are being to a degree distracted by the language of the play. It may be that even an audience in the theatre is being similarly distracted. Nevertheless, a primary theatrical effect is being perpetrated the while, one based on what the eyes tell us, centered on costume and what costume determines by way of movement and gesture. All's Well is unusual in that it carries an extraordinary, and very clear, instruction from the outset about what the players shall all wear. If in Hamlet on his first entrance the Prince is seen in his ‘nighted color,’ the court of Denmark is not; in All's Well, on the contrary, everyone in the house of Rossillion is required to be in mourning, for the Folio direction reads,

Enter young Bertram Count of Rossillion, his Mother, and Helena, Lord Lafew, all in blacke.

Such a stage direction is a sure indication of the close relationship between the Folio text and playhouse practice, and since the author was present at the first performance, it almost certainly tells us of his intentions. The command for a mournful and cheerless stage governs the initial pace and tone of speech, and the whole spirit of the performance. This, together with the double talk and the excessive propriety of the language, lends the action of this opening scene a grimly formal aspect. An audience may expect solemn looks from the men, with tears from the women, and it is possible that Bertram exhibits both, since he responds to his mother's first line with:

And I in going, madam, weep o’er my father's death anew.


Certainly Lafew sees Helena crying at line 36:

Your commendations, madam, get from her tears.

All this, of course, is to set an audience in the theatre by the eyes and ears immediately, compelling us to search out the sources of grief. We may, however, be more than a little surprised to find them everywhere we look. We have no reason to doubt that mother and son are mourning the dead father, the old Count, as is Lafew, the faithful old family friend, and this group is also full of regret at the departure of the young Count. Nor have we reason yet to doubt that there is some grief on Helena's part, too, for the death of her father:

The remembrance of her father never approaches her heart but the tyranny of her sorrows takes all livelihood from her cheek.


Nevertheless, we have yet to learn of Helena's greatest source of grief, which has to do not only with Bertram's departure, but also with her unrequited love for him, as we shall see.

With the subdued, even suppressed, feelings and uneasy relationships suggested by the low tones of the actors, the opening of All's Well may be described as somewhat Ibsenish in style. Suspense is gently evinced as more and more of the past is revealed, and the spectator (like the actor in rehearsal) has the pleasure of piecing together the evidence of appearances, before he dare unravel the tangled information about the past. Well, Shakespeare's theatre is not Ibsen's, and we shall not have long to wait before the playwright lays all the facts before us; but Shakespeare anticipates Ibsen in this play by withholding some of the details and teasing us with the rest. He manipulates by frustrating his audience in its natural wish to make sense of what it sees, and the impact of this exposition will be felt less in what is said than in what is not. For we are not to be deceived by the careful, surface manners and protocol of behavior in a high-born family; performance will focus attention upon what is hinted and guessed at by the less conscious conduct of the assembled characters. (Tuned in to hearing more subtle inflexions of voice, or learning to perceive the little gestures and slight movements, we may be forgiven if we are later shocked and amazed by the sensational events to come—curing a king of a fistula, choosing a husband by dancing with him, substituting a partner in bed, coming back from the dead.)

For the moment we must be prepared, then, for the somewhat unShakespearean exercise of listening between the lines, and this kind of drama may have the contingent effect upon the writing of sharpening its visual performance signals. Following the explicit stage image of “all in blacke,” Shakespeare calls next for an important disposition of his characters about the stage, making an impressive use of his stage space. Modern productions (like Trevor Nunn's for the RSC in 1981) often attempt to fill the void of a bare, non-naturalistic stage at the rise of the curtain with such realistic business as having bustling servants carrying Bertram's travelling gear to a waiting offstage carriage—they troop across the back of the stage with bits of luggage, a clutch of tennis racquets, a set of foils. This may be amusing, but is surely misplaced ingenuity. Nothing should take our attention from the careful relationships set up physically between the figures on the stage.

The general picture is of Helena as a misfit: she looks out of place. The simpler, plainer dress of her lower social status marks her out, but Shakespeare ensures that we recognize her difference above all by her silence; in turn, her silence is emphasized by her apparent exclusion from the family group of the Countess, Bertram, and Lafew. While the mother is saying her adieus to her son, and he to her, Helena has no words to speak for some 40 lines and, as performance insists, is set apart from the others. The character who now begins to interest the audience most by her uncomfortable isolation becomes an object of urgent dramatic importance by this very distinction, and will be foremost in the spectator's thoughts for the rest of the play. The family shares its many griefs, but not with Helena, who stands humbly apart in tears.

It is not that the family does not know she is present, since the discussion about the King's illness neatly turns to the man who might have cured him, Gerard de Narbon, Helena's father, and so prompts the Countess to make reference to his daughter:

This young gentlewoman had a father—O, that ‘had,’ how sad a passage ’tis—whose skill was almost as great as his honesty. …


“This young gentlewoman” (like the first reference to Edmund in King Lear, “Is this not your son, my Lord?,”) carries an indicative gesture, and makes its point in performance only if the speaker indicates the object of consideration from a distance. The reference serves to draw new attention to Helena, and grants the actress playing her a cue for a silent response, also very much part of this exposition: a curtsy would signify her different station, a turn away would embody an image of her separation, even her rejection. After this, her silence grows increasingly eloquent.

Shakespeare next arranges for Lafew to change the subject smoothly from Gerard de Narbon and the King's problems of health. He changes it to the daughter Helena and her perceived character, and this change coincides with a balancing silence of 20 lines from Bertram. Again the directorial signal is to be recognized, and the actor's opportunity seized, in the light of events to come. The balancing silence suggests that, like Helena, Bertram in his turn now move away to another part of the stage. Is it out of his lack of interest in Helena, a lowly physician's daughter? Is it out of pique that she has temporarily displaced him in his mother's attention? Whatever the actor decides, the audience cannot know his reasons for sure at this point in the play. However, what we may well perceive is the enactment of a kind of sibling rivalry, especially if Helena now takes Bertram's place in the intimate family group, as the lines suggest when Lafew refers to her tears.

Your commendations, madam, get from her tears.


And the Countess appears to comfort her,

No more of this, Helena, Go to, no more. …


The rivalry, or at least Bertram's irritation at the interest shown in his mother's ward, would be apparent if he were to cast a resentful glance back in Helena's direction, at the creature who has usurped his place. She may even stand on the very spot on the stage he has just vacated, creating a visual echo.

The Countess believes that it is “the remembrance of her father” that is the cause of Helena's tears, and she advises that so much grief should be restrained, “lest it be rather thought you affect a sorrow.” However, it is less the logic of argument, and more the purposeful stage blocking, that prepares the ground so strongly for the line of Helena's that rivets attention when it comes:

I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too.


The line will have to mystify Lafew and the Countess if they appear to ‘hear’ it (and some editors have followed Quiller-Couch in transposing Lafew's “How understand we that?” from line 48 to help them out); but if the audience has seen Helena glance at Bertram, she may speak the line as an aside with no danger of mystifying us. The initial puzzle of Helena's character and motives is now for the audience to unravel, as the issue of her secrecy comes into focus.

The importance of the moment is capped when an impatient Bertram interrupts the little domestic scene with a peremptory,

Madam, I desire your holy wishes.


He has presumably stomped across the stage to take Helena's place (a petulant performance that justifies the next line of Lafew's that has troubled some literary editors after Theobald—“How understand we that?”).

It is here that Shakespeare calls up another device of stagecraft and, with mother and son center-stage, shifts gear into the more emphatic mode of verse. Naturalistic characterization and commonplace human relationships are for the present less in focus when the playwright returns to matters thematic. The peevish young Count kneels to the Countess and formally asks her blessing, whereupon to the rhythms of verse she takes his hand and speaks warmly of ideals of birthright and estate, breeding and gentility:

Be thou blest, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright.


The lines pick up notions of what may and what may not be acquired by upbringing, echoing distinctions also heard just before on the Countess' tongue when she described Helena's own more simple natural endowment. Thus we now may well listen with Helena's ears as the Countess reinforces the importance of blood and breeding. So Helena's misery deepens.

The director of the BBC television production (1980), Elijah Moshinsky, at this point had his Countess give Bertram a ring, thus endowing it with the precious significance of the word ‘birthright’; later, this will be the same ring which in his letter in 3.2 Bertram will challenge Helena to take from his finger, and which in the ‘seduction’ scene of 4.2 Diana will demand of him in exchange for her chastity, for her ‘honor.’ This clever stroke of direction reinforced the point of these hortatory and rather conventional lines (see those of Polonius to Laertes), that the moral qualities Bertram will acquire by going off into the world should equal those of his noble birth. The rest of the play, we can be sure, will put these qualities to the test.

I find it a nice Shakespearean touch that, after highflown words like “my prayers pluck down, / Fall on thy head” (with, presumably, a charming kiss on his head to go with them), the Countess can turn away more like an ordinary mother than a dowager duchess, and slip a brief stage aside to Lafew almost under her breath:

’Tis an unseasoned courtier; good my lord,
Advise him.


The quick detail, the little touch of realism, tends briefly to remind the audience of Bertram's green youth. The spotlight is, however, not upon Bertram for long, since the expository emphasis on Helena must, I believe, remain strong and vivid.

The Countess gone, an audience might anticipate a highly charged moment when Bertram could freely show his feelings for the doctor's daughter, and even she for him. It is not to be. Should Bertram's actor introduce an instant of hesitation before he leaves, the resulting pain of his rejection of her will be felt by spectator and Helena alike, although we should never know what might be passing through his mind. As it happens, he has used the word ‘servant,’ and it may be this that triggers the scorn in the hasty lines that follow:

Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her.


I hear the actor stress the word “mistress,” putting Helena firmly in her place. And it is interesting that for these words the Folio again has prose (unaccountably and unnecessarily blankversified in the New Cambridge edition), as it has for Lafew's cruelly unsympathetic addition:

Farewell, pretty lady. You must hold the credit of your father.


While Lafew reintroduces the former idea that Helena must live up to her father's memory (perhaps putting the idea into the head of G. B. Shaw that she was ready to become Shakespeare's lady doctor), that phrase “pretty lady” is as belittling as Bertram's “your mistress,” and seems to invite a pat or a pinch, rather than love and affection, from her master. At all events, the two men sweep past poor Helena, leaving her alone on the stage.

On her next lines, it may be that Helena, once alone, will suddenly change her modest demeanor, perhaps run to try to call Bertram back, perhaps break into uncontrolled sobbing, perhaps collapse upon the floor. This prerogative belongs to the actress, whose contribution Shakespeare here programs and expects. But the playwright has also been waiting for this moment in the development of his story to deliver some of the finest love poetry in this or any other play. The script shifts into a yet higher gear, as so often for soliloquy or other charismatic moments (in Twelfth Night, one thinks of Viola's “patience on a monument” speech, or her “willow cabin” aria, in the presence of Orsino and Olivia respectively). With Helena in her despair, this moment of expository confession modulates into a terrible honesty, and then is made to soar aloft and seem to reveal and release what is in the depths of her soul:

O, were that all! I think not on my father,
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him. My imagination
Carries no favour in’t but Bertram's.
I am undone! There is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. ’Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere. … 


In these lines the audience faintly hears and has a first glimpse of the other Helena, the Helena whose fantasies so govern the play that the drama must henceforward work on two levels, one belonging to the realistic world of Paris and Florence, of an earthier Bertram and Parolles, and the other moving stylistically on the level of the “divine” inspiration that furnishes her with a cure for the King, and nourishes the driven, single-minded dream that will test her will and carry her through the ordeal of the second half of the play.

When Helena speaks the proverbial lines,

The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love,


we hear a sad echo of the Countess's melancholy motif, that life can only follow death, mixing hope with despair. Alone on the stage, Helena seems to take upon herself, with the burden of the poetry, the whole burden of the play.

Where does the opening of a play stop? When does the second movement begin? Certainly not after 80 lines of text of five minutes’ playing time. The comedian Parolles enters at line 85 and drops the tone drastically with his cynical joking about virginity, forcing Helena to respond in kind, and putting the idea, also thematic, into her chaste mind that she should use her body to resolve her problem: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie” (187). By juxtaposing the comic and the pathetic, Shakespeare is arranging his episodic building-blocks to control the balance of mood and pace of his play—and this parataxis, this deploying of his forces for battle, is of course also part of the mechanism of an opening.

But perhaps we may agree that enough of the play's central themes, the expository fodder, the opening signals, have been fed to the expectant audience. We, like the actors, have been shown the territory to be traversed. It will appear at first like an undulating landscape, on one side the realistic foothills of an understandable and commonplace domestic event, the departure of a young man from home, part of his initiation into manhood, a rite of passage, and on the other the romantic heights of a girl's imagination, one whose longing for this young man, even if he is indifferent to her, will provide the awesome challenge of her own rite of passage. The spectrum for the director and his actors, too, has ranged between the realistic and the romantic, as productions over the last few years have shown.

In the first book to recount the stage history of All's Well, Joseph Price (The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of ‘All's Well That Ends Well’ and Its Critics, Toronto, 1986) showed that the play has been seen either as a psychological study or as a tale of romantic love. One of the play's major themes, which appears to be the effect of class differences on the relationship between the sexes, with an emphasis on the role of women, the limits of their freedom, and the infamous double standard, may be treated realistically: born into the nobility, Bertram is merely obeying the dictates of his own upbringing by refusing her; however passionate Helena's love for him, her brazen pursuit of the man she wanted is unacceptable. Yet shift the mode into something more romantic, even visionary, and Helena's love may be seen to be unshakable, so resolute and faithful that she deserves and converts Bertram at the end. This division has affected speech and movement, together with casting, costume and setting, and all the elements of style that depend upon the quality of the text.

At one extreme, Michael Benthall's Old Vic production of 1953 had its stage decorated in the manner of a picture-book, with a colorful quasi-medieval illuminated manuscript for a stage set, bright with flowers and castellated walls; there John Neville played Bertram like Prince Charming, while as Helena Claire Bloom in a long blonde wig and flowing tresses wept fairytale tears. At another extreme, in 1981 Trevor Nunn and the RSC set the play against the grim background of France in World War I, with Mike Gwilym as Bertram, now a prissy young officer off to the Western Front, and Harriet Walter as Helena, now a desperate young woman prepared to work as a nurse among the ugly horrors of a front-line field hospital. Under the banner of the RSC, therefore, the vicissitudes and pain of love could thus take on a widely understood reality, and the nostalgic years of the Edwardian twilight could (following the success of the sophisticated cliches of the BBC-TV soap series Upstairs, Downstairs) supply the need for the romantic.

While such contrasts in directorial perspective are common, it would be a mistake to suggest that either the romanticizers or the realists are misguided. From the text it seems incumbent upon any production of this play to incorporate both the realistic/psychological and the romantic/visionary view. The evidence for integrating and interweaving these contradictory elements is particularly strong in the opening lines of the play, as it is in each of the problem comedy openings, and confirms one's sense that Shakespeare knew what he was doing from the beginning. Certainly there are tragic overtones felt behind the play's suggestions of ever-present death, in the mortality of the flesh as well as the death of the heart; and pain and anguish are implicit in the disheartening limitations that, potentially, lie behind all human relationships. Yet the idea of dying into life is planted from the start, and in this play, at least, there is hope in the way that the young are seen to find redemption through the older generation. However, in balancing the realistic and the romantic in performance there lies something of even greater importance.

In the opening scene the stage is inhabited by an old man and woman and by a young man and woman: the spectator is thereby encouraged to mark generational differences in the good and bad manners of class and gender, and between the wisdom of experience and the follies of inexperience. Such differences persist through the play. However, they contribute infinitely more than this. The conflict of age and youth constantly reinforces the distance with which comedy requires its audience to see the action on the stage. When the Countess smiles at Helena her ward, or Lafew at Bertram his young master, we do also. They are as a Feste to Olivia and Orsino. And, moreover, where such images of time past and time present are in conflict, we are not easily prepared to allow the tragic muse to stalk idly among them. Like Shakespeare, the audience to All's Well That Ends Well looks for the exquisite balance that is always to be found in the richest comedy. The play is neither Ibsen and Strindberg, nor Gilbert and Sullivan, but mature Shakespearean comedy, in which the compassionate ingredients that make up the sad story of Helena's unrequited love and Bertram's sorry imperfections, are in their unhappy situation to be seen and felt only in tandem with what is inherently comic, and therefore both moving and amusing.

Criticism: Beginnings: Late Plays

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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 acknowledgement of “hearers,” and the final Prologue's recognition of Chaucer's narrative, combined with a plea for the audience's help, and the comment that we shall “hear scenes.” These phrases mark differences between the printed book and performance. I will also examine the Epilogues of these three plays and their connection to the beginnings as they frame the plays by circling back to the openings. Taken together, these prologues and epilogues provide entries into the artist's concept of his work, telegraphed in succinct speeches that resonate with self-reflexive significance.

“To sing a song that old was sung,” Gower begins.2 Gower has come from “ashes ancient” and has assumed “man's infirmities,” the latter phrase ambiguously implying that Gower has “taken on” such human infirmities. In any event, the verse itself sings as Shakespeare atypically uses here octosyllabic couplets, calling attention to the archaic nature of Gower's verse, a style uncommon, perhaps unsuited, to drama. To me this indicates immediately that Gower is unlikely to participate actively in the drama; rather, he will remain on the periphery, looking in on the play, as it were. In style and purpose Shakespeare sets Gower apart from the play, an old-fashioned narrator who watches with us the unfolding of this drama. (I don’t intend here to go into Gower's function throughout, as that is a much larger subject and also one regularly commented on.)3

Concerned variously with matters of aesthetics, morality, and narrative, Gower insists that his story has purpose. He says: “And lords and ladies in their lives / Have read it for restoratives: / The purchase is to make men glorious” (7-9)—the edifying purpose of literature. Gower implies that people already know his story; they have “read” it. Or, as he says a few lines later: “I tell you what mine authors say” (20). A somewhat disingenuous comment, this statement calls attention to a text outside the speaker. This pose of narrator as mere conduit for rehearsing a prior narrative Gower assumes several times in the play. In part, it appeals to authority and deflects attention from the speaker as the begetter of the story. But it can only be a pose because Gower simultaneously serves as one who participates in the narrative, if not in the action. Shakespeare opens the play to considerations of the process of representation. Is Gower—is Shakespeare—a simple instrument for passing on an inherited story? Does Pericles, as Howard Felperin might argue,4 display the fossils of its source through representation? To tell the story means to live in and through it; disinterested perspective cannot be sustained.

Gower also, of course, presents the setting, the background, and the necessary exposition of the play's initial action as his speech takes a dramatic turn in line 17: “This Antioch. …” He rehearses the story of Antiochus' incestuous relationship with his daughter, “With whom the father liking took / And her to incest did provoke …” (25-26). Gower judges succinctly and with certainty: “Bad child, worse father …” (27). For all that we know at this moment the play's theme will be incest. Surely we must wonder about all those lords and ladies who have read this story “for restoratives.” But the tale of Antiochus' incest has not ended: it continues, as various suitors come to pursue the beautiful daughter: “To seek her as a bed-fellow, / In marriage-pleasures play-fellow …” (33-34). Antiochus has, as we learn, created an obstacle: the riddle that condemns the suitors. Here we find the kernel of the play's initial dramatic action. We cannot know, however, from Gower's opening speech what a small part the Antiochus story will finally play in the total drama. Gower never so much as mentions Pericles in this opening prologue; we would be right to conclude that the play focuses on Antiochus. Therefore, in a way, Gower misleads us—not perhaps intentionally but through omission. Although he possesses the entire story, he affords us here but a glimpse into part of it.

One can suggest that Gower functions iconographically. First, his very appearance, “From ancient ashes,” underscores the antiquity of the legend and evokes mystery. What can it mean for this ancient storyteller and poet to appear on stage? Gower binds up in his person images visual and mysterious. Coming from the dead, Gower chants a song that we obligingly heed. As he says “This Antioch,” he doubtlessly sweeps his hand across the stage, enabling us to perceive the correct setting for the story: he defines and points out. And when he describes the fate of the suitors—“for her many a wight did die” (39)—he points to their heads stuck on some kind of wall: “As yon grim looks do testify” (40)—memento mori with a vengeance!

Gower thus provides purpose, information, moral judgment, authority, and iconographic example. Finally, though, he defers to us the audience. He says: “What now ensues, to the judgement of your eye / I give my cause, who best can justify” (41-42). It's as if having already rendered his judgment about Antiochus, for example, he passes the task to the audience. If readers have read the tale for restorative, the hearers and seers must now exercise their judgment to decide what purpose this artistic work will fulfill. As a commentator cited in the Arden edition notes, words in the final lines, such as “testify,” “judgement,” “cause,” and “justify,” echo legal terminology. Gower rests his case, and we must render a verdict. In this he resembles the dramatist who offers his art to a critical public. We will see with our own eyes the evil of Antiochus and his daughter; we will see that beneath that alluring beauty lies a vile corruption. We will experience other characters about whom we will reach judgments. Being outside the drama, Gower makes his own judgment and thereby invites us to do likewise.

In the Epilogue, however, Gower returns to his function as moral judge of what has happened. In a chronological enumeration of the principal characters, Gower assesses the play's action and the characters' lives. Gower begins with Antiochus, thereby bringing this story full circle and taking us back to the prologue. He again condemns Antiochus and adds Cleon and his wife; but he praises Helicanus (“A figure of truth, of faith, of loyalty” [Epilogue, 8]) and “reverend” Cerimon. As he had earlier told us of the destruction of Antiochus and his daughter, so now he tells of a similar burning of Cleon and Dionyza by the people of their kingdom. Paradoxically, while citing all these specific events, Gower chooses an array of abstract words, such as “lust,” “fortune,” “virtue,” “joy,” “truth,” “faith,” “loyalty,” “charity,” “fame,” and “patience.” They all seem to demand capitalization. One could put them together in a sentence and offer a fairly accurate assessment of Pericles. These abstract nouns reinforce the idea of judgment.

I find particularly striking the play's last two lines: “So on your patience evermore attending, / New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending” (17-18). The ending in at least one sense echoes the beginning: if the former readers have found the tale to be a restorative, we may now experience “new joy”—at least that is Gower's hope, even benediction. The play rewards us with joy, certainly a quality inherent in restorative. Gower has taken us into his confidence, and now he offers joy—the apparent pay-off for our own judgment. We have been co-conspirators in the fiction, and the narrator/dramatist acknowledges and rewards our complicity.

The last line—“Here our play has ending”—has two key words: “play” and “ending.” For the first time in Pericles, Gower refers to “play” as opposed to “story,” as if his story has become play or drama.5 Indeed, it has. The narrative beginning has given way to dramatic realization. Gower also says “our” play, underscoring our involvement in making this story a play. This play has “ending.” Significantly, Gower does not say that the play “ends” or “has ended”; instead, he says that it has “ending.” To me, this calls attention to the ongoing life of the play. Or to put the issue in critical terms associated with romance, the play lacks final closure: it concludes, but it does not end. Gower and Shakespeare seem especially prescient here about our more recent critical understanding of generic closure or the lack thereof. In another sense, no artistic work ever ends so long as an audience carries with it memories of the art. Pericles shimmers in our imaginations long after Gower delivers his final lines, the performance concludes, and the audience disperses. In that sense, Gower's ending rather resembles his beginning: both are open-ended.

Gower has come from ashes to sing his song; and the Prologue speaker in Henry VIII begins: “I come no more to make you laugh …” (1).6 The “I” remains unspecified as does “no more.” To what does this choric figure refer? Seemingly, he has some prior history—possibly as the speaker in Pericles (a charming if unprovable speculation!)? Like Gower, the Prologue speaker refers to the function of the play, displays moral judgment, and provides information. Unlike Gower, this one in Henry VIII focuses on the theater audience in an explicit way. Like Gower, the Chorus here makes clear the serious purpose of what will follow—a seriousness defined in part by the speaker's presumed former history as one who induced mirth.

In contrast to this past appearance, the Chorus offers “things now / That bear a weighty and a serious brow, / Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe …” (1-3). Immediately we recognize the political nature of what will unfold in the drama, as opposed to the tale of incest that Gower announces. “Those that can pity,” the Prologue says, “here / May (if they think it well) let fall a tear, / The subject will deserve it” (5-7). The speaker insists on the seriousness of the drama and prepares us for tragedy; his aesthetic judgment conditions ours, or more precisely that of those in the first audience. Yet, interestingly, the speaker does not specify the precise nature of the drama's subject matter; that is, we move through the Prologue without any reference to Henry VIII himself or to his court. At least Gower mentioned Antiochus in his opening speech.

The Prologue rules out several groups of possible audience members or those who may be wasting their time. For example, “Those that come to see / Only a show or two” (9-10) and those “That come to hear a merry bawdy play” (14) or “to see a fellow / In a long motley coat guarded with yellow” (15-16): these will be deceived in what the Prologue defines as “two short hours” (13). Repeatedly, this chorus calls attention to the theater audience in ways that Gower did not, reflecting a self-consciousness about this piece of art as drama. For example, the speaker says: “Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow / We now present” (4-5). “Scenes” and the verb “present” reinforce the idea of a theatrical performance, not just a narrative rendering as in Pericles. By line 11 the Prologue refers to “the play.” The speaker here in Henry VIII identifies groups that obviously made up audiences in public theaters. He even flatters the present audience: “The first and happiest hearers of the town …” (23). They are either “first” as in the first to see the play or “first” as in stature or rank.

Like Gower who insists that he tells only what his authors say, the Chorus in Henry VIII alludes to its source, if indirectly. When he refers to “our chosen truth” (18), I think that the speaker means to imply the sources that the dramatist has used in constructing the play. Lines 14-19, referring to the fellow in the motley coat and “such a show,” contain apparently a slighting glance at Samuel Rowley's When You See Me (1605), one of Shakespeare's likely sources. Rowley's sometimes farcical play covers the reign of Henry VIII, 1514-1544. Clearly, Shakespeare turns his back on Rowley's treatment of the reign; instead, as the Chorus insists, he provides a serious dramatization of a portion of Henry's reign. Like Gower, the Prologue also perceives a purpose in the story that will unfold; indeed, the chorus states the purpose thus: “To make that only true we now intend …” (21). We confront here not the presence of a fiction but rather the example of truth. In line 9 the speaker indicates that viewers “May here find truth too.” Sir Henry Wotton's famous 1613 letter about the burning of the Globe during a performance of this play refers to it as “All is True” (a title that the editors of the new Oxford Shakespeare have adopted). To think that we see the “truth” (presumably meaning historical truth) nicely blurs the distinction between fiction and history.

The Prologue reinforces this view as he creates necessary dramatic illusion. “Think ye see,” he says, “The very persons of our noble story / As they were living: think you see them great, / And follow'd with the general throng, and sweat / Of thousand friends …” (25-29). This statement concedes that we will watch a representation of the past, truthfully full of nobility and sweat. The narrative path of this whole story follows tragedy: “How soon this mightiness meets misery” (30). But again the Prologue stops short of indicating the subject of the drama; rather, it busily focuses on tone and on the trajectory of the story: serious and tragic but leaving open the exact nature of the story.

Like Gower, the Prologue finally involves the judgment of the audience. If in light of the powerful and moving story “you can be merry then, I'll say / A man may weep upon his wedding day” (31-32). The speaker includes the “hearers” in a final response to the play. He has already carefully ruled out inappropriate motives or expectations from the audience—his judgment on the theater's spectators. Now the fit audience will be expected to respond with a judgment that respects the seriousness of the drama. But from the Prologue we can only know the direction of the narrative, not its content. The speaker risks offering us a generic beginning that might readily be attached to almost any serious play that contains tragic action in a political setting.

As we know, the Prologue speaker disappears in Henry VIII, unlike Gower in Pericles. I want to suggest, however, that something like a choric function occurs at the play's end in the person of Cranmer. His final prophetic vision enlarges the play and makes it touch the current history of 1613 quite precisely. Cranmer might have said, as Gower did in his Epilogue, “our play has ending,” with the same recognition that the play continues, here precisely because the Stuart royal family offers testimony to that assumption.

When Cranmer begins his great speech (V.iv.14-55), he says: … “the words I utter, / Let none think flattery, for they'll find ’em truth” (15-16). Sounding like the Prologue, Cranmer insists on his veracity as he launches his imaginative praise of the baby Elizabeth. Instead of looking backward as Gower does, Cranmer looks forward in time—in actual time to the reign of Elizabeth, her death, and the succession of James. For Elizabeth, “Truth shall nurse her” (28), and “God shall be truly known” (36). She will also be interpreted: “… those about her / From her shall read the perfect ways of honour …” (36-37). “Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror” (47) that once attended Elizabeth shall accompany her successor, according to Cranmer. Citing Cranmer's prophetic and choric role, Henry VIII refers to him as “This oracle of comfort” (66). He might have said that Cranmer offers “new joy,” as Gower did in his Epilogue. As such, one may argue that Cranmer has an “epilogue” function, helping complete the play.

The speaker of the brief formal Epilogue returns to the question of pleasing audiences, which had been a large part of the Prologue's focus: “’Tis ten to one this play can never please / All that are here” (1-2). Those who came “to hear the city / Abus'd extremely, and to cry ‘That's witty’” (5-6) will have been disappointed. Shakespeare through the speaker seems to be glancing at the satiric city comedies—perhaps of Jonson and Middleton—which had been much in vogue. Whatever final judgment we make of Henry VIII, we will probably not focus on its “wit.” The dramatist adds an interesting and topical twist to the preoccupation with performance: the Epilogue self-consciously glances at other popular dramatic forms of the time. Unlike Gower's epilogue that explicitly went back over the play, this one says very little precisely about the drama—again because primarily preoccupied with the performance. But at the close the speaker does praise the “merciful construction of good women, / For such a one we show'd ’em” (10-11). Possibly the speaker refers to Katherine, but where does that leave Anne? In any event, the final appeal for applause hinges on the response of women in the audience and recalls somewhat the Epilogue to As You Like It. Both Gower and the speaker in Henry VIII request the hearers' or readers' active judgment, signalled in the latter play by the request for applause. These plays do not allow the audience to remain idle.

In some ways the Prologue to Two Noble Kinsmen brings together qualities of the openings of both Pericles and Henry VIII; for it emphasizes its narrative link to Chaucer, and it calls attention to theatrical performance. Unlike the other two, the speaker here actively calls for our help—that is, applause: “… do but you hold out / Your helping hands, and we shall tack about, / And something do to save us” (25-27).7 This steps up in a consciously theatrical way the earlier insistence that our judgment would be required. The Prologue in Two Noble Kinsmen puts us on guard by letting us know that our hands will be needed in this enterprise. Gower's moral purpose does not appear; instead, the Prologue speaker more nearly resembles the one in Henry VIII by suggesting that this play may provide “content to you,” and it will keep “A little dull time from us” (31, 32). It may well be “Worth two hours' travail” (29). The irresistible pun in “travail” implicates us as well in this labor and in the narrative and dramatic journey that will unfold.

The Prologue has a three-part structure, divided as follows: lines 1-8, 9-23, and 24-32. The opening line announces in a succinct and graphic way the essential metaphor of this first section: “New Plays and maidenheads are near akin” (1). A good play, the speaker continues, “is like her / That after a holy tie and first night's stir / Yet still is modesty …” (5-7). Much pursued, new plays and maidenheads require “much money gi'en, / If they stand sound and well” (2-3). Unlike Gower who emphasizes the restorative nature of his narrative, or the Prologue in Henry VIII who examines the motives of the audience and insists on the verisimilitude of the dramatic action, the Prologue in Two Noble Kinsmen asserts an inherent sexuality of drama. Many late twentieth-century literary theorists would agree or would in fact see connections between all writing and sexuality. Shakespeare or Fletcher has the Prologue speaker posit such a theoretical possibility in the seventeenth century—at least as metaphor. Gower had revealed the incest of Antiochus and his daughter as part of the dramatic/narrative action, but here the Prologue speaker makes a link between sexual activity and the production of texts. One wonders, of course, where old plays fit in the sexual scheme of things. The speaker offers no clue.

Reflecting the play's indebtedness to Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, the second part of the Prologue refers to the poet in awestruck terms: “noble,” “pure,” “learned.” The speaker says simply: “Chaucer, of all admired, the story gives” (13). In a sense the playwright brings us back to Gower, at least historically. We learn that Chaucer will inform this play, although the speaker does not specify which of Chaucer's works will provide the source for the play. Gower told us that he would reveal “what mine authors say”; we infer that the dramatist in Two Noble Kinsmen will be doing something similar. But this second division of the Prologue worries primarily about Chaucer's possible reaction to the play—a charming fiction. If the play does not achieve adequate stature, “How will it shake the bones of that good man, / And make him cry from under ground, ‘O fan / From me the witless chaff of such a writer …’” (17-19). This reaction the speaker fears, and certainly it would be “too ambitious, to aspire to him” (23). We seem to be staring “anxiety of influence” in the face.

Such modesty permeates the final section of the Prologue: “Weak as we are …” (24). Hence the speaker pleads for the assistance of the audience and its favorable reaction, manifested in part by applause. Perhaps such a response could still Chaucer's roused ghost. The Prologue asks for the audience's judgment, as had Gower and the Prologue in Henry VIII, but as a possible counter to Chaucer's. The speaker here finally wishes for two things: “To his [Chaucer's] bones sweet sleep; / Content to you” (29-30). Likely also the playwright wishes some “content” for himself. The thematic progression of the Prologue seems to go something like this: sex—birth of the play—Oedipal struggle with an artistic father—hope for release. If this is Shakespeare's play and his Prologue, then how fascinating to think of Two Noble Kinsmen as the last play with a valedictory statement that acknowledges a possible life-long artistic struggle with his sources and a nervousness about measuring up.

Like the Epilogues to the other two plays, the one in Two Noble Kinsmen returns to the issue of possible reaction to the play: “I would now ask ye how ye like the play …” (1). About the audience's response the speaker remains “fearful” (3), worrying that some in the audience will “hiss, and kill / Our market” (8-9). Much here especially reminds us of the Epilogue to Henry VIII, except that the speaker in Two Noble Kinsmen couches his appeal to men, unlike the former's appeal to women. “No man smile?” the Prologue asks (4); and he continues: “He that has / Loved a young handsome wench, then, show his face” (4-5). The speaker in this final play cannot seem to avoid the subject of sex, reinforcing a connection between text and sex, enunciated in the Prologue. The speaker concludes: “Gentlemen, good night” (18). Perhaps this masculine slant derives from the play itself which focuses on two noble kinsmen.

“If the tale we have told— / … any way content ye, / For to that honest purpose it was meant ye, / We have our end …” (12-15). Suddenly through all this expected concern about reaction to the performance comes a recollection of the narrative tale that gave rise to the drama in the first place. Again, the speaker in Two Noble Kinsmen offers a subtle blend of narrative and dramatic perspectives. In the Epilogue the speaker moves from “play” in line 1 to “tale” in line 12, rather standing on its head Gower's conclusions in his Epilogue. “Content” becomes a key word in both the Prologue and Epilogue—a satisfaction to be derived from the tale and the performance. The speaker closes on a curious note: “… ye shall have ere long / I dare say many a better, to prolong / Your old loves to us” (15-17). This seems to promise more plays, or it could conceivably point in the direction of a printed collection of the plays. In any event, drama prolongs “old loves.” Perhaps here lies the response to “new plays and maidenheads”; that is, after the initial flush of sexual-textual excitement, an old love may be established, encouraged and prolonged by more texts.

Unlike the other Romances, Pericles, Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen begin and end with choric speakers who exercise their moral judgments, alert us to forthcoming action, create dramatic illusion, allude to the sources that inform the narrative, and require of the audience its own judgment. More so than the other Romances, these plays by their beginnings emphasize the theatrical nature of what will be presented, especially in the case of the Prologues of Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen, which refer to the audience in a direct and explicit way. These Prologues also reflect a tension between narrative or source and the play itself—the singing of old songs, telling of old tales, revealing the chosen truth and the necessity to make these come alive in performance. A nervousness hangs over these Prologues, manifested eventually in the sometimes special pleading of the Epilogues. I think this healthy tension reflects a serious dramatist's struggle to position himself with regard to his narrative sources and his own artistic imagination. The sexual metaphor that informs Two Noble Kinsmen reinforces such a battle. The dramatist hopes that these new plays may spark an attractive response that can ultimately lead to old loves, even a mutual love between playwright and audience. If so, the texts may provide a restorative; the performances, truth and contentment. Through such prologues we gain a special insight into the playwright's artistic perspective, particularly his concern for how he will be understood and received—his negotiations with an audience and with himself.


  1. For the sake of the argument I am going to accept Shakespeare's authorship of Two Noble Kinsmen. I recognize that this is a vexed and debatable issue. I have no new evidence to present, but I think persuasive cases have been made for at least Shakespeare's collaboration with Fletcher in this play. For a convenient summary of the argument see Clifford Leech's introduction to his Signet edition of the play.

  2. Quotations from Pericles come from the Arden edition: Pericles, ed. F. D. Hoeniger (London: Methuen, 1963).

  3. See for example: Walter Eggers, “Shakespeare's Gower and the Role of the Authorial Presenter,” Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975), 434-43; Richard Hillman, “Shakespeare's Gower and Gower's Shakespeare: The Larger Debt of Pericles,Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1985), 427-37.

  4. Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 58.

  5. For further discussion of this point see my essay, “Reading and Writing in Shakespeare's Romances,” Criticism, 33 (1991), 91-113.

  6. Quotations from this play come from Henry VIII, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Methuen, 1964), the Arden edition.

  7. Quotations come from Two Noble Kinsmen, ed. Clifford Leech in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, gen. ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

Robert Smallwood (essay date 1992)

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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, scholarly figure now picks up a little printed volume of verse and leafs through it, thoughtfully. He pauses on an apparently familiar page, peering at it quizzically, and we wish (with Sir Toby, from quite another play) that “the spirit of humours” may “intimate reading aloud to him”. We are in luck; he begins to read what are clearly long-pondered words:

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand and virtue go.

The simple, gnomic sentiments further strengthen his resolve; he will put the idea he has long been turning over in his mind to the test, he will make the experiment. And so, three or four minutes since we heard the first notes of the Strauss waltz, he calls out sharply “Escalus” and a gracious elderly civil servant enters. “My lord”, he says, with a deferentially enquiring lilt. And Measure for Measure begins. Or did it begin when the music started?

The episode I have described began Trevor Nunn's production of Measure for Measure in Stratford in the summer of 1991. All that the Folio text of Measure for Measure offers by way of an opening stage direction is “Enter Duke, Escalus, Lords” followed by the first line of dialogue: the music and the dancing couples were pure invention; the creation of a time-gap between the entry of the Duke and the entry of Escalus rather less pure but still inventive; and the events that occurred in that gap the director's means of asserting and demonstrating the interpretative direction he wished to take (and a very interesting and revealing direction it was). This was, in short, yet another example of a phenomenon surely on the increase in recent Shakespeare production—the little directorial dumb-show (and sometimes not altogether dumb) that so often begins the evening. The stage manager's warning announcement, over the back-stage tannoy system, “Beginners, please”, calling the actors to the stage five minutes before the performance begins, is frequently to be heard a great deal more than five minutes before the first line of the text will be uttered. And it is with this phenomenon, taking my examples from a series of recent productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, that I am concerned in this paper.

Any production of any Shakespeare play, of course, involves the making of hundreds, thousands, of choices among options that remain open for as long as we are merely readers. The vast majority of these decisions, however, are based on the need to interpret the text in one way rather than another: how to inflect a word or line, where to place an emphasis, whether or not a remark is or is not an aside to the audience or is overheard by other characters, and so on from the first line to the last. What is particular about my topic here, of course, is that it is off the text. That, indeed, is its very raison d’être: the director is, as it were, creating a free space for himself before the authorial text comes along to restrict that freedom and to cramp his style. Almost all the early texts of Shakespeare (the obvious exception is The Taming of the Shrew of which more later) simply bring characters on for the play's opening scene with stage directions that, in the Folio and quartos, imply nothing more than that actors walk onto the stage (presumably by way of doors in the tiring-house wall) and start talking: “Escalus. My lord.” … “As I remember, Adam.” … “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” … “Tush, never tell me.” … “Who's there?” … and so on. Of course there may easily have been much more elaborate business than the texts record (here as elsewhere), all sorts of variations, and pregnant pauses, and what not, but the bald and cryptic information of the Folio and quarto directions preserves no evidence of it: just “Enter A, B and C”—and get on with it. In the earlier years of our own century, and throughout the nineteenth and before, the moment of beginning a performance of a Shakespeare play (or any play for that matter) was identifiable to the second: a musical overture would quieten the audience and set the mood and then, at the appointed moment, up would go the curtain and the audience was instantly invited to enter the play's world of make-believe, the theatrical version of “once upon a time”2. The phrase ‘curtain-up’ is still, of course, the usual way of referring to the beginning of the performance, long after the disappearance of the curtain in productions of Shakespeare. But with the disappearance of the curtain the moment of transition is obviously much less clear-cut and the audience's journey from reality (if that is not too portentous a term) into the world of the play has become an area of infinite fascination, endlessly exploitable by directors. Let me go back to Trevor Nunn's Measure for Measure.

The Strauss waltz and the dancing couples in the half light that began the evening returned for a few seconds at the end of the play: a musical overture, a musical envoi, and the great experiment in social morality that had been imposed on Vienna was over and things were going back to being exactly as they always had been. The newspaper cuttings reappeared in Act III, Scene 1: “She should this Angelo have married” said the Duke to Isabella, offering her a way out of her dilemma as he handed her the first cutting from his little green folder—it was apparently the announcement of the engagement. “Her brother Frederick was wrecked at sea”—and another cutting about that; “left her in tears”—and another cutting announcing Angelo's defection when the dowry was lost. The cuttings that the Duke was examining so thoughtfully at the start of the evening were, then, all about Angelo's treatment of Mariana; that episode was not a sudden Act III twist of the plot, as has sometimes been argued, but, it now emerged, the sole motive, cause, and origin of the Duke's entire experiment. And thus the transfer of the Duke's little soliloquy, printed in the Folio at the end of what later editors have called Act III, Scene 1, but floating a little loosely there and believed, by the Oxford editors among others, to have been transposed from a later scene. Whether this slightly unanchored state is sufficient excuse for transplanting it right to the front of the play is, of course, beyond my brief here.

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know … 

The Duke clearly intends the lines to refer specifically to Angelo, on whom he is about to conduct a psychological experiment—and the fact that he is sitting on a couch in turn-of-the-century Vienna looking vaguely like Sigmund Freud is all part of that. The play became a series of psychological experiments, in fact, Isabella taking over from Angelo as the object of Duke Sigmund's investigations from the moment he watched her in the prison with her brother; by the final scene the Duke himself, the middle-aged celibate contemplating marriage, seemed to be becoming the subject of his own psychological curiosity.

I have spent a little time on Trevor Nunn's Measure for Measure because it is a perfect example of my subject. His interpretation, his ‘reading’, of the play left out, of course, a huge amount that academic criticism has at different times found there—not a sign of the Christian allegorical interpretation, for example, and not a whiff of the presence of King James I—but within its own chosen terms it was entirely coherent, convincing, and impressive. And (central to my purpose here) all the main lines of its interpretative route through the play were set up in that opening few minutes before Shakespeare started writing.

“Beginners, please”: “Enter Leonato, Governor of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter and Beatrice his niece, with a messenger.” Thus both the 1600 quarto and the Folio begin Much Ado about Nothing. Innogen never speaks and modern editors leave her out; nor have I ever seen her on stage. But the last three productions of the play I have seen have all delayed the arrival of the messenger by a crucial minute or so. For the RSC in 1988, in a modern-dress production, Di Trevis brought the lights up on the Leonato household lounging about in languid attitudes, each very isolated from the other, on the patio of what was obviously their very expensive villa. A messenger in battle dress arrived when we had had time to absorb the idea of bored wealth, of a society that is rich, decadent, and selfish. A sunny terrace had also provided our first glimpse of Messina in Dame Judi Dench's nineteenth-century costumed production for the Renaissance Theatre Company the year before, but here the figures presented themselves in attitudes of mutuality, social coherence, and interdependence, Beatrice helping Leonato with a jig-saw puzzle, Margaret and Hero winding wool together. One director wanted the events of the play, the inability of the Hero/Claudio relationship to withstand the threats that shake it, to come as no surprise, to seem, in a sense, deserved; the other wanted them to strike us with shock, pain, pity. At Stratford in 1990 the play began in Bill Alexander's production with the Leonato household on stage, in splendid Renaissance costumes, and the somewhat incongruous spectacle of Beatrice engaged in a little bout of rapier-fencing with Leonato and (in spite of the encumbrance of her long, flowing skirts) winning—easily. And then the messenger arrived and the play began—except that it really began, as far as the audience was concerned, with the spectacle of a woman defeating a man at what (given the costuming of this production) was distinctly a man's game. “O God, that I were a man”, Beatrice will say, with minor variations of phrasing, half a dozen times in the church scene. The idea of the restrictions, the frustrations, the search for an appropriate role, for an intelligent woman in a patriarchal society, one of the ideas this production sought to pursue through the play, was set up in that opening little dumb show. Three productions of Much Ado about Nothing, then, each postponing the entry of the messenger for a minute or so, to set up a mood, to raise an issue, to create an angle on the play.

The examples I have chosen so far have all been moments, episodes, bits of business that begin with the houselights going down at the time printed on one's ticket and aim to build a little bridge to Act I, Scene 1, line 1 of the text. There is, however, another form of “Beginners, please” that takes rather longer over the journey from the outside world, the ‘real’ world, to the world of the play. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre (like most British theatres) normally opens its doors thirty minutes before the start of the performance (7 p.m. for 7.30). In some recent Shakespeare productions arrival even at the very second the doors were opened still did not mean that one got into the theatre before actors were on stage.3 It might say on your ticket that the performance of Twelfth Night started at 7.30, but even if one arrived at 7 p.m. precisely there sat Orsino, looking as if he'd been there all day, listening to the music which, thirty minutes later, he would still be wanting to “play on”. Or consider the As You Like It directed for the RSC by John Caird in 1989: from ‘doors open’ at 7 p.m. most of the cast were on stage dancing to music of the 1930s. The set reproduced the thirties decor of the public areas of the theatre itself, the art deco marquetry panelling, chaises longues, and lamps of the dress circle bar, the huge silver-figured clock of the foyer showing the correct time and dominating the stage in the middle of the panelling which blocked off the proscenium arch. All of this set was forward of the arch, occupying space that would not have been regarded as part of the acting area when the theatre was opened in 1932. Actors entered the stage from the auditorium and continued to move freely between the two spaces; most of them were in thirties evening dress and gowns, though a few of them wore the uniforms of ushers and usherettes; one could not tell whether they pursued their ushering profession at Duke Frederick's court or at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. “All the world's a stage”, and the boundaries between playing area and auditorium were being examined and challenged. Then, as the great stage/foyer clock approached 7.30, a figure in simple fawn breeches and shirt, an alien in this elegant, black-clad world, appeared and moved downstage: “As I remember, Adam”; a frail little butler was nearby, but the speech was presented straight out, as a prologue, justifying Rosalind's words at the end of the play: “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue, but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue”. For the wrestling scene there was a great processional entry down the central aisle of the stalls, to a pompous ducal anthem, an armed bodyguard threateningly requiring the audience to stand as Duke Frederick took his seat in the royal box (situated in the dress circle slips). (Failure to obey the requirement to stand was, I observed on the occasions I saw the production, rare; it did not, of course, necessarily imply failure to respond to the production: it might also imply an involvement so complete that one could not allow oneself to stand for the usurper.) When Rosalind and her companions arrived in Arden she pushed against the wooden panelling under the proscenium arch and a huge door swung open, breaking the great clock in two (“there's no clock in the forest”), and in a swirl of mist and falling leaves, with a rush of wind and the cawing of rooks, she passed through the proscenium arch and into that magical space (the stage, in the original design of the theatre) called Arden. Strongly backlit, that first unlikely pair of dwellers in this strange region approached downstage, “a young man and an old in solemn talk”. It was a moment brilliantly recalled at the play's ending when Jaques, having delivered his verdicts on the various couples and declined to join the dance, withdrew upstage to the rear wall to push open another door, a miniature replica of the enormous one here, and, again strongly backlit, departed in search of that other unlikely pair, the converted Duke Frederick and the “old religious man”. Are there other doors, off other stages beyond that, one wondered, with a succession of possibilities for make-believe (and self-discovery). The whole approach of the production, its basic concept, depended upon the ideas set up in that elaborate silent induction preceding the first line of the text and inviting us to wonder, to feel uncertain and confused, about the boundary between auditorium and stage, real world and play world; to consider, in short, the question of where the play begins.

Shakespeare, of course, on one notable occasion, evinced his own interest in such questions by providing his own bridge, his own half-way house. The Christopher Sly scenes of The Taming of the Shrew offer one of the more elaborate inductions in Elizabethan drama. One might have supposed that they would be enough. Yet all three RSC productions that have used the induction in recent years have been unable to resist the temptation to add to it and the one that did not use it (Jonathan Miller in 1987) substituted something of its own. Let me take Miller first.

On entering the theatre (and one had to be immensely early to be there before them) one was greeted by a street band, Paduan style, dressed in Renaissance—vaguely commedia—costumes and performing musical selections on an assortment of period instruments led by an imposing figure playing the hurdy-gurdy. Members of the company in costume wandered by, occasionally stopping to pass a word or two with musicians not currently occupied. The auditorium audience too enjoyed the music, applauding the various pieces, and as the musicians moved off behind their hurdy-gurdy-winding maestro, on wandered Lucentio and Tranio: “Tranio, since for the great desire I had / To see fair Padua …”. And the journey to Padua, made across “the pleasant garden of great Italy” by the travellers, had been made by the audience, Jonathan Miller clearly hoped, upon the viewless wings of the music of the shawm and the sackbut. Sly and all his dreaming-waking and waking-dreaming were deemed to be superfluous.

Three years earlier, in 1984, we had had the Sly induction lavishly and lovingly treated. Barry Kyle spent a great length of time (more or less from ‘doors open’) inducing the induction, again with the help of the theatre band. As one entered the theatre one confronted a lively Elizabethan inn scene, a little band of woodwind and percussion playing sixteenth-century dance tunes, a group sitting on benches for a meal, tapsters and waiting wenches hurrying hither and thither, chickens (sic) occasionally visible—if, bane of the stage-manager's life as they were, they'd not got into the auditorium. There was cheering as some of the musical numbers were decided on and from the general hubbub of voices an occasional phrase emerged: “it's in C sharp as I do recall”, and such like. There was, predictably, a bit of bottom-pinching as the waiting wenches passed hither and thither and there was, equally predictably, an outbreak of the sort of galumphing dancing much associated with Elizabethan inn scenes in twentieth-century theatres. Inevitably things got rowdier: somebody started throwing punches when one of the wenches was interfered with once too often and retaliated and, as 7.30 approached, the perpetrator was ejected and identified, of course, as Christopher Sly: “I'll pheeze you, in faith”.

Rather more notorious was Michael Bogdanov's induction to the induction in his 1978 production of The Taming of the Shrew. One entered the theatre to be confronted by a set for Padua that looked unbelievably old-fashioned—all painted flats and a poor attempt at an Italian street perspective, with comical little balconies and urns of flowers here and there. As 7.30 approached an altercation broke out somewhere near the front of the stalls; a drunk was in dispute with an usherette in RSC uniform who seemed to be accusing him of having no ticket. It was a very Scottish, a very Glaswegian drunk. The promptbook records no words for the usherette, just an increasingly threatening monologue from a character labelled Jim from which the following phrases are extracted: “It's a’ reet … My mate's got ma ticket … It's a’ reet … There's nae problem … Don't you bloody well talk to me like that … No, y’ canna tell me what to do … No bloody woman's goin’ t’ tell me what to do … If anybody's goin’ to be sorted out, it's you.4 As the altercation continued, Jim clambered up onto the stage5 and the promptbook then records the following, amongst a good deal more: “He throws right urn and pulls down right balcony … He throws left urn and pulls down left balcony … Moves to downstage left pillar; downstage left and downstage right pillars collapse … He throws fruit baskets … Grabs statue and removes legs … Moves to red mark; flats fall on him … Wraps himself up in opposite-prompt tab and collapses downstage centre.” And at this point the lord entered with the instruction “Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds” and we were into the play, or at least Shakespeare's induction to it, with Jim gradually merging into Sly, though still uttering occasional bits of modern Glaswegian: “I was just having a quiet drink, honest I was” or, in response to the servingman's enquiry, “Dost thou love pictures” “I saw a good one last week”. Fairly rapidly, however, Shakespearian idioms took over and this most radical of pre-plays merged into the very radical version of The Taming of the Shrew that Michael Bogdanov offered, with the taming as a brutal piece of male chauvinism carried through in a set which, when thus stripped, was heavily reminiscent of a prison. The drunken Jim became Sly, who became Petruccio, and the brutality of gender relationships in that opening row with the usherette was seen to operate right through the play.

Michael Bogdanov's The Taming of the Shrew was notable for many things, but for the purposes of this paper perhaps most for the highly controversial creation of new dialogue to accompany what are normally the dumb shows that directors offer as preludes to their productions and which are my concern here. And interestingly The Taming of the Shrew has now provoked the same phenomenon again. Bill Alexander's current (1992) RSC production begins with Sly being thrown through the door of a pub (named, perhaps a little too obviously, the Ugly Duckling). He falls asleep and is discovered by a group of flamboyantly upper-class young persons (Hurray Henries, Sloane Rangers—whatever epithet for the stereotype one favours). “Is he dead? Is he breathing? Leave him alone, Simon, he's disgusting—probably working-class.” Then some servile-looking actors come in; they have been summoned to perform for Lord Simon's birthday party. The company is introduced to them: “This is Lady Sarah Ormsby. This is Mrs Ruth Banks-Ellis … Go, make you ready—as you say.” The new dialogue is self-consciously banal and (like a modern museum conservator's repair of an ancient vase) makes no attempt to disguise itself or to match the original, the really rather splendid writing of the Sly induction in the Folio text. It is, nevertheless, an excellent example of the phenomenon I am dealing with, for it seizes on the play's essential concern with its own theatricality—why an induction at all, why present the Paduan episodes as if they are just a tinker's dream?—and tries to take it further. “Do it”, shrieks Lord Simon, when his fiancée defies his order to get his brother to dress up as Sly's wife, “you're always crossing me.” And then, presenting his plan for deluding Sly, “we'll just mess around with his mind for a bit”. Lord Simon and his party (with Sly) sit up-stage in their elegant drawing room in modern dress while down-stage of them, in Renaissance costume, the Paduan play is performed. As the performance wears on the upper class spectators are called upon to take small roles in it and find themselves yelled at by Petruccio as they play his household servants. It becomes clear that their minds too are being ‘messed about’ with, affected by this harsh story of gender relations upon which has been superimposed a story, no less harsh, of social relations. By the end of the play the elegant young people are noticeably less edgy with each other than at the start and as the sleeping Sly is carried out for the little epilogue from the 1594 A Shrew quarto the instruction “Don't hurt him” comes a little surprisingly from the cocky young man we had seen at the beginning. “For she is changed, as she had never been” says Kate's father about his daughter in the Paduan play's final scene. The director is using his pre-induction device, his induction to the induction, as a way of suggesting that the scenes in which Kate has been involved may have changed more than her. And though I found it all a little heavy-handed, a little obvious, one can see the motive easily enough and even sympathize with it: if the Sly scenes are in some sense there to provide a bridge, 1594-style, to the Paduan play and its exploration of mental metamorphosis, why not provide a bridge, and a transformation, 1992-style, to go with them?

The examples I have discussed so far fall into two main groups based on a straightforward technical difference: those which greet one when one enters the theatre, however early one gets there, and those which do not begin until the official starting time printed on the theatre ticket, usually after some sort of music cue and short black-out. The examples I have considered from The Taming of the Shrew comprise two from each category: Kyle and Miller the long pre-7.30 lead-in, Bogdanov and Alexander the short post-7.30 prelude, though oddly enough the latter are the more radical, both involving (highly unusually) the creation of new dialogue. I have also been dealing with fairly elaborate examples of the form, for one needs to see the phenomenon in operation on a large scale before one begins to see how pervasive it is in rather less conspicuous ways. I turn now, therefore, to a few rather simpler examples.

“Enter Theseus, Hippolyta, with others” says the Folio (and quarto) opening stage direction of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The order in which characters are listed in a mass entry is usually (though not quite consistently) hierarchical in the early texts. Perhaps that hierarchical order was preserved in sixteenth-century stagings; few modern directors, however, would feel bound by it. Nor would it be sensible to argue that the grouped listing implies that the persons should manifest themselves with synchronized simultaneity. And yet, of course, the order of appearance does matter very much. At the beginning of the most recent RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (by John Caird in 1989), Hippolyta came first onto the stage with an expression on her face strongly suggesting pleasure and relief that she had found somewhere to be alone, an expression that changed immediately when she sensed Theseus following her a second or two later—as who should say “O, damn, here he comes again”. Theseus's now in “Now, fair Hippolyta” was then uttered in such a way as to contrive to mean something like “Ah, there you are …”. A rather similar message was conveyed by quite different means in Bill Alexander's 1986 production: at the 7.30 black-out there was a music cue and the lighting of a lamp by a servant illumined Theseus relaxing on a chaise longue in evening dress. Hippolyta, in long black gown, entered a couple of seconds later and glanced disdainfully at him, obviously furious with herself for having chosen the one room in the palace where he was. As soon as he became aware of her presence he started patting the seat encouragingly, patronizingly, for her to come and sit beside him, enthusiastically announcing “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour / Draws on apace”. Hippolyta looked bored. In both productions only a few seconds elapsed from the lights coming back up to the first words of the text, but in both cases a great deal had been said in them about the mood of this conquered Amazonian queen oppressed and depressed by the prospect of marriage to her captor.

“Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches”—here is one of the few texts in the Folio that does not have Enter as its very first word. The last RSC Macbeth (by Adrian Noble in 1988), greeted its audiences as they entered the theatre with a devastated battlefield, what seemed to be a corpse lying downstage, a ragged bundle beside it, battleflags tattered and torn stuck into the ground on their poles. At 7.30 down went the lights and to the sound of the storm (wind rather than thunder, as I remember) three women came shuffling on through the flags, poking about the stage like battlefield scavengers, scrabbling about, making breathing, sucking, groaning, and generally sexually disgusting noises, grabbing the ragged bundle and discovering, with a terrible glee, that it contained a living child and carrying it off triumphantly after the scene's brief dialogue. When they next appeared there was no child but the one of the trio who had carried it off now had a blood-stained mouth and face. That powerful early image of the horrible connexion, Turn of the Screw fashion, between evil and the child, which the production was to exploit throughout, was thus established before we had even reached “When shall we three meet again”.

That particular Macbeth offered a mixture of the pre-7.30 and the post-7.30 preludes, though the former was a ‘show’ not only dumb but also still. Let me offer one other example (more animated in its pre-7.30 phase) of the combination, before returning to Vienna where I began.

Howard Davies's 1985 production of Troilus and Cressida on the main stage at Stratford was set in the period of the Crimean War. One entered the theatre to be confronted by the sight of a badly shot-about chateau interior, doors hanging off hinges, pictures awry and smashed, an ornate metal stair-bannister twisted and broken—past elegance and grandeur wrecked by war. At a table, near a piano, wearing a straw hat and a rather dapper suit somewhat past its best, sat Pandarus, every now and then whistling a little tune that tried to be cheerful but was really only monotonous, its repetition (he later played it on the piano—a lot) making it seem more and more forlorn. He was reading a newspaper. He had been there for ages, certainly since before the doors opened at 7 p.m., but actually, one felt, since the Trojan War began. He would be there again at the end, same suit, same hat, same piano, same tune, same diseases to bequeath to us. As he sat there at the start he stirred slightly in acknowledgement of a distant trumpet call (which came, in fact, at 7.30) and looked up from his newspaper. Then came shouts as of battle, wails, echoed mournfully (perhaps by the empty house) and two soldiers in uniform rushed on with a wounded soldier. Another Trojan soldier follows in haste, onto the balcony above. The wounded soldier is laid out; his face is covered; he has died. Pandarus sits, emotionless, inured to it all, watching. One of the bearers stands up and turns to the audience: “In Troy, there lies the scene …” uttered with stinging irony. Pandarus sits through the Prologue and the two soldiers carry off the corpse. The stage is left to Pandarus and the soldier on the balcony who has watched it all. It is Troilus. The appalling endlessness of the war, the sense of “beginning in the middle”, had been established before the first word had been spoken.

Let me go back to Vienna, not last year but three years earlier, to Stratford's main stage in 1988 and to a production of Measure for Measure by Nicholas Hytner. As the lights came up after the 7.30 black-out, to the accompaniment of harsh, jangling, nervy music, the Duke was before us seated at a desk and staring blankly, emptily, rather helplessly into the void. Escalus stood before him, vainly waiting, presumably for some business of state to be transacted. Then, one by one, other civil servants entered, one, two, three, four, five of them, four men and one woman, all in dark grey suits, all proffering papers which apparently needed the ducal signature, all of them unheeded, unnoticed by him. The group of them, standing, a little petulantly, comparing notes, as it were, on the executive inertia, finally prompted their senior, their Cabinet Secretary, Escalus, to slap a paper on the Duke's desk, distinctly audibly. And at last he responds: “Escalus”, he says, and the name is uttered with an interrogative lilt, as if to say “Is that you?”. “My lord”, comes the reply, a little reproachfully, meaning “Yes of course it is, as you surely ought to know”. We had finally started on the text, but then came another very long pause before, with no perceivable connexion with the anxious civil servants, or the matter in hand, but no doubt with every connexion with what he has just been so deeply and anxiously contemplating, he started; “Of government the properties to unfold …”.

Trevor Nunn's Duke of Vienna resigned the reins of power with the carefully considered and straightforward intention of experimenting on Angelo, of treating him as a case for psychological investigation. He was wholly in control when the play began—whether he was by the time it ended is another question. Nicholas Hytner had clearly set out to answer exactly the same question as Trevor Nunn, the question tantalizingly raised, but never answered, in Measure for Measure: why does the Duke do it? And he had come up with an altogether different answer. His Duke needed the temporary abdication because he had lost his way, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and knew it. He needed, therefore, to relocate himself in order, as one might say, to re-locate him-self, to rediscover his way. That two directors should come up with very different answers to the same question is not, of course, in the least surprising; it is, indeed, exactly as one would expect and is the reason one keeps going to the theatre. My point here, however, is that they had both revealed those answers before a word of text had been spoken in either production.

The journey into a play's world requires a leap of the imagination. “It is required you do awake your faith”, says Paulina before one of Shakespeare's most extraordinary theatrical shows. The topic this paper has addressed is the attempt by the directors of some recent RSC productions (and one could find dozens—and dozens—of further examples) to help us make that imaginative journey into the play's fiction by taking it in stages, coming out to meet us with an intermediate fictional world in order to create an atmosphere, or set us on our way, or (more particularly) state interpretative objectives, before we arrive at Shakespeare's first line. For where, after all, does a Shakespeare play begin—when one first enters the theatre and begins to contemplate what is presented to one's attention, or when the first line of the text is spoken? The space between the two is clearly of immense (and, I suspect, increasing) interest to directors, a most fecund area for investigation, exploration, and, perhaps, exploitation. And the best of it is that no way in can ever be definitive, no starting point ever wholly right. There are as many ways of starting as there are stage managers poised at their tannoys to call “Beginners, please”.


  1. This paper was written for delivery at the Vienna conference of the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft West in April 1992. I am deeply grateful to the President and Committee of the Gesellschaft, and to Dr Manfred Draudt the conference secretary, for the generous invitation to be present in Vienna. I have left the paper much as it was prepared for oral delivery. The paucity of documentation arises, however, not so much from this cause as from the fact that all the raw material for the paper is drawn from personal observation of Royal Shakespeare Company productions over the last decade or so. I am grateful to the librarians of the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford for the patience they showed to a tiresome library user who exhausted his interest in the video recordings of RSC productions which he kept demanding after watching only their opening few minutes. I am grateful also to Sonja Dosanjh, Company Manager of the RSC in Stratford, for information relevant to the preparation of the paper.

  2. I am grateful to my friend Jean-Marie Maguin for suggesting this simple but apposite epithet for the phenomenon with which I am concerned.

  3. In discussing ‘pre-7.30’ specimens of preludial dumb-show I am concerned only with examples where the actors one encounters on entering the theatre may be described as being ‘in character’. That phenomenon prevalent a few years ago but (fortunately, I think) less in evidence of late, of actors (in their own personae) mingling and endeavouring to chat with members of the audience in the period before curtain-up, is a different matter, beyond my scope here.

  4. Promptbook for the 1978 RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare Centre Library, Stratford-upon-Avon. In this and the following quotation I have expanded stagemanager's theatrical contractions and made other minor editorial adjustments for the sake of comprehensibility.

  5. Many audience members took the event for real; some tried to come to the usherette's assistance. Actors on the stage were under instructions to prevent members of the public from getting up to try to save what they thought was the set. David Suchet (playing Grumio) told me of being particularly worried at one matiné by the sight of a huge man striding onto the stage clearly intent on teaching the appalling Scot a lesson and assuming, when remonstrated with, that caution was being counselled. “Don't worry about me, son”, he said, “I can cope with half a dozen like him.” Only frantic reassurance—“It's part of the show, it's part of the show”—saved the skin of Jonathan Price, who was playing Jim/Sly/Petruccio.

Ejner J. Jensen (essay date 1991)

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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 such evidence, his conclusion was a sort of wistful challenge: “There does seem to be something wrong with a theory of Shakespeare's comedy which implies that all his successes are so considerably blemished” (7).

Since that time, critical discussion of the comedies has been both abundant and varied. In 1979, Wayne A. Rebhorn reported that thirty-five books on the subject had appeared in the years after 1957, and the flood of interest has shown no sign of abating since that time.2 But given all this activity, it remains curiously true that in the critical perspective afforded by most writers on Shakespearean comedy the plays are regarded as somehow falling short of the full glory that the form itself promises. In the most familiar readings, the comedies appear tainted by a sort of aesthetic original sin, a fault from which there is no redemption, since their shortcomings are measured against an ideal form that has declined to incarnate itself in the actual world of texts and theatrical representation.

If there is one root cause of this difficulty, it lies in the fact that the dominant approaches to comedy over the last three decades have attached extraordinary importance to the ways comedies end. Closure—and in this term I include the final disposition of characters, staging, tone, the completion of patterns of language and imagery, the characters' (or actors') relation to the audience, and any other matter that may be said to affect our final perception of a play's events—has become the focal issue in the criticism of Shakespeare's comedies. For some of the comic dramas this emphasis is of course not new at all. Dr. Johnson, one remembers, could not reconcile his heart to Bertram. But then he saw Shakespeare as generally content with unsatisfactory endings: “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.”3 The problem plays as a group, however large that group may be, have usually been faulted for not bringing their comic dilemmas to a satisfactorily comic issue; and Brown was simply acknowledging established practice when he treated them in a separate category in his review of critical interpretations.

But preoccupation with the endings of the romantic comedies has also been an insistent focus of criticism over the last three decades, with the result that nearly all the plays have been labeled as “problematic.” Few readers today would willingly associate themselves with the emphatic cheeriness of J. Dover Wilson in his assertion that “the quality the first ten comedies have in common is happiness, a serene happiness, liable to develop into merriment in the conclusion.”4 It seems necessary, however, to divide the issues surrounding this emphasis on closure, to see that declaring the importance of the comedies' conclusions need not entail the view that the endings are dark or problematic or otherwise disturbing. To begin such a task, one need only look closely at the development of the critical situation in the years since Brown's survey. The focus on Shakespeare's characters has been replaced by other approaches, nearly all of them concerned in some way with dramatic structure; and at the source of these approaches stands the work of two key figures, C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye.5 Although the particular emphasis of their analyses differs considerably—Frye focusing chiefly on literary antecedents, Barber taking a more “anthropological” way to his view of the comedies—both writers throw the weight of their observations on comic outcomes, the social reconciliation Frye discovers at the moment when “a new social unit is formed on the stage” (“Argument” 60) and the “clarification” Barber sees as the product of the characters' experience of “saturnalian release” (6-10).

For both Frye and Barber, then, closure stands for the comedies as “at once the source, and end, and test of Art.”6 Over the course of some years, Frye has refined and developed his interpretation of the comedies. In A Natural Perspective he offers not merely a fuller account of his understanding of the plays but an explanation of the critical logic that enables us to function as interpreters. In this view, our critical activity is in suspension during our experience of a literary work: we are in a “precritical” state, participating in a direct experience of the work's movement. Only when its structure becomes accessible to us can we engage in criticism proper. Thus Frye argues that “the point at which direct experience and criticism begin to come into alignment, in a work of fiction at least, is the point known as recognition or discovery, when some turn in the plot arrests the linear movement and enables us for the first time to see the story as a total shape, or what is usually called a theme” (9). One could hardly find a more definitive statement of the importance of closure. Barber's view, while similar, is in some ways more attentive to the complexity of a theatrical experience of the comedies; he pays more attention than does Frye to the mingling in Shakespeare of complementary views that are yet in some measure opposed, a quality of the plays defined recently with great skill by Norman Rabkin.7 At nearly every stage of his discussion, Barber is careful to avoid overstatement. Thus he detects the problem one faces in concentrating on structure, he knows the sort of falsification it requires, yet he persists: “every new moment, every new line or touch, is a triumph of opportunism, something snatched in from life beyond expectation and made design beyond design. And yet the fact remains that it is as we see the design that we see design outdone and brought alive” (4). For both Barber and Frye, then, “the end crowns the work” is not merely an adage well suited to justify a critical procedure; it becomes instead the guiding principle of their criticism and enables them to find in the structure of Shakespearean comedies a teleological design.8

The influence of Barber and Frye on subsequent criticism is so widespread and profound as to make illustration nearly supererogatory. And even those critics whose aims are quite different from the aims of these two dominant figures tend to follow them in basing their assessments of the plays on the issue of closure. Thus Ralph Berry, who opposes himself directly to the “festive” readings of Barber and Frye, nevertheless makes closure the key element in his reading of the comedies: “I should prefer to see the conclusions of the middle comedies less as ‘clarifications’ than as provisional re-groupings of situations that will continue their complex development.”9 Similarly, Elliot Krieger, whose Marxist reading of the comedies emphasizes tensions and antagonisms undreamed of in the social worlds described by Barber and Frye, nevertheless finds the strongest confirmation of his thesis in Shakespeare's management of the plays' conclusions. Thus he says that the conclusion of Twelfth Night “confirms the aristocratic fantasy (Maria is, discreetly, kept off-stage) that clarification is achieved when people are released from indulgence and restored to the degree of greatness with which they were born.”10 Anthony B. Dawson may stand for all those critics who view comedy as a process whose end lies in some sort of discovery. For Dawson, “it is as if the characters must arrive, within the movement of the plot, at an understanding of, and response to, the nature of drama itself.”11 This emphasis on process, whether it leads to unmasking,12 self-discovery, or some perception about the limitations of the theatre (as Philip Edwards would have it),13 is clearly grounded in a teleological view of comedy: it is purposive, and its purpose is revealed in its close.

The comic dramatist described by W. Thomas MacCary is a very different figure from the Shakespeare of the critics I have just been discussing. MacCary's Shakespeare focuses not on marriage as a goal but on a passage through the stages of object-choice appropriate to a developing male; not on social integration but on narcissism. And yet this playwright, too, focuses his comedies on a clear end: “the primary goal of the comedies, their teleology, is a definition of love, and this involves a consideration not only of stages in the development of object-relations but also some attention to pathology.”14 William C. Carroll, whose attention to metamorphoses in the comedies uncovers new insights on nearly every page, is likewise led to acknowledge that the changing shapes of love are finally brought to a static condition: “love is always harnessed, as Proteus was by Menelaus, into a single shape—into marriage, the final cause of comedy.”15

The critics I have been discussing differ from Frye and Barber in a variety of ways. Some, such as Ralph Berry, deny the celebratory element in Shakespearean comedy in order to replace it with an emphasis on the problematic nature of the plays; yet such an approach still appeals to a reader's or spectator's perception of the individual comedy's end in an effort to establish its validity. Others, such as MacCary, wish to focus on something other than the social experience of the comedy, its communal meaning, and direct attention instead to the individual comic journey, the development of the central figure—in MacCary's case, the young male hero. But though MacCary takes note of stages in this progress, his chief concern is with the results at journey's end, the wholeness and personal integration of the hero.

It is even more clearly the case with those who accept the Barber-Frye position (if I may so label their views, conflated here for my immediate purpose) that the emphasis on closure so crucial to that position has been equally important to their refinements, extensions, and modifications of the outlines of “green world” and “festive” comedy. Among these writers I might include, following Rebhorn, critics of widely differing originality and importance: Blaze Bonazza, Charles R. Lyons, Patrick Swindon, and Leo Salingar.16 Perhaps the most helpful illustration, though, appears in a recent book by Edward Berry in which he argues for “the romantic comedies as an unusually tight-knit genre based on specific ritual structures—those of initiation, courtship, and marriage.”17 Without wholly rejecting the insights of Barber and Frye, Berry insists on the primacy of personal rites over seasonal rites as the basis for our response to the comedies. His design, based on the studies of the anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, nevertheless shares the general outline made familiar by his predecessors, for he sees rites of passage and comic drama illustrating “a common evolutionary form—a form in which periodic forays into chaos lead to new kinds of integration” (8). Moreover, Berry emphasizes early in his book that he shares with Suzanne Langer a belief in the high significance of structure for an understanding of comedy, and he quotes approvingly her dictum: “Destiny in the guise of Fortune is the fabric of comedy” (7).

Because Berry presents his views with such elegance and subtlety, he affords the best starting point for illustration of what has often seemed a corollary to critical emphasis on closure in the comedies: the idea that Shakespearean comedy leaves us dissatisfied, unfulfilled, doubtful about the future of the comic protagonists and the world they inhabit, or simply aware—in a resigned, melancholy way—that the achievement of art is necessarily incomplete and insufficient for our needs in the world waiting outside the theatre. For Berry, though the “rite of incorporation” which is marriage provides an appropriate comic conclusion, “it is important to remember that the significance of a wedding lies in the full event, not merely in the abstract ideal it embodies. Since ideals are never actualized, weddings, like all ritual events, are inescapably ironic” (171). Later, he emphasizes the tonal complexity such endings provide: “We experience not only the delight that arises from comic communion but the detachment that accompanies our awareness of its incompleteness and fragility” (197). In support of this view he quotes an equally subtle critic, Philip Edwards, who claims that “the ‘festive comedies’ do not really end in clarification and in a resolution of the opposing forces of holiday and everyday. A strong magic is created: and it is questioned” (197, Edwards 70).

But if Berry and Edwards approach the issue of comic closure gingerly and analyze the presence of tonal richness with elegant tact, others are less subtle. The darkening of Shakespeare's comic endings has become a phenomenon not merely of critical discourse but, perhaps inevitably, of theatrical practice as well.18 Perhaps no one has contributed to these linked tendencies with more energy and single-mindedness than Jan Kott. In the “Bitter Arcadia” he attributes to Shakespeare, Kott finds in every disguise a “diabolic invention” and “a call to orgy”;19 and nothing is more revealing of his emphasis on comedy's darkness than this summary of the mechanicals' play in A Midsummer Night's Dream: “The lovers are divided by a wall, cannot touch each other and only see each other through a crack. They will never be joined together. A hungry lion comes to the rendezvous place, and Thisbe flees in panic. Pyramus finds her blood-stained mantle and stabs himself. Thisbe returns, finds Pyramus's body and stabs herself with the same dagger. The world is cruel for true lovers” (190).

For Clifford Leech, this darkness is a progressive matter, shadowed only fleetingly in the early comedies but growing to such a point in Twelfth Night that “the most interesting thing” about the play “is its drawing back from a secure sense of harmony.”20 This reluctance to claim perfection—a reluctance that seems to be shared by the playwright and his comic dramas, functioning almost as autonomous creatures—manifests itself “alone among the early comedies” in Love's Labour's Lost, which “has a disturbing quality which we shall meet later: a recognition of unappeasable suffering, of death and recurrent destruction, of an imperfection that is not easily faced. As this strain grows in his comic writing, it makes Shakespeare's hold on the idea of comedy a precarious one” (25). Thomas F. Van Laan sees a similar evolution in Shakespeare's growth as a comic writer; thus “as Shakespeare's comedy reaches its full complexity, it also begins to take on some of the sombre colouring normally associated with the so-called dark comedies.”21 Less concerned with questions of the playwright's development, Richard A. Levin is forthright about his intention to develop only the antiromantic alternative of each of the plays (as though criticism were simply a matter of selecting alternatives). He does so by such dubious means as asserting that in Much Ado about Nothing “Shakespeare uses Margaret to develop the dark background against which Messina moves toward marriage.”22

One final example may close this rather brief look at those critics who take an “antifestive” position on closure. Ralph Berry does so explicitly and with more than a touch of shrillness. He attacks with rhetorical questions: “What sort of double marriage is it that is thrown together at the end of Twelfth Night?” And lest some inattentive reader miss the point, he reiterates it with the aid of heavy sarcasm: “One can scarcely acclaim as the apotheosis of festivity a final dance from which the local lord of misrule is unavoidably absent, expiating in hospital his addiction to the pleasure principle” (13, 14). What Berry and others who share his view insist on is a Shakespeare far too knowing and wordly to support by his art the easy patterns of escape and fulfillment advocated by Frye and Barber and their followers. This Shakespeare is a doubter, a playwright who asks questions, a realist like Feste who knows all about change, about wind and rain, about mortality.

My object, though, is not to mediate these two commonly opposed ways of reading Shakespeare but to emphasize their common origin, to argue that it is precisely in its emphasis on closure that modern criticism of Shakespearean comedy has gone seriously off course, and to suggest by example a means of adjusting critical perceptions in order to correct this mistaken focus. Enough has been said, here and elsewhere, to show how completely the Barber-Frye position has become the orthodoxy of those who have written about Shakespearean comedy since that position was given its first statement. It is equally clear that those who have taken the opposite position have been forced to do so, for the most part, in a fashion that acknowledges their view as a heretical departure from an established system of belief. The cornerstone of that system, as I have tried to show, is the importance of structure, and especially of a design that issues in life-enhancing ceremony and clarification about the meaning of life itself. Thus both the followers of Frye and Barber and those who set themselves in opposition to their critical line have attributed to closure a signal importance.23

In the current critical situation, the description I provide cannot possibly cover every effort to come to terms with the comedies. What I am describing are the ways in which the dominant influences of Frye and Barber emerge in an emphasis on closure, and my focus therefore does not take into account critics who ignore altogether issues of design and structure. Nevertheless, the tendencies described here are both wide and deep. Even in cases where the critical method is little concerned with structural matters and therefore unlikely to stress closure, one still finds the influence of Frye and Barber. That influence is fully acknowledged by Peter Erickson, even though his larger concern with patriarchal structures would seem to ally him with forms of criticism that are less attentive to endings.24 Marilyn Williamson, like Erickson focused on matters of patriarchy, has little apparent concern with structure. “The aim of [her book's] criticism,” she writes, “is to demonstrate the contingency of the representation of power in the comedies and thereby to contribute to the feminist controversy about Shakespeare's representation of women and hierarchy.”25 Still, like most thematic critics, she does occasionally use language that locates meaning primarily in closure, making the comedies seem essentially teleological. Thus she describes what happens “as the comedies drive toward marriage” (36, italics mine); and she is even more explicit about the relationship of closure and meaning when she describes the end of Measure for Measure: “By reverting to the pattern of romantic comedy with the multiple marriages at the end, but with the marriages divorced from desire, Shakespeare makes even more striking the basic instability and tenuousness of the relationships, which exist by the ruler's order and trickery” (103).

Similarly, Adrian Louis Montrose is a critic whose attention to sociopolitical issues and whose general method associate him with the critical practices of the so-called new historicism; yet his reading of As You Like It depends heavily on detailed attention to closure and its thematic significance. In his formulation, comic form mirrors social process, enabling growth and change. Thus he argues that “the form of As You Like It becomes comic in the process of resolving the conflicts that are generated within it; events unfold and relationships are transformed in accordance with a precise comic teleology.”26 R. S. White, in Shakespeare and the Romance Ending, finds that Shakespeare, throughout his career, “worries away … at the problem of how to adopt into his dramatic endings the potential endlessness of romance.”27 This “constant worrying” is especially problematic for Shakespeare just because, in White's view, the comedies are, “in orthodox terms, defined in terms of their endings” (13). Thus the critical orthodoxy shaped by the work of Barber and Frye is seen retrospectively as a controlling aesthetic consideration for Shakespeare as he works to accommodate the pattern of romance with its “ancient endlessness” to “the dramatic necessity for a firm ending” (12-13).

What are the consequences of attaching such weight to closure? There are several, so varied that arranging them in a neat order presents some difficulty. Perhaps the most general consequence appears simply in the aggrandizement of the comic ending itself. By making the endings of his plays answer for so much, critics have imposed on Shakespeare an extraordinary burden. Bardolatry is not dead; it merely assumes, over the years, different forms. The bardolatry of these last decades, so far as Shakespeare the comic dramatist is concerned, grows out of the insistence that his comic endings be answerable both to his stature as our greatest playwright and to the full complexity of the plays as that complexity appears to the scrutiny of twentieth-century literary criticism and theory.

The simple fact is that Shakespeare, who has more to offer than most playwrights, is therefore asked to give us more than any playwright can legitimately be asked to give. He is in the position of the star pupil who so far outshines the others in the class that he is given not deserved praise but more difficult tasks. Pedagogically, and perhaps critically, such a procedure makes sense, but only to a certain point; after that it becomes not merely unfair but counterproductive. If we ask which comic writers could meet the standards imposed on Shakespearean closure, we could find, from the Renaissance to today, few names that any critic would advance with full confidence. Shakespeare's greatest rival in comedy, Ben Jonson, would surely not measure up. In Every Man in His Humour, Edward Knowell wins a bride who is a dramatic nullity, and Bobadill and Matthew are excluded from the final ceremony. In Epicoene, Dauphine dismisses Morose with the promise that he will not trouble him “till you trouble me with your funeral.”28 Jonson himself recognized that the close of Volpone might occasion criticism: “my catastrophe,” he writes in the Epistle to that play, “may in the strict rigour of comic law meet with censure”;29 and Coleridge found that Jonson had erred in not making Celia Corvino's ward, so that she would be eligible for marriage to Bonario at the play's close. But Jonson, of course, wrote comedy of a different sort from Shakespeare's; his acerb, satiric comedy can hardly be faulted for not giving us festive endings.

What, then, of Lyly or Greene, Shakespeare's predecessors in romantic comedy; or what of Dekker, his contemporary? Gallathea comes to mind at once, for this play of sexual disguising, with its prominent threat of sacrificial death, its witty management of transvestism, and its touching allusions to absent siblings, contains many of the elements that Shakespeare capitalizes on in his plays. But Lyly's solution to the dramatic problems he creates for his characters is so patently artificial—one of the young women, we aren't told which, is to be metamorphosed into a young man—that we find in the comedy's close not an occasion for festivity but justification for assigning the play to a separate category, for thinking of it as masque or spectacle or show. Lyly fails to play the game by our rules; thus however delightful the close of Gallathea may be, it remains a feat of magic rather than a successful ending within the terms of the dramatic world that playwright has led us imaginatively to inhabit. It is as though Shakespeare, in The Winter's Tale, had allowed Paulina to reveal not a statuelike Hermione but an actual statue and had then allowed her to bring that statue to life.

Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay ends on a grand celebratory note. The play's final scene begins with a magnificent procession: “Enter the Emperor with a pointless sword; next, the King of Castile, carrying a sword with a point; Lacy, carrying the globe; Ed[ward]; Warr[en], carrying a rod of gold with a dove on it; Ermsby, with a crown and scepter; [Princess Eleanor], with the Fair Maid of Fressingfield on her left hand; Henry, Bacon, with other Lords attending.30 It continues with a chorus of mutual congratulation and self-congratulation among the members of the wedding party, then moves on through Bacon's prophecy to a closing note that unites wedding festivity with patriotic fervor:

                                        the time
Craves that we taste of naught but jouissance.
Thus glories England over all the west.


Greene has written a wonderfully successful romantic comedy. But we should not forget that it includes the deaths of four minor figures (Lambert and Serlsby, fils et pères), the snatching off of Miles to hell, the arbitrary cruelty of Lacy to Margaret, and Margaret's disappointingly spiritless capitulation (“The flesh is frail”) when faced with the choice between “God or Lord Lacy” (14.85, 83). Again, one sees in such a brief summary elements that will reappear in Shakespeare's comedies: the caddish male who nevertheless gains a bride he has willfully injured, a young woman whose acceptance of his hand is as sudden as it is unmotivated, and an atmosphere suffused with mistakings and deaths that would seem to question the very possibility of a comic end. Held to the requirements imposed on Shakespeare, Greene would be judged to have written a comedy whose festive end is insupportable—a failure on both moral and aesthetic grounds.

The Shoemaker's Holiday, Dekker's finest play, appeared in 1599, just at the point when Shakespeare was fashioning the greatest of his romantic comedies. A glance at the bare outline of the play reveals how similar it is to the mature achievements of Shakespeare in the genre. Like them, it involves a story of lovers separated by parental opposition and the demands of a harsh society; like them it mirrors the trials of those central lovers in the difficulties of another pair who are different in style and status; like them it includes a good deal of fooling by inventive and bawdy clown figures; and like them it involves a movement from one locale to a place of freedom and confusion, and then a movement back to the original locale, now transformed as it shapes itself to accommodate a changed set of values. But Dekker's play, for all its bumptious optimism, begins and ends with references to warfare. The second male lead, wounded in battle and changed beyond recognition, regains his wife through an elaborate stratagem designed by his fellow shoemakers and in the process dupes her suitor of both goods and money; and the ebullient Simon Eyre, with his egalitarian cry of “Prince am I none, yet bear a princely mind,” gains his position as Lord Mayor and supports his princely style of entertaining with the help of inside information that might well be the envy of some of today's shadier Wall Street operators. Yet few critics would claim that Dekker's play is other than successful. On its own terms, and on the terms that we are likely to apply to its playwright, The Shoemaker's Holiday is a charmingly energetic comedy, peopled with characters who command our feelings of interest and affection and filled with incidents that seem nicely calculated to exploit and reward those feelings. Judged by the criteria ordinarily applied to Shakespearean comedy, however, the close of Dekker's play would come under more detailed scrutiny; and the play itself, victimized by a critical synecdoche that takes the part for the whole, would be judged to be flawed or problematic.

Thus one major consequence of a narrow focus on closure is the imposition on Shakespeare's comedies of an artificially high standard, one that no other comic writer is asked to reach. No doubt Shakespeare is a surpassing genius. As a comic dramatist, however, his is the same enterprise that other writers of comedy have engaged in over the years. Like Molière or Sheridan, Shaw or Alan Ayckbourn, Shakespeare in his comedies endeavors to fulfill the perennial aims of comedy. To fault him because in closing those endeavors of art he snatches his reward too hastily or artfully evades the moral or logical difficulties in his way is merely to bind Shakespeare in the chains of a bardolatry disguised as critical rigor.

The second consequence of the focus I have been describing exists on a different critical plane from the first. While the first concentrates attention on questions of achievement (How successful is Shakespeare as a comic dramatist?), the second directs scrutiny to questions of meaning (What is Shakespeare's final judgment about the issues he raises in this play?). This connection between closure and meaning is made strikingly clear in the words of Northrop Frye, quoted earlier, describing that point “when some turn in the plot arrests the linear movement and enables us for the first time to see the story as a total shape, or what is usually called a theme” ( Natural Perspective 9). Almost any critic who follows Barber and Frye or who, in rejecting their views, bases a dissenting opinion on a differing interpretation of Shakespeare's handling of a particular comedy's end will be led to posit a similar connection between closure and meaning. The product of such a connection is not a matter of speculation; it is the assertion of “meanings” of the sort deplored by Richard Levin in his book New Readings vs. Old Plays.31 For my purpose it is less important to record instances of such criticism than to show that, as they arise in discussions of Shakespearean comedy, they often (perhaps inevitably) grow out of a critical procedure that directs excessive attention to closure.

A remark by Joseph A. Bryant, Jr., focuses these issues very effectively. Writing of Shylock (but levying a requirement he clearly intends for the entire play), he says that “we can and should experience a series of widely differing reactions during the course of the play”; then he adds, “but if Shakespeare has done his work properly, the end should find them all focused in a single impression.”32 This is teleological comedy in an emphatic form. The playwright's job is to mirror life in its complexity but, at the play's close, order it so that it may be read. Comedy is a puzzle to which closure provides the answer: “the end crowns the work.”

Bryant's remark is especially useful just because critical responses to The Merchant of Venice offer striking documentation of what happens when closure is made to carry the whole burden of a comedy's meaning. A. D. Moody, in his short book on the play, declares an unwillingness to offer a simple, cynical view of The Merchant of Venice, one that would see it as being “‘about’” the way Christians succeed “by not practising their ideals of love and mercy” or “the essential likeness of Shylock and his judges.”33 Yet so exercised is he by those critics who, in his judgment, offer an opposed view that is equally simple in its romanticism or idealism that he seems driven to assert the cynical rebuttal in an aggressive fashion. Among the “romantic or idealizing” critics who are the villains of his piece, Moody numbers Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Frank Kermode, E. C. Pettet, C. L. Barber, and John Russell Brown, all of whom he cites for their falsification of the play's close. But Nevill Coghill, who finds in the play “the triumphant reconciliation of justice with mercy,” earns the largest measure of Moody's scorn. Quoting Coghill's account of the comedy's final scene—“We return to Belmont to find Lorenzo and Jessica in each other's arms. Christian and Jew, New Law and Old, are visibly united in love. And their talk is of music, Shakespeare's recurrent symbol of harmony”34—Moody, equally persuaded that its meaning must be derived from its conclusion, challenges the romantic and idealizing critics on that ground. He does so by making Portia's fifth-act entrance a signal for the cessation of the music that Lorenzo calls for at 5.1.66-68. “With Portia's return,” he argues, “we are brought back from thoughts of heavenly harmony to the sublunar world of mortals”; and further: “There is a harshness and dissonance in her devaluing the lark and the nightingale. … In the context just established this must make her ‘fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils’—which indeed is pretty much what she has been up to in Venice” (47).

Moody's detailed attention to Shakespeare's ending of The Merchant of Venice reinforces the trend in recent years of seeing all the comedies as incomplete or tinged with difficulty that may approach darkness. A. P. Riemer takes note of “a relatively recent orthodoxy … claiming that the final moments of Shakespeare's comedies represent an ironic, almost bitter commentary on one of the traditional ingredients of comedy: the insistence that all should end happily, that the characters, or at least the sympathetic ones, should be promised a life of perfect felicity” (10). Ralph Berry, viewing the same phenomenon from a different critical angle, remarks that “the leading theatrical practice of recent years … stresses the ironic and problematic aspects of the texts” (15). When that tendency merges with the practice of finding the plays’ meanings crystallized in their closing moments, we have arrived at a critical situation answering to Frank Kermode's description: “The point is that all the comedies are ‘problem’ comedies; that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a legend of Friendship … A Midsummer Night's Dream of love, As You Like It of courtesy, and The Merchant of Venice of justice”—where “legend” is assigned its Spenserian significance, and where the play's purpose in each instance is to move to a close that articulates its meaning.35

It happens that Anne Barton works out this stage of interpretation in an essay that employs Kermode's observations in another area altogether, the universe of prose fiction. Barton makes a primary distinction between the closure of tragedy and that of comedy. In tragedy, she claims, “In terms of individual consciousness, … fifth acts are true.” Comedy presents a different case altogether: “Artistic forms which dismiss their characters into happiness … are far more problematic. Such endings … are a kind of arbitrary arrest. By means of art, the flux of life has been stilled.”36 The development Barton traces in Shakespearean comedy finds the plays up to Twelfth Night “essentially teleological”—i.e., they are “works of art in which a retrospective view from the final scene is encouraged, and alters our understanding of the play as a whole” (178, 179). But the withdrawal of Jaques at the end of As You Like It causes a “tremor in the balance of comedy” after which Shakespeare cannot sustain his earlier pattern. In Twelfth Night, then, we witness “a world of revelry, of comic festivity,” fighting “a kind of desperate rearguard action against the cold light of day” (176). In this outline, Barton sees two sorts of endings: those before Twelfth Night, endings that, in Kermode's phrase, “frankly transfigure the events in which they were immanent” ( Sense 175); and those found in Twelfth Night and the problem comedies that face us with a “divided fifth act” that “admits the fictional nature of the comic society” and forces the characters (some of them, at least) and spectators alike to confront the real world. It is clear, however, that both sorts of endings put strong pressure on closure: the first, Kermode's “immanent” ending, as it draws both events and their meanings to a point; and the second, Barton's, as it insists on meanings both within the play's world and in the world outside the theatre, “the world as it is” (179).

Intense scrutiny of comic closure has as its second consequence, then, the expectation that endings somehow encapsulate a play's meanings. Thus Gratiano's final pun in The Merchant of Venice, Malvolio's parting threat and Feste's song in Twelfth Night, Benedick's remarks to Don Pedro as the reformed bachelor initiates the marriage dance in Much Ado about Nothing, and the opposed songs that end Love's Labor's Lost all have been seen as the focal points of comprehensive—and contradictory—interpretations of those plays; and the list could be extended to include all the early comedies.

On one level, this desire to find encapsulated meaning at the plays’ endings seems critically flawed when radically opposed meanings can be found emerging from the same textual materials. On another level, the didacticism of this approach almost always insists on the textual source of meaning and thus reduces the importance of the theatrical experience that ought properly to be seen as both the body and the soul of the comedy.

A third consequence of the habit of “crowning the end” appears in the mismatch between what might be called critical unitarianism (a desire to find in the comedies a tidy thematic focus, the “unified impression” of Bryant) and the sometimes unruly multiplicity of the plays themselves. As is usually the case, the problem comedies, especially Measure for Measure, illustrate this difficulty most strikingly. To accommodate the diversity of characters—with their weaknesses, obstinacies, unawarenesses, willful disobediences, and silences—to the Duke's self-assured remediation seems an overwhelming task on the stage. To gather such complexities within the boundaries of a single critical design seems even more difficult.

… Here, it may suffice to say that as the comedies move in the direction of realism—as their worlds correspond more fully to societies in which men and women must work and live, and as those men and women seem to be judged appropriately by standards of psychological credibility—the reductionism of such teleological criticism seems less and less valid.

Measure for Measure, a critical hard case, is different only in degree from the earlier comedies in this respect. Yet precisely because of the play's multiplicity and felt complexity it urges the need for an alternative view of comedy. Such a view would not be teleological and focused on closure. Instead, it would allow consideration of the totality of Shakespeare's comedies, attending to them in their moment-by-moment release of comic energy and attending as well to the variety of characters and concerns they offer in such profusion. Readers of Alexander Leggatt's fine book on the comedies will see that I agree with him about the danger of seeking some “inner unity of the work of art.” In such a search, “when everything is seen as contributing a central idea, a single pattern of images, or a particular kind of story, then individual scenes may be understood from that point of view alone, and thus denied their full life.”37 Freed from the unitary limitations of teleological criticism, one may find a wider and more generous, a more fully comic, perspective. In this perspective, it is possible to see that Much Ado about Nothing is, at some fundamental level of plot, “about” a variety of matters. These include the courtship of Claudio and Hero with its attendant mistakings and deceptions, the merry war of Beatrice and Benedick, Don John's villainy, the deception played out by Borachio and Margaret, Dogberry's maladroit efforts as watchman and reporter, Leonato's self-centered raging at his daughter's disgrace, and the fussy ineffectiveness of Antonio. The Merchant of Venice comes to a close in Portia's Belmont; but the city, with its inexplicable moods and its pervasive mercantilism, will not be denied. Shylock remains an almost palpable presence, and Antonio's ships are the subject of the title character's final speech. Lorenzo, having brought Jessica into the haven of a Christian community, nonetheless describes the comforts of Nerissa and Portia, “a special deed of gift, / … of all he [Shylock] dies possess’d of,” as “manna” dropped “in the way / Of starved people” (5.1.292-95).

Given such richness, it is not at all surprising that unitarian critics are driven to extraordinary shifts as they try to fit the complex endings of Shakespeare's plays to their desire to see “the story as a total shape.” A great many factors militate against this desire for order, beginning with Shakespeare's fondness for multiple plots. Thus Twelfth Night, sufficiently complicated in its chief romantic line with the interweaving of the affairs of Orsino and Olivia, Viola, and Sebastian, is made even more complicated by the very different courtship of Toby and Maria, the failures of Sir Andrew as wooer and duelist, and the duping of Malvolio. Viola is wise enough to realize that only time can untie her knotty difficulties; unitarian critics, less diffident, look to the play's closure to find a point where all of its complexities are resolved. The result in each case is intense critical pressure on a narrowly circumscribed set of data: the absence of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew (after 5.1.208), Maria's total absence in the final scene, Malvolio's exit line, the fate of the captain, Orsino's reluctance to allow Viola the hard-earned right to put “Cesario” behind her, and finally, Feste's song. One measure of the greatness of a play like Twelfth Night resides in its ability to endure and even to nourish such narrowly focused scrutiny. It seems worth pointing out that equally problematic and valuable critical issues present themselves in this play's early acts: Feste's absence from the letter scene; Olivia's easy forgetting of both her father and her brother; the curious fact that Orsino can seem, at one and the same time, to be a hopelessly inadequate suitor for Olivia and an ideal partner for Viola. On the other hand, the fact that honest and responsible critics can advance not merely opposed readings but a wide range of interpretations from the smallest details of the play's movement to an end seems to imply something about the fecundity of critical invention rather than about the inexhaustible richness of the text.

Shakespeare's plays are not merely texts, of course, as any number of stage-centered critics have demonstrated over the last twenty years or more—i.e., a period roughly coinciding with the critical emphasis on closure I have been describing here.38 The widespread acceptance of the notion that we can understand plays more fully by attending to their theatrical elements than by concentrating on their verbal structure is often endorsed by critics who stress the importance of closure. Indeed, many of them employ such criticism as a key to interpretation of particular moments in a play's ending. But it seems difficult to ignore the irony involved in such a procedure; for while the two critical methods are not mutually exclusive, they are considerably at odds.

They are so because a play on stage (even if that stage is the critic's theatre of the mind) is a succession of dramatic moments involving the experience of all the theatrical resources that can affect its presentation. It is emphatically not a progress toward an end, especially in comedy. If the ending has a special importance, it remains firmly within the terms defined several years ago by Bernard Beckerman: “The finales of Shakespeare's Globe plays often fail to produce a climactic effect because the completion of the narrative does not arise from the conflicting forces of the theme or action. By the time the last scene began, the Elizabethan audience knew how the story would end. But it satisfied the Elizabethan sense of ritual to see the pageant of this conclusion acted out.”39 Critics who aggrandize closure, then, even if they acknowledge the need to consider the play's stage qualities, unnecessarily distort its shape and movement. What seizes our attention in the theatre is not a movement of plot or a progression of ideas but an actor's specific realization of a character's reason for being; the orchestrated perfection of a spying scene; moments of psychological and even physical sport released in a spirit of unrestrained exuberance. Examples are available in abundance: Launce and his dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (2.3.1-32); the academicians turned sonneteers in Love's Labor's Lost (4.3); the conclusion of the letter scene in Twelfth Night (2.5). For each of these illustrations Shakespeare furnishes many more in the same category, and the categories themselves only begin to suggest the sources of arresting theatrical pleasure everywhere available in the comedies. Such moments are scanted when critics throw the weight of their analysis on closure. Crowning the end, they undervalue the rich variety of event and character that gives to Shakespearean comedy its enduring appeal.

The consequences of emphasizing closure discussed up to this point are primarily matters that remain securely within the limits of critical discourse. One important result of that emphasis, however, breaks through those limits and leads to a fundamental confusion. Because a focusing on closure often implies formal resolution of a play's difficulties, it may lead to judgments about the settling of accounts, a sort of moral bookkeeping. How is Shylock left at the end of the play? Is Antonio's stipulation—that a more lenient punishment than the Duke's be pronounced if Shylock will convert—a gesture of mercy or a final cruelty imposed by the Jew's Christian tormentors? What are we to say of the marriages that close Twelfth Night? Can Maria have a reasonable hope that Sir Toby will reform, or Viola even imagine that Orsino will be mature and decisive enough to deserve her love, or Olivia put her faith in the still-dazzled Sebastian? Or, more important still, how can one acquiesce in Malvolio's banishment when even his mistress finds that he has been “most notoriously abused”? How can Hero accept Claudio, and how can we? What are we to make of Kate's abject capitulation, or Valentine's treating Sylvia as property when he offers to convey her to his treacherous friend Proteus, or the improbable repentance of Oliver?

Such questions are in some measure inescapable for anyone who takes the comedies seriously; but for critics who emphasize closure they are aggressively insistent, and they create special difficulties. In addressing issues of justice or raising supposititious questions about the future lives of comic characters, critics inevitably confuse the task of the playwright with other roles: moralist, counselor, psychologist. Only a short while ago, it seems, this point was so widely accepted as to seem self-evident. The work of art, self-contained and complete, did not and could not depend for its understanding on matters whose existence lay outside itself. The life of the characters in a fiction was understood to be coterminous with that fiction: one didn't ask if Claudio and Hero enjoyed their honeymoon or if Jessica eventually left Belmont, tired of the condescension of her Christian neighbors. But to observe all this is not to call for a return to an earlier and more comfortable critical faith; it is merely to say that a departure from such principles leads to confusion between the spheres of aesthetic design and moral judgment, between, in short, art and life.

And that is precisely the effect of much of the criticism that focuses on closure. What Shakespeare has joined together, critics willingly put asunder. Jessica is sure to awaken from her moonlit dream, and Portia is bound to recognize the mercantile basis of Bassanio's love. Kate will be herself again (if indeed her great speech is not a mere ruse), and Maria will grow tired of Sir Toby's drunken nonsense. A. P. Riemer has written effectively on this matter, and to persist at any length would be to cover ground that he has already traversed (5, 71, 110). It may be worth pointing out, however, that in this joining of the issues of closure and judgment all the comedies are likely to seem, as Frank Kermode has found them to be, essentially problematic. Taken to its critical extreme, an interest in closure may even lead one to believe, with Zvi Jagendorf, that “a study of comic endings is really a study of the mode itself.”40 Understanding the consequences of aggrandizing closure should not lead one to deny the importance of the way Shakespeare's comedies end. Revenge, in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, pronounces “a version of one of the commonest sayings” when he mollifies the impatient ghost of Andrea with the assurance that “the end is crown of every work well done.”41 But to elevate closure further, to crown the end rather than to see it as a necessary and inevitable part of the total work, is to pervert a commonplace and to distort both the nature and the function of Shakespeare's comedies. These comedies are not driven toward their endings; they are, rather, driven by their ends. It is no mere pun to say that these are very different matters. …


  1. John Russell Brown, “The Interpretation of Shakespeare's Comedies: 1900-1953,” Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955): 1-13, p. 7.

  2. Wayne A. Rebhorn, “After Frye: A Review-Article on the Interpretation of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 21 (1979): 553-82, p. 533.

  3. Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare,” Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, vol. 7, the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. E. L. McAdam, Jr., et al. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1968), p. 72.

  4. John Dover Wilson, Shakespeare's Happy Comedies (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 36.

  5. Frye's influence dates from as early as 1948, with the publication of “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays 1948, ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Columbia UP, 1949, 58-73), and has continued, in such works as The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957) and A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia UP, 1965). Barber's contribution is, of course, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959; Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972).

  6. Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism,” I, 73.

  7. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981).

  8. Interestingly, Frye uses the term teleological to contrast Jonson's comedy to Shakespeare's. But it seems clear that in the ordinary significance of the word it describes the approach to the comedies taken by Barber as well as by Frye.

  9. Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972), p. 13.

  10. Elliot Krieger, A Marxist Study of Shakespeare's Comedies (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1979), p. 125.

  11. Anthony B. Dawson, Indirections: Shakespeare and the Art of Illusion (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1978), p. xii.

  12. See Joseph Summers, “The Masks of Twelfth Night,University of Kansas City Review 22 (1955): 25-32.

  13. Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London: Methuen, 1968).

  14. W. Thomas MacCary, Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Columbia UP, 1985), p. 79.

  15. William C. Carroll, The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985), p. 31.

  16. See Blaze Bonazza, Shakespeare's Early Comedies: A Structural Analysis, Studies in English Literature 9 (The Hague: Mouton, 1966); Charles R. Lyons, Shakespeare and the Ambiguity of Love's Triumph, Studies in English Literature 68 (The Hague: Mouton, 1971); Patrick Swindon, An Introduction to Shakespeare's Comedies (London: Macmillan, 1973); and Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1974). Rebhorn's analysis is more detailed than mine and more judgmental, as is appropriate in a review essay. He does not see Frye and Barber as I do, for he finds Barber far less concerned with structure than Frye, more interested in tone and mood.

  17. Edward Berry, Shakespeare's Comic Rites (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), p. ix.

  18. A. P. Riemer, Antic Fables: Patterns of Evasion in Shakespeare's Comedies (New York: St. Martin's, 1980), p. 10.

  19. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1967), p. 323.

  20. Clifford Leech, Twelfth Night and Shakespearean Comedy (Toronto: Dalhousie UP, 1965), p. 38.

  21. Thomas Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1978), p. 84

  22. Richard A. Levin, Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985), pp. 20, 215.

  23. The attention given to closure in discussions of Shakespearean comedy is not at all an isolated phenomenon. Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Frank Kermode are perhaps the most conspicuous and influential among critics who have focused on the issue of closure in other genres. See Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968), and Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford UP, 1967).

  24. Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1985). It should be obvious that there are certain critical practices that do not work within the terms I am using here. “One of the many lessons to be learned from Derrida's … practice of reading and writing,” says David Hult, “is that the temporality and topology of the text are such that it is impossible to disentangle its literary and philosophical moments.” If this position is accepted, then obviously the notion of closure as critical concept is rendered all but useless. For an extended discussion of this issue from a variety of viewpoints, see Concepts of Closure, Yale French Studies 67 (1984), ed. David Hult, from which the quotation just cited is taken (22). It is also obvious that for most writers on Shakespeare's comedies the concepts of closure and ending are not merely viable but essential to their understanding of how the plays work.

  25. Marilyn Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986).

  26. Adrian Louis Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 28-54. I discuss the work of Montrose and Erickson, and to a lesser extent that of Williamson, in my chapter on As You Like It [in Shakespeare and the Ends of Comedy, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991], when I elaborate on the point made here.

  27. R. S. White, Shakespeare and the Romance Ending (Newcastle: Tyneside Free P, 1981), p. 23.

  28. Ben Jonson, Epicoene, or, The Silent Woman, ed. L. A. Beaurline, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966), 5.4.195.

  29. Jonson, Volpone, or, The Fox, ed. R. B. Parker, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1983), p. 75.

  30. Robert Green, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, ed. Daniel Seltzer, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1963), p. 94.

  31. Richard L. Levin, New Readings vs. Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Reinterpretation of English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979).

  32. Joseph A. Bryant, Jr., Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1986), p. 84.

  33. A. D. Moody, Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice (London: Edward Arnold, 1964), p. 10.

  34. Nevill Coghill, “The Basis of Shakespearean Comedy,” Essays and Studies 3 (1950): 23.

  35. Frank Kermode, “The Mature Comedies,” Early Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), pp. 220-21.

  36. Anne Barton, “As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending,” Shakespearian Comedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer (London: Edward Arnold, 1972), p. 167. Barton employs ideas developed by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending.

  37. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), p. xi.

  38. See, for example, John Russell Brown, Shakespeare's Dramatic Style: Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Macbeth (London: Heinemann, 1970), and John L. Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967).

  39. Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe (New York: Columbia UP, 1962), p. 39.

  40. Zvi Jagendorf, The Happy End of Comedy: Jonson, Molière, and Shakespeare (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1984), p. 1.

  41. Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. Phillip Edwards, The Revels Plays (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959), 2.6.8 and note.

Works Cited

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. 1959. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Barton, Anne. “As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending.” Shakespearian Comedy. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14. Ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer. London: Edward Arnold, 1972.

Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Brown, John Russell. “The Interpretation of Shakespeare's Comedies: 1900-1953.” Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955): 1-13.

Edwards, Philip. Shakespeare and the Confines of Art. London: Methuen, 1968.

Frye, Northrop. “The Argument of Comedy.” English Institute Essays 1948. Ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. New York: Columbia UP, 1949. 58-73.

———. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.

Kernan, Alvin. The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. 2nd ed. London: Methuen, 1967.

Leech, Clifford. Twelfth Night and Shakespearean Comedy. Toronto: Dalhousie UP, 1965.

Moody, A. D. Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice. London: Edward Arnold, 1964.

Riemer, A. P. Antic Fables: Patterns of Evasion in Shakespeare's Comedies. New York: St. Martins, 1980.

Williamson, Marilyn. The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986.

Criticism: Endings: Tragedies

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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.

(R2 II.i.5-6, 9-14)

It is to the harmony of the tragic close in Shakespeare that I wish to devote my attention…. I will attend to the words not only of the men who die but also of the men who survive them, and not only to the harmony of words in the final scenes, but also to the harmony of dramatic structure, to the often painful music of the shapes the characters seem to create for their lives, the shapes that Shakespeare has created for them, through them—his various music of the close.

Hamlet, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra are, I think, Shakespeare's most complex and fascinating variations on the tragic ending, but in each of the tragedies he gives disaster a unique form, its own “deep harmony.” Because of this variety, it seems clear enough that Shakespeare experimented consciously with tragic form: when he repeats, he also changes, and changes more than superficially. As he extends and explores the possibilities of tragic form, he creates dramatic worlds which mirror the possibilities of our own; in bringing us to the boundaries of his art he brings us to the boundaries of human experience.


Death, at least, is common to the endings of Shakespeare's tragedies. However different the particular forms disaster takes in these plays, there is always death—death of the central figures, the tragic individuals, and often of others whose lives were closely bound up with the lives of the central figures.

“Death is a fearful thing,” says Claudio and elaborates in the famous lines which worked so powerfully on Samuel Johnson's imagination as to suggest unbearably the presence of death:1

… to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling, ’tis too horrible.
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

(MM III.i.116, 118-32)

Though Measure for Measure is not a tragedy, it was written in a period when Shakespeare's imagination tended to express itself in tragic forms, and it shares with many of the tragedies a world in which individual desires apparently can never fit naturally, or without coercion, into society's rules. Yet this fearful image of death is not the obsession one finds in a tragic hero. The kind of suffering imagined by Claudio is more likely to characterize the tragic hero's life than his anticipation of death. It is true that Hamlet is concerned that one's sense of “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” interferes with one's impulse to act; but Hamlet also sees death as an end to life's torture, and one of the things Hamlet must do (and does) before assuming his tragic destiny is to exorcise his fears about experience after death. When the final scene comes, Hamlet is “ready” for death. “The readiness is all.” Almost all of Shakespeare's tragic figures are ready, in one way or another, and show none of the panic that is so painfully present in Claudio's speech.

In fact, most of the tragic characters eventually long for death, desire it, seek it, either as a rest from suffering or as the only thing consistent with their integrity, with their sense of the value of their own lives. There are the suicides—Romeo and Juliet, Brutus, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and, in effect, Timon. There is Titus, who, living only for revenge, sets in motion a chain of events he can hardly hope to survive. There is Coriolanus, who accepts his death when he spares Rome. There is Troilus, who looks forward eagerly to death, though in the ironic world of his play he hasn't yet brought it off. There are Richard II, Hamlet, and Macbeth, who look toward death as relief from a disappointing world, though they all die like lions thrusting forth their paws. There is Richard III, who, though he experiences some panic after his prebattle dream, dies like the rest of these men and women, preferring to maintain his integrity by facing death instead of running away (he wants the horse in order that he may fight, not escape). Finally, there is Lear, essentially alone in this group as in his own play, in that he gives virtually no thought to his own death, one way or the other. He neither avoids it nor seeks it. Death catches Lear by surprise as it does no other tragic figure, so much so that he never even realizes that he is dying. He is the only one, in fact, who can be said to die of “natural causes,” a phrase that is hardly casual when we remember Lear's own search into “cause in nature,” down to the cause—the reason—for Cordelia's death. But like the rest, Lear is ready, or, in the terms of his play, “ripe.”

Claudio's speech on death expresses, rather, the feeling of those who stay alive to populate the world and keep society going. (Indeed, his impulse to populate the world is what gets him into a situation where he must contemplate death.) If Claudio had been killed, he would not have been tragic, only pitiful, like the equally panicky George in Richard III. In the tragedies, the character who perhaps comes closest to Claudio in sentiment (though he has a good deal more nerve) is that very untragic figure Edgar. “O, our lives' sweetness,” he says, “That we the pain of death would hourly die / Rather than die at once” (Lr V.iii.185-87), a remark which has little to do with the experience of Gloucester, which he is describing, but aptly characterizes Edgar's own kind of endurance in the face of adversity.

Edgar is an example of the kind of man who does not die at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy and who becomes instead the center of a new community, the reestablished order in which tragic figures have no place. An interest in the fate of the community is, like death, common to the ends of all the tragedies. In fact, Shakespeare places the fate of the central figure against the fate of the community in a way that characterizes the particular tragic world of each play. Shakespeare doesn't show us the same kind of world over and over again in his tragedies. Things can go wrong in many ways, and this relation of individual fate to communal fate suggests from play to play the particularities of his various tragic visions. Thus it is important to note the values embodied in the new, surviving order.


A Shakespearean play is in general a process of going from one order to another (the first sometimes shown, sometimes only implied), and this process itself always involves a good deal of disorder. That this is true is hardly surprising, since conflict is the basis of drama. But the nature of the disorder varies from play to play. If we ignore for the moment the complexities, ambivalences, and impurities that make Shakespearean drama so rich, we can divide the plays into groups according to whether the disorder is mainly creative or mainly destructive. The former is comic disorder; the latter is tragic.

The disorder of a given play is normally produced by characters who are felt to be the center of energy in the play, characters whose activity breaks down the conditions prevailing at the beginning. It is important to distinguish here between the disorder that we see in the course of the play (and this disorder is what I'm talking about here) and some “given” disorder that may be part of the play's premise. Thus it may be Duke Frederick and to a lesser degree Oliver who originally upset the order of things, but in the dramatic structure of As You Like It the centers of energy and of the dramatic disorder are Rosalind and, to a lesser degree, Orlando. The same distinction can be made in a tragedy: Claudius may be originally responsible for the rotten disorder in the state of Denmark, but what we see and hear in the course of the play is the energy of Hamlet breaking up the “order” that Claudius and others have tried to establish.

This center of disordering energy needn't lie primarily in a single character, particularly when love is involved. There are Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, and so forth. And in Troilus and Cressida there is perhaps no center at all. In The Winter's Tale the center shifts and diversifies after the first half, which is dominated by Leontes. In Othello, Iago is the center at first but by the end of Act III he has managed to bring the tremendous energy of Othello into the disordering process, and Othello's energy supersedes his.2

I am interested here in what characterizes the kinds of energy that carry the tragedies to their final scenes, and for this purpose it is useful to distinguish broadly between comic disorder and tragic disorder. Comic disorder—the sort, for instance, of which Antipholus of Syracuse, Portia (of The Merchant of Venice), Rosalind, Viola, and Prospero are centers—is ultimately and especially creative disorder. It breaks down an original order that should not be maintained, an original order that is unproductive, unnatural, deadly, and stifling to the best tendencies of human nature and of the best characters in the play. And, most important, the creative energy that leads everyone into the disorder also leads the way out of it into a final order that embodies this energy and thus includes the best elements of the play's dramatic world. At the end of a play structured by comic energy we tend to have a sense of a productive community being established and a sense that what lies ahead for this community is health, growth, fertility, and a free harmony among its members—a harmony that has been achieved by the energy of the best in the community, not a harmony imposed on it by survivors of the dramatic process.3 Often (in A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and The Tempest, for instance) we even have the feeling that the community is a harmonious part of a superhuman order.

Tragic disorder, on the other hand, is essentially destructive in its effect. The order that tragic energy breaks down may or may not be worth keeping. In Othello and Macbeth, for instance, it apparently is worth keeping, while in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet it is presumably not. Structurally, the value of the original order is not so important a question in tragedy as it is in comedy. But the order must be there, in one way or another, and the center of energy in the play breaks it down. As in comedy, the disorder finally issues in a new order, but in tragedy the new order does not embody the central energy, the tragic, destructive energy. The new community in tragedy excludes the best, either wiping it out or profiting by its self-destruction. (This exclusion is made easier by the fact that the central energy in tragedy is more likely than in comedy to be confined to one or two characters.) We often feel that the new order is imposed rather than achieved. We often have a sense of a community that is merely ordered, a community that is strong, stable, efficient, well administered, even bureaucratic. This new community, lacking the energy of the central figures, the tragic figures, seems to be thoroughly human. The final harmony is usually not part of a larger, superhuman harmony. If anything has been superhuman in the world, it has died out along with the tragic energy and those individual men and women who embodied it.

It is in the disorder that the tragedies test the limits of human experience, so that by analyzing the disorder we get a sense of the scope of the tragic energy and, as far as the endings are concerned, a sense of the human possibilities we have lost in losing the tragic hero. In the course of the plays, disorder may be stirred up on one or more of the following six levels, listed in order of increasing breadth: mental, sexual, familial, political or military, elemental or cosmic, and metaphysical. (This scheme is one way of describing the various levels of human experience on which disorder occurs; the division could be made in other ways.)4 These levels tend to be analogous or even congruent to each other. For example, sexual disorder in Antony and Cleopatra is seen as being also political. In Hamlet sexual disorder is also both mental and familial. Metaphorically, and by extension, it is also metaphysical.

Our sense of the “profundity” of any one of the tragedies depends on which and how many of these disorders are powerfully and extensively confronted. Hamlet and King Lear are generally accounted the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies because, although they are very different in structure and tone, in both of them the situation blows up so thoroughly on so many levels. Macbeth is not far behind these two in its range, but we normally think of Othello—superbly powerful and painful as it is—as less profound because the elemental and metaphysical disorders, and even the political, are more narrowly circumscribed. There is no need here to go from play to play asking what disorders are stirred up in each case. Enough has been said to suggest how the range of disorder produced in the middle of a play shapes our sense of the human significance of the tragic death.

A Shakespearean tragedy, then, shows us the production of disorder on at least one of these planes, and in the final scenes—the area of the plays with which I am particularly concerned—this disorder, or complex of disorders, issues in a disaster (one or more deaths) and a new order. It is typical of Shakespeare to make the disaster or, especially, the new order in some way ironic. For one thing, the new order is likely to involve fewer levels, except in theory. We generally don't feel them in the order as we do in the disorder. There's no sexual disorder in Fortinbras's Denmark, but then there's no evident sexual order either. This failure to exist on several planes is one of the things that makes the new orders in the tragedies seem comparatively dull and bounded. The new world is not so rich as the one that has died out.

Shakespeare repeatedly sees the ironic nature of the new order as one of the things that makes the world tragic, a kind of posthumous cruelty, a final twisting of the knife, though we are the ones who are alive to feel it. While Romeo and Juliet are alive, Montague and Capulet, partly through traditional malice and partly through carelessness, allow a situation to continue which prevents the lovers from being together, except one time in secret; but once Romeo and Juliet lie together in death, the fathers are eager to let them lie together publicly forever, in monumental gold. Dead, they may be married, and world-famous. In Julius Caesar the new order, the venal rule of Antony and Octavius with its hints of the emergence of a new and more subtle Caesar, is precisely the sort of thing Brutus was trying to avoid by the act which allowed it to come into being. Brutus's republican virtue hastened the end of the republic. In Timon we see the triumph of a reasonable sort of order, neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad but on the whole as decent an arrangement as one might expect, an order that is just the sort of mixed state, reflecting a “mixed” human nature, that Timon could never accept, an order that is the antithesis of his either-or world, “Dead / Is noble Timon,” says Alcibiades:

Bring me into your city,
And I will use the olive with my sword,
Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each
Prescribe to other, as each other's leech.


Ironically, Alcibiades achieved this order, this mixed affair, partly in Timon's name.

Richard II is unique among these plays in that it is the begining of a historical series and explicitly looks forward to a continuation. Here we already see the new order in charge for two acts, and in subsequent plays we will see it work out its own destiny. Thus in Richard II it is finally the living Bolingbroke more than the dead Richard who is the victim of the irony at the end. We won't see the new order in action this way in any of the other tragedies, including Richard III, which ends the series. (The closest we come to an exception is the relation of Antony and Cleopatra to Julius Caesar; but though the complicating introduction of Cleopatra in the Roman plays may be compared to the introduction of Falstaff in the English, the concerns of Antony and Cleopatra are much different from those of Julius Caesar, and the earlier Roman play does not explicitly look beyond its own action the way Richard II does.)

Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra provide some of the most interesting examples of this ironic relationship between the new order and the disaster. …


Since the new order is so important to the structure of final scenes, being in a sense the background against which the tragic hero dies, we should look in a little more detail at the variety of things Shakespeare does with it as a formal device. The new orders, the worlds that go on without the energy of the tragic figures, vary in their natures, in the processes by which they come into being, and in their relationships to the designs or desires of the tragic figures.

Sometimes the process that leads to the establishment of the new order is directly opposed to the process generated by the energy of the tragic hero, in which case the drive to establish the new order produces the immediate occasion for the tragic death. This happens in Richard III, Richard II, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. In these cases, there is a character (or with Julius Caesar and Macbeth, two) who from at least the middle of the play on can be said to be the hero's antagonist(s). The defeat of the hero and the establishment of the new order are the direct result of the conflict between the heroes and the men who rule the new world.

In King Lear, Timon, and Titus Andronicus, the process that eventually establishes the new order ironically moves in the same general direction as the process generated by the tragic energy, even to the extent of being carried out at least partly in the hero's name. But Lear is past any comfort the victory of Albany and Edgar could give him, Timon has no interest in sharing the benefits of Alcibiades' conquest, and by the time Lucius takes over, Titus is dead.

In Hamlet the new order is causally incidental to the defeat and death of the tragic hero. Fortinbras's accidental assumption of power is, however, ironically parallel to the process initiated by the tragic hero (revenging a murdered father) and, for that reason, potentially antagonistic to the hero's desires. As it is, Hamlet, in the interests of a stable state, gives his dying support to Fortinbras's new order.

Sometimes the new order is really the old order, without the tragic figures, as in Romeo and Juliet and Othello; and in one case, Troilus and Cressida, the new order is really the old order, with the tragic figures, more or less. Troilus and Cressida is such an odd, ironic dramatic structure that I will save it for special treatment in the next section, observing here only that the old order and the firmly established new order are virtually the same—a chaos of wars and lechery, Greek and Trojan, the only change being that because of death in battle and venereal disease the number of participants seems to be dwindling. In Romeo and Juliet the prevailing order in Verona is antagonistic to the desires of the tragic figures, but to a large extent unconsciously so; because of the secrecy in which Romeo and Juliet carried on their love, the prevailing order never really knew what it was doing. Though the world does not change hands, there may be a new order at the end to the extent that the Montagues and the Capulets, such as are left, recognize their guilt and promise to change; but, as I noted in the previous section, the change is ironic, more depressing than hopeful, perhaps pointless. In Othello the new order is precisely the old order, with Lodovico representing the Duke of Venice. The prevailing order was neither antagonistic to the hero's desires nor aware of them. The irony here is that, so far as we can tell, the tragedy had no effect on the state other than to make it sad.

Because the new order is so often felt to be merely political, lacking any positive sense of order on other planes, perhaps the most common form for the process that leads to the new order is a movement to stabilize the state by consolidating or acquiring political power or by rescuing the state from irresponsible rulers or from chaos. There is, of course, no need for this kind of activity in either Romeo and Juliet or Othello, which is another way of saying that these are the most “domestic” of the tragedies. But in the other plays, the drive for a new political order puts forward a group of men who are, at least formally, winners of the play's conflicts, and they become the center of the final community from which the tragic figures are excluded. Because our sense of the value of that community in comparison with the value of the lost heroes depends partly on the motives of the men who are at its center, we shall look for a moment at the attitudes they have toward their enterprise.

We might begin by listing them, since we are temporarily giving the plays a new, unusual set of heroes: Lucius Andronicus, Richmond, Bolingbroke, Antony and Octavius (in Julius Caesar), Fortinbras, Albany and Edgar, Malcolm (with Macduff), Alcibiades, Octavius again (in Antony and Cleopatra), and Tullus Aufidius.

There are a number of motives operating in this group, and various combinations of motives. (After the early plays, with Lucius and Richmond, Shakespeare always sees his political winners in a complex, if not ironic, light.) Richmond and Malcolm clearly see themselves as rescuers of the state from a dangerous ruler and from moral and organic chaos. Bolingbroke also has this image of himself, maintaining the need for a responsible ruler to replace the self-indulgent Richard. But Bolingbroke's case is more complex because Richard II, unlike Richard III and Macbeth, came to the throne legitimately and also cannot be conveniently characterized as a devil. Thus Bolingbroke finds himself in the paradoxical position of having to break the law to protect the law. It is a paradox that haunts him to his death. Bolingbroke's case is also more complex than Richmond's or Malcolm's because Richard is alive for two acts after losing his power, as a kind of accusation of Bolingbroke's “responsible” act. Again this suggests the irony of Bolingbroke's “stabilization,” especially when coupled with the prophecies of future strife made by Richard and by Carlisle. Bolingbroke can't have peace with Richard alive or with Richard dead, an irony Shakespeare emphasizes in the final scene. (As I noted earlier, Shakespeare carefully places Richard II in a historical process which extends beyond the play's own dramatic structure.) Lucius Andronicus steps into a political vacuum to take charge after a chaotic final scene has wiped almost everbody else out (there are just enough people left to choose him as emperor). So does Fortinbras, who has the additional advantage of neither having to wipe anyone out himself nor having any emotional ties to those who are dead.

But another motive operates in these men, particularly when we associate Macduff with Malcolm—the motive of revenge. Though it operates more strongly in some than in others, there's at least a touch of the revenge motive in all the stabilizers. Lucius and Fortinbras are particularly interesting in that they are in effect successful, surviving revengers in plays where the central character was a revenger who could accomplish his end only at the cost of his life.

In the entire group of winners, Aufidius is the closest to being a villain. He is the least attractive, and his methods are the vilest. His use of a gang is reminiscent of Achilles. His motives are the least justifiable, though Shakespeare makes it clear that he is already well on the way to justifying them to the Volscian lords, who though they seem to be reasonable men, will apparently feel that they can use his military strength. (I suppose that is one sign of their common sense.)

Another motive that appears in this group and contributes to the shapes of the final scenes is simple acquisitiveness, or the will to power. All of them have it except Albany, who is only too eager to give his power and responsibility away. Acquisitiveness is underplayed in Lucius and Richmond, again a reflection of the relatively simple moral world of these early tragedies. Nor do Edgar and Malcolm-Macduff seem terribly eager for political power for its own sake, but the rest do. Bolingbroke and Fortinbras are great opportunists.5 So is Antony in Julius Caesar; but Octavius appears ready to overtake him, and in Antony and Cleopatra he does, becoming “the universal landlord.” Alcibiades leads an obvious war of conquest and revenge (not without moral justification, however); so does Coriolanus, with whom Plutarch compares Alcibiades, but Aufidius outdoes Coriolanus and thereby becomes the most powerful military man in the world.

Most of the winners like to see themselves as responsible men, who act as they do to bring moral as well as political order to the state. The “rescuers” clearly act responsibly, especially Bolingbroke, for it is his principal moral advantage over Richard. Octavius belongs here too, because he sees himself as the responsible leader of the Roman state in contrast to Antony, who lives a life of hedonistic self-indulgence in Alexandria.

It is interesting to consider Brutus and Cassius with this group, because one might say that they wished to be the winners in a Tragedy of Julius Caesar in which Caesar really was the tragic center. And their motives would be the ones we have been discussing. They would rescue the Roman state from the tyranny of Caesar and thus be responsible, in contrast to a self-willed Caesar and a hedonistic Antony. We can distinguish between them, too. Brutus has no revenge motive; Cassius has. Brutus is not acquisitive; Cassius has “an itching palm” (IV.iii.10) and can be “never at heart's ease / Whiles [he] behold[s] a greater than [himself]” (I.ii.208-9). Brutus has a sense of tradition; Cassius only plays on it. But Antony understands their motives, and the Roman mob's motives, well enough to defeat Brutus and Cassius, and they, not Caesar, become the centers of the tragedy. As a result their motives, especially Cassius's, begin to appear more complex, for tragic figures are more complex, in Shakespeare at least, than winners.6


Three plays may seem to be exceptions to what I have said about the tragedies' always ending with tragic death and a new order and to what I have said about the absence in the “new order” of a comprehensive positive sense of order. In Troilus and Cressida there seems to be no new order and perhaps no tragic death; and in Richard III and Macbeth the new orders are associated with a superhuman order and seem to represent more than simply political stability coupled with the absence of the more exotic disorders produced by the tragic heroes. (It is a curious additional distinction of these three plays that they are the only plays in which the tragic figures die in military combat.)7 If these plays are not absolute exceptions to what I said in the previous sections, they are at least cases where some qualification is needed.

Actually, there is a good deal of controversy over whether or not Troilus and Cressida should even be considered a tragedy. In terms of what I have been saying, there is certainly plenty of destructive disorder in Troilus and Cressida and little evidence of creative disorder. But the play has no clear center of energy, and the ending, instead of establishing a new community, implies the imminent destruction of any that might be left:

Sit, gods, upon your thrones, and smile at Troy.
I say, at once let your brief plagues be mercy,
And linger not our sure destructions on.


Troilus, who speaks these lines, is perhaps the character closest to being a center of energy or a tragic hero.8 But Troilus, like Timon, mechanically replaces one inadequate idealistic view of the world by another inadequate idealistic view which is worse than the first. His maturity is a matter of giving up lechery and addicting himself solely to wars. In these things he may be similar to other Shakespearean tragic heroes, but unlike them, he cannot find his consummation in death. Disaster only toys with Troilus. We do not see that final engagement with death that is so important in establishing the other tragic heroes in Shakespeare.

A character who does die in Troilus and Cressida, and probably the play's only other possibility for a tragic hero in the ordinary sense, is Hector. But Hector seems finally too absurd to be a hero. He gives up his noble, impressive, even courageous good sense for the sake of his honor (in the Trojan council of II.ii) and then shows us how petty a thing his honor really is by chasing a cowardly Greek simply to get his armor. He never realizes, even at the end, the contradictions in his behavior. When Achilles' gang strikes him down in V.viii, we feel more disgust at Achilles than sorrow for Hector. Shakespeare often makes his military heroes look silly near the end—it's one of his ways of facing the truth about human nature. But with Hector anything that might redeem him is way back in Act II. We may contrast Coriolanus: when his resolution collapses in V.iii, it collapses not to pursue, against his reason, a war he knows to be foolish, wasteful, and wrong, but to bring peace to Italy and to save the lives of those he loves. And where Hector (ironically) sees his collapse as leading to a life of honor, Coriolanus knows that his collapse entails his death. Coriolanus's decision redeems the immaturity of much of his behavior and makes his end terrible as Hector's is not.

Nevertheless, the energy displayed by Troilus, Hector, and the rest of the pack, Greek and Trojan, is tragic in that it is destructive (“Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion” [V.ii.190-91]), and it is this energy that gives the play its open-ended form, as if Shakespeare wondered what would happen in a world where tragic energy could not be consummated because no sense of community could oppose it, a world where there was no tension of this sort to create value. If there is “harmony” at the end of Troilus and Cressida, it lies in the universal acceptance of wars and lechery, a harmony based on eternal discord. Or, to use the method of my previous section, we may compare the final order with the nonexistent tragic deaths and conclude that in Troilus and Cressida the “new order” is so ironic as to be nonexistent. It mocks the “order” speech of Ulysses in I.iii and the “reason” of Hector in II.ii. Not that this matters much, since both Ulysses and Hector show by their subsequent words and actions that they don't have any great emotional stake in the substance of their arguments. But the final order manages to mock even what the characters do believe in—Hector's honor, Achilles' valor, Ulysses' policy, Troilus's romantic love, Cressida's faith, Menelaus-and-Paris's woman, Pandarus's sexual playpen, everybody's war—everything except Thersites' universal disgust, which isn't worth believing in.

I see Troilus and Cressida, then, as an exploration of tragic form, a flirting with its limits: a “tragic” story unfolds in a world where nothing can confer tragic values on the story's heroes. The play is a tragic structure which its characters, as Lepidus the role of triumvir, cannot fill: “To be called into a huge sphere and not to be seen to move in't, are the holes where eyes should be, which pitifully disaster the cheeks” (AC II.vii.14-16). So we see, short of absolute burlesque, the reductio ad absurdum of tragic roles—the military tragic hero, the political tragic hero, the romantic tragic hero, the philosophical tragic hero—all these are deflated in Troilus and Cressida, and we are left at the end with Troilus invoking destruction, and Pandarus, in his “tragic” fall from power, holding up the mirror to an unheroic sort of magistrate:

O world, world! thus is the poor agent despised. O traders and bawds, how earnestly are you set a-work, and how ill requited! Why should our endeavor be so loved, and the performance so loathed? What verse for it? What instance for it? Let me see.

Full merrily the humble-bee doth sing,
Till he hath lost his honey and his sting;
And being once subdued in armed tail,
Sweet honey and sweet notes together fail.
Good traders in the flesh, set this in your painted cloths:
“As many as be here of Pandar's hall,
Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar's fall;
Or if you cannot weep, yet give some groans,
Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.
Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made.
It should be now, but that my fear is this,
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss.
Till then I'll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.”


In a world where destruction is permanent, a slaughter-minded idealist and a syphilitic pimp are fitting heroes.

Richard III and Macbeth, the other obvious exceptions to some of the things I was saying about the new order at the end of a tragedy, are quite different from Troilus and Cressida in their sense of the new community. The “new order” in Troilus and Cressida is simply an intensification and purification of the old disorder. In Richard III and Macbeth the new order takes on some of the aura of health, fertility, and superhuman harmony that surrounds the new order at the end of the comedies.

In writing Macbeth a dozen or so years after Richard III, Shakespeare comes as close as he ever does to repeating a tragic structure. In both, the tragic hero is a villain. Both Richard and Macbeth are military heroes who have been the main support of their kings in a civil war. (For Richard, see 3 Henry VI, especially I.i and IV.v.) Both betray their kings, turn regicide, and usurp the crown. The deeds of both are increasingly bloody, and both are increasingly isolated in their tyranny while there is a massing of forces opposed to them. Both are troubled by ghosts, and both die bravely in single combat against an opponent whom prophesy had designated as their bane. The successful new rulers bring order to the kingdoms, order associated with a return to health, fertility, and renewed generation. Both new political orders, Richmond's and Malcolm's, are also seen as part of a larger historical pattern and a divine order. It is the nature of the new orders in Richard III and Macbeth—the sense of promised generation and divine sanction—that makes these two plays exceptions to some of the statements I made above about Act V orders in the tragedies.9

There are of course important differences between the two plays, differences which reflect the maturing of Shakespeare's art in the dozen or so years separating their composition. There are differences in methods of characterization and consequently in the implications of the tragic deaths. Richard in soliloquy speaks to us; Macbeth speaks to himself. Richard's problems are mostly practical until the final scenes, but Macbeth feels his guilt early, and we move with him from fearful apprehension of guilt into metaphysical considerations that Richard never dreams of. When Richard realizes that “there is no creature loves me; / And if I die, no soul will pity me” (V.iii.201-2), I pity him though he says I won't. But I don't feel the existential terror I feel for Macbeth, whose death comes at the end of a long inward agony and has such cosmic reverberations. Macbeth can (and does) say what Richard says; no one loves him now, either. But he can say more:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(V.v. 24-28)

Another important difference between the plays, a difference clearly related to the differences in characterization and meta-physical scope, is the far greater poetic richness of Macbeth, the greater mythic suggestiveness of its imagery; and this poetic richness has an important effect in shaping our sense of what is involved in the final scenes. The generative powers of England are restored by the return of Richmond in the last act of Richard III. But the problem of generation, or fertility, or organic growth, though certainly present and important in Richard III, is not as integral and extensive a part of the poetic texture as it is in Macbeth. Richard kills children too, but neither the play's language nor the various characters' preoccupations suggest in so intense a way as in Macbeth that the villain hero is a threat to the possibility of life as well as to individual lives. Richmond brings less than Malcolm.

Richmond is less than Malcolm, and this is the last difference between the two plays I wish to explore, a difference that is important in determining the different effects of the two endings, the different relations of the new order to the destructive tragic energy of the protagonists.

Only in Macbeth does the order established at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy give us any substantial compensation for the greatness we have lost. Richard III and Macbeth have, as we have seen, formally the same sort of ending: the good guys defeat the villain, to put it bluntly. But Richmond's strength is merely a matter of theory and of plot—of form, not of real substance. He wins, he says the right things, and so forth, but he lacks real vitality, or what I would call a concrete integrity. The group that defeats Macbeth—for Malcolm has allies who are not dramatically anonymous as Richmond's pretty much are—is different. Malcolm and Macduff (and Banquo, who is on that side and whose role they carry on) do have this concrete integrity, integrity one gets from a more vital contact with evil than we sense in Richmond. Macduff feels guilt for the death of his family. Malcolm imagines himself worse than Macbeth (thus managing to be both innocent and guilty). Banquo meets the witches and bids them speak to him; he understands Macbeth; and he has guilty dreams that show evil working in him as in Macbeth: “Merciful powers, / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (II.i.7-9). But as the sequel makes clear, he resists the evil that works in his unconscious, resists the temptation that Macbeth cannot. A simple enmity to evil, a refusal to have anything really to do with it except destroy it, is not enough—one must recognize one's own capacity for evil. Thus Richard's enemies are bland and Macbeth's are not. In Macbeth but not in Richard III the promise of generation is combined with a concrete integrity on the part of those who will fulfill the promise. Not only had Shakespeare's technique matured since the early 1590s, but also his sense of the world's moral structure had grown more complex. In fact, these two developments are complementary.

The new order in Richard III or Macbeth is richer in mythic implications than the new order in any of the other tragedies. Nevertheless the center of energy is still Richard or Macbeth. After all is said about the more magical promise of generation at the end of these plays and about the concrete integrity of the new leaders and the poetic richness of the generation theme in Macbeth, the new order in each case is still duller, more mundane, and dramatically less vital than the destructive energy of the tragic figures who die.


One of the structural devices by which Shakespeare forces us to see the death of the tragic hero in the context of the new, nontragic order is the isolation of the central figure, a stripping from him of power, wealth, friends, family, allies, people who understand him, a common understanding of the world, human contact generally, sanity, and finally life.10 In his isolation we see more clearly what the tragic hero embodies, and we see what is left over when he dies.

It is not hard to find examples of tragic isolation: Titus in his unhinged hate; Richard III without even a horse; Richard II reduced to peopling his prison with thoughts; Brutus reduced to his sleepy sword-holder; Hamlet in his readiness; Hector among Achilles' thugs, Troilus in a world where no one can appreciate a sense of value, and Pandarus in a world where no one needs his services; Othello, having given up belief in his wife for belief in his friend, finding that in the end he has neither; Lear, alone in his ability to suffer, barely aware of an outside world, and then in an apparently trivial way (“Pray you undo this button”); Macbeth, once beloved and admired of all, now isolated even from his wife by madness and death, ending hated and despised by all; Timon actively seeking isolation from all that is human and all that is alive; Coriolanus, first going into exile like “a lonely dragon” to his fen, then going again to an alien land, to what he knows will be his death. Though some of the characters don's seem so very isolated physically (Titus, Hamlet, and Lear, for instance), all are terribly isolated in their imaginations and their apprehension of the world. Even Brutus must be, though, stoic that he is, he doesn't like to show it. It isn't necessary to go into more detail about this common structure. The similarities are clear enough. (So are the many differences. Even Richard III and Macbeth are different: Macbeth sees hardly any point in winning the last battle.) It is in those plays which during the nineteenth century came to be considered the “great” tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth—that the mental isolation of the hero is most intense. Even if we no longer accept this traditional classification, it remains a good indication of the importance, in Shakespeare's tragic method, of the isolation of the central figure.


A special case, and a particularly interesting one given our concern … with the separation between the tragic figures and a surviving community, is the isolation of tragic characters in pairs; for an isolation of a pair of characters from the rest of society offers the possibility of an alternative kind of union to that of the surviving community, a kind of union embodying different, probably more exciting, values than those found among the survivors. The isolation of characters in pairs usually occurs in the plays where sexual love is an important shaping motive—Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. In each of these plays, different as they are, the form of the final scenes depends in a significant way on the nature of the love relationship we have seen.

Sexual love, as a force that brings people together, provides the energy that moves Shakespearean comedy toward an end in marriage and in a community based on marriage, a community that, as we noted above, includes the best human possibilities found in the world of the drama and, at least implicitly, promises to reproduce them. But in tragedy the movement is not toward marriage but toward death, so that the best the characters can hope for is a metaphoric consummation, a Liebestod, in which the marriage bed is a tomb. Often they don't even get that, but instead find separate deaths after love has failed, perhaps after marriage has failed. Sometimes the enemy to love is society, sometimes the dangerous forms of passion that arise within the love itself. In any case, the outside community will survive and the “community” of love will not.

The community that survives after the lovers' deaths is held together by a duller bond than love. In not one of the tragedies does Shakespeare suggest that sexual love is a possibility in the surviving community. (He doesn't literally say that it is not a possibility, but the closest he comes to actually implying such a relationship is in Richmond's proposed marriage to Elizabeth. But, aside from the fact that we never see Elizabeth—indeed, has Richmond ever seen her?—any “love” in that pair is dynastic and emblematic, not romantic and sexual.) In fact, in all the tragedies only one named woman (I ignore crowds, as in Coriolanus) is both onstage and alive at the end of the play—Lady Capulet, who, though her age may be computed at under thirty, gives the impression (V.iii.207) of being old and ready to think of dying, unmetaphorically, as her Montague counterpart already has. The presence and absence of death aside, there is no difference between the tragedies and the comedies more striking than this—the comedies must have women present and alive at the end, the tragedies virtually can not. The absence of sexual love (in fact, the absence, really, of any kind of love whatsoever) is one of the most disturbing characteristics of these surviving communities. It is, as I say, one of the things that make these worlds tragic. The comedies will isolate the absence or the failure of love in a Shylock, a Jaques, a Malvolio, in order to celebrate love in the continuing community. But the continuing community in the tragedies loses the often disruptive energy of love without gaining any kind of bond beyond the civic or political, and thus fails to embody either tragic or comic values.

Within the group of plays in which the tragic characters are isolated in pairs, we may distinguish those plays where the pair is finally isolated in union from those plays where the pair is both isolated from society and divided within itself. In Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra the sexual partners are felt to be united at the end—in death. The final scenes in both plays are achievements of that union, and in both there are two tragic figures. In Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and Macbeth the isolation of the pair of lovers involves separation, not union in death. In each case the male partner is the center of tragic interest. Troilus is more important than Cressida (I suppose because he is actively involved in the wars as well as in the lechery), even though the title gives her equal billing. Desdemona and Lady Macbeth obviously make less intense claims on our attention than their husbands. Nevertheless the love relationships in these plays are structurally crucial in ways that, say, the Brutus-Portia relationship, or even the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship, is not.

The plays that end in separation focus on the way love goes wrong in itself, not just in relation to an outside world. Therefore, in examining the effect of love as a shaping motive in the final scenes, we must clearly diversify our sense of love to include some of its varieties and perversions: sexual love, romantic love, idealistic love, lust, jealousy, need to be loved, possession, domination by means of love, and politic love. Most of these are likely to show up somehow in any given relationship, even in those plays which end in union, though I am mainly concerned here with kinds of love that have major structural influence on the plays. Moreover, these varieties are rarely separate from one another. Thus the love of Romeo and Juliet is probably the “purest” among these plays, by which I mean that there is comparatively little in it of jealousy, domination, or the more unredeemed forms of lust. Certainly it is not very politic (though see II.iii.91-92). Nevertheless, despite the fact that its interruptions are largely external, we can see in it disturbing (and as it turns out, fatal) traces of overromanticizing (principally in Romeo), idealism, and a hasty sexual desire which by some moralists might be called lust. But in general, their love is simply too uncompromising for the world they live in, and it drives them in the final scene to the only world where it seems they can be united, the world of death. They lack that balance of absolute love and common sense, of sexual desire and wise restraint, that we see, for example, in a Rosalind. But then happy, successful love is a comic mode.

In Othello a too unbalanced love turns into jealousy and a too unbalanced hate. Yet the love is never entirely lost, and the pressure of two absolutes tears Othello apart. Moreover, the transformation of love into hate also turns it into perverted lust, as Othello is driven by Iago to see Desdemona as “a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in” (IV.ii.61-62). The Othello who enters Desdemona's bedroom with murder on his mind has very mixed and compromised motives.

At the beginning of this final scene Othello's isolation is complete; he is isolated from the whole world by his monstrous notion of the truth. Desdemona too has become isolated, even from Emilia, since her husband's love has changed so mysteriously. Her own love does not fail, however, even after Othello has strangled her and she is dying. When Othello, having realized his error, kills himself, he creates a brief symbolic union:

I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.


This kiss creates here that ancient metaphorical association of sexual consummation and death that Shakespeare uses so extensively to celebrate the “eternal” unions of Romeo and Juliet and of Antony and Cleopatra. But the love union here, which follows such violent separation, separation much more violent than that in Troilus and Cressida or Macbeth, is as ironic as it is moving; for Othello kills both of them, they do not die mutually, and Othello places himself in hell as securely as he sees Desdemona in heaven. The kiss is ultimately an image not of sexual consummation but of sexual frustration.

Macbeth is really on the perimeter of this group, since love itself is not an important theme in the final scenes. But the structure of these scenes is very much the product of the love relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as Shakespeare has developed it in the early acts, where we see a perversion of sexual roles and the use of love as a means of domination.

In I.vii the sexual bond between herself and Macbeth is the means Lady Macbeth uses to force him against his better judgment into the murder of Duncan. To do this, however, she must destroy their sexual roles. She has already ritually unsexed herself (I.v.38-48), and here in I.vii she is herself identified with maleness (54-59, 72-74) and makes Macbeth's reluctance a sign of his unmanliness and a measure of the quality of his love (35-41, 47-54). When Macbeth declares that he “dare[s] do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” (46-47), he is right, and his subsequent action is, despite Lady Macbeth's statements, an abandonment of his manhood. This confused love relationship between Macbeth and his lady becomes part of the play's pervasive fertility theme. Metaphorically speaking, because of what is essentially a kind of sexual perversion, Macbeth's marriage is not fertile, nor is Scotland under his reign fertile. (In both ways he is unlike the king he kills.) Macbeth's turning for support from Lady Macbeth to the weird sisters is part of the same metaphoric structure, since they do look like women who are men (I.iii.45-47), and the result of their persuasion is the cowing of his better part of man. Macbeth's great crimes after his murder of Duncan are either murders of those who, like Duncan, are fruitful (Banquo, who is manly in the way Macbeth has abdicated [II.iii.122-28], and Lady Macduff, who is so poignantly womanly and motherly in contrast to Lady Macbeth) or murders of all their children he can get his hands on. (The implied fruitfulness of Fleance, who escapes, is the ultimate horror in Macbeth's witch-induced vision in IV.i.) Macbeth's failure of manhood is further shown by the fact that the active and valiant warrior described in Act I performs none of these crimes with his own hands.

After the murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth is progressively isolated from the partner of her crime, first by his failure to consult her before acting, then by her madness, finally by her death. One feels that their love relationship, like the relationship of Macbeth to Duncan, was once proper (and to that extent potentially fruitful—see I.iv.28-33), but that, again like Macbeth's loyalty to Duncan, their marriage was destroyed by ambition. There's not the least hint of union in the final scenes of this play. Macbeth has gone far beyond his wife in his willful destruction of his own proper nature. Yet it is the loss of this woman he loved that drives Macbeth to his bleakest meditation, his vision of life as “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” He is now left completely alone to play out his meaningless role.

And he continues to play it out in the final scenes under the influence of the role perversion set up in Act I.11 Macbeth's death is related to the sexual theme, because in giving up his manliness he has become the enemy of natural generation, of all who are “born of woman.” So it is ironic justice that Macduff, the man not born of woman, the man whose birth implied a violent perversion of natural generation, should be the one to cow Macbeth's “better part of man” (V.viii.18) and then to kill him.

When we come to the warring lechers, whores, and idealists of Troilus and Cressida, all the varieties of love-motive I've somewhat arbitrarily listed above appear in one place or another, and by the end of the play the war has made the worst of them dominant. Romantic love is destroyed by the defection of Cressida and the scurvy opinion almost everyone has of Helen (a just opinion, to judge by the effect she makes in her one appearance). Here a classic “love-pair” story, a story of a “secret” love like that of Romeo and Juliet, becomes a story of separation, not of union in death. Cressida's love is more mortal than she. Not love, but a need to be loved is her primary motive. Troilus has Romeo's too-intense romantic idealism without the luck to find a Juliet and so is cheated of his love-death, or indeed of any death at all (but see Rosalind's comment, As You Like It IV.i.85-90). Troilus is jealous even before he and Cressida part (see IV.iv.57-107); in effect he is instructing her to be unfaithful, as if she needs to betray him to justify his expectations of her. Moreover, his sensuality seems to be in his imagination rather than his body:

I am giddy; expectation whirls me round.
Th' imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense. What will it be
When that the wat'ry palates taste indeed
Love's thrice-repured nectar? Death, I fear me,
Sounding destruction, or some joy too fine,
Too subtle, potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness
For the capacity of my ruder powers.


This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.


It is appropriate that Troilus's suffering be mental too. Pandarus, who puts more stake in the act, gets the Neapolitan boneache. Achilles and Patroclus add homosexuality to the varieties of love, Thersites has a filthy mind, and with all the animal imagery in the play one suspects bestiality too. I've even seen a production (Oregon Shakespearean Festival, 1972) where, so we don't miss the point, Helen's ladies-in-waiting go at it on the forestage as Pandarus sings of “Love, love, nothing but love, still love still more!” and the talk turns to love's being apparently “a generation of vipers” (III.i.107, 122-23). And what shape do all these love-motives give to the final scene? A dying pimp, rejected by his best customer, spreads venereal disease among the members of the audience.

The love of Antony and Cleopatra also operates in many modes, if not in the more exotic types found in Troilus and Cressida. There is, for instance, the jealousy of Cleopatra over Octavia and of Antony over Thidias and Octavius; there are the repeated attempts by Cleopatra to use Antony's love to control his actions; there is the sense of lust and hedonistic self-indulgence surrounding the whole affair; there is the change of sexual roles when Cleopatra puts her clothes on Antony and wears his sword; there is the grand romantic stance, assumed by Antony in Act I and taken up by Cleopatra in Act V, which asserts that their love is a greater thing than the Roman Empire. (This is also the only one of the plays we've been considering where the love union is fruitful, an aspect of love in which Macbeth was so painfully frustrated. And yet this fruitfulness is incidental: Antony and Cleopatra simply produce children as a matter of course.)

The comprehensiveness of love here, however, is much different from the kind of comprehensiveness we found in Troilus and Cressida, because here it is concentrated in Antony and Cleopatra. It is unified, not diverse. Because it is unified, the “catalog” treatment I have just given their love is more obviously inadequate than a similar treatment of love in Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare has designed Antony and Cleopatra, from Philo's categorizing speech on (that is, from the opening lines of the play), to make us finally abandon the attempt to categorize. He makes the love of Antony and Cleopatra something we can't describe neatly, as Philo thinks he can do. Moreover, though the final scene of Antony and Cleopatra is like the final scene of Romeo and Juliet in that what is finally achieved is a love union in death (complete with side-by-side graves and eternal fame), the final scene of Antony and Cleopatra is much more complicated because “love” is not the only important motive that gives the scene its structure and because Antony is already dead and Cleopatra is still very much alive and maneuvering.

Shakespeare won't allow Antony and Cleopatra to be easily romanticized as tragic lovers. In the first place, Antony commits suicide as “a bridegroom” and does a messy job of it. Then he is awkwardly heaved aloft to a Cleopatra who refuses to open her monument to him. In all this, of course, Shakespeare is dressing up what he found in North's Plutarch, adding the sexual suggestiveness and underlining rather than removing the absurdity of the situation. The gap between the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra is also from Plutarch, but instead of telescoping time in order to make his play more “dramatically effective,” as he often did in reworking historical material, Shakespeare here exploits the “undramatic” gap in order to give his play an unusual double ending, so that we have “the Tragedy of Antony” ending in IV.xv and “the Tragedy of Cleopatra” ending in V.ii, with Antony no longer on stage. No simple Liebestod here.


In the world of Shakespearean tragedy, then, love fails as an associative alternative to the mere organization achieved by the survivors. In the final scenes we see those who can love, or those who could love, die, while those who can merely associate, live. We are left with the separation between tragic figures who die and survivors who continue to live a life that is safer but less rich in possibilities for experience. At the end of King Lear, Edgar says that the life of a survivor, at least in the world of that play, will be neither so long nor so full as that of Lear and Gloucester, who have died:12

The oldest hath borne most; we that the young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


In general, of course, long life is not required of a tragic hero, but all the tragic figures have seen more, seen more because they tried more, confronted more, than those, of whatever age, who survive. …


  1. See Walter Jackson Bate, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 161, and W. B. C. Watkins, Perilous Balance: The Tragic Genius of Swift, Johnson, & Sterne (Cambridge, Mass.: Walker-de Berry, 1960), p. 77. The original source is, according to Watkins, Arthur Murphy (“Essay, Johnson's Works, 1806, I, 124”).

  2. Richard II is a particularly interesting case. At first Bolingbroke seems to be the center of disorder, but then we realize, by at least II.i, that it is really Richard who is the threat; then in the rest of Act II and in Act III it's Bolingbroke again, and yet by IV.i Richard is once more the energy which destroys order. This shifting in our feelings about where the energy of the play lies may be simply the result of Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard as a man of either-or tensions, but it may also be characteristic of “historical” disorder, which can be either tragic or comic but resolves dramatically into an order that is accompanied by a more or less precise threat that disorder lies ahead.

  3. Some of the notions about comedy in this section are based on Susanne K. Langer, “The Great Dramatic Forms: The Comic Rhythm,” in her Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Scribner's, 1953), pp. 326-50, and Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).

  4. The problem of order has been discussed often in connection with Shakespeare's plays, and this is hardly surprising, given the intense interest his contemporaries in Tudor and Stuart England took in the problem. I suspect that most of us get our basic notion of the period's sense of order from E. M. W. Tillyard's well-known and convenient exposition of The Elizabethan World Picture (1943; reprint ed., New York: Vintage Books, 1961). Tillyard's book is of course a starting place, a modest vade mecum for a study of Shakespeare's plays (and, perhaps even more, other literature of the period) and is not an explanation of what actually happens in the plays with respect to the “order” theme. Nor is it true that Elizabethans could not think about the world in other ways; many did. Nevertheless, taken for what it is, Tillyard's account is a useful place to start.

    Among other ways Elizabethans could describe the world's order, Tillyard discusses the “planes” of order, “correspondences” in structure between various spheres of activity in the universe, analogies between microcosm, macrocosm, and body politic. When we come to the plays, it is probably more accurate to speak of “the planes of disorder” than of “the planes of order,” since with drama as with news, order is normally more interesting in the breach than the observance. The set of planes I propose in the text is a bit different from Tillyard's, though consistent with it. I am trying to analyze the structure of the tragedies, not recreate a “normal” Elizabethan way of seeing the universe and its many parts. As a result, my categories are less distinct from one another than his are.

  5. Again, because of the peculiar dramatic structure of Richard II, the final scenes show Bolingbroke not so much being an opportunist as facing the consequences of having been one.

  6. Brutus is of course the central figure. But Cassius is the one who most appears to increase in complexity, because while it was still Caesar's tragedy Cassius looked more like one of the usual winners. None of the men I've been discussing the last few pages is as high-minded as Brutus. None of them makes a mistake like the one Brutus makes twice with Antony.

  7. To say this is to take Hector as a tragic hero. But though his death, as the play's last “event,” occupies the place in the dramatic structure normally given to the tragic figure's death, there are reasons for doubting that Hector is really of “tragic” stature. See below in this section.

  8. Cf. Brian Morris, “The Tragic Structure of Troilus and Cressida,SQ 10 (1959): 481-91, who sees Troilus as a tragic hero. I treat Troilus as a tragic hero too—though not in Morris's way, since I see his heroism as ironic.

  9. Though it is part of a large historical pattern, Octavius Caesar's pax romana—see AC—is a very secular, administrative affair compared to the peace established by Richmond or Malcolm.

  10. John Holloway, The Story of the Night (1961; reprint ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [1963]), has explored this aspect of Shakespearean tragic structure and drawn an anthropological analogy with scapegoat ritual—the tragic hero as repository of society's evils.

  11. The one person we see him kill in Act V is specifically someone's son (Siward's) and one who is “born of woman.” See V.vii.5-13. Actually, it might not be apparent on stage that the young man Macbeth kills is “Young Siward,” since he is never so identified in the lines, only in the stage directions and speech prefixes. Perhaps we are supposed to see what he is (a young man) rather than who he is. Or perhaps we would see that his coat of arms identifies him with Old Siward. In V.vii, when Young Siward's death is reported, the point is made that in his death he became a man (39-43).

  12. Edgar certainly means Lear and perhaps Gloucester. In the Folio, Edgar uses a singular verb (“the oldest hath borne most”), which might mean that he is referring only to Lear, though Shakespeare is not consistent, by modern standards, in his use of verb number. In Q1, where in fact, the lines are spoken by “Duke” …, there is a plural verb (“the oldest haue borne most”), which would refer to both Lear and Gloucester. But the point I am making is not really affected by which text we choose.

Criticism: Endings: Hamlet

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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.

Johnson rarely gives illustrations of his general statements in the Preface, disdaining to paint streaks on the tulips. In this instance his habit is particularly frustrating. We might agree with him about certain comedies: The Comedy of Errors, for example, requires the audience to accept an improbable reappearance of Egeon's wife as the means to a happy solution of the problem of family separation. One need only mention All's Well That Ends Well to mark Shakespeare's blind rush to resolve a romantic puzzle with the cheapest of plot tricks. But if Johnson, as we suspect, means us to accept his generalization as applying to the endings of Lear or Antony and Cleopatra, we must surely balk. Are not these endings organic developments, the fearfully inevitable resolutions of plots that have a destined quality about them?

The answer to our question about Johnson's criticism and its application can, no doubt, be found in his belief that writers must make their works exemplars of virtue and justice. Shakespeare's endings, like his whole plays, offer evidence of his chief defect as an artist: “He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.” Holding this strict view of the writer's responsibility, Johnson was bound to regard Shakespeare's aesthetically powerful tragic endings as dramatic tricks designed to titillate an audience in greater need of moral guidance.

Johnson's complaint appears on the surface to be borne out by the ending of Hamlet. Hamlet's duel with Laertes, with its attendant spectacle, looks like Shakespeare's hurried attempt to satisfy our desire for revenge while glossing over the moral implications of both Hamlet's and Claudius' actions. Yet Johnson's blinders have to a great extent misled his judgment. The final duel functions as the foremost illustration of a theme, heavy in its moral overtones, that has been firmly established throughout the play. Claudius becomes another “enginer / Hoist on his own petar.” His belief that his position as king gives him god-like power is literally exploded in his face.1 And even though the fallout touches Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet, we have a strong feeling of the workings of justice despite the helter-skelter appearance of events.

But the limited notion of a bomb that explodes in the inventor's face does not adequately describe the significance of final things in Hamlet. Drama was more to Shakespeare—and is more to us—than simply a way to teach moral lessons; trapping Claudius appeals not only to our sense of justice but also to our aesthetic sensibilities. He proves to be yet another example of limited man overestimating his power to control events, and in observing this fact we realize that he and Hamlet share the same trait. To convince us that both villain and hero attempt similar maneuvers to satisfy their thirst for revenge is a masterstroke of Shakespeare's art. What seems to elevate Hamlet above Claudius in this respect is that Hamlet discovers in time the limitations of his ego: “The readiness is all” reveals this discovery. Claudius' ambition, a trait that Shakespeare scrupulously avoids giving to Hamlet, drives him to overreach himself in his sure-fire, ingeniously designed final duel.

The struggle between Hamlet and Laertes has about it, as well, a mirror-image effect because both are sons seeking to avenge their fathers' deaths. Hamlet in fact attests to their brotherly status before the duel: “For by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his” (V.ii.77-78).2 Hamlet confronts a “model” revenger in Laertes, someone who, unlike himself, seeks a direct and violent path to right a wrong done to his family. This fact further heightens the tragic irony of the final scene because we know that Claudius should be their proper target and that they ought to turn their swords against him. Laertes has been trapped by his own fury to do Claudius's bidding, while Hamlet's caution has kept him free of his uncle's snare until the last scene. Only after each is fatally wounded does the wished-for union of wills between Hamlet and Laertes occur, adding to the poignancy of the ending. The “sons” are sacrificed to the ambition of the “father king.”

Hamlet also seems to approach the duel with a new-found recklessness, a quality much admired in Renaissance conduct books like Castiglione's The Courtier. This nonchalance comes with a change in attitude about his proper role. He is in effect facing a portrait of his youthful exuberance in Laertes, literally wrestling it down before the audience of the court. A comparable struggle occurs in Romeo and Juliet when Romeo meets Paris before the Capulet monument in the final scene. Romeo, presenting a personality more desperate than Hamlet's, urges Paris to leave the scene and escape his wrath, addressing him in the dark as “boy.”3 Laertes and Paris appear to be innocent victims caught in the path of desperate men, but their roles could also be described as symbolic, since each represents some quality in the hero that will be destroyed.

While the final duel in Hamlet has significance for the plot, it also functions as an effective correlative for Hamlet's internal duel. By assenting to it, despite warnings from Horatio that it constitutes a plot on his life, Hamlet dares to submit himself to the winds of fate with a stoical mind. To argue that he simply gives up, committing a kind of intentional suicide, is to gut the ending of its purpose of illustrating Hamlet's discovery of his proper role.4 The change in Hamlet's outlook following his return from England can be interpreted as marking a movement away from the skeptical misanthrope of the early part of the play to the more subdued and rational believer of the ending. This change of “part” is significant for two reasons. Hamlet indulges heavily in the theatrical metaphor illustrated in the observation that “All the world's a stage.” In the passing action of the play we see Hamlet playing numerous parts: scholar, madman, fool, avenger. None of these roles can be said to truly represent him, and yet they are all, to some extent, part of his character. Shakespeare takes pains to demonstrate that the Hamlet who enters into the fight with Laertes is then better suited to play the avenger's part than at any other time in the action. To follow the language of the theater, moreover, Hamlet has also chosen to give up his usurped role as director of events or of characters' thoughts and deeds. There are no more mousetraps, no sermons to Gertrude and Ophelia, no more worrying over the ultimate destination of souls. Hamlet has decided to be a simple “actor,” leaving the direction of events to Providence. This decision results in Hamlet changing places with Claudius, allowing himself to be a victim of the king's plotting.5 Thus, when Hamlet moves against Claudius he strikes not as an avenger but in self-defense; his act loses the taint of personal revenge and takes on the savor of justice. He can enter into the pit of hell and defy the devil without losing that peace of mind reflected in this insight: “Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes?”

For the other main characters, the final scene has a different meaning. As the director of his own mousetrap, Claudius hopes to put an end to his fears. Like Hamlet he seeks peace of mind, but his actions as a plotter ironically place him in the frenzied state Hamlet was in after he first saw the Ghost. Forced by circumstances not only to act against Hamlet but also to entrap the enraged and dangerous Laertes, Claudius returns to the poison he used so effectively in seizing the crown and queen. He characteristically works by indirection, using Laertes's anger as bait to set his trap. The appearance of Osric recalls Polonius's foolish obsequiousness at the arrival of the traveling actors, and Hamlet enjoys toying with this “son” of the old counselor in much the same way as he had with Polonius. Osric is also a caricature, a bad actor, whose manner imitates the style of Hamlet's play-within-the-play. Now, however, the bad actors have taken over rule of the court completely; only a violent purging will restore the state to order and glory.

The closing duel, with its many instances of trickery and spying, might be called Claudius' mousetrap. In Sir Laurence Olivier's film of the play (1948), both the play-within and the final scene are introduced with the same procession and music; the similarity is so striking that one believes the same piece of film is being reprojected.6 The slightest reflection will in fact yield many parallels between the two situations. In both scenes Claudius and Gertrude, along with the rest of the court, constitute the audience for action that is rigged; both performances involve treachery, poisonings, and king-murders; Gertrude is ignorant of the meaning of both events, in the latter instance paying for her ignorance with her life; and Claudius discovers in both scenes that his villainy will have to be answered. While Hamlet lets his advantage slip away after the play-within, he doubles the stroke of vengeance in the end by forcing Claudius to drink poisoned wine and by stabbing him. Like the ending of Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, the finale of Hamlet is an instance of fiction that suddenly and terrifyingly becomes reality.7

The play-ending duel should also bring to mind the one between Hamlet's father and old Fortinbras, which Horatio describes at the play's opening (I.i. 80-95). While the fathers' fight was conducted according to the conditions of medieval chivalry, with prizes of land clearly designated, the Hamlet-Laertes duel has the appearance of a court entertainment staged for the pleasure of a decadent collection of courtiers. The lesson is obvious: under Claudius the honor attached to knightly contests has been debased, and the result is a corrupt and sickened body politic. Fortune's Wheel has turned; dwarfs have replaced giants. Such a comparison is also important because young Fortinbras, whose restlessness Horatio claims resulted from the death of his father, will at the play's close enter to take the crown his father could not win. Thus the conventional return to order and rule is tinged by the irony of Fortinbras—the “ghost” of his father—emerging as the ruler of Denmark. Here too is the legacy of Claudius' ambition, which led him to send ambassadors to old Norway rather than take the field against this avenging son. Yet with the arrival of Fortinbras, we are also meant to see him as “a delicate and tender prince,” in Hamlet's own words, a figure who revives the nobility of conduct that Hamlet's father and his peers were praised for.

While Claudius hopes to rid himself of the carbuncle in his blood that Hamlet represents, Laertes enters the lists for the purpose of avenging Polonius' murder and Ophelia's suicide. Laertes is, in a sense, the avenger Hamlet wishes to be throughout most of the play. But as Shakespeare makes clear the “passionate actor” of the avenger's part can be easily controlled by a wiser, machiavellian Claudius. One might claim, if this were a heavily moralized Johnsonian melodrama and not a tragedy, that Laertes represents an object lesson in the pitfalls of seeking direct and unlawful reprisal against one's enemies. Even though Laertes believes he is restoring his family's honor and acting in Denmark's best interests, he in fact becomes Claudius' killing instrument. Like his father, he emerges as another victim of the struggle between Hamlet and Claudius by proving too anxious to do the king's bidding. Like his father as well, he will not die an innocent: he furnishes the poison for the rapier points.8 Yet Laertes wins our sympathy when he speaks out against Claudius upon discovering the depth of his treachery: “The king, the king's to blame.” His act of forgiving Hamlet of his father's murder stands out against the background of slaughter as both a noble and inspiring gesture.9

Gertrude's role in the finale might best be described as that of the sacrificial lamb. Hamlet has taught her to look into her heart, where she sees black spots, but in drinking the poisoned wine she gives no sign that she does so to escape from a torturing conscience. Nor does the text offer any hint that she drinks in order to save her son, as Olivier tries to suggest in his film version. There is in fact something disturbingly and characteristically blind about Gertrude's behavior. She qualifies as a sensualist even in this final toast. Looking back on her hasty marriage to Claudius and her seemingly willful blindness to his flaws, we are tempted to conclude that she honestly believes the toast she gives—“The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet”—testifies to new-found sanity in her son and a reconciliation between son and husband. Recalling her comment on the Player Queen's declarations of loyalty—“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”—we realize that Gertrude is simply incapable of the kind of womanly virtue and courage Hamlet expects of her. She would never protest too much, with a pun on overacting, simply because she, like her son, is all too human to be capable of performing in an idealized role. It is her death, however, that seals Claudius' fate. Now all of the court, which is the audience for this “play” as it was for the earlier Murder of Gonzago, can see the horrible evidence of the king's treachery. Here is the situation Hamlet had hoped for following his play-within, and now that he has it he can act quickly and appropriately. Gertrude's death is the one consequence Claudius had failed to count on in his foolproof plot, and it acts as the major spur for Hamlet's actions. While his throttling of Claudius takes place in answer to his father's plea, Hamlet is moved as deeply by his love for his mother, whose death, unlike his father's, he unwillingly witnesses. In a sense Hamlet is now freed to act out the part he has been trying to play throughout. Ironically, his mother's and not his father's death moves him to play it to the hilt.10

Two other figures have significant roles in the final scene, Horatio and Fortinbras. The former has been performing as observer of the duel, as he did in the play-within scene, and as he has done throughout the play. His significant act, to be performed after the play's close, is to confirm Hamlet's claims about the Ghost and to explain the method behind Hamlet's apparent madness. He must repair Hamlet's “wounded name,” a duty that nicely suits the emerging mood of soldierly virtue established by the sound of drums. We should also note that Hamlet's story is not told on stage but deferred to a more suitable time. This decision marks an advance in Shakespearean design that can be clearly seen by comparing the close of Hamlet with that of Romeo and Juliet, where Friar Lawrence's long recounting of the star-crossed lovers' tale tends to shift the focus away from the impact of tragedy to the moral pointing of storytelling.

Horatio's character is likewise important because it reflects a stoical philosophy that seems to have influenced Hamlet's behavior after his return from the sea adventure. The patience and acceptance revealed in the hero's “readiness is all” speech (V.ii.219-226) mark a significant change in attitude from the one which led him to contemplate suicide at the play's opening.11 His father's death and mother's marriage, when combined with the deception of Polonius, Ophelia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, had in fact transformed Hamlet into a misanthrope and misogynist. Horatio's loyalty and friendship prove to Hamlet that not everyone has deserted him; and these qualities appear to issue from Horatio's philosophy as much as from his person. By having his hero take on the stoical outlook of his friend, Shakespeare casts the murder of Claudius in a mold that more closely resembles the form of justice than that of misanthropic revenge. Such elevation gives this ending a quality of righteousness that is lacking in the ending of Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, which it in many ways resembles. It is precisely because Hamlet has come to behave more like his trusting and noble friend that we feel even more deeply the tragedy of his loss.

Fortinbras, on the other hand, represents the decisive, “heroic” personality Hamlet identifies with his father and with the character of the proper avenger. Yet while Fortinbras is certainly an avenging son, his claim is the weakest of the three. His father, unlike Hamlet's or Laertes', died in honorable fashion in a fair, chivalric fight; the land he lost to Denmark was part of the pre-duel agreement. Yet we have noticed out of the corner of our eye throughout the play that Fortinbras needs little reason to act boldly and defiantly. Claudius had tried to control this upstart through the efforts of his counterpart, Old Norway, hoping he would prove to be as resourceful as Claudius believes he is in controlling Hamlet. But Fortinbras keeps one step ahead of his uncle-enemies, finally asking for permission to travel through Denmark to confront his Polish enemies. While Hamlet marvels at the will of this daring prince, who appears to be ready to cast away his life for a small patch of ground, we must be aware that Fortinbras may have other motives for travelling through Denmark. He seems to combine courage and craft, the lion and the fox, in his nature, even though we only glimpse his character in flashes.12 Fortinbras restores the soldierly ideal that is identified with the age of Hamlet's father; he is also the doctor come to cure Denmark of the machiavellian sickness that has brought it low. We must likewise regard him as the inheritor of a throne he has not had to raise a sword to win. Standing side by side at the close, Horatio and Fortinbras represent the stoical and martial types, the two aspects of character that were not allowed to develop in Hamlet in Claudius' stifling climate of intrigue, corruption, and poison. (Although Fortinbras has been cut from Olivier's film, Horatio performs the role Shakespeare obviously intended for him by leading a procession of bearers up the steps of the castle, with the accompaniment of drum beats, to place Hamlet's body on the highest platform.) As Fortinbras declares, “The soldiers' music and the rite of war / Speak loudly for him.”


While such an ending is arresting in its own right, Shakespeare takes care to enhance its effect by recalling parallels with the opening. The court audience, for example, is in the position of frightened viewer of events that seem to be directed by supernatural forces. They see a “ghost” in the figure of an avenging Hamlet assassinating the king. Like his father's ghost in the opening scene, moreover, Hamlet does not reveal the reasons for his actions; this responsibility rests with Horatio, who attempted an explanation for the spirit's appearance in the opening. In another parallel, Hamlet's request of Horatio—“If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile, … To tell my story”—echoes Hamlet's father's request of his son. Neither father nor son has been given the satisfaction of telling the whole story of Claudius's villainy; Horatio, like Hamlet in the play proper, is in the end the sole witness to events that have mystified others in the court. Again recalling the theatrical metaphor, we understand that Shakespeare develops the theme of appearance and reality by posing situations in which two distinct audiences perceive different realities in events played out before them.13

We have already noted the points of comparison and contrast between Horatio's account of the duel involving Hamlet's father and Old Fortinbras and the play's final duel. The contrast is particularly instructive of the decline of martial values that Fortinbras' emergence partly retards. This theme of chivalry decayed has not received much attention from critics of Hamlet, yet its significance bears directly on the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius. Claudius has not only murdered Hamlet's father; he has also stifled honor and single-combat as a means of settling disputes. In setting a machiavellian model for kingly conduct, e.g., trying to control Fortinbras through Old Norway, using his influence with the English king to destroy Hamlet, Claudius invites others to follow his lead. Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Osric are all spawned from the same swamp of deceit and intrigue, and that swamp was created by Claudius. One would never expect to find Claudius involved in single-combat, a fact that contributes to Fortinbras' easy victory in the end. Ironically, Horatio's rationalization for the Ghost's appearance—that Denmark fears invasion from Norway—proves to be true when Claudius fails to successfully meet and throw back the Norwegian forces. In an important contrast, Shakespeare shows us that while Hamlet's father lived comfortably in a suit of armor, Claudius is a creature used to court robes, a master of entertainments and deceptions.

The ritual tension created by the Ghost's appearance and disappearance in the opening is repeated in the three-stage duel at the end. Shakespeare employs incremental repetition in both scenes to provide considerable suspense and excitement. The Ghost makes two appearances in the first scene, establishing the basis for the third and decisive meeting with Hamlet. We expect the third encounter to be crucial precisely because the triadic device is so much a part of mythic formulas of storytelling. In the final duel, Hamlet touches Laertes twice, after which a breathing space allows time for Gertrude to drink the poisoned wine. As the participants struggle for the third time, Laertes wounds Hamlet, after which they scuffle and exchange rapiers. This combination of repetition and confusion recalls the mood that prevailed in the opening scene, where the audience is made up of Horatio and the members of the watch. Both scenes strongly suggest the presence of supernatural forces taking a hand in human affairs. Indeed, Hamlet speaks to the audience in the final scene as if they have seen a ghost: “You that look pale and tremble at this chance” (1. 336).

As in the opening scene Horatio occupies the position of informed witness. Both the soldiers and Hamlet call upon him to tell their stories in an impartial manner. Although he seeks the peace of death in the end, Horatio places loyalty to his prince over personal solace in granting Hamlet's request. This thematic point is important precisely because the other time we have seen it demonstrated was in the opening scene. Rather than telling Claudius about the war-like form of Hamlet's father, Horatio went instead to Hamlet. This act has always puzzled certain of my students, especially because it is Horatio who declares that the Ghost has come to warn them of imminent invasion. Should not the king be the first to know of this threat? After examination of his motive, it becomes clear that Horatio perceives in Hamlet the quality of royalty that would be followed. His response is almost instinctual, but it prepares us for Hamlet's assessment of Claudius' defects as a king, and for Horatio's behavior in the final scene.

Probably the most critical link with the play's opening, and with a major theme in Hamlet, is the hero's death and proposed burial. By killing Hamlet's father in his sleep, Claudius deprived him of the chance to confess his sins and thus to rest quietly in his grave. Forced to wander as a ghost, Hamlet's father seeks to “restore” his good name and to find a proper home for body and soul. The motif of huggermugger burials and disturbed graves is subsequently developed in the action. Polonius dies without confessing his many sins, requiring his hasty interment, according to Claudius, because extended obsequies might incite the people against Hamlet or, more precisely, against him. Ophelia, driven mad by Polonius's sudden death and Hamlet's cruel rejection, commits suicide and must be buried without full rites. In the gravedigger scene, moreover, Yorick's grave is wantonly disturbed, launching Hamlet into a reminiscence that leads him to contemplate the leveling power of death. More important, the gravedigger scene, which ends with Hamlet and Laertes quarreling over Ophelia's grave, enforces the lesson that because the bones of the dead may be easily disturbed a more secure home must be found for the soul. Hamlet's “The readiness is all” speech serves as a text on the importance of discovering inner peace by coming to terms with the harsh conditions of life. Hamlet's death and noble burial end the cycle of troubled rest that began with his father's murder. The solemn final funeral, accompanied by trumpets and drums, does not simply restore order; it returns the values of the soldier to a kingdom whose best members were overcome by the shadow of Claudius' ambition. Taking Hamlet's “dying voice,” Fortinbras, literally “force in arms,” inherits a Danish throne in part restored to its former stature by Hamlet's delayed but no less decisive act.


The language, imagery, and effects of V.ii describe a similar movement from politic practice to soldierly nobility. Of particular note is Hamlet's realization of the slippery nature of plotting and knavery. He opens the scene by recounting for Horatio his actions following the discovery of the letter from Claudius to the English king. Hamlet has outwitted his uncle by altering the death sentence so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take his place on the chopping block. Such an alteration reminds us of his adjustments to The Murder of Gonzago, where the nephew Lucianus (not the brother) is made the killer of the king. (The final scene could thus be described as a fulfillment of the “prophecy” delivered in the play-within.) But this alteration and the one that sends his friends to their deaths do not succeed in hoisting the true “enginer” on his own petard. Instead, Hamlet has only eliminated figures who, like Polonius, are agents of Claudius' villainy. The trick also smacks of Claudius' method of operation, forcing us to recognize that the hero now rejoices in machiavellian tricks that we have identified with his opponent. Hamlet may write off this deed to the indiscretion that “sometimes serves us well when our deep plots do pall” (l. 8-9), but we find it difficult to rest easy with a conscience that can so readily dismiss the deed. In addition, Hamlet tells Horatio that he has fastened the new letter with his father's seal, a detail that points to a further perversion of the family's name. Hamlet coolly dismisses the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a hollow-sounding aphorism: “ ’Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites” (l. 60-62). This statement looks backward and forward; it is a kind of summing up of the plot. Polonius and Ophelia have stepped between Hamlet and Claudius, and, according to the sense of the metaphor, they have paid for their intrusion into the contest with their lives. Even before the entrance of Osric, another figure of baser nature, we are prepared to receive the final confrontation of Hamlet and Claudius as a dueling match in which “innocent” victims must also fall.

Of greater importance to the poetic and thematic texture of this final scene—and the play—is Hamlet's observation that “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will” (l. 10-11). This figure draws a sharp contrast between divine and human craftsmanship. Not only has the hero realized his own limitations in directing Claudius' demise, he has also admitted to the existence of a design or order in nature that approximates justice. To follow the language of the theatrical metaphor, Hamlet assents to the will of another “director” and satisfies himself with the less influential but important actor's part.14 This same divine director has also been an audience to the “bad acting” of the main characters and will now step in, following the convention of deus ex machina, to stop the succession of jumbled, confused “scenes.” Having Hamlet assess the situation in this language underscores the essential unity of dramatic art and reality, confirming the claim that “all the world's a stage.” Claudius' deed is punished in a fashion suitable to the theater world; his mask is torn away and he is revealed to all as an imposter. Finally, it is intriguing to note that Fortinbras bursts in with “Where is this sight?”, almost as if he has arrived too late to see the performance of a great tragedy.

In summarizing Claudius' evil career for Horatio, Hamlet asks a question in language that bears on another important strain of imagery in the play: “And is’t not to be damned / To let this canker of our nature come / In further evil?” Hamlet thus concludes that his purpose must be that of the doctor come to cure the rotten sickness in the state of Denmark. The deed of murder he will commit is given a purging quality, which to some extent also justifies its horror and violence. Though Hamlet may not fully realize it, he too must die because the disease has tainted his blood. The murders of Polonius and of his friends cannot be lightly dismissed, even though they may be traced to Claudius' designing hand. So Hamlet is seen as both curing and succumbing to the disease, which also strikes Laertes and his mother. The irony of the situation is enhanced by Claudius' act of placing the union in the cup of wine, thus mimicking the actions of the physician. Gertrude instead of Hamlet drinks this “health,” thereby revealing to all the destructiveness of the king's cure. Shakespeare would fully develop the contrast between true and false king-doctors in Macbeth, where the English king is described as having the power to cure with a touch, while Macbeth, like Claudius, destroys everything that he touches.15 Completing the doctor-disease motif, a dying Hamlet looks to Horatio to perform the physician's duties by telling his story and thus healing Hamlet's “wounded name.”

Mirror imagery serves to establish the reflexive quality of the closing scene. Hamlet declares about Laertes that “by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his.” Hamlet had earlier made a comparison of faces when he forced Gertrude to regard the differences between his Hyperion father and the satyr Claudius.16 Here he employs the mirror image to reveal that he now realizes Laertes too is forced to seek revenge for a father's murder. Discovery of this truth about Laertes signals Hamlet's maturity; he understands that he is not the only son bearing up under the burden of custom. But Laertes should not, therefore, be his enemy. The mirror distorts rather than resolves the conflict, with the result that brother is set against brother. This disjointed relationship is further corrupted when Laertes, after hearing Hamlet's genuine apology for having shot his arrow “o’er the house / And hurt my brother,” holds fast to his plan to keep his “name ungored.” Laertes knows the swords are poisoned and that the duel is rigged, yet he fails to respond nobly and rightly to Hamlet's gesture. His name has already been gored by assenting to play a part in Claudius' devious interlude. By contrast, Hamlet's magnanimity and free nature help to underscore his hero's role in this final movement of the tragedy. He may stand alone, but his isolation reveals that no other character shares the mirror of nobility with him.

The image of a distorted mirror also draws attention to a central motif of Hamlet: situations in which “purposes mistook” fall on the heads of the inventors. Although Hamlet has both invented schemes (the trapping of Claudius) and been the target of them (the voyage to England) he has managed throughout to escape the consequences of these plots. In the final scene the trap set for him is baited so well that the king (and we in the audience?) believe there is no way to slip it. Claudius convinces himself, in the language of the theater, that he alone directs the scene and that he alone knows how it will turn out. When chance or divine purpose distort the image, Claudius must exchange places with his victims, becoming ironically the “father” hunted out and murdered by his “sons.” In a play that has dwelt at some length on the topic of unnatural relationships, the destruction of Claudius confirms the significant transition back to relationships that more faithfully mirror those in nature.


There are other details of the final scene of Hamlet that illustrate the process of a return to order. The structural design of V.ii follows a favorite Shakespearean pattern rightly called a diptych by Mark Rose.17 In the first half of the scene (1-226), Hamlet exults in outwitting Claudius at the same time as he rationalizes the murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He then engages in another fencing match of wits, this time with Osric, whose foppish nature makes him prey to the same tricks Hamlet used on Polonius. Hamlet's skill in these instances of witplay has made him perhaps overconfident about confronting Claudius and Laertes, but the final speech of this section, ending with “Let be,” conveys a sense of his new-found stoicism. While the first half of the diptych is marked by conversation that is sometimes witty, often sarcastic, the second half (227-338) bristles with noise and action. The settings shift from private walks to the public court. Much of the action in the court scene is violent and confused, threatening to Hamlet; in the first half he was firmly in control, but now other forces pull the strings. The contrast emphasizes the hero's growing isolation in a world actively engaged in covering real motives with an appearance of games and festivity. But in the transition from foolish play with Osric to more serious play (the stage directions use the word “play” to describe the encounter) with Laertes, we have reason to believe in the progress of events toward honor and nobility. Even though the main part of the scene is dominated by images of Claudius' victims falling like duckpins, the final half resounds with the steady, measured beats of a march. The impression of a return to “soldier's music” is reinforced at the critical moment of Hamlet's death, when sound effects and not just words make the thematic point. Horatio's “Now cracks a noble heart” is followed immediately by the sounds of a drum whose steady beat announces the arrival of Fortinbras at court.18The succession of one noble heart by another takes place without missing a beat. While this effect tends to go unnoticed by literary critics, audiences are genuinely moved by the stately impact of this noble noise, which also relieves the cacophony of trumpets, drums, and cannon shot that were heard after each hit during the duel. Like the doctor figure in other Shakespearean plays (see especially Cerimon in Pericles), Fortinbras's martial music applies a cure to rotten Denmark's discord; the final peal of ordnance, shot off as Hamlet's body is carried away, signals an end and a new beginning.

The appearance of Fortinbras likewise breaks the spell of the “castle as prison” that has prevailed throughout the play. It is the final stage in a process that began with the appearance of another armed visitor, Hamlet's father, at the play's beginning. This release is part of a denouement that on the surface seems to be bloody and disordered—“proud Death's feast,” in Fortinbras's words. Yet Hamlet's character has been fulfilled in the scene, achieving the tragic dimensions it did not have throughout the action. This tragic quality is part heroic and active, part reflective and philosophical. Most important, it reveals signs of acquiescence to a power beyond itself: Hamlet believes in a Providence whose plan he willingly chooses to be a part of. We realize too that a form of justice has been done in the end; Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes—all perish fittingly as victims of their own schemes or blind passion. Man has once again been shown the limits of his power and understanding, a lesson that the theatrical metaphor nicely illustrates by revealing a “director” whose authority is only glimpsed by the principal “actors.” By the end of the scene we also appreciate the fittingness of the duel as a device to represent the internal duel Hamlet has been waging with his conscience. Having won that duel, a victory that is confirmed by “The readiness is all,” Hamlet does not have to prove himself in the actual duel. This paradoxical truth gives the final scene of Hamlet a philosophical quietude that the noise and confusion cannot disturb.19


  1. Bertrand Evans believes that Claudius is a victim of “sweaty haste, his mind pushed beyond its rational limits.” But Claudius shows only cool calculation in his handling of Laertes and in sending Osric to invite Hamlet to the duel. Overreaching seems to be the result of pride and not fear in Claudius' case. See Shakespeare's Tragic Practice (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 104-105.

  2. All quotations are from Sylvan Barnet, gen ed., The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972).

  3. V.iii.70.

  4. This seems to be the position of Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), pp. 141-147. She sees Hamlet as possessed by grief, which blinds him to the realities of Claudius' invitation. For a different view of his state of mind, see Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1956), pp. 104-105.

  5. Wendy Coppedge Sanford, Theater as Metaphor in “Hamlet” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 18-21.

  6. See Alan Dent, ed., Hamlet: The Film and the Play (London: World Film Publications, Ltd., 1948).

  7. Hieronimo is a fatal participant in the last scene play-within, in which the King's son is slain with a real, not a stage-prop, knife. Although he does not create a formal play-within in the dueling scene, Shakespeare achieves many of the same effects—surprise, shock, the sensation of art becoming reality—Kyd achieves.

  8. IV.vii.137-146.

  9. For an informed discussion of the similarities and differences between Hamlet and Laertes, see Herbert R. Coursen, Jr., Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1976), pp. 145-147.

  10. This idea is not understood by critics who claim that there is no difference in Hamlet's state of mind when he kills Claudius. That he is prepared (“The readiness is all”) for unforeseen consequences when he fights Laertes, however, is clear. That he has no other choice but to act after Gertrude's death and Laertes' confession is also clear. See Thomas McFarland, Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare (New York: Random House, Inc., 1966), p. 57.

  11. For an intelligent tracing of the pattern of change, see Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1943), pp. 107-109.

  12. See especially II.ii.60-68 and IV.iv.1-29.

  13. Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), p. 147, argues that all audiences become one in the final scene.

  14. Sanford, p. 22.

  15. The chalice of wine is also a central prop in the banquet scene (III.iv) of Macbeth. There too the wine is spilled before the pretender king (Macbeth) can consecrate his “right” to rule. See Coursen, pp. 349-351.

  16. III.iv.54-68.

  17. Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 124.

  18. V.ii.370.

  19. Harry Levin, Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 49, argues that reestablishment of order cannot palliate the horror of tragic events. In his view, tragedy can be nothing other than pessimistic. As this analysis of the final scene demonstrates, the change in Hamlet's personality and philosophy underscores not only the possibility but the existence of optimism in the world of the play. A world from which Claudius has been expunged is surely on its way back to health, albeit in the control of Fortinbras.

Criticism: Endings: Othello

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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. Othello's last lines have been noticed often enough, and Desdemona's, too, especially in recent years; but they have seldom been attended to in any detail and their significant complementarity has apparently gone unnoticed, no doubt partly because ‘Soft you, a word or two … And smote him thus’—Othello's ‘last great speech’, in T. S. Eliot's phrase—has come so to dominate almost every kind of commentary on the endplay.2 But the complementarity was evidently deliberate, not fortuitous, and this seems to be Shakespeare's first dramatic and dialogical expression in extremis of special endplay effects of the kind inchoate in Hamlet and extended further in Othello and further still in King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, the latter three of which match a dying protagonist with a dead loved one. It is of interest also because in Othello the lines speak for themselves in a way almost independent of variations in performance. In the later plays the same intense yearning is expressed in ways that must be conveyed substantially in action as well as, perhaps as much as, in words: the actor's Lear himself must somehow, somewhere, ‘look there, look there’; and Cleopatra must make her way between the world of worms whose kingdoms are clay, and the real or fancied Elysium ‘where souls do couch on flowers’ and Antony had anticipated that their ‘sprightly port [would] make the ghosts gaze’ (4.15.51, 52).3

At least since Thomas Rymer, two conflicting Othellos have persisted, the sympathetic Noble Moor that I take to be Shakespeare's, and the other one, ‘loving his own pride and purposes’ and given to evasions ‘with a bombast circumstance’, an Othello malformed and perpetuated by racial bigotry beginning in the play itself with these phrases of Iago's. In the nineteenth century, when travesties were in high fashion, there was at least one mocking minstrel-show Othello and a lame and lengthy travesty of this popular target. Subsequently liberated from overt racial bias, Othello has more recently been condemned as a militarist and patriarch, occasionally with necrophiliac tendencies.4 Such negative judgements seem gratuitous, sometimes downright ethnocentric; but my purpose here is not to argue the case of character yet once more, as such, but to concentrate on details of the endplay, notably Desdemona's and Othello's last lines, their context, content, and reference. Evidently these were—are—important components of Shakespeare's design, whatever the qualities of Othello the (critic's) man. But if these terminal couplets taken together mean as they appear to mean, then a rereading of Shakespeare's tragedy in modified perspective necessarily follows: of a play in which the tragedy of a sympathetic Moor must be the action intended, and as such is subtly, potently, and movingly concluded. Recognizing intentional design does not compel concurrence, of course, but it reasonably invites reflection and might give pause.


In September 1610, when the King's Men performed Othello in Oxford, Henry Jackson of Corpus Christi College was affected as deeply by a motionless player as by the dialogue and kinetic action. In a letter, he wrote (in Latin) that ‘assuredly that rare Desdemona, killed in front of us by her husband, although she consistently pleaded her cause eloquently, nevertheless was more moving dead, when, as she lay still on her bed, her facial expression alone implored the pity of spectators'.5 It is striking, as Julie Hankey has written of Jackson's account, that ‘there is no mention of Othello's blackness. He is simply a “husband”, and she (though a boy, “she” enough) his victim.’6 It is also Shakespearian: Desdemona herself says that she ‘saw Othello's visage in his mind’ (1.3.252), where colour is as colour does. Only a spectator could respond to the eloquence of silence in quite this way, but even the terminal dialogue of the lovers waited upon time for critical attention. As late as 1957 it could be noted that, though ‘the full import of the story is made clear in Othello's last speech’, that speech ‘is seldom given the attention it merits’;7 that is, the ‘Soft you, a word or two’ speech. By now, that ‘last speech’ has been much written on, usually with reference to Eliot's famous assessment of 1927: ‘I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness—of universal human weakness—than the last great speech of Othello … What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up … I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.’8

‘The last great speech’ is where critics' contending Othellos rise or fall. In 1984 Norman Sanders wrote in his New Cambridge edition that ‘the greatest disagreement’ is between those for whom the ‘last great speech (5.2.334-52) re-elevates the hero to his former grandeur and nobility’ and ‘those who consider the Moor merely credulous and foolish’, for whom ‘T. S. Eliot may speak in his notorious condemnation of the death speech’ (p. 24, italics mine). Discussion of Othello's ‘last speech’ has not seldom been bedevilled by ambiguity, though ‘Othello's last great speech’ is obviously enough ‘Soft you, a word or two’. It is not his ‘final lines’, however, although at least one recent critic apparently believes they are, because that is what he called them in 1989.9 Othello's entire last utterance is the heroic couplet, ‘I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this: / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss’, followed in the New Cambridge edition by the stage direction, ‘He [falls on the bed and] dies’ (5.2.354-5); and in the Oxford edition by ‘He kisses Desdemona and dies’ (5.2.369). In both, only ‘He dies’ comes from a substantive text (Q; ‘Dyes’ F), but the couplet implies Oxford's stage direction, and the reference to ‘the tragic loading [F; lodging Q] of this bed’ justifies the New Cambridge expansion.10

The usually scant attention paid to these lines by critics who discuss them at all may be due not only to the lightning rod of the preceding ‘great speech’ but also to the history of performance and the received impression conveyed by earlier reviews and criticism. Writing recently on Othello 5.2 in performance,11 James R. Siemon notes that during the years 1766-1900 ‘Othello appears almost never to have been allowed to die upon a kiss’, because, in forty-five of fifty-two prompt-books of the period (86.5 per cent), ‘the lines about having kissed Desdemona before he killed her are missing, either through cutting or omission’ (p. 49). Nearly half (23 of the 52, 44 per cent) ‘end the play on some version of his suicide lines—“I took by the throat the circumcised dog, / And smote him thus”—adding sometimes an invented exclamation—“O Desdemona”—to this rather abrupt end.’ Although this personal exclamation is an emaciated substitute, it is fair to note that it has at least the right focus, direction, and potential spirit.

Since the Procrustean practice of truncating the play thus is no longer common, that cannot account for critics' scant attention to Othello's last words, so the relative silence may well be due to a pervasive sense that the play is over, or ought to be, when he stabs himself at ‘smote him thus’—because (it may be thought) whatever follows is redundant if not anticlimatic. Leslie Fiedler is partly of this turn of mind, writing that Othello's

is a world whose central symbol is the sword, the phallic significance of which Shakespeare takes pains to make clear … [K]nowing himself his own dearest enemy, his potency was magically restored, though only long enough for him to die and, dying, kiss the cold lips of a corpse. ‘To die upon a kiss’, he says, … evoking the pun, which Shakespeare so much loved, on ‘die’ meaning ‘come’ as well as ‘go’. What stays in our minds, however, is not Othello's closing erotic couplet, but the longer speech, … a speech whose central images come from politics and war.12

Fiedler could be right, but ‘our’ minds suggests the confidently supposed unanimity of a collective reader's perspective, not the auditor-spectators' for whom the plays are especially designed; and in performance Othello's last moments and lines are often powerfully moving and therefore memorable, like Desdemona's mute and monumental eloquence for Henry Jackson in 1610; for some, at least as affecting and memorable as the longer speech preceding.

To the sympathetic, Othello's ‘last great speech’ is a reasoned, self-possessed, and earnestly purposeful as well as ineluctably ‘rhetorical’ appeal—by a frank and honest, honourable, and responsible man, even a hero, eloquent by custom or even nature—for just judgement of himself that is made no less to the outer audience of the play than to his immediate audience in Cyprus. It is thus doubly a public as well as personal speech, an extemporaneous and thoroughly natural ‘oration’ very like his first public speech, beginning ‘Most potent, grave, and reverend signors’, which led to his account of his courtship (1.3.76-94, 127-69). Having appealed for others' justice in ‘Soft you’, he concludes with his own by executing himself. Surviving the first cut like Antony in the later play, he turns forever from public speech and the world to the private vein of personal intimacy to address his last words, a heroic couplet, to the body of the wife he had loved not wisely but too well, had killed, and loves again. Jealousy is not a ‘mature’ emotion, but it is a painful fact of amatory life at one time or another for most who live and love.

M. C. Bradbrook has written that ‘the ending must be felt as triumphal; the ritual of the kiss is spousal’,13 and the late Helen Gardner that ‘the close of Othello should leave us at peace’, and she quotes The Phoenix and Turtle (1601): ‘Death is now the phoenix’ nest, / And the turtle's loyal breast / To eternity doth rest' (lines 56-8).14 These readings share a kind of ‘dramatic optimism’, which might well be called for and I should not deplore, but it is a dire strait of mind from Brecht's agitprop-oriented perspective. There remains a tenable position neither alienated nor uplifted, dark, perhaps, but no less sympathetic. In tragedies of this kind a balance is characteristically struck between the irreversible loss and the glory of what might have been, which is known as such for what it has been. What was great and potentially greater, once lost, holds good for what it was and memorially remains.


Donne and Shakespeare—in his extreme vein as metaphysical poet in The Phoenix and Turtle just quoted—afford access to what the playwright has provided formally and emotionally by way of endplay in Othello, where he has first wife, then husband, dying separately yet together not only by the force of thought and feeling for the other, but—beyond character—by form, the heroic couplet of terminal expression that Shakespeare makes them share. In answer to Emilia's ‘O, who hath done this deed?’ Desdemona's first-line-abbreviated couplet is of course ‘Nobody, I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!’ (5.2.133-4). Each speaks last of the other in his and her own way, the same way.

The terminal heroic couplets are bound together—by prosodic form, by the loving concentration of each speaker on the other, and by the implication of mutual affection not physically reciprocated but restored finally in mortality by the force of like minds and hearts expressing something understood, not strictly comprehensible but apprehensible by the imagination shared by lovers, lunatics, poets, spectators suspending disbelief. If this design goes unnoticed, obviously there will be no such mortal and delicate convergence. Anything may be dismissed or smirked out of court, of course, but once seen in this light, the design will not easily be forgotten. It consists further and especially in the shared use of ‘myself’ to invoke an ancient, Judeo-Christian, and proverbial idea about the unity of friends and lovers that goes back through Cicero to Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (9.4.5/1166a.32), where ‘the friend is another self’, even to the Iliad in one tradition; and to the Old Testament, where husband and wife are supposed to become one flesh, in another.15


The sharing of ‘my[]self’ with the other is a key element in the complement of terminal couplets. Both lovers are made to use prominently and emphatically the personal pronoun ‘myself’—or possessive pronoun ‘my’ with noun ‘self’ as it was in the Quarto of 1622 and the Folio of 1623. The identification of friend or lover as a second self, or of two as being a single, compound self, was a commonplace in Shakespeare's day. A dramatic use close in time to Othello is Henry Porter's in Two Angry Women of Abingdon acted by the Lord Admiral's Men in 1598, the year before Porter died: ‘O my wife, you are my selfe’ (sig. c4, 3.520 f.). And very close in time to the composition of Othello, John Florio's translation of Montaigne's essay ‘Of Friendship’ (1603) says that

In the amitie I speake of, they [friends] entermixe and confound themselves one in the other, with so universall a commixture, that they weare out, and can no more find the seame that hath conjoyned them together. If a man urged me to tell wherefore I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed, but by answering; ‘Because it was he, because it was my selfe.’16

Mystical vision, philosophical conception, metaphysical conceit are almost as much a matter of degree and direction as of kind. Given these ranging variations on a theme common from antiquity, it is not surprising to find in The Two Gentlemen of Verona a sentiment and expression that, though expanded and explicit instead of condensed and allusive, is very like that in Othello. Valentine in soliloquy, banished on pain of death by Silvia's father, asks,

And why not death, rather than living torment?
To die is to be banished from myself,
And Silvia is my self. Banished from her
Is self from self, a deadly banishment … 
She is my essence, and I leave to be
If I be not by her fair influence
Fostered, illumined, cherished, kept alive.
I fly not death to fly his deadly doom.
Tarry I here I but attend on death,
But fly I hence, I fly away from life.

(3.1.170-3, 182-7)


The plot of Othello is captured well by its notorious arch-critic Thomas Rymer himself:

Othello, a Blackmoor [sic] Captain, by talking of his Prowess and Feats of War, makes Desdemona a Senators Daughter to be in love with him; and to be married to him without her Parents knowledge; and having preferred Cassio, to be his Lieutenant, (a place which his ensign Jago sued for) Jago in revenge, works the Moor into a Jealousy that Cassio Cuckolds him: which he effects by stealing and conveying a certain Handkerchief, which had, at the Wedding, been by the Moor presented to his Bride. Hereupon, Othello and Jago plot the Deaths of Desdemona and Cassio, Othello Murders her, and soon after is convinced of her Innocence. And as he is about to be carried to Prison, in order to be punish'd for the Murder, He kills himself.

What ever rubs or difficulty may stick on the Bark, the Moral, sure, of this Fable is very instructive.

First, This may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality how, without their Parents consent, they run away with Blackamoors. …

Secondly, this may be a warning to all good Wives, that they look well to their Linnen.

Thirdly, This may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proofs be Mathematical.17

The morals are heavily facetious, but Othello is in its way a casque-to-cushion domestic tragedy, and commonplaces of the kind are indeed present—though they are assumed and more or less marginal, hardly the heart of the matter. The art of the design is that on the one hand it achieves simultaneously the building of a strong foundation in a plausibly intuitive mutual understanding and deep affection both sexual and otherwise personal between an inexperienced but perceptive and forceful young woman, and an older, black military officer of North African royal ‘siege’ (1.2.22), of high station by both birth and achievement, and of wide experience of wars and diplomacy but not of domestic affairs of the heart. And, on the other hand, it enables their destruction by the agency of a relentlessly machinating malefactor of universally acknowledged ‘honesty’ who uses the trust he has earned in military service, his observation and understanding of human vulnerability, and the very virtues of his victims the lovers as the leverage to destroy them. Raised to the scale of tragedy, but otherwise just like ‘real life’: How To Win Friends …

The inclusive tragedy is, then, that lovers extraordinarily well suited to each other and capable of the greatest mutual love, despite appearances to the contrary and obvious but superficial obstacles, are forced into separation—permanent or temporary but mortal—by death almost as soon as they begin to reap the marital harvest of their goodness and compatibility. Goodness revealed proclaims its vulnerability unawares and invites attack—in Othello by the redoubled force of its eternal opposite in a form, a person, least likely to be recognized as such. It is surely a fact not only that if Iago were the Moor, he would not be Iago; but that, if Iago were not Iago, there would be no tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.


The final moments of the endplay follow hard upon Desdemona's dying. Having cried out that she has been ‘falsely, falsely murdered!’ (5.2.126) and then assured Emilia who has come to her that ‘a guiltless death I die’ (132), she replies to Emilia's ‘O, who hath done this deed?’ in her terminal couplet extemporized immediately though in some confusion to exonerate Othello. His innocence of culpable design would seem to have been somehow on her mind, since in the Willow Song (in F, not in Q) she had sung ‘“Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve”—’, then quickly reflecting, ‘Nay, that's not next.’ In her terminal couplet, ‘Nobody’ is an instinctive deflecting of Emilia's question and an impossible answer, though it obviously has a tacit, unintended application to an Othello not himself. Her second answer, ‘I myself’, is all but impossible, yet the only option open to her without naming Othello, making false accusation, or inventing a suspect even as she dies. It is supremely apt and ironical precisely because, insofar as she is wife, friend, lover, she is Othello as he her; she himself did kill herself, through his corporal agency. Her next ‘move’ can most reasonably be taken as a natural continuation of her thinking singlemindedly of Othello from the moment she has uttered ‘Nobody’. Othello, the nobody for the nonce, presents his demobilized self as no longer the soldier that he was. Desdemona dies true to her word, to herself, to Othello: as she had said, prophetically as is seen in retrospect, ‘his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love’ (4.2.164-5).

Othello at bay and near the end, ‘Enter Lodovico’ (5.2.288+), who asks the generically and thematically epic and tragic as well as contextually practical question, ‘Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?’ (289). Othello's answer: ‘That's he that was Othello. Here I am’ (290), I, nobody. There are many ways of explicating this, but even a modest gloss would note that the diminished and isolated Othello feels himself unmanned and sees Desdemona as though bearing his sometime manhood into death, so much in consonance with the independent spirit she displayed in 1.3, the Court Scene, especially in the speech beginning, ‘That I did love the Moor to live with him, / My downright violence and storm [F; scorne Q] of fortunes / May trumpet to the world’ (1.3.248-50). Such public forthrightness, there, is of a piece with her earlier hinting privately to Othello of her feelings for him when she ‘bade me, if I had a friend that loved her, / I should but teach him how to tell my story, / And that would woo her’ (1.3.163-5). Thus there was aptness as well as affection in Othello's greeting her on his arrival in Cyprus as ‘my fair warrior’ (2.1.183), of which we see more when she promises Cassio to champion his cause: ‘Assure thee, / If I do vow a friendship I'll perform it / To the last article’ (3.3.20-2).

If Desdemona shows—an engagingly—youthful impetuousness in some ways, she shows maturity and even wisdom in others, here also epitomizing on behalf of the playwright, as it were, the tragedy of Othello himself:

                                        Something sure of state,
Either from Venice or some unhatched practice
Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him,
Hath puddled his clear spirit; and in such cases
Men's natures wrangle with inferior things,
Though great ones are their object. ’Tis even so;
For let our finger ache and it indues
Our other, healthful members even to a sense
Of pain. Nay, we must think men are not gods,
Nor of them look for such observancy
As fits the bridal. Beshrew me much, Emilia,
I was—unhandsome warrior as I am—
Arraigning his unkindness with my soul;
But now I find I had suborned the witness,
And he's indicted falsely.(18)

(3.4.138-52 recalling 2.1.183, italics mine)

These lines look forward to Desdemona's first ‘falsely murdered’ and subsequent revision in defence of Othello; she did not know it, nor did ‘we’, but in extremis and in retrospect that is seen to be the case.

Disarmed and nearing his end, Othello continues to express his sense of lost manhood: ‘I am not valiant neither, / But every puny whipster gets my sword. / But why should honour outlive honesty? / Let it go all’ (5.2.250-3). For a moment, he would even have Iago ‘live; / For in my sense ’tis happiness to die’ (5.2.295-6). Desdemona dead, how could it be otherwise for him, especially to live in knowledge of his guilt? The earlier lines’ suggesting a kind of transmigration of soul between lovers who share it informs Othello's last words and his agonized awareness of lovers' union violently sundered by him: ‘I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this [of kissing and killing]: / Killing myself [i.e., killing, now, my own self; having killed myself already, the self you were—that's she and he that was Othello—and (here) I am], to die upon a kiss’—as though, having killed the better part of himself in Desdemona, he now justly executes the worse part—Iago's—in himself, in his own way, himself the kisser and the kissed, honour following honesty in death, his life upon her faith. Othello rises by his falling, if his tragic movements are read aright. At least that is how Shakespeare seems to have intended them by their design.


If this reading of complementary terminal couplets in the endplay and the context of the whole is true to the overall dialogue and its significance, and to what may reasonably be taken to be the feelings of the principals as they would be performed by actors in an unforced reading, then on such accounts it may be taken to express in some measure the meanings intended by the play(wright). The design of the earlier part of the play will adjust itself in critical perspective to this conclusion accordingly. Unstrained productions tend to confirm this reading by presenting both Desdemona and Othello sympathetically—as they were presented with great success in Trevor Nunn's 1989 studio production first at The Other Place and then at the Young Vic, with the black opera singer Willard White as Othello, and Imogen Stubbs as a youthful and very forceful Desdemona; and as they were in an effective London fringe production, also with a black Othello (Gary Lawrence, with Louise Butcher as Desdemona), by the Court Theatre Company in mid August 1992.

One must agree with Fiedler that Othello's ‘potency’ is restored as he kills himself, and there is a sense in which his utterance and sentiment are undoubtedly ‘erotic’. But it is doubtful whether his last couplet is fraught with the explicitly sexual sense of ‘kill’ and ‘die’ occasionally employed in Jacobethan usage, including Shakespeare's, though it may easily be argued thematically into place in several interpretative dialectics. Whatever the comprehensive particulars of meaning and significance of the terminal couplets, a finally positive resonance seems designed for each, and their correspondency ‘unites’ Desdemona and Othello—before an audience—in still life and by death forever and absolutely, in their own way like Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra.

The question whether Othello achieves ‘adequate’ recognition of his guilt and some profound insight into the Meaning of Things—so well understood by post-Victorian critics requiring no less of tragic heroes—is in the play not so much answered unequivocally as benignly begged in the ineluctable irony and pathos of the endplay. The lovers are united in peace only at the violent end of a fleeting married life in which they were able to be together undisturbed virtually for moments only, from the beginning of the action to the end. The irony is made almost unbearable by the survival of the lovers' destroyer, whose shadow cast over the life of the play extends beyond the end of the action in the BBC-TV production (1981), where Bob Hoskins' mocking laughter continues to echo through the screen credits even after he has been led down a corridor and out of sight. The script, so far from translating the horror of the spectacle into terms even of solace, much less of transcendence, frames it before its maker-marrer, Iago, a tale tolled once and for all.

And yet, Desdemona and Othello are at last beyond the reach of envious malice, and theirs is implicitly some version of a peace that passeth all understanding, whether heavenly bliss secured or in prospect, or the nitrogen cycle not yet even dreamt of. So much for the irony. The play's plenitude of Christian reference—more in its own day than in ours—may shed prevenient grace upon the endplay and imply a hope of resurrection and reunion. But even if death is seen as final, there is the sweet oblivious antidote of nothingness, the pain of which is only in the spectacle, the eye of the beholder, the present the dead have passed beyond.

The pathos of the persons is simplicity itself. There can hardly be a greater human loss to death than that of spouse by loving, living spouse, a loss beyond enduring when the living spouse has brought about the death. That is the ultimate tragedy of Othello the Man. How indeed could Honour outlive Honesty?


  1. I am indebted to R. W. Dent, Jay L. Halio, Jongsook Lee, George Sheets, Kari Steinbach, and Virginia Mason Vaughan for valuable comments and suggestions; and to the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota for a grant in aid of research.

  2. ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, Selected Essays, new edn (New York, 1950), p. 110.

  3. For discussion of related terminal dialogue and action in King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, see Thomas Clayton, ‘“Is this the promis’d end?” Revision in the Role of the King’, The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of ‘King Lear’, ed. by Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford, 1983), pp. 121-41; and ‘“Mysterious by This Love”: The Unregenerate Resurrection of Antony and Cleopatra’, Jadavpur University Essays and Studies III, Special Issue: Festschrift in Honour of S. C. Sengupta, ed. by Jagannath Chakravorty (Calcutta, 1982), pp. 95-116.

  4. For the last, see Stanley Cavell, ‘Epistemology and Tragedy: A Reading of Othello’, Daedalus 108 (1979), repr. in William Shakespeare's ‘Othello’: Modern Critical Interpretations, ed. by Harold Bloom (New York, 1987), p. 16; Stephen Greenblatt, ‘The Improvisation of Power’, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago, 1980), p. 252; and Janet Stavropoulos, ‘Love and Age in Othello’, Shakespeare Studies, 19 (1987), 135, which is more emphatic (‘a perverted pietà’).

  5. ‘At verò Desdemona illa apud nos a marito occisa, quanquam optimè semper causam egit, interfecta tamen magis movebat; cum in lecto decumbens spectantium misericordiam ipso vultu imploraret.’ Corpus Library's Fulman Papers, vol. 10, ff. 83v-84 r, printed by Geoffrey Tillotson, together with detailed comments on ‘Othello and The Alchemist at Oxford in 1610’, in the TLS, 20 July 1933, p. 494, whence the Latin is quoted here.

  6. Plays in Performance: ‘Othello’ (Bristol, 1987), p. 18.

  7. Albert Gerard, ‘“Egregiously an Ass”: The Dark Side of the Moor. A View of Othello's Mind’, Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957), repr. in Aspects of ‘Othello’: Articles Reprinted from ‘Shakespeare Survey’, ed. by Kenneth Muir and Philip Edwards (Cambridge, 1977), p. 19.

  8. ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, p. 111, italics mine.

  9. See James L. Calderwood, ‘Signs, Speech, and Self’, The Properties of ‘Othello’ (Amherst, 1989), p. 109.

  10. The 1793 (+ 1803, 1813) variorum edition of Shakespeare's Works, vol. 15, contains Steevens's acute citation of antecedent lines by Marlowe's dying Zenocrate that is not in Furness's New Variorum Othello (1886) or in many if any subsequent editions: ‘So, in the Second Part of Marlowe's Tamburlaine, 1590: “Yet let me kiss my lord before I dye, / And let me dye with kissing of my lord”’ (2.4.69-70).

  11. ‘“Nay, that's not the text”: Othello, V.ii in performance, 1766-1900’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986), 38-51.

  12. Leslie Fiedler, ‘The Moor as Stranger; or, “Almost Damned in a Fair Wife”’, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York, 1972), p. 194.

  13. M. C. Bradbrook, ‘Images of Love and War: Othello, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra’, The Living Monument: Shakespeare and the Theatre of His Time (Cambridge, 1976), p. 167. Also see her Shakespeare: The Poet in His World (New York, 1978), pp. 176-9.

  14. Helen Gardner, ‘The Noble Moor’ (1955), Interpretations of Shakespeare: British Academy Shakespeare Lectures, ed. by Kenneth Muir (Oxford, 1985), p. 179.

  15. Iliad 18.89-92 (Achilleus of the dead Patroklos, ‘even as mine own self’, ‘ison eme kephale’); Genesis 2.23-4 (Geneva translation).

  16. Florio, Montaigne's Essays, 1632 edn, ed. by J. I. M. Stewart (London, 1931), vol. 1, pp. 190-1.

  17. The Critical Works of Thomas Rymer, ed. by Curt A. Zimansky (New Haven, 1956), p. 132.

  18. These lines and 3.3.193-6 strongly reflect (on) each other, and on the resort of each speaker to notions of justice, trial, and proof: ‘No, Iago, / I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove; / And on the proof, there is no more but this: / Away at once with love or jealousy.’ Desdemona is more trusting than Othello, but it is also not she but he who is driven to disbelief and jealousy as ‘abused by some most villainous knave, / Some base, notorious knave, some scurvy fellow’ (4.2.143-4).

Criticism: Endings: Romeo And Juliet

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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 Romeo and Juliet's constant association of birth, love, and death, from the Nurse's proleptic obituary of Juliet's parallel, Susan (I.iii.18), through the image clusters of wombs, tombs, sex, and death, to the brittle beauty of Liebestod in the final scene. The ending of the play represents the consummation, in all senses, of Romeo and Juliet's love, and its inescapable location in the tomb powerfully focuses our attention on their claustrophobic isolation and triumph. The only “problem” the ending seems to have caused modern readers is whether or not it is “ironic” and, if so, to what extent. Perhaps the most extreme prosecutorial revision of the ending was quoted in Richard Levin's New Readings vs. Old Plays, in which the unnamed critic reported that his background reading left him “with one overriding impression: that the average audience of Romeo and Juliet would have regarded the behavior of the young lovers as deserving everything they got,”2 including, presumably, a double suicide. Other ironic readings focus on the alleged inadequacy or “materialism” of the golden statues raised by the dead lovers' parents. In general, though, the ending of Romeo and Juliet has not provoked the kind of controversy that marks the ending of King Lear, for example. It seems, from one point of view, to be perfectly conventional and appropriate, and so it is, but I do not think we have yet fully understood why it is so.

I return for a moment to Capulet's commonplace that “we were born to die.” Similar sentiments are to be heard in other of the tragedies, but in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare goes to great lengths to stress the inevitability of Capulet's vision. Specifically, as many readers have pointed out, Romeo and Juliet contains allusions to, even as it embodies, a journey.3 Feste's song assures us that “journeys end in lovers meeting” (TN, II.iii.4), as they certainly do for Romeo and Juliet (with the suggestive pun meeting = mating), yet we are never allowed to forget that all journeys must end, and that the ending, both goal and foreclosure, determines the shape of the journey itself. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare investigates this teleological puzzle in which the lovers' foreknown end colors the nature of their journey, continually darkening our belief in their potential and actual happiness.

The very existence of the Prologue begins the shadowing, especially with its look toward a “fearful passage” (1. 9) and the eerie double grammar in which the “pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life” (1. 6), the journey and the suicide collapsed into the simultaneously transitive / intransitive verb. Nowhere but in Shakespeare could we find the journey and its end so economically and chillingly packaged. Romeo, as has often been pointed out, senses this fatality and frequently expresses it in similar terms:

                                         … my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life clos'd in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen!


Thus the end or “consequence” ironically begins with the beginning (which is why it is “bitter”), the first breath initiating the expiration of the last. Romeo bravely urges on the seajourney of his fate, asking only that someone (“He”) at least direct his course, but he has yet to learn that there is no such thing as an “untimely death.”

Throughout the play we will be reminded of journeys and endings. Romeo will tell Juliet that “love” prompted his journey to her, a journey dangerous but potentially rewarding—like Drake's, for example:

I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,
I should adventure for such merchandise.


The actual journey Romeo makes—to “sojourn in Mantua” (III.iii.169)—is not as far as the farthest sea, but might as well be, since he will never see Juliet alive (or awake) again. In a conceit as tedious as its speaker, Capulet takes Juliet's tears as the occasion on which to launch her metaphorical journey:

                                        In one little body
Thou counterfeits a bark, a sea, a wind:
For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,
Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,
Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs,
Who, raging with thy tears, and they with them,
Without a sudden calm, will overset
Thy tempest-tossed body.


The irony of Capulet's fatuous prophecy becomes more evident when Juliet launches herself on an even riskier course of action by taking both the Friar's advice and his potion, intending to join Romeo later in Mantua. When Juliet's “dead” body is discovered, her mother's lament borrows a now familiar trope: “Most miserable hour that e'er time saw / In lasting labor of his pilgrimage!” (IV.v.44-45). The pilgrimage of time ought never to be a surprise, but it always is. Capulet recapitulates the play's paradox of beginnings and endings when he tells Paris that Death has “lain with thy wife. There she lies, / Flower as she was, deflowered by him” (IV.v.36-37). Youth, defloration, death: they turn out to be the same thing, even verbally, as a single pun compresses the beginning, fulfillment, and end of life into a single sour irony. Perhaps the lovers are not entirely pretending when, after their one night together, they cannot agree on whether it is day or night, nightingale or lark, “more light and light” or “more dark and dark” (III.v.36). In fact, the play continually suggests that such distinctions are really identities.

“In lasting labor of his pilgrimage”—Lady Capulet's allusion—deepens the idea of the journey by suggesting the longest journey, the pilgrimage of earthly life. Shakespeare has hinted at this more resonant metaphor earlier, in the famous sonnet of Romeo and Juliet's first meeting:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims'
hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.


This is kissing by the book, to be sure, but even the audience can scarcely anticipate the rough touch of death these young pilgrims will finally experience in the ultimate shrine of love. However innocently the pilgrimage is invoked here, Shakespeare clearly knew the word's root and medieval meaning.4

Something more than image-clusters and iterated verbal signs points to a pilgrimage in Romeo and Juliet, however. In their brief moment on the stage, Romeo and Juliet recapitulate the emblematic moments of all human life—beginning, middle, and end—making the structure and movement of the play seem to follow the main lines of the ultimate pilgrimage plot, Everyman, or even more to the point, Lusty Juvėntus. I am not suggesting that Shakespeare was consciously imitating either of these plays, though the evidence for his knowledge of the Morality tradition has long been documented, and several other plays have been shown to have a “deep structure” derived from the typical Morality plot.5 What I want to suggest here, instead, is that Romeo and Juliet becomes far more powerful when we recognize the deepest analogy it offers.

Romeo and Juliet are rarely alone on the stage, as many readers have noted. They are almost always entangled in family webs of one sort or another, the feud being the largest one, surrounded by well-meaning but interfering authority figures who guide and misguide their lives. On three well-chosen occasions, however, Shakespeare isolates his lovers to focus our understanding of their life. The first of these moments, in the balcony scene, locates us in familiar emblematic geography—in the hortus conclusus of Capulet's walled orchard.6 As Rosalie Colie has noted about this moment, “The virgin is, and is in, a walled garden: the walls of that garden are to be breached by a true lover, as Romeo leaps into the orchard.”7 As is usual for the lovers, though, the outside world intrudes soon enough, this time in the form of the Nurse's persistent voice offstage. Their physical positions on the stage are also significant: Romeo below, Juliet above.

The second scene of isolation is predictable—the bedroom, or the balcony just outside it, after the night of consummation. Moreover, in contrast to his source Arthur Brooke, Shakespeare gives the lovers only this single night together, heightening the pathos and incidentally isolating the moment even further. Physically, this seems to be the same “upper station” at which Juliet appeared earlier.8 But even this lovely aubade is darkened by death, and Romeo leaves with the kind of line that he might speak in the final scene in the tomb: “Farewell, farewell! One kiss, and I'll descend” (III.v.42). The lovers' physical positions—first both above, then one descending—seem emblematic again. Juliet follows Romeo's descent in a fearful imagining:

O God, I have an ill-divining soul!
Methinks I see thee now, thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.


Romeo later relates an ironic inversion of this vision, just before he hears of Juliet's “death”:

… all this day an unaccustom'd spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—
Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!—
And breath'd such life with kisses in my lips
That I reviv'd and was an emperor.


This romance fantasy of exaltation and rebirth is not only youthful wishing but also the fairy-tale fulfillment which the play is designed to counteract. The audience should know, even if Romeo does not, that what goes up must come down. Romeo's descent from the momentary elevation of Act III, Scene v is permanent. Once again, too, it is the Nurse who has interrupted the lovers' idyll.

The third moment in which Romeo and Juliet are alone together on stage is of course the final scene in the tomb. Much has been written about this scene as the inevitable completion of the tomb-womb theme, the logical result of the blood feud in Verona, and as a powerfully dramatic moment in its own right. I will examine the scene in more detail shortly. I would like now to observe its place in a line of images: from garden through bedroom to tomb, from courtship through sexual completion to death. These are the Three Ages of Man, as it were, the major emblematic moments in the pilgrimage of earthly life. Even the stage blocking reflects this movement: the lovers separated, one below and one above; the lovers united above, till one descends; and the lovers united below, forever.

These three moments provide a linear and irreversible chronological sequence, finally emblematic of the earthly pilgrimage. They are also all the same moment. Each scene takes place at night, each contains similar language and double-entendres, each emphasizes the isolation of the lovers. Moreover, each scene represents a dream displacement of female sexuality, from the walled garden and the actual marital bed to Romeo's explicit references at the tomb to the “womb of death” (V.iii.45) and the “palace of dim night” (V.iii.107) where “Death is amorous” (V.iii.103) and has become Romeo's rival. For once, the lovers will not be interrupted before they can complete their making of love and death: Romeo: “Thus with a kiss I die” (V.iii.120); and Juliet: “O happy dagger, / This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die” (V.iii.170).

Several other incidents in the final act increase this momentum towards mortality. In “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet,” Brooke alludes to an apothecary, for example, from whom Romeus can buy poison, but Shakespeare gives his apothecary a most unusual appearance and inventory:9

                    meagre were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones;
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff'd, and other skins
Of ill-shap'd fishes, and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread, and old cakes of roses
Were thinly scattered, to make up a show.


Clearly the agent of dismemberment and death, the cadaverous apothecary anticipates later merchants of mortality like the gravedigger in Hamlet or the country clown in Antony and Cleopatra.10 The random assortment of corpses, skins, and musty seeds reminds us also of the tomb itself, both as Juliet imagines it (in IV.iii) and as Romeo finds it (in V.iii). Thus the cause and effect of death are linked together, as they also are in the Apothecary's report to Romeo that the penalty of selling death is in fact death (ll. 66-67).

In this speech, the iconography of death is heard but not seen. As we move toward the death-embrace in the tomb, Shakespeare similarly works to displace the visual, to remove part of the play from a strictly dramatic focus, and direct us towards other kinds of understanding. This process withdraws Romeo and Juliet from the temporal confinement of the drama proper and lifts the lovers toward other realms. Romeo's description of the Apothecary and his shop, not present in Brooke, begins the process. The stuffed animals, finally, also anticipate the lovers' memorialization in the form of statues.

Shakespeare also deletes from Brooke the few intimations of Romeo's vanity, as when he fantasizes “that if nere unto her he offered up his breath, / That then an hundred thousand parts more glorious were his death” (ll. 2553-54), or when he admires his own actions:

What Epitaph more worth, or halfe so excellent,
To consecrate my memorye, could any man invente,
As this, our mutuell, and our piteous sacrifice
Of lyfe, set light for love.

(ll. 2649-52)

Shakespeare has none of this, but dramatizes instead a single-minded drive in Romeo to rejoin Juliet with a minimum of meditation, just as Antony seeks Cleopatra once he has heard of her “death.” Romeo's rhetoric itself changes with the anticipation of death: he expects that the poison will work so “that the life-weary taker may fall dead” (V.i.62). This phrasal tmesis, of the weary life-taker, shows that the taker of the poison knows the sort of gap he will soon have to leap. The poison, he continues, will work as quickly as “hasty powder fir'd” hurries from the “fatal cannon's womb” (ll. 64, 65). All three phrases once again compress cause and effect, beginning and ending. Everything in the play, it seems, works to isolate the lovers in both love and death.

The abandonment at the edge of death makes the suicides almost unbearably pathetic. But the loss of all worldly advisors at the lip of the grave ought also to seem a familiar dramatic moment. Just as Everyman, for example, is abandoned by Fellowship, Kindred, Goods, Beauty, Discretion, and so on, and accompanied into the grave only by Good-Deeds, so Romeo and Juliet are progressively and cruelly abandoned by their worldly advisors, those meddling adults who tell them how to live but cannot help them die. These young lovers' lives may end in tragedy unless they receive proper counsel, as Montague says about Romeo's initial melancholy: “Black and portendous must this humor prove, / Unless good counsel may the cause remove” (I.i.141-42). For now, he continues, Romeo is “his own affections' counsellor” (I.i.147), but his affections cannot be easily governed, as we see. Both Romeo and Juliet seek desperately for counsel throughout the play, for a worldly guide on the vast pilgrimage.11 Mother, father, friends, nurse, priest—all will fail and abandon them.

The play makes us believe a contradiction, that the lovers are self-sufficient but that they also need guidance and advice. The self-sufficiency is suggested in those few scenes where they exist alone on the stage and together seem all in all, their own affections' counselors. In the balcony scene, Juliet wonders who has spoken to her: “What man art thou that thus bescreen'd in night / So stumblest on my counsel?” (II.ii.52-53). Her counsel is with herself now, though she will soon seek the aid of the Friar, ironically already present in the verb “stumblest.” As the lovers thrill to their first discoveries of love, their rhetoric suggests the fulfillment of a fragile fantasy. Romeo has arrived in the walled garden, he tells us: “With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls, / For stony limits cannot hold love out” (II.ii.66-67). Still, the stony limits of the world, not to mention the tomb, soon require them to find worldly advice. For now, hermetically sealed off, they guide their own destinies:

By whose direction foundst thou out this place?
By love, that first did prompt me to inquire;
He lent me counsel, and I lent him eyes.
I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,
I should adventure for such merchandise.


Every parent eventually seems a senex iratus, no doubt. Certainly the Capulets and Montagues vary little from the stereotypical blocking figures of New Comedy. The young lovers turn instead to the equally sexless but more sympathetic Nurse and Friar for help. Even Lady Capulet bids the Nurse stay and “hear our counsel” (I.iii.9). These usages of the word merely prepare for the far more urgent and dangerous counsel required after Tybalt's death. When the Friar proposes that Romeo journey to Mantua, the Nurse is thrilled, in a speech hedged with irony: “O Lord, I could have stay'd here all the night / To hear good counsel. O, what learning is!” (III.iii.159-60). But the Nurse fails signally when Juliet asks her how she can avoid the calamity of marrying Paris: “Comfort me, counsel me! … Some comfort, nurse” (III.v.208, 212). Worldly Wisdom, as it usually does, errs badly, for the Nurse recommends that Juliet marry Paris, incidentally committing bigamy, because all is lost and besides “Romeo's a dishclout to him” (III.v.219). Juliet is stunned, as we all are—“Speak'st thou from thy heart?” (1. 226)—and sarcastically thanks her: “Well, thou hast comforted me marvelous much” (1. 230). Morally, the Nurse has abandoned Juliet, and they can never be intimate again. As the Nurse leaves the stage, Juliet emotionally turns from her forever:

Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!
Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn,
Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue
Which she hath prais'd him with above compare
So many thousand times? Go, counselor,
Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.
I'll to the friar to know his remedy;
If all else fail, myself have power to die.


Turning from the Nurse's too-worldly wisdom to the Friar's religious perspective will not make any ultimate difference, but the lovers are too young to go it alone. We hear in the ominous rhyme remedy-die the logical outcome of worldly counsel in this play, and we hear again the paradox of circular identity in which beginnings are endings and solutions are dissolutions.

Juliet will find in the Friar guidance more moral but also more dangerous. The terminology of Juliet's supplication remains the same:

Therefore, out of thy long-experienc'd time,
Give me some present counsel, or, behold,
’Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife
Shall play the umpeer. … 


Her petition ends with the ominously recurrent pun, “I long to die, / If what thou speak'st speak not of remedy” (IV.i.66-67). The Friar's advice is well-meant but desperate, “a thing like death” (IV.i.74). Juliet must begin to enact her fate alone, for with Romeo banished, she sends her mother and the Nurse away before she drinks the potion—“Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again” (IV.iii.14)—though she once tries to call the Nurse back “to comfort me” (1. 17). But “My dismal scene I needs must act alone” (1. 19). Among the most terrible things she imagines, as she takes the potion, is her isolation in the womb of death, “stifled in the vault,” before Romeo comes “to redeem me” (1. 32). Redemption from the tomb represents everyone's deepest desire, but it won't come to pass here. As with Everyman, the imagination of death constitutes the final isolation.

The portents and emblems around the final scene, then, are inevitable and severe. All earthly life has been an ironic rehearsal of this moment. The lovers, it seems, have always slept in “this palace of dim night.” The message sent to Romeo has failed because of the plague; Romeo has killed his rival and sent away his servant; Friar Lawrence stumbles over graves. What more could happen? It is the end of the road, the consummation of the pilgrimage, and Romeo knows it:

                                        O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.


Romeo lives a lifetime in a few days. Like a beast of burden after a long day, this abandoned child, who has presciently told us “I am no pilot” (II.ii.82), now crosses the bar and brings his journey to an end:

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavory guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!
Here's to my love! [Drinks.]

(V.iii. 116-19)

The bravery these children reveal as they seal “a dateless bargain to engrossing death” (1. 115) thrills even the most jaded among us, in part because Shakespeare contrives to isolate them so completely. At the very last moment, the scene spectrally illuminating “grubs and eyeless skulls” (1. 126), Juliet awakens, still looking towards the “comfortable friar” (1. 148) for counsel and help. But this last worldly advisor, after offering to “dispose” of Juliet in a nunnery, inexplicably abandons her (“I dare no longer stay”—1. 159), and Juliet's dismissal of him echoes her earlier farewell to the Nurse: “Go get thee hence, for I will not away” (1. 160). Now they are alone, together, forever. Death is a relief.

The sense of closure at the end of Romeo and Juliet overwhelms us. Everything—theme, image, and structure—has led to this point in the tomb. Moreover, because the play has insisted on the identity of beginnings and endings, we are under a severe obligation to attend to the play's own ending as closely as possible. Here I particularly want to invoke the ways in which Shakespeare's ending deviates from that of Brooke's poem, for the deviations become quite frequent and significant in the final act. We have already seen Shakespeare's addition to the apothecary; even more strikingly, Brooke's Paris does not appear to be killed in the final scene, as he does in Shakespeare. But most significantly, Shakespeare rejects Brooke's religious orthodoxy altogether. This is most surprising, considering the language Brooke employs. Of course, Shakespeare frequently seems to avoid explicit religious declarations, while Brooke's Romeus, when he feels the poison working, makes a speech that seems perfectly in keeping with the iterative imagery of womb-tomb and descent-ascent we have seen in Romeo and Juliet:

Lord Christ, that so to raunsome me descendedst long agoe
Out of thy fathers bosome, and in the virgins
Didst put on flesh, Oh let my plaint out of this hollow toombe,
Perce through the ayre. … 

(ll. 2674-77)

This spiritual analogy, with its intimations of redemption, suggests the survival of Romeus in another time. But Shakespeare prefers to work for pathos in the final scene, and wants to emphasize loss rather than redemption. Therefore he does not reach for the spiritual analogy, just as he also passes up another clenching image in Juliet's last words:

O welcome death (quoth she) end of unhappines,
That also art beginning of assured happines;
.....… our parted sprites, from light that we see here,
In place of endlesse light and blisse, may ever live yfere.

(ll. 2773-74, 2787-88)

The end that is a beginning that is in fact endless—the play insists on this point elsewhere, but Shakespeare here rejects the too-easy final connection, the promise of a spiritual “endlesse light,” and he makes his young lovers (by contrast with Brooke's) unreflective. Indeed, Juliet has no time to think, while Romeo's speech is studded with images of linear completion and closure: the “doors of breath” will be sealed, the journey completed (or shipwrecked), the everlasting rest achieved. No beginnings here, no final emblem of hope.

No final emblem of hope, in fact, is necessary or even possible. As we have seen, the play everywhere demonstrates that this last stage has always been present, that the love of Romeo and Juliet already contains its own beginning and end. Since death is a necessary part of their love, then it is an end that is endless. The lovers do not need any final hope, and the audience is denied a visibly convincing one—not out of a cynical or ironic motive, I think, but because Shakespeare is working towards something far more difficult, something literally un-thinkable: Romeo and Juliet are absolutely dead, but they have achieved the endless end.

The Friar's speech of self-defense is longer in Brooke (77 lines, with yet further paraphrases) than in Shakespeare (40 lines), but the real difference is in where the speech is delivered. In Shakespeare, the Friar and the corpses remain in the tomb for the rest of the play. But in Brooke,

The prince did straight ordaine, the corses that wer founde
Should be set forth upon a stage, hye raysed from the grounde,
Right in the selfe same fourme, (shewde forth to all mens sight)
That in the hollow valt they had been found that other night.

(ll. 2817-20)

The Friar must join them, and justify himself:

The holy fryer now, and reverent by his age,
In great reproche set to the shew upon the open stage,
(A thing that ill beseemde a man of silver heares).

(ll. 2825-27)

“Upon a stage”? How could Shakespeare have resisted it, especially when we see the heroes and heroines of later tragedies so frequently associated with a stage? The theatrical metaphor, as many readers have noted, almost comes to be expected at or near the end of the tragedies: Hamlet speaks to the “audience to this act” (V.ii.335) and his corpse is to be borne “like a soldier to the stage” (V.ii.396); and rather than allowing rude mechanicals to stage her story, Cleopatra acts her own death—“perform'd the dreaded act” (V.ii.331), as Dolabella says. The theatrical metaphor is not inevitable, of course, but it is so available here. Why not use it?

The staging of Brooke's ending would have become openly emblematic, moreover, as the lovers ascend once more, and to a stage at that. But this seems to be precisely why Shakespeare did not adopt the idea, for he wants to keep the lovers in the tomb. There is no escape, not through pious orthodoxy, not through some convenient eternizing self-consciousness, and certainly not through a play. In fact, the play becomes steadily less “dramatic,” less obviously a play. Perhaps the most important thing about the Friar's speech is not what it says, for we have all seen what it recounts, but the fact that it is spoken at all. It translates the dramatic action of the play into another form—into narrative, into oratory.12 The speech is conspicuously unnecessary in terms of the plot; though the Friar must exonerate himself, he is under much greater suspicion in Brooke. No, Shakespeare turns down the clenching allusions to new beginnings and the inevitable stage metaphor so that there may be no hint, no suggestion of a rebirth, religious or dramatic. He insists on the lovers' end. And Shakespeare further removes us from the lovers by retaining the Friar's long speech. Yet even here, Shakespeare deviates radically from Brooke. Brooke's Friar is unremittingly pious, marking his own guilt, looking forward to his own end, invoking the pilgrimage motif, anticipating his “great accompt, which no man else for me shall undertake … before the judgement seate of everlasting powre” (ll. 2852, 2854). Naturally, Brooke's Friar invokes Christ and his pity as well, while Shakespeare's Friar makes none of these gestures. Instead, he tells us the plot again, a “tedious tale” (V.iii.230) for the audience if not the characters. To tell us what we have seen is not only necessarily to misrepresent what we have seen, but to alter its very nature. Shakespeare eliminates the piety of Brooke's Friar, eliminates the more elaborate self-justification, takes him off the stage, and simply makes him tell the plot. Since we have seen the play, we can judge how well the Friar tells it, and we find his story accurate but not the truth. His version of this story is no doubt more faithful to fact than Horatio's condensation of Hamlet's story, but it fails in all sorts of ways. Shakespeare's Friar removes the story of Romeo and Juliet from the life of drama, in short, but we remain in the tomb, with Romeo and Juliet, their bodies lying before us in an embrace. The lovers are being transfigured, all right, but from drama into myth, from action into stasis. We shall finally see their petrifaction, as statues, to complete the movement.

The presence of an “inquest” after the protagonists' death recurs in many of the tragedies—the explanation of Cleopatra's suicide, the entrance and declaration of Fortinbras. The process of explanation begins to “withdraw” us from the tragic world. We meet the surviving figure of “order,” and we sense the inadequacy of the world that survives.13 In Romeo and Juliet, the inquest begins very early in the final scene, and has somewhat different aims, I think. We withdraw not only from the lovers, but from drama itself. Shakespeare's final deviation from Brooke reemphasizes this point. Brooke's narrator, not the characters, reports the memorialization of the lovers:

And lest that length of time might from our myndes remove
The memory of so perfect, sound, and so approved love,
The bodies dead removed from vaulte where they did dye,
In stately tombe, on pillers great, of marble rayse they hye.
On every syde above, were set and eke beneath,
Great store of cunning Epitaphes, in honor of theyr death.

(ll. 3011-16)

Thus the actual bodies are elevated and memorialized, and written inscriptions offered, while in Shakespeare a far more controversial proposal is made:

 But I can give thee more,
For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.
As rich shall Romeo's by his lady's lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity!


Of the actual bodies, which still lie before us on the stage (along with those of Paris and Tybalt), there is no mention. They have already ceased to exist, dramatically speaking, because they cannot move. They have become icons, a complex emblematic tableau which is being framed and distanced by the minute. Their story has been transmuted into an incomplete and passionless narrative, their bodies ignored while representations of their bodies are measured and discussed. This ending shows Shakespeare uncannily aware of the possibilities and limitations of representation itself.

Rosalie Colie argues that in the statues the “lovers are preserved in a nearly Ovidian way, not as plants, but in an ecphrasis, as memorial statues exemplifying a specific lesson to future generations.”14 This is a useful observation, but it elides the real difference: in Ovid's version of Pyramus and Thisby, the plants live on, forever, stained with and therefore bearing the lovers' blood. But statues cannot breathe, not until The Winter's Tale in any case. Shakespeare insists on the gap between bodies and statues, rather than an Ovidian continuity. James L. Calderwood offers by far the most elaborate explanation of the statues. For him, they embody the play's chief values, public and private:

If the lovers' nominalistic conception of speech implies a verbal purity bordering on nonspeech, here in the silence of the statues is that stillness; and if their love has aspired to a lyric stasis, here too in the fixity of plastic form is that stillness. But by being publicly available—representing the lovers and their value but representing them for the Veronese audience—the statues surpass the aspirations and expressive aims of the lovers. The communicative gap between the private secret love and the social order oblivious to the existence of that love is bridged—and this seems the major significance of the statues—by artistic form.15

This is very good, but perhaps it is too good. It expands upon a slender reference and pictures something we don't even see. The statue scene in The Winter's Tale, or even the songs at the end of Love's Labour's Lost, sum up their plays more convincingly. Nor am I certain that “stillness” and “stasis” are virtues quite so unmixed.

Both Colie and Calderwood strain for a “positive” reading of the end, which is in fact a welcome gesture after so many recent ironic readings.16 I also find in the statues, and especially their golden nature, an eternizing gesture. But what do the statues actually eternize? Certainly not the love of Romeo and Juliet. Colie sees the statues representing “a specific lesson to future generations,” though it is hard to imagine what that “lesson” could be; and Calderwood believes that some “communicative gap” between the secret love and the social order will be bridged. But this is exactly what will not happen: the gap is in fact established by the statues. The characters in the play offer their own “positive” ending, and for them, it is sufficient, or as much as they can manage: an eternal memory to the resolution of their feud and to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, but not to their love. One can move beyond this “positive” reading of the end without embracing an entirely “ironic” revisionist reading. For nothing could memorialize their love. It achieves its own perfection. While the others talk and statues are promised, the lovers' bodies continue to lie before us on the stage, locked in an embrace of permanence. The bodies render everything else unnecessary, and impossible.

In the final scenes of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare alters the very nature of the theatrical experience to produce quite a different kind of experience. The reference to the statues comes at the end of a sequence of representations, and therefore withdrawals—moments in which the lovers' vital nature fades away as they are transfigured and slowly petrified. From life to death, from drama to icon, from flesh to metal—the ending of the play not only confirms Capulet's maxim that “we were born to die,” but also suggests that no representation of their love, other than drama, could satisfy. The statues can represent the lovers not as a single identity—their love—but only as separate entities—their bodies, hence their deaths. The play ends with the bodies still before us, the sun refusing to rise (for the final descent has been final), the drama of their love left even further behind; they end as they began, the subjects of a rhyming epigram, a final closed representation of their “story,” a last attempt to represent the endless end: “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”


  1. All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Hereafter cited in the text.

  2. Richard Levin, New Readings vs. Old Plays (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 152. In The Music of the Close (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1978), Walter C. Foreman, Jr., says very little about the end of Romeo and Juliet.

  3. The motif of the journey has frequently been discussed, beginning I believe with Moody Prior, The Language of Tragedy (1947; rpt. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 69-70. See also the remarks of James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1971), pp. 109-10. The best comment on the journey as an element of tragic structure is by Maynard Mack, “The Jacobean Shakespeare,” Jacobean Theater, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (1960; rpt. New York: Capricorn Books, 1967), pp. 35-38.

  4. Cf. AYL: “how brief the life of man / Runs his erring pilgrimage” (III.ii.129-30); Lr: “and from first to last / Told him our pilgrimage” (V.iii.196-97); and 1H4: “pilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings” (I.ii.126).

  5. For a famous example, see Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958); also Edmund Creeth, Mankynde in Shakespeare (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976). Alan C. Dessen has recently reviewed the issue in “Homilies and Anomalies: The Legacy of the Morality Play to the Age of Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 243-58. For a recent dissenting view, see John Wasson, “The Morality Play: Ancestor of Elizabethan Drama?” Comparative Drama, 13 (1979), 210-21. Wasson argues that folk plays and miracle plays are more likely ancestors.

  6. In Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1947), Harley Granville-Barker, describes the probable staging of this scene (II, 306).

  7. Rosalie L. Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), p. 145.

  8. In “The Use of the Upper Stage in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly, 5 (1954), Richard Hosley describes these moments. He shows as well that only those scenes require the upper station; thus the final tomb scene would have been below, on the main stage with perhaps some use of the discovery space.

  9. In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), 278-83, Geoffrey Bullough summarizes the major points of comparison. Quotations from Brooke, hereafter cited in the text, are from this edition.

  10. Perhaps Dickens was recalling the apothecary in his description of Mr. Venus' shop in Our Mutual Friend, ed. Stephen Gill (Baltimore: Penguin, 1971), where we find “human warious” as well as “Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird” (I, vii).

  11. As one of its definitions of “counsel,” the OED records: “One of the Advisory declarations of Christ and the apostles, in mediaeval theology reckoned as twelve, which are considered not to be universally binding, but to be given as a means of attaining greater moral perfection.” The word recurs through many Morality plays, especially The Interlude of Youth and Tide Tarrieth No Man. In Enough Is as Good as a Feast, Worldly Man admits, “By my truth, me thinks I begin to war sick. / In sending away my counsellor I was somewhat too quick” (ll. 1219-20) (English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes, ed. Edgar T. Schell and J. D. Shuchter [New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969]). In several plays, such as Horestes and Cambises, one of the allegorical figures is actually named Counsel. In Lusty Juventus, the central figure of virtue is Good Counsaill, and the prologue explains “in this interlude by youth you shall see plain, / From his lust by Good Counsel brought to godly conversation” ( The Dramatic Writings of Richard Wever and Thomas Ingelend, ed. John S. Farmer [1905; rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966], p. 3.)

  12. Granville-Barker justifies the Friar's story “because the play's true end is less in the death of the star-crossed lovers than in the burying of their parents' strife” (II, 323), a reading which seems to me quite wrong. Clifford Leech, however, says that the speech “is surely an indication of an ultimate withdrawal from the tragic: the speech is too much like a preacher's resumé of the events on which a moral lesson will be based,” in “The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,English Renaissance Drama, ed. Standish Henning et al. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1976), p. 70.

  13. Cf. Mack and Foreman, passim.

  14. Colie, p. 146.

  15. Calderwood, p. 117.

  16. Leech finds it “difficult for us to get interested in these statues, or to take much joy in the feud's ending” (p. 71), and also points out the “curious ambivalence in the fact that the statues are golden” (p. 172, n. 15), since Romeo equates gold with poison earlier (V.i.80). I am greatly indebted to my colleague Stuart H. Johnson for helping me with this final section.

Further Reading

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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 Twelfth Night and the Tradition of Metamorphosis.” In Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 49-61. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980.

Relates Twelfth Night's recognition scene—the reunion of Viola and Sebastian—to literary antecedents that employ the drama of metamorphosis, including Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Italian commedia dell'arte, and two plays by John Lyly. Carroll argues that Shakespeare, unlike his predecessors, offers in this scene a series of equivalent conversions rather than an explicitly supernatural resolution to dramatize the enigma of doubleness.

Cunningham, Dolora. “Conflicting Images of the Comic Heroine.” In “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, pp. 120-29. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.

Asserts that the ending of All's Well That Ends Well raises serious doubts about a resolution of the conflict between Helena and Bertram. In Cunningham's judgment, obstacles to the heroine's happiness are still present at the close—despite the unusual degree of control she has had over the course of events.

Draper, John W. “Antecedent Action in Shakespeare's Earlier Plays.” In Stratford to Dogberry: Studies in Shakespeare's Earlier Plays, pp. 24-39. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1961.

Traces the development of Shakespeare's artistry in conveying information about events, situations, and character changes that occurred before the play begins. From Love's Labor's Lost to As You Like It, Draper shows the dramatist's advances in combining explanatory dialogue and action—rather than direct exposition—to impart a realistic sense of continuity.

Gross, Gerard J. “The Conclusion to All's Well That Ends Well.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 23, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 257-76.

Maintains that the final scene of All's Well That Ends Well reflects the tension between romance and realism that runs throughout the comedy. Gross suggests that the not entirely believable reconciliation of Helena and Bertram is consistent with Shakespeare's realistic treatment of romantic conventions in this play.

Halio, Jay L. An introduction to King Lear, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

A section—pages 29-34—of this introduction is devoted to the question of tragic reversal in King Lear. Halio notes that much of the action of Acts IV and V encourages audiences to be optimistic about the outcome of the play, although, in almost nihilistic or absurdist fashion, Shakespeare flouts our expectations.

Hodgdon, Barbara. “‘Let the End Try the Man’: 1 and 2 Henry IV.” In The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History, pp. 151-84. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Reads 1 and 2 Henry IV as texts that link Falstaff with the unruly female body. The banishment of Falstaff at the close of both plays is necessary, Hodgdon proposes, because he exemplifies the subversive suggestion that history is comprised of lies and deceits. Hodgdon also comments on the interesting likelihood that the Epilogue to 2 Henry IV—which promises to continue the story in a new play, once again featuring “Sir John”—was originally delivered by the actor who played Falstaff.

———. “‘A Full and Natural Close, Like Music’: Henry V.” In The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History, pp. 185-211. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Finds in the concluding scenes of Henry V a multiple perspective that, like the divided vision in the play, challenges political ideology. Narrative closure is achieved at the end of Act IV, Hodgdon points out, with the image of an egalitarian brotherhood forged at Agincourt, but this image is tainted by the expulsion of Pistol in V.ii; similarly, the depiction of Henry and Katherine's marriage as an emblem of social and political harmony is undercut by the words of the Epilogue, which call attention to the transient nature of not only Henry's achievements but also of theatrical representations that mythologize history.

Jensen, Ejner J. “‘The Career of … Humor’: Comedy's Triumph in Much Ado about Nothing.” In Shakespeare and the Ends of Comedy, pp. 44-71. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Discerns throughout the play a number of episodes that prefigure the comic resolution of Much Ado about Nothing. Over-emphasis on the Hero-Claudio plot has inevitably led commentators to stress the dark or problematic aspects of this work, Jensen contends, but in his opinion, the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is the comedy's central and dominant concern.

Kirby, Ian J. “The Passing of King Lear.” Shakespeare Survey 41 (1989): 145-57.

Interprets the death of Lear in the context of medieval Christian beliefs and attitudes. The King overcomes his despair over Cordelia's death and dies in a state of grace, Kirby maintains; the critic further suggests that Lear's final moments are suffused with joy because he knows he will be reunited with his daughter in the afterlife.

Ko, Yu Jin. “The Comic Close of Twelfth Night and Viola's Noli me tangere.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 391-405.

Relates the mixture of joy and pain in the recognition scene between Viola and Sebastian to the play's treatment of time and desire. In Ko's judgment, the poignancy of deferred satisfaction in their reunion is heightened by Shakespeare's implicit allusion here to the biblical narrative of the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Jesus.

Lesser, Simon O. “Act One, Scene One, of Lear.College English 32, no. 2 (November 1970): 155-71.

Identifies a combination of factors that motivate Lear's and Cordelia's conduct in the play's opening scene. Lesser argues that fear, anger, and unacknowledged feelings of incestuous love lead both the King and his daughter to act irrationally and contrary to their interests.

Magnusson, A. Lynne. “The Collapse of Shakespeare's High Style in The Two Noble Kinsmen.English Studies in Canada XIII, no. 4 (December 1987): 375-90.

Examines Shakespeare's use of ornate rhetoric in the opening and closing scenes of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Magnusson proposes that Shakespeare employed highly wrought language and imagery in I.i to conceal the lack of thematic substance there, but in V.iv he used the same style to undermine the dramatic action and mock its farcical nature.

Merchant, Moelwyn. “Shakespeare's Sixth Act.” In Essays by Divers Hands, n.s. vol. XLII, pp. 78-90. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 1982.

Asserts that Shakespeare's mature plays overtly encourage us to speculate about the future beyond the time-sequence of the dramatic action. Merchant illustrates his thesis with a survey of the endings of King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest, among others.

Neill, Michael. “‘Exeunt with a Dead March’: Funeral Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage.” In Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 153-93. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Describes the scope and symbolism of Elizabethan funeral rites for important public figures, and demonstrates how these influenced the stage funerals devised by Kyd, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. Neill maintains that the form of funerals—as well as their placement—in Shakespeare's plays has profound significance. To support his argument, Neill surveys the opening funerals in 1 Henry VI, Richard III, and Titus Andronicus; the mid-play funerals in Hamlet and Julius Caesar; and the concluding ones in Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Othello, and King Lear.

———. “Finit coronat opus: The Monumental Ending of Anthony and Cleopatra.” In Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy, pp. 305-27. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Focuses on the double closing of Anthony and Cleopatra and the contrasting modes of encountering death. When Antony falls on his sword, Neill contends, he betrays once again his fear of losing his self-image as the Herculean hero. Cleopatra follows this with an extraordinary funeral oration for her lover, and there is the sense of an ending. Yet the play's final act depicts the monumentalizing power of art, Neill argues, as Shakespeare's Cleopatra carries out the precept of the Renaissance motto: “The end crowns all.”

Nochimson, Richard L. “‘The End Crowns All’: Shakespeare's Deflation of Tragic Possibility in Antony and Cleopatra.English XXVI, no. 125 (Summer 1977): 99-132.

Asserts that Shakespeare purposely deflates Antony and Cleopatra throughout the play, even in the scenes of their death; so, what happens to them should be of very little interest to us. However, Nochimson declares, because these characters see themselves in tragic terms, and because of the influence of other historical and literary treatments of their story, we find ourselves responding to the legend of Antony and Cleopatra—not to Shakespeare's drama.

Palmer, D. J. “‘We shall know by this fellow’: Prologue and Chorus in Shakespeare.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 64, no. 2 (Spring 1982): 501-21.

Outlines the function and dramatic effectiveness of Shakespeare's prologues and choruses. Palmer describes the playwright's adaptations and transformation of these traditional devices, and discusses their use in Romeo and Juliet, 2 Henry IV, Henry V, Troilus and Cressida, Pericles, and The Winter's Tale.

Partee, Morriss Henry. “Edgar and the Ending of King Lear.Studia Neophilologica LXIII, no. 2 (1991): 175-80.

Avers that the resolution of the political crisis in the kingdom diverts the audience's attention from the pathos of Lear's death. Partee believes that by the end of the play, Edgar has developed sufficient insight and compassion to be worthy of the responsibility Albany bestows on him.

Pechter, Edward. “Falsifying Men's Hopes: The Ending of 1 Henry IV.Modern Language Quarterly 41, no. 3 (September 1980): 211-30.

Maintains that the lack of resolution in the closing lines of 1 Henry IV reflects the play's responsiveness—and ours—to a broad range of human experience. After the scene in the Boar's Head tavern, Pechter contends, we are gradually led to accept Hal's purposiveness as preferable to Falstaff's spontaneity, but we continue to empathize with Falstaff's inventiveness and his perspective on life.

Rovine, Harvey. “The Final Silence.” In Silence in Shakespeare: Drama, Power, and Gender, pp. 91-98. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

Summarizes the ways in which audiences may react to the final silence of Shakespeare's plays. In the course of his discussion, Rovine considers how the playwright manages different transitions from language to silence at the close: for example, with increasing use of pauses between speeches, as in Hamlet; with