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Lear-haunted: Shakespeare's last plays
thesisposted on 2023-05-27, 16:48 authored by Nairn, John
This study argues that King Lear and the plays of Shakespeare's final period should be seen as being stylistically and thematically inter related. An introduction places the idea in the light of some modern approaches to King Lear and to Pericles, Cyrribeline, The Winter's Tale I and The Tempest, both in print and in the theatre. This critical context suggests possible objections to the idea as well as encouragement to develop it further. The first chapter looks at stylistic links. King Lear resembles the last plays in style, sharing with them an affinity to the mode of the traditional fairy tale. Elements of the style include romance, fabulation and grotesquerie. The essential serious ness of fairy tales is recognized, showing that Shakespeare is not trivialized by the comparison. A much more specific linkage between the five plays is outlined in the second chapter. This is the theme of daughterhood, for which the fairy-tale style is the 'show-case' or mode of presentation. The outline shows that the theme's main characteristic is the dual centrality of a royal father and his daughter, with marked emphasis on the father's emotional need for the princess. King Lear and the last plays, embodying this theme, form a kind of king-princess series. The argument then considers the development of the theme as narrative in each of the plays, starting (in the fourth chapter) with an examination of how the daughterhood theme is set up in opening scenes. In each case the father seems to be trapped in a web of jealousy and love. He disguises his plight with incredible riddles, love-tests and other psychological games. Up to this point the study finds a haunting similarity between King Lear and the last plays. Shakespeare seems obsessed. The last chapter follows the variations and differences as each play's narrative progresses, suggesting that Shakespeare is experimenting with the Lear-Cordelia paradigm. The concluding inference is that Shakespeare (like Samuel Johnson) was shocked by the ending to King Lear, but that he responded to the 'shock with the art of the last plays. A postlude speculates that a 'real life' basis for Shake speare's daughterhood theme might have been the relationship of Henry VIII with his daughter Elizabeth, and that perhaps this is pointed to in the other 'last- play', Henry VIII.
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