The absurdly meaningful quest for purpose in King Lear and Hamlet

Crop from King Lear and the Fool in the Storm (1851), by William Dyce. Reproduced under CC BY NC licence via National Galleries Scotland.

What makes Shakespeare’s tragedies so compelling for audiences? It’s a question that has perplexed and challenged innumerable critics. In her new article in our Postgraduate English journal, Sara Marzana (University of Essex) posits that by depicting life in all its absurdity, Shakespeare reaches profound truths about the human experience.

The concept of the grotesque and the absurd have had a significant impact on William Shakespeare’s composition of King Lear and Hamlet.

In these tragedies, Shakespeare emphasises the absurdity of human condition in order to portray one of the main paradoxes of existence: once thrown into this world – aware of our own capacity to act but essentially unable to understand the meaning of our actions – our attempt to confront and challenge the absolute will always fail. In this context, the several grotesque and paradoxical images suggested by Shakespeare clarify our experience of depth – approaching what is nearly identified with the profound. This profoundness, representing an antithesis of the classical beauty and propriety of the sublime, could determine one the reasons why Victor Hugo proclaimed the grotesque as the symbol of modern art. As Jan Kott affirms in Shakespeare our contemporary, the grotesque presents the same themes and poses the same questions of tragedy; the main difference lies in the answers given. Tragedy is an admission and recognition of the absolute; whereas the grotesque represents its desecration as well as its profanation. In King Lear and Hamlet, Shakespeare’s quest for purpose is dramatically defeated by the cruelty, the absurdity and the decay of the world. Notwithstanding, his aim does not merely consist in an appraisal of the emptiness, a journey into the vacuum of nothingness. Shakespeare intends to convey that – despite our impossibility to overcome the absurd – our effort to find meaning in this life does not have cease.

This article is available to download free in issue 35 of our open access Postgraduate English journal, where you’ll also find a complete archive of research dating back to 2000.

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