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What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger (Or Kills You)

Shakespeare, King Lear Acts 3-5 -- Jerz: EL150 (Intro to Literary Study)

"Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer."

Shakespeare really wasn't afraid of depressing endings, was he? The only kind of solace it seems you can take in this whole world that he has painted is the fact that you won't have to deal with it anymore once you're dead. It is amazing how much suffering the people in this play go through. The play is really like a big torturefest. There's so much suffering going on here that it's almost funny in some parts. Did anyone else think it was kind of funny when Gloucester thought he had jumped off the edge of the big cliff and was like "Am I dead yet?" It's kind of representative of what everybody goes through in this play: just when you think things couldn't possibly get much worse, they do.
Not to be off-topic, but it kind of reminds me of what the characters keep saying in The Return of Jafar: "Genies can't kill people, but you'd be surprised what you can live through." So Gloucester is deceived by his son, gets tortured and blinded, and attempts to kill himself? Surprise! He's still alive.
What's even crueler is that there seems to be hope toward the end. Everybody's building up to this big victory, and even after Lear and Cordelia are captured Edgar reprieves them, but it's still doesn't work out. In fact, in the original version of the legend, both Lear and Cordelia lived and took the throne for several years afterward. But Shakespeare really seems to want to stretch our expectations and test the limits of human suffering. It seems like he really wanted to depict what it's like to have to go on in the face of tremendous adversity. That's why I think this image of being stretched out on the rack is really very appropriate for this story. Life really isn't a happy little journey for anybody in this play, and you can never assume "Well, things couldn't possibly get any worse." They always can. The only way they can get better is when you're dead. Okay. I need to go watch Disney movies now.

Comments (4)


How interesting! I hadn't thought about the legend behind this, though Shakespeare seems to base almost everything on some kind of legendary or historical story. I wonder why he would want to give the story such a morbid end? Certainly the legend isn't nearly as interesting as Shakespeare's version, but I can't help but wonder if a happy ending would have gone ever just as well with the audience of that time period. Hm. Then again, this is Shakespeare we're talking about. He obviously knows what will have the best reaction from the audience, so I can only assume that this ending was more appropriate.

Matt Henderson:

From what I've read, it doesn't seem like this ending went over that well with audiences. It certainly would have been shocking to them because many of them would probably have known the story beforehand and would have expected at least the ending to stay the same. During the 1600's it was actually performed with a rewritten happy ending that was more like the original, and it wasn't until the 1800's that Shakespeare's ending went back in. Out of all the plays by Shakespeare I've read so far, this one really seems to take the biggest artistic risks. It's longer than a lot of his other plays, it has the most violence, and not only that, the violence doesn't really seem like appropriate retribution for characters' actions. I think Shakespeare really wanted to challenge the audience intellectually and emotionally by not giving them the easy, satisfying ending they wanted. Besides, if the ending had a happy ending, it would not have accurately fit the strict definition of "tragedy" and would have had to have been labeled a comedy (I think.)

Chera Pupi:

I definately thought it was funny when Gloucester thought he was killing himself and didn't. That's a really interesting observation you've made though. It's okay, I love Disney movies too and I applaud you for quoting one in your blog about Shakespeare. I'm not going to lie, I've never seen anyone else do that before. You're right though, the actions taken (or punishments I guess) were truly not deserved by the characters. I could totally see how this ending wouldn't go over well. It's a bit much. Every time you blink someone else ends up dead. It definately fits the definition of "tragedy."

Ellen Einsporn:

Thank you for posting this blog! I feel like I know so much more now. I knew that Shakespeare based his plays on previous legends/writings/ect. but I never knew what they specifically were. I think it would be interesting to research the previously existing works that Shakespeare, in part, based his plays upon to see how he changed/bettered them.

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