Critical attention to the nature of ending in drama has been with us at least since Aristotle defined an end as "that which is inevitably or, as a rule, the natural result of something else but from which nothing else follows . . ." (Poetics 2.5; trans. Fyfe 31). Some sort of re-established family and/or political order is represented to indicate that an appropriate stopping point has been reached. This component of plot partially defines the difference between tragedy and history and their respective truths. In practice, however, literature (and not just modern and postmodern) has a great many endings which wholly or partially depart from Aristotelian completion. This is especially true of plays which, like Greek tragedy, derive from what is thought to be history. In Aristotle's favorite example, Sophocles's Oedipus, the plot is complete in that the Theban plague has been dealt with by identifying the murderer of King Laius, leaving Creon to pick up the pieces. The appearance of Antigone and Ismene and the references to Oedipus's sons, however, remind us that the story of Thebes will continue, going from bad to much worse.
Shifting quickly to Shakespeare, we see a considerable variety in the balance of present order and future disorder at the ends of the histories and tragedies. Most positively, at the end of Richard III, the victorious Richmond promises "smooth- fac'd peace, / With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days!" (5.5.33-34). In Antony and Cleopatra, Caesar predicts that "The time of universal peace is near" (4.6.4), anticipating both the pax Augustana and the peace promised through the birth of Christ in his reign. In Hamlet and King Lear, Fortinbras and Edgar move into vacuums created by the annihilation of the ruling families and have relatively clean slates with which to work, a basically neutral situation. Henry V and Henry VI, Part 3 end with assertions of peace which are substantially qualified. Henry V has great hopes for diplomacy and marriage: "And may our oaths well kept and prosp'rous be," a promise which the Chorus immediately reminds us is not kept (HS 5.2.374). For Edward IV, "Here I hope begins our lasting joy"; the audience remembers Richard of Gloucester's earlier soliloquy about getting the crown (3H6 5.7.46, 3.2.124-95). At the end of Richard II, the new King Henry IV faces all sorts of problems including guilt for Richard's murder, the Bishop of Carlisle's prophecy, Northumberland's possible perception of ingratitude, and Henry's "unthrifty son." Similarly, Julius Caesar ends with a recognition of future conflict between Antony and Octavius Caesar. The extreme case, Troilus and Cressida, ends with the death of Hector, making inevitable the fall of Troy.
I wish to consider Macbeth, about which critics and directors are of two minds as to where to place the ending of the play on the spectrum of future order and disorder. Read simply, the text seems to place itself at the positive end, with peace and political legitimacy restored after Macbeth's interval of usurpation and tyranny. Some critics and directors, however, have found ways to qualify a harmonious ending by suggesting the continuity of history-that something negative necessarily or probably will follow the end of the play. I shall summarize briefly the restorative elements in the text and main arguments of the critics before considering how restoration is undercut in many of the performances available on video for research and teaching. These perfomances use the reappearance of previously established characters, primarily the Witches but also, and unhistorically, Donalbain and Fleance. Reinserting the tragic plot into its historical sources authorizes using history to comment on the results of this procedure.
Opposition to Macbeth includes three elements: the Scottish-English army, criticism of Macbeth's tyranny in both general and specific terms, and characterization of a positive alternative for Scotland. The first substantial statement of the positive comes from an anonymous Lord in act 3, scene 5. …