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Materialist Criticism and Cordelia's Quasi-Resurrection in King Lear

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This essay examines King Lear's belief that the dead Cordelia revives or resuscitates near the very end of the play. This quasi-resurrection, which occurs only in the First Folio (1623), has divided critics into those who regard the moment as mere delusion and others who see it as adumbrating a moment of blessed release. Following a survey of these "redemptionist" versus the predominant nihilist-oriented readings of the play, I examine the influential materialist interpretations offered by Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Dollimore. Both insist that Cordelia's quasi-resurrection, since it never reaches fruition, frustrates a religious understanding of the play. (Materialist criticism only counts tangible rewards as meaningful.) The play, however, is more consistent with Hans-Georg Gadamer's view that tragedy overwhelms us with its suffering rather than promotes this-worldly justice. Cordelia's quasi-resurrection gestures towards a possible otherworldly redemption even as it reminds audiences of the Resurrection that, in Lear's pagan world, cannot be replicated. Shakespeare's anachronisms thus superimpose the Christian resurrectionary tradition on the pagan setting of the play; his doing so places the hope and despair of the final scene—the contrast between their transcendent aspirations and the mundane reality of their unresurrected corpses—in the delicate equipoise of his art.

Affiliations: 1: Malone College


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