Reading Between the Sheets

Letters in Shakespearean Tragedy

in Critical Survey
Author: Lisa Hopkins1
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When A.C. Bradley came to write about King Lear in his book on Shakespeare’s tragedies, what annoyed him most about the play was what he considered the patently absurd fact that Edgar is supposed to have written Edmund a letter when they were both living in the same castle. That Edmund should have pretended anything so asinine, and, worse still, that Gloucester should have believed it, both seemed to Bradley utterly beyond belief. Approaches to reading Shakespeare’s plays have of course moved on in leaps and bounds in the days since Bradley, but, even so, I want to argue that we may still miss some of the meanings of the very frequent use of letters in Renaissance plays, and particularly those in Shakespeare’s four major tragedies. Letters sprinkle the drama in extraordinary abundance – the word ‘letter’ occurs thirty-three times in King Lear alone – and often occur at moments of particularly heightened significance, as when Lady Macbeth in her sleep repeatedly writes and seals a letter which neither we nor the characters ever discover the contents of. They frequently serve a vital role in plot development, particularly in the uncovering of hidden truths, and occasionally, as when Edmund makes such an issue of ostensibly wanting to conceal the supposed letter from Edgar about his person, they become in themselves significant dramatic properties in ways which seem almost to foreshadow Pamela and Clarissa. What I want to focus on here, though, is not so much the plot function of the letter as its rôle as discourse, and, in particular, its tonal and status relationship to other kinds of discourse in the drama.

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