Of Shakespeare's many plays, King Lear is certainly one of the most troubling and provoking. In comparison to the comedies and romances, it has a much darker setting and content; but even compared with other tragedies, it seems King Lear is confounded by its lack of a conclusive moral framework. This is demonstrated by its ambiguous ending and leads to an eternal question: does the play promote optimism or pessimism? The answer is tied to the issue of context, in that the play's setting is pre-Christian. However, in other plays, Shakespeare manipulates the conventions of form to allow optimism in a pagan world, and thus the answer to the largest question of the play turns out not to be derivable from the text alone. Thus, the choice to portray it one way or the other falls into the hands of a production's director.
[...] Even the deaths of Gloucester and Lear are acceptable, because while they are sympathetic characters, both had earlier made serious mistakes. While part of their learning experience is coming to understand their role in creating the situation, another aspect of their education is acceptance of what fate may befall them. Thus, the audience understands with them that they may have to face their punishment. When Cordelia dies, however, the sense of ultimate justice is destroyed along with the court and the royal family. [...]
[...] However, once Lear becomes aware of his own role in the creating the disaster in his court and realizes his own arrogance, the audience's expectations rise again that there can be redemption for his basically sympathetic character. This is borne out in Act IV, scene when Lear and Cordelia are reunited. At this meeting, two things happen. First, the audience is given more seeming evidence that things will turn out alright in the end. After all, before meeting Cordelia, Lear wakes to the sound of comforting music. [...]
[...] The final actions begins at V when Lear enters bearing Cordelia's body in his arms. At first, Lear proclaims her dead, with the lines, “She's gone forever/I know when one is dead and when one lives/She's dead as earth” Still, though these lines seem to express certainly on Lear's behalf, for the audience they actually offer some hope. Adding the phrase when one lives” instead of simply know when one is dead” adds possibility of a mistake, as does “dead as earth.” “Dead as dirt” would be saying something different, as the earth is teeming with visible life. [...]
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