How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!
Whenever the best Shakespeare play is chosen, King Lear usually comes first or second. Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott considers it the most modern of all Shakespeare’s plays, comparing its study of power, sibling jealousy and madness, and its dark absurdity, to the plays of Beckett and Ionesco. He also says that Lear is a play “beside which even Macbeth and Hamlet seem tame and pedestrian”, such a masterpiece it is – sophisticated and multifaceted. Lear is considered both difficult to stage and to watch on stage – it makes for painful, sad and distasteful viewing, the horrors of its tragedy both less extreme and more realistic on the page.
Lear is basically a play about two old men and their respective children, good and evil. The old King Lear has three daughters, Goneril (married to Albany), Regan (married to Cornwall) and Cordelia, while the Duke of Gloucester has two sons, Edgar (legitimate) and Edmund (illegitimate). Lear, appealing to his old age, decides to divide his kingdom between his daughters, promising the biggest share to whomever loves him most. The eldest, Goneril, is asked to speak first, and is so eloquent that Lear rewards her the biggest share without hearing Regan and Cordelia first. Regan wins her share as well, but when it comes Cordelia’s turn to speak, she refuses – she cannot make flattering speeches to explain what she feels in her heart.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more no less.
Enraged by Cordelia’s failure to flatter him, Lear banishes her, dividing her share between Goneril and Regan, making their husbands the rulers of the country. He also banishes Kent for speaking up for Cordelia and warning him against giving power to Albany and Cornwall. Cordelia’s honesty impresses the King of France, who proposes to her. She departs for France, and leaves the two sisters and their husbands to fight for power.The other old father is Gloucester – Edmund might be his father’s favourite son, but by being younger and illegitimate, he is denied what he thinks his birthright. He sets out to destroy Edgar and take his place as their father’s heir. He persuades Gloucester that Edgar has turned against him, which has him banished.
Goneril and Regan of course turn against Lear, as well as against each other, while Edmund turns against Gloucester, and these two stories coil together. The two sisters both turn their father away, sending him into rage. Albany is shocked by Goneril’s treatment of Lear, and even more shocked when she and Regan gauge out Gloucester’s eyes as punishment for showing kindness to Lear, sending him out to the moors blind. Goneril falls in lust with Edmund, and rejects Albany; when Cornwall dies, she becomes suspicious that Regan might want Edmund for herself. Edmund, whose ultimate aim is to be king himself, plays the two sisters against each other. Edgar meets his father in the moors in what is perhaps the most iconic scene of this play – the blind, broken Gloucester doesn’t recognise his son, who is disguised as a mad beggar, and asks him to take him to the Dover cliffs so that he can throw himself off them.
Then, prithee, get thee gone: if, for my sake,
Thou wilt o’ertake us, hence a mile or twain,
I’ the way toward Dover, do it for ancient love;
And bring some covering for this naked soul,
Who I’ll entreat to lead me.
Alack, sir, he is mad.
‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.
Do as I bid thee, or rather do thy pleasure;
Above the rest, be gone.
I’ll bring him the best ‘parel that I have,
Come on’t what will.
Pretending to do so, Edgar walks his father on level ground, pretending that they climbing a steep hill, and ultimately persuading him that he has indeed fallen – and survived.
As I stood here below, methought his eyes
Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses,
Horns whelk’d and waved like the enridged sea:
It was some fiend; therefore, thou happy father,
Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee.
Cordelia has lead the French army to England, and Kent brings the mad Lear to her; waking up both from his exhausted sleep and from his madness, Lear both is embarrassed to meet Cordelia, and at last understanding of her love for him.
Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
Albany and Goneril raise an army against the French invaders and rout them. Lear and Cordelia are captured and imprisoned. Edmund’s web of deceptions catches up on him, and Edgar returns to take back what is his by right. In the end, everybody dies – Cornwall is killed by his servant for his part in blinding Gloucester, Gloucester dies from heartbreak, Goneril kills Regan and then herself, Cordelia is executed by Edmund’s order. Edgar fights Edmund and wounds him fatally. Lear dies from grief. Only the two good men, who have lost everything – Albany and Edgar – are left alive, and depending on the version, one or the other becomes the new king.
I confess that while I like Lear, I don’t understand it anymore than I understand Troilus and Cressida. Interpretations vary. The play has been seen as an allegory of its time, with Lear, Gloucester, Albany and Kent representing the dying medieval world view, and Edmund – cold, rational, passionless Edmund who manipulates those around him not for pleasure but for his own material gain – the new man. There have been Christian interpretations, Lear and Gloucester both being Job-like figures, gaining wisdom and ability to see only through madness and blindness (presumably their restoration to the affections of the beloved, cast-out child representing salvation). It is perhaps notable that Shakespeare didn’t invent any of the basic stories himself – King Lear is a figure in British (mythological) history, the story of a king who rejects one daughter for her insufficiently grand declaration of love (and is shown his own foolishness) is an old fairytale, and story of Gloucester and his sons comes from Phillip Sidney. From these elements Shakespeare has combined a play that is comically tragic, grotesque. There’s something absurd about the madness and the suffering of Lear and Gloucester, something deeply unsettling about these figures – two men with white beards and ragged clothes, adorned with flowers, accompanied by madmen, two once great men, claimed by old age and senility. Perhaps that’s what Shakespeare is ultimately doing – he’s holding up the mirror on our deepest, most human fears: that we are few years or one tragic event away from the same fate.
After she ascended to the throne, Queen Victoria famously had a distant relationship with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, for many years. When she, newly enthroned, turned 19 the Duchess gave her a copy of King Lear – pointedly expressing that she thought her daughter ungrateful.
What say thou?
Not surprisingly, this play is full of beautiful, poignant speech. My favourite exchanges are those between Edgar and Gloucester – the madman leading the blind – and having to pick a favourite passage, I’ll choose a short speech by them both. Not necessarily the most important in the context of the entire play, but simply for the beauty of the language.
He has some reason, else he could not beg.
I’ the last night’s storm I such a fellow saw;
Which made me think a man a worm: my son
Came then into my mind; and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him: I have heard more since.
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.
My favourites are Gloucester and Edgar, for aforementioned reasons.
Trevor Nunn and Chris Hunt’s stage-to-screen adaptation of 2007 RSC production with Sir Ian McKellen as Lear, William Gaunt as Gloucester, and Romola Garai as Cordelia. The fake rain is there, and Ian McKellen does indeed take off his trousers, but as this is TV and not live theatre, we are spared(?) the sight of his penis. All in all, this production at least in this screen transfer isn’t as good as it thinks it is.