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“Shakespeare leaves us all satisfied at the end of his plays.”
Discuss this statement, referring to one or more plays by Shakespeare you have studied.
To determine if Shakespeare leaves us satisfied at the end of his plays, we need to first understand
what we mean by “satisfied”. At first sight, this appears to be true I think you need to qualify this –
always? All plays? – Shakespeare always leave us feeling happy that we saw or read his play, and in
some way fulfilled. But how, then, are we to account for the feeling of “utter desolation and waste”,
to use AC Bradley’s phrase, which is so common to us on reading his tragedies? Where satisfaction is
a purely happy feeling, and understood to mean invoking in the audience a feeling that all is right
with the world, the statement is patently untrue – rare indeed is the audience that can watch scenes
like the murder of Desdemona in Othello and the death of Cordelia in King Lear and believe that all is
correct in the play-world. However, if we instead understand satisfaction to mean something more
like Aristotle’s Catharsis, as put forth in his commentaries on the nature of tragedy in Poetics, we can
begin to agree with the statement. Shakespeare’s plays universally involve characters who in some
way clash with the world around them, and at the end of these plays they are without exception
nullified, in some way. In comedies, for instance The Merchant of Venice, they are nullified by being
married to another character (and thus, in modern culture as for the Elizabethans, fundamentally
changing their legal and actual nature) and in tragedies, for instance Hamlet, they are nullified by
simply dying. If, then, we take the literal meaning of Catharsis, “purging” or “purification”, we can
resolve our dilemma, and it becomes clear that this does indeed take place in Shakespearean drama.
In comedies, we are presented with a whole menagerie of characters that conflict with the world
around them. Portia laments that she shall die “as chaste as Diana” if no one wins the contest set by
her father, and Rosalind’s existence is fundamentally at odds with her status as the daughter of the
“banished duke”, which means “doom lies upon her” as long as she stays. These characters step
outside of the role that their society - and indeed the world they live in, from society to religion to
the rest of the cast - would expect of them, and normally experience some hardship as a result of
this. This is not to say that the characters are portrayed as bad, and indeed these characters are
often shown to be in the right in their conflicts with society. No one would criticise Portia for her
annoyance that her father has “hedged me by his wit”, and we feel entirely happy that she cheats
the test slightly, by commanding Nerissa to “place a goblet of wine” on a contrary casket to mislead
her suitors, and by commanding a hinting song (“tell me where is fancy bred / in the heart, or in the
head…”) to be played while Bassanio chooses. Nonetheless, we must understand that for the
Elizabethans especially Portia’s position as an active agent was fundamentally at odds with “The godwrit structure of the world”, to use Francis Bacon’s phrase, who was writing around the same time.
This means that while we are expected to root for these characters who clash with their society, and
to want them to come to a good end, we nonetheless want them to come to an end, and for the
disconnect to go away. The course each play is fundamentally similar – in all of them, the plot
revolves around the solution of this disjunction between character and world, and in the end we
always observe this happening. Portia marries Bassanio and returns to Belmont with him,
presumably no longer to dress up as “Balthazar”, and is at the end of the play essentially a different
character to who she was at the start. Marriage, for Shakespeare, was as effective a way of nullifying
a character as death. A detailed and perceptive discussion
In Shakespearean tragedies, instead of the characters being married off, we see them simply dying.
The same reasons for characters being out-of-place are present in tragedies, with characters like
Macbeth or Hamlet in some way violating the norms of society, even if through no action of their
own. Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition o’er leaps itself”, and Hamlet finds himself in the untenable
position of needing to weigh up the moral evil of killing a king “on who’s property and most dear life
“Shakespeare leaves us all satisfied at the end of his plays.”
Discuss this statement, referring to one or more plays by Shakespeare you have studied.
the state hangs upon”, and his duty to “fat all the region kites with bloody offal” in response to the
murder of his father. In both of these cases, the characters simply could not fit into normal society,
as indeed neither Portia nor Rosalind could in their original state. Again, this means that while we
certainly root for these characters, we also are expected to – and while in this later time we may do
so less, we still do - desire that the incongruity be resolved. We “implicitly yearn for the natural order
to be restored”, to use H. Bloom’s phrase. We can feel that Hamlet’s death is the “crack[ing] of a
noble heart”, but we still feel that perhaps his death is the best for all concerned. This is tied up
tightly with the Aristotelian idea of characters having a great tragic flaw, which made it entirely
impossible for them to coexist with the world. Othello’s “free and open nature” means that he is
doomed, as surely as Hamlet’s inability to ignore either of the moral dictates that he is faced with
sentences him to death. Shakespearean tragic characters are like his comic characters in that they
clash with the world, and at the end of each play their nature is somehow changed to stop them
doing this, achieving catharsis. Tragedy does this in the easiest possible way, by killing them.
In both tragedy and comedy we observe characters that step out of their societally assigned roles
being put back into them, either through marriage or through death, which for Shakespeare as today
is the ultimate way to ensure that someone never clashes with anything ever again. This is partially a
reflection of the dramatic ideal of “equilibrium” that had come from Attic Tragedy, which held that
worlds existed in a steady state, and would automatically return to this state, reacting against any
perturbations. Shakespeare seems to have subscribed to this ideal, and his plays can be thought of
as an arc, starting with harmony and ending with harmony. As You Like It and other comedies
conclude with an assurance that everything will be perfectly peaceful and blissful from then on:
“Proceed, proceed. We will begin these rites, / As we do trust they'll end, in true delights”. Tragedies,
however, take a more violent approach to “harmony”, instead achieving it through creating a sense
of “desolation and waste” at the conclusion of the play. The ultimate equilibrium, after all, is a void,
and this is what is created at the conclusion of tragedies. This is not a feature of all literature –
modern authors especially make no efforts to force their characters back into static equilibrium at
the end of their works. Jane Eyre ends with Jane just as headstrong as ever, and no indication that
she will change. Shakespeare, seemingly, had a phobia of his characters remaining disjoint with the
world around them and because it is entirely impossible to imagine Hamlet or any of the
Shakespearean central characters existing in equilibrium after their plays, we see them in some way
nullified. This ties into the literal meaning of Catharsis – to purge, as if through burning. Shakespeare
burns away the emotional disconnect that we feel from his characters, leaving a sense of utter
equilibrium at the end of his plays. Shakespearean characters, then, are complete – the very fact
that there cannot be a “Hamlet II” is a sign that we as audience are “satisfied” or fulfilled, even if by
force.you may need to make this link to the question a little earlier
In conclusion, Shakespeare does leave us feeling cathartically satisfied at the end of all his plays. His
plays are a story of a character, or group of characters, who clash with their world ceasing to do so.
His comedies and tragedies differ in how they have this end up, with comedies doing it through
changing the character’s nature while keeping them alive and tragedies doing it through the painful
death of the character concerned. We must remember in declaring this, however, that the process
of catharsis or satisfaction is not necessarily a positive experience, and while it does seem that the
deaths of characters like Cordelia and Lear or Romeo and Juliet is a purifying experience, and
Shakespearean tragedy always ends with the natural order being restored (Claudius dying in Hamlet,
Antonio escaping death in The Merchant of Venice, the usurping duke giving up power in As You Like
“Shakespeare leaves us all satisfied at the end of his plays.”
Discuss this statement, referring to one or more plays by Shakespeare you have studied.
It), they do also conjure a sense of “desolation and waste”. This, however, does not argue against
them being fundamentally satisfying to the audience, as at the end of all of Shakespeare’s plays we
accept that we cannot see these characters act any further, as they have completed their character
arc, and the characters that we so adored are entirely negated. Thus, we must conclude that they do
always leave us satisfied – whether we want to be or not. A very well structured and developed
argument.
There is not a great deal that I can add – great critical discussion of key points – and a range of texts
included.
Well done
ET5 