At the end of King Lear, when the only characters left standing are Albany, Edgar, and Kent, is the audience supposed to come away from the play with any feeling other than remorse? This search for emotional release by the audience is one which J. Stampfer believes is the most profound problem in King Lear.
The overriding critical problem in King Lear is that of its ending. The deaths of Lear
and Cordelia confront us like a raw, fresh wound where our every instinct calls for
healing and reconciliation. This problem, moreover, is as much one of philosophic
order as of dramatic effect. In what sort of universe, we ask ourselves, can wasteful
death follow suffering and torture?
In his essay "The Catharsis of King Lear," Stampfer discusses sevearal readings of Lear’s death, proves them faulty, and, through analyzation of this and other Shakespearian texts, arrives at his own conclusion concerning Lear’s denouement and the audience’s reaction.
The essay begins with Stampfer defining the relevance of Lear’s death to King Lear and the essay reader. Stampfer does not waste the time of the reader with an elaborate introduction. Instead, the first line defines the problem:
The overriding critical problem in King Lear is that of its ending (361).
Still in the first paragraph, he quotes the line from Lear that causes the interpretation problems, referring to it as Lear’s "desparing question" (361):
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? (v,iii, 306-7)
The rest of the paragraph discusses problems which, in Stampfer’s opinion, cannot be pushed aside, such as the source Shakespeare used to write King Lear, and the Christian referenc...
... middle of paper ...
...ld, and abandons athiesm and attempts to save Lear and Cordelia.
This creates a paradox for Stampfer: if characters such as Lear, Gloucester, and Edmund all go through some sort of awakening, why do they all die? Is there any justice in the universe? Stampfer examines Othello, Hamlet, and Romeo & Juliet, and concludes that in each of those tragedies, the play ends with the "reconciliation of the tragic hero and society" (371). Lear, in Stampfer’s opinion, is "the first tragedy in which the tragic hero dies unreconciled and indifferent to society" (371).
So Stampfer finds it necessary to go over the plot of Lear again, and dervie what within the structure makes Lear different from the before mentioned plays, and attempt to find some sort of catharsis.
Stampfer comes up with several key points. The first is Lear’s abandonment of everything he once knew.
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