Shakespeare's poetics in relation to King Lear
Paul points out in 1 Cor 15, Christian salvation solely depends on whether Christ has risen from the dead or not. If he has, it is indeed a chance which does redeem all sorrows that we, as human beings, have ever felt. But is there a chance for Cordelia to be alive? Commentators, almost unanimously, 7 agree with Kent, Edgar, and Albany that there is not e.
Greenblatt ; Holloway ; Lennard 57 , in spite of some contradictory evidence. The actor whose body Lear carries on stage was alive, and spectators standing close enough to the stage might actually have noticed the stain on the looking glass or the stirring of the feather. My suggestion is simply that they were not used to switching off their Christian world view when leaving the church or switching on the tragic world view of pagan antiquity when entering the theatre as automatically as eighteenth- or nineteenth-century audiences might have done, but would naturally be looking for a connection between the fictional play on stage and the discourses and practices prevalent outside the theatre.
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The plot, to be sure, is set in pre-Christian times, at about BC. No wonder their attitude with regard to the tragic events is one of despair. My suggestion is that Shakespeare, by making Lear believe that Cordelia is alive, reaches out of the boundaries of theatrical discourse. In this the play could be compared to a poem by Thomas Hardy in which an old thrush in the midst of winter bursts out into song:.
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A similar reaching-out to extra-theatrical Christian discourse can be observed at the end of The Tempest. If Prospero can return to his former dignities, so can Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio, in spite of the fact that Antonio is unrepentant, and that he and Sebastian attempted murdering Alonso just an hour before 2. The Italian villains who ousted Prospero from his dukedom and, as far as we know, are prepared to continue their villainous careers are allowed to go home scot-free.
The plot, in fact, precludes an ending in which justice is done to the Italian courtly villains. The plot thus allows Prospero to demonstrate first his humanity and then his moral superiority over those who deprived him of his dukedom by force. Informed by Ariel he pities the villains who are now in his power:. The injustice implied in the happy ending accorded to the villains goes even further. As has often been noted, Antonio, the chief of them, does not express any regret as to what he has done e. For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive Thy rankest fault—all of them; and require My dukedom of thee, which perforce, I know Thou must restore.
Orgel The past is swept away to render the present and the future less heavy; penitence need not be given expression. Her amazement at seeing the courtiers can well be quoted as an instance of utter naivety cf. How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! Actually, it is her attitude which provides the most explicit hope for a happy future. Could great men thunder As Jove himself does, Jove would never be quiet, For every pelting, petty officer Would use his heaven for thunder, Nothing but thunder!
In The Tempest , at any rate, poetic justice could only amount to an orgy of whipping or thundering. The epilogue rather bluntly couches a conventional appeal for applause in Christian terminology, thus reaching out from the world of the theatre to that of the audience 12 :. It is up to us, to the individual spectator, if he or she will follow this appeal. Summing up we should note that the Christian concepts of grace and forgiveness are embedded in a series of explanations by which the concept of justice is transcended:.
First of all, forgiveness and reconciliation are expedient to Prospero, because without a reconciliation he could not leave the island. Justice is bypassed in favour of utility and expediency. Thirdly, justice is relegated to the concept of vengeance, which is introduced as the opposite of virtue. It is human virtue or perfection which makes Prospero forgo the justice implied in being avenged on his enemies. Like the conclusions of many other plays, the ending of The Tempest appears indicative of the natural and divine order of things, but, while in a play like Cymbeline pagan deities make sure that justice is done, 13 The Tempest transcends justice by foregrounding the Christian concepts of mercy and forgiveness.
In both King Lear and The Tempest central issues are left unresolved. Both senility and innocence may—or may not—be the containers of some spiritual truth. Spectators are invited to continue speculating on the issue of justice on the basis of extra-theatrical, Christian discourse. If the tenets of Christianity are true, maybe there is a chance for Cordelia to be alive and partake of the felicity of the Christian heaven, and maybe Christian mercy can extend to Italian courtly villains even before they openly announce their repentance.
These interpretations go beyond the kind of justice a human judge, a poet or a pagan god can dispense. Shakespeare follows theatrical conventions in avoiding preaching, but he does not fit his plays into any closed or conventional system of dispensing poetic justice. He rather establishes links to other fields of discursive experience which may or may not be followed by the individual spectator or reader.
Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett. Oxford: OUP, Charney, Maurice.
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