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Recognition and the Complex Plot in Shakespeare

Barry B. Adams

While there is no reason to think that Shakespeare was acquainted with Aristotle’s Poetics, a surprisingly large number of his plays display a feature that Aristotle insisted was of paramount importance in creating dramatic plots of the highest order. He called this feature anagnôrisis, which is usually rendered into English as either «recognition» or «discovery». Although frequently identified by modern literary critics with self-knowledge or self-awareness, it may be legitimately applied to a wide range of formal as well as thematic considerations. This study adopts Aristotle’s anagnôrisis as an analytical tool that isolates recurring features of Shakespeare’s plays and explores their artistic function and significance. As it happens, 15 of the 18 plays customarily classified as comedies or romances make a sufficiently conspicuous use of the device to warrant the label «recognition» play, and these constitute the special object of the present investigation.