We often know the endings of Shakespeare’s famous plays before we sit down to watch them, yet still find their final scenes so compelling and surprising. So what’s your favourite moment from the end of any of Shakespeare’s plays?
Romeo and Juliet begins at the end, warning us in its prologue that ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life’. Still, as Act Five draws to a close, you’re bound to hear some gasps and sobs amongst an audience.
Not all Shakespearean endings leave us satisfied, though; they often raise as many questions as they answer. Take the final lines of Troilus and Cressida (c.1601-2). Here, Pandarus, whose interference in the romantic life of Troilus and Cressida has had a devastating effect, steps forward, alone onstage, to make a jarringly comic speech at the end of a tragic series of events.
[…] As many as be here of Panders’ hall,
Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar’s fall;
Or if you cannot weep, yet give some groans,
Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.
Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made.
It should be now, but that my fear is this:
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss.
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.
The speech raises a host of questions: is Troilus and Cressida a comedy or a tragedy (or both)? Are we supposed to laugh along with Pandarus, or feel repulsed by his thoughtless jokes? After all, Pandarus seems to think that he has been the tragic hero of the tale – but it has hardly been a play about ‘Pandar’s fall’. It’s a shift of tone that unsettles the audience, reminding us that, despite the horrific death of the chivalrous Hector some moments before, the Trojan war would rage on for years.
The final speech also tells us something about audiences at Shakespeare’s plays (Winchester geese was a slang term for prostitutes, who apparently might hiss if they didn’t like the ending). Is this speech a ribald joke at the expense of the audience (who might inherit the sort of diseases which the lecherous Pandarus leaves to them)? It’s a perplexing way to end, and all the more interesting for the confusion it leaves behind.
With the Trojan War left unfinished (the famous Wooden Horse is yet to come), Troilus and Cressida stops in the middle of the story, but – if we have read Homer or Chaucer, or sneaked a glance at our theatre programme – we know what happens next. Do your own favourite last lines leave you wanting more?
On Wednesday 5th September, join Laura Jayne Wright for a discussion of the many missed endings (and, finally, the final scene) of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII, or All is True, as part of our Late Summer Lecture series. Ahead of that event, join the conversation virtually in the comments below, or use the hashtag #MondayMusing on Twitter or Facebook.