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Joyce Carol Oates on William Shakespeare

The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare's "Trolius and Cressida"

Troilus and Cressida, that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare's plays, strikes the modern reader as a contemporary document—its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential are themes of the twentieth century. Philosophically, the play must be one of the earliest expressions of what is now called the "existential" vision; psychologically, it not only represents the puritanical mind in its anguished obsession with the flesh overwhelming the spirit, but it works to justify that vision. It is not only the expense of spirit in a "waste of shame" that is catastrophic, but the expenditure of all spirit—for the object of spiritual adoration (even if, like Helen, it is not unfaithful) can never be equivalent to the purity of energy wasted. Shakespeare shows in this darkest and least satisfying of his tragedies the modern, ironic, nihilistic spectacle of man diminished, not exalted. There is no question of the play's being related to tragedy; calling it one of the "dark comedies" is to distort it seriously. This is tragedy of a special sort—the "tragedy" the basis of which is the impossibility of conventional tragedy.

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The Tragedy of Imagination: Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra"

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra shares with Troilus and Cressida the obsessive and self-consuming rage of the tragic figure as he confronts and attempts to define "reality." But, more extravagantly than Troilus and Cressida, this reality is layered with masquerade; forms that are often as lyric as brutal shift and change and baffle expectation. The constant refinement of brute reality into lyric illusion is the work not simply of Antony, Shakespeare's hero, but the lifelong work of Shakespeare himself. Thus there is a curious, rather decadent air in this play of flamboyant desires having as much import—if not ultimately as much political strength—as events themselves.

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"Is This the Promised End?": The Tragedy of King Lear

The moment of Lear's awakening is one of the most moving scenes in our literature, coming as it does after so much grotesque and senseless horror; it marks not simply the reconciliation of King and mistreated, exiled daughter, the reconciliation of the tyrannical, aggressive Lear and his loving, all-forgiving Cordelia, but the mysterious moment of "awakening" of the soul itself—for Cordelia, with her unearned kiss, symbolizes that moment of grace that forces the tragic action to a temporary halt, and allows a magical synthesis of the bliss of eternity and the tragedy of time that is so powerful in Shakespeare, because it is so rare.

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