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Shakespeare’s King Lear is riven by troubled, and troubling, concerns with the efficacy of fiction to instill virtue in its audience – a concern heightened during this time by Puritan arguments denouncing the sinfulness of performance and the immorality of fiction in any form. In the figure of Edmund, Shakespeare seems to address these concerns, and perhaps conclude that stage fictions are fragile vessels for moral instruction. The critical reception of King Lear, originating with Johnsonian aversion at the unendurable and anti-providential nature of its ending, struggles to reconcile the miseries the play inflicts upon its audience with the traditional Aristotelian defense of catharsis. In his wounded defeat, Edmund seems to choose virtue over his past misdeeds, but the belatedness of his choice ensures that the play’s searing final catastrophes leave the audience fearful that any good can ever come of fiction.
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