Will's word

7th July 2006 at 01:00
The modern sense is relatively recent, recorded since the mid-18th-century. In Shakespeare's time it had a much more neutral meaning, of "conclusion, end-point". Shakespeare is in fact the first recorded user of the word in this sense, in All's Well that Ends Well, when the King talks about someone whose "good melancholy oft began On the catastrophe and heel of pastime" (I.ii.57). This is the sense hiding within the catch-phrase "I'll tickle your catastrophe!", used by the Page in Henry IV Part 2 (II.i.58) - meaning "smack your end-point - ie behind". The word also had a more technical meaning, referring to the denouement or final event in a drama. This is the sense used by Edmund when he refers to Edgar's approach as being "like the catastrophe of the old comedy" (King Lear, I.ii.133). However, there is ambiguity between this meaning and the more general one when Boyet reads from Don Armado's letter to Jaquenetta, describing the encounter between King Cophetua and a beggar: "The catastrophe is a nuptial" (Love's Labour's Lost, IV.i.78).

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