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Raising Cordelia: Hope and Despair of Resurrection in King Lear

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  1. The on-stage action which most directly raises the question of pessimism or optimism is King Lear himself, in the last few moments of his life, taking in the sight of his dead daughter Cordelia.
  2. The reason that Cordelia's death so strongly affects a play in which several others die is that the audience does not really expect it.
  3. This is borne out in Act IV, scene 7, when Lear and Cordelia are reunited. At this meeting, two things happen
  4. At this point, the rug has finally been pulled from under the audience
  5. The remaining question, then, is how to signal this to the audience

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. [...]

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