Beginnings and Endings
Late twentieth-century commentators on the opening scenes of Shakespeare's plays often approach this topic from the perspective of audiences rather than readers. Focusing on theatrical effectiveness, these critics consider how spectators unfamiliar with a play might react to Shakespeare's initial representation of the dramatic world they are about to enter. Many critics point out that the information provided in Shakespeare's opening scenes is almost always incomplete or ambiguous, making it difficult for audiences to determine what is actually happening. Indeed, modern-day directors employ a variety of techniques to help playgoers begin their imaginary journey into the unique world of a Shakespearean play. A. D. Nuttall (1991) emphasizes the disorienting quality of many of Shakespeare's opening scenes and argues that the dramatist exploited the spectators' uncertainty during the opening minutes of a performance by immediately bewildering them. On the other hand, Shakespeare's initial scenes frequently provide clues to the forthcoming dramatic action, though the signs may be encoded so subtly that audiences will not notice them. However, M. J. B. Allen (1984) discerns in the opening scenes of Shakespeare's tragedies clear premonitions of their eventual endings.
In a wide-ranging discussion of Shakespeare's endings, Bernard Beckerman (1985) shows how the dramatist capitalized on audience expectations regarding the outcome, playing upon conventions and using them in unconventional ways. Beckerman also points out that several of the history plays contain denouements that are virtually tragic in form, while others terminate without any resolution, thus suggesting continuity of action rather than closure. In contrast with the endings of the histories, which have drawn little critical attention over the past thirty years, the final scenes of Shakespeare's comedies have been analyzed by a number of commentators. Zvi Jagendorf (1984), for example, in an evaluation of the endings of three plays he characterizes as “tragi-comedies,” regards these scenes as recapitulations—and resolutions—of the problems posed in the earlier action. Focusing on two of Shakespeare's early comedies, Deborah Curren Aquino (1986) similarly reads the concluding scenes of The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labor's Lost as reprisals or syntheses; she argues, however, that since the plots have been resolved before the final episodes, the playwright designed these scenes merely to entertain or amuse the audience until he brought the play to a close.
Adopting theoretical perspectives which were formulated by C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye, many commentators in the 1970s and 1980s emphasized the festive, harmonizing, or restorative nature of Shakespeare's comic endings. More recently, however, critics have challenged these approaches. For example, instead of finding harmony and clarification in the final scenes of Shakespeare's comedies, Jean E. Howard (1986) calls attention to the presence of complications, contradictions, and unresolved tension. She warns that by attempting to construct a single, unifying perspective on the dramatic action, audiences and readers may overlook the complexity of Shakespeare's comic endings. Also contesting orthodox views, Ejner J. Jensen (1991) asserts that late twentieth-century commentators have placed too much weight on closure in the comedies, and as a consequence they have relied on a play's ending for evidence of its central idea or “meaning.” He also remarks that critics have now begun to emphasize the dark or problematic nature of Shakespeare's comic endings.
Recent commentary on Shakespeare's tragic endings reflects a more uniform viewpoint. Walter C. Foreman, Jr. (1978) locates a series of elements common to most—but not all—of these endings: the tragic hero's acceptance of death, the establishment of a new order, an emphasis on the dynamic energy that has been lost with the death of the protagonist, and the relatively mundane or limited nature of the new order. In discussions that focus on individual tragedies, critics frequently connect a play's ending with its beginning. William C. Carroll (1981), for instance, argues that the fatalistic mood established by Romeo and Juliet's Prologue pervades the rest of the play, and that the conclusion sustains this mood, leaving us with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Similarly, Robert F. Willson, Jr. (1990) emphasizes the reflexive quality of the final scene of Hamlet, calling attention to echoes of the opening scene's style, thematic content, and dramatic action. In keeping with the pattern described by Foreman, Willson asserts that Hamlet's stoic acceptance of his fate and the restoration of order in Denmark are evident from the play's concluding lines. Thomas Clayton (1994) investigates how Othello's final lines affect our judgment of the Moor's nature; Clayton argues that they reinforce an interpretation of the hero as a sympathetic figure, particularly when they are linked to Desdemona's final words.
Of all Shakespeare's endings, King Lear's is the most celebrated. Indeed, it has attracted more critical interest than any other Shakespearean scene. Yet commentators remain divided about whether Lear's concluding lines express a sense of affirmation. In their discussions of the play's final scene, Derek Peat (1980), Stephen Booth (1983), and Phoebe S. Spinrad (1991) are all especially cognizant of audience response. Peat believes that from the opening note of uncertainty in the first scene of the play, audience confusion intensifies, then reaches its climax with the death of Lear. At the close, Peat maintains, Shakespeare gives us no assurance that order has been restored or that the future will be less bleak than the present. Booth describes the ending of Lear, after the king enters with Cordelia in his arms, as “the most terrifying five minutes in literature.” He suggests that the intensity of audience reaction to this outcome stems from our having forgotten—as have the characters represented on stage—about the fate of Lear and his daughter. Concerned, like Booth, with the question of why the final moments of Lear are so intensely poignant, Spinrad characterizes the ending as uncertain. But she proposes that in the concluding lines of the play, Shakespeare offers his audience a new kind of catharsis, an unconventional form of closure that cannot be encompassed by traditional dramatic theories.