Shakespeare’s King Lear. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport” (4.1. 36-37 in the conflated text of the Norton edition). This also serves as the epigraph for Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. My point is not just that Shakespeare is cruel to his characters, but because Jacobethan* audiences KNEW that Cordelia would win the battle, restore Lear to the throne, and live happily, not forever, but for a few more years, Shakespeare is also tormenting his audiences. At 5.3. 264 Lear hopes—and leads the audience to believe—that Cordelia might be alive after all. So King Lear, and maybe Titus Andronicus, test the audience’s capacity for cruelty, pain, and disappointment. Some audiences and readers, especially in the eighteenth century, e.g. Samuel Johnson, could not bear King Lear; and I won’t reread Tess because it hurts too much.
*”Jacobethan”: a term coined by the linguist David Crystal (at least that is where I first encountered it) to cover the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I, the period of Shakespeare’s productivity.
Professor of English
Department of English and Foreign Languages
Fayetteville State University
1200 Murchison Rd.
Fayetteville, NC 28301
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