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The Strangeness of Tragedy$
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Paul Hammond

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199572601

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199572601.001.0001

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King Lear

(p.160) 9 Shakespeare
The Strangeness of Tragedy

Paul Hammond

Oxford University Press

In King Lear, characters exist in an uncertain, displaced, relationship to language. The play is built from commonplaces, proverbs, and rhetorical formulae, and from quotations of fable and song, as if many voices, many generations of experience inhabit each phrase. The play of quotation and commonplace in King Lear dissolves coherence, displaces the individual characters, prising apart the relationship between self and utterance. A decomposition of language decomposes its speakers. It is Lear who begins to make language the subject as well as the medium of the tragedy. Lear uses emblems to give himself stability and coherence at moments when his world seems to be dissolving. His madness takes him into strange new territory. As the play moves towards a conclusion, Shakespeare gives us several near-endings, too many near-closures: the romance ending in which Lear and Cordelia are reunited, the history-play ending in which Albany resigns the kingdom to Lear, and the tragic ending in which Lear dies.

Keywords:   King Lear, William Shakespeare, voices, commonplaces, self, decomposition, tragedy, madness, Cordelia, emblems

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