Why must Cordelia die?

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King Lear will be explored – one act per day – through the great questions it gives rise to, ethical, philosophical and aesthetic. The problems centre on the death of Cordelia: is it random or inevitable?

In 1681, sixty-five years after Shakespeare’s death, a minor poet named Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear in accordance with the literary taste of his day. His version of the play, which most people today find ridiculous, held the stage for something like a hundred and fifty years. Tate changed many things, but the most notorious is the ending: a happy ending, in which Lear is restored to his throne and Cordelia marries Edgar, who thereby becomes heir to the throne of Britain. Why did Tate do this? Why was it so successful? Might such a revision, but adapted to our taste, have some chance of success today? It could be argued that, not far from the end of the play, it does seem to be approaching a happy conclusion and that Shakespeare forces upon his audience a hideous surprise in making the ending so tragic. It has been said, moreover, that the ending Shakespeare gave the play is intolerable, unbearable, worse than tragic. Cordelia, for instance, is profoundly good and deserving of happiness; there is no reason to punish her and her death, far from being the fulfilment of a tragic fate, seems arbitrary, unnecessary and – to borrow a modern concept – absurd. Why does she have to die?

Like Shakespeare’s other tragedies, King Lear asks serious questions, none of which can be conclusively answered. The central question is asked by Lear himself, addressing Poor Tom: ‘Is man no more than this?’ he asks of the naked madman, and concludes: ‘unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art.’ It will be our purpose on this course to look for these questions and discuss them, even when they cannot be answered. The great questions it gives rise to, ethical, philosophical and aesthetic, will bring us back to Cordelia: is her death random or inevitable?

The structure of the course will be extremely simple. We shall work through the play at a rate of roughly one act per session and conclude with a discussion of the play as a whole. There are two different texts of King Lear. We shall use the Folio text of 1623, but reference will be made from time to time to the Quarto of 1605.

This course is part of the University of Cambridge Shakespeare Summer School.

To apply for this course, please enrol on the Shakespeare Summer School and select the courses you wish to study.

For more information about other Summer School programmes please visit:
www.ice.cam.ac.uk/intsummer/programmes.

Comments

Unless otherwise stated, teaching and assessment for ICE courses are in English. Students whose first language is not English should refer to the Competence in the English Language Policy for further guidance.

Printable versions of our brochures are available to download from the Summer Schools brochure download page.

This course is part of the University of Cambridge Shakespeare Summer School.

To apply for this course, please enrol on the Shakespeare Summer School and select the courses you wish to study.

For more information about other Summer School programmes please visit:
www.ice.cam.ac.uk/intsummer/programmes.

Pre-enrolment information

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University of Cambridge
International Programmes
Institute of Continuing Education
Madingley Hall
Madingley
Cambridgeshire
United Kingdom
CB23 8AQ

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+44 (0) 1223 760850

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Course details

Start date

7 August 2011

End date

13 August 2011

Course code

Sa1

Duration

1 week

Venue

International Summer Schools
Sidgwick Site
Sidgwick Avenue
Cambridge
United Kingdom

Teaching sessions

Meetings: 5

Course director