Shakespeare (William): King Lear

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Edition recommandée

  • William Shakespeare, King Lear. Ed. Reginald Foakes, Londres, The Arden Shakespeare,1997.
  • L’édition New Penguin Shakespeare sera utilisée à l’oral.



The Genre of Tragedy

(The Tragedie of King Lear, in the 1623 In-Folio)

- As for Aristotle, a play is “an imitation of an action, and not the action itself.”

The 16th-century English theatre wavers between tradition and modernity for two reasons: first, there are still Miracles (miracle plays), Mysteries (mystery plays) and Moralities (morality plays) played/staged – these are theatrical forms inherited from the Middle Ages, which find favour up until around 1590; second, there are new drama genres coming up from foreign stages/theatres/drama which come into sight, like comedy and tragedy.

- The tragedy (tragic genre) can be defined by opposing it to the comedy (comic genre). The Greek term from which the term ‘tragedy’ is derived, means the “goat song”. This goes back to the time when theatre and religion were inextricably intertwined. (The ‘tragedy’ comes from ‘tragos’, a goat, either because a goat was sacrificed on the first day, or given as a prize on the last.) The tragedy is “a serious play relating the events in the life of a person and leading to a catastrophe.”

In his Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as: “The imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” (« La tragédie [est] est une imitation faite par des personnages en action et non par le moyen de la narration, et qui par l’entremise de la pitié et de la crainte, accomplit la purgation des émotions de ce genre » Cette purification des passions (ou catharsis, d’après le terme grec) conférait une fonction thérapeutique, mais aussi morale, aux représentations théâtrales qui permettaient aux spectateurs, suite à leur identification avec les héros du drame, d’être libérés, purgés, de leurs pulsions coupables, et inavouées : lorsque leur double sur scène est puni, il est puni pour eux, à leur place.)

- The Elizabethan tragedy differed from the Greek tragedy in that it lacks an overall unity (the three unities/classical unities of time, place, and action) and in that it includes comic patches/moments within the unfolding of the tragic story. In Aristotle’s Poetics: the unity of action > a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots; the unity of place > a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place; the unity of time > the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours/a day.

- According to Aristotle, a tragedy should represent and follow the different stages of a dramatic conflict: Exposition/protasis; Rising action/epitasis; or complication, it is set in motion by an exciting force; Climax; Falling action/catastasis - it is the tragic force which starts the falling action and the reversal of fortune (or peripety) for the protagonist; Catastrophe.

Still as from Aristotle, the tragic hero is a prey to a defect, a vice, a flaw, the hamartia, which leads him to quicken/hasten his/its/her fall. Thus starts the process of anagnôrisis (recognition/acknowledgement in Greek), when the hero recognises/acknowledges that he himself provoked/brought about his own fall and that before dying, he regrets having behaved that way.

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"Come, unbutton here : Exposing the thing itself in Shakespeare’s King Lear"