Things to consider while reading King Lear
King Lear is, according to the seasoned Shakespeare critic and scholar Maurice Charney, “the most savage and unredeemed of Shakespeare’s tragedies”, while he considers the character of Lear himself to be “the most fully developed of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists”. At the same time he finds the play very didactic — even preachy — at times. Such contradictions are part of what leads Harold Bloom to confess (in his commentary on the play) that “King Lear, together with Hamlet, ultimately baffles commentary”.
It is one of those tragedies that keep the reader or viewer off balance. Its curious construction and apparent disproportions are bewildering. It is nearly impossible to figure out whether there is anyone who has the whole picture or who holds the moral high ground. It is not an easy play, therefore, in any respect.
For all that, the basic story of the play is remarkably straightforward and devoid of complications. Lear foolishly determines to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters, and in so doing, is swayed too little by plain but honest speech (that of Cordelia) and instead actively seeks and rewards flattery. The rest of the play is the consequence of this initial folly. Lear himself, of course, winds up paying the price for his capriciousness; but other characters in the play — none of them entirely good or wise — are also ensnared in the brutal consequences of his blindness as well.
A narrative retelling of King Lear from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.
King Lear and what has come before
We noted that, for good or ill, The Merchant of Venice is a very social play. King Lear is just the opposite. It is devoid of any really profound theorizing about the nature of political reality, or the kingship in particular. It concentrates instead on the personal reality of a man who "hath ever but slenderly known himself." This, I would argue, is the source of the dynamic of the play: the acquisition of self-knowledge through grievous loss, as presented in the parallel cases of both Lear and Gloucester, is the goal to which the drama strives.
- In King Lear, as in The Merchant of Venice, the villain is drawn from a broad and untenable stereotype — Edmund, as in a number of other Shakespeare’s plays, is the illegitimate son of Gloucester. Curiously, as in The Merchant of Venice, the villain is given a speech that persuasively challenges the stereotype (Shylock’s brilliant "hath not a Jew hands?" speech in some ways parallels Edmund’s soliloquy in King Lear I.2). And yet, in the long run, the characters who have thus been pleading their causes turn villainous on precisely the terms of the stereotype.
- As in As You Like It, much of the force of the play lies in the movement away from the populous center of action, to some form of exile or banishment. Only in this alienated state can the character can come to a clear self-understanding. Lear and Gloucester do not flee to a symbolic forest, but each finds a limiting and limited existence wherein he comes to know himself. For Lear, it is a slow descent into madness and his strange sojourn on the heath, with only the rain, the fool, and Edgar for company; for Gloucester the limiting physical symbol of this kind of retreat is the cliff of Dover, the boundary of the known and orderly (land) and the unknown and chaotic (the sea). There he supposes that he will end his own life, but in fact he encounters a transformed reality through the careful deception of Edgar.
- As in a number of other plays we have read — Romeo and Juliet comes specifically to mind — banishment, especially inasmuch as it is an estrangement from society, is seen as the worst possible fate one can encounter.
- As in a number of Shakespeare’s other plays, the fundamental issue of paternal authority is particularly pointed and prominent. For Harold Goddard, it is the point of the play. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it would be hard to underestimate his assumption.
- Unlike some of the other tragedies we have encountered, the failure that opens the door to all this self-examination is organic to the plot and to the character who must learn his lessons the hard way. The final demise of Romeo and Juliet are really not required by either the circumstances or the characters — it is the end result of a remarkable sequence of bad luck. The same does not hold true for the characters in King Lear.
Symbolism in Shakespeare’s Plays
- What do we mean when we say that something is a symbol, or that it is symbolic?
- Are there different kinds of symbolism?
- Does the use of something at a symbolic level diminish its presence at the literal narrative level?
- Do the characters in the story ever appear to understand the symbolic content of the symbols they are handling?
- How does Shakespeare in particular use symbolism to advance his purposes?
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Law vs. chaos. We have seen this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The entire social and physical order of the universe in King Lear appears to come unraveled in consequence of the spiritual chaos that lies at the heart of the play. In Lear personally, we see it in the contrast of madness and sanity; in Gloucester between blindness and sight, and in the physical universe in the disorientation of the weather, etc.
- Seeming vs. reality. We see this in almost every play. Here it is personally expressed in Edgar and Kent; it is also expressed in the initial problem of the play, in which Lear mistakes flattery for genuine love and respect, and disdains what is worthwhile.
- Power vs. justice. Each in his turn, almost all of the main characters turn aside from what is right to use power in a raw and unsupported form. In turn, also, each becomes the victim of just the same exercise of another’s power. Lear’s arbitrary rule against the advice of his counsellors brings on the initial situation; Goneril and Regan both use their power against the terms of justice; Edmund uses ill-gotten power to supply a vacuum in his own legitimate exercise of authority.
- Fathers and sons (or children). For the earlier critic Goddard, this is the central thematic thrust in all of Shakespeare, and is perfectly expressed here. I’m not sure I agree, but there is no doubt that the theme, which we find in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and many other plays, is given a major expression here.
Symmetries in the play
- The two chief deluded sufferers — Lear and Gloucester — neither of whom is guiltless at the outset, but both of whom find new understanding before the end.
- Compare the three daughters — the last being the only one who is not practicing deception, and therefore seems (at the beginning) to be the less honorable — with the three caskets of The Merchant of Venice.
- Nesting in that story is the parallel drawn between the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France — the latter begin able to see past the deception and to the true worth of Cordelia.
- There is certainly a parallelism — and a basis for contrast — between Goneril and Regan and their relationships with their spouses.
Problems in the play
- Perhaps the chief problem of the play is that it doesn’t allow us to reduce it to any kind of easy or glib set of principles or rules. Though one can come up with many explanations, none of them is really adequate to account for the whole play.
- Why does Lear really decide to divide his kingdom in the first place?
- What is the real motivation of Edmund, and why, at the end, does he decide to do some bit of good if he can? Is it possible that he does not know that it’s too late?
- What do you make of Edmund’s long speech about being illegitimate?
- Is a drama of self-discovery, as King Lear is, useful if the principal character is no longer able to do anything with his newly acquired self-knowledge?
- As always, we may ask, do the characters of the play strike you as convincing? Where are they types? Where are they most realistic?
- Do you find the multiple cases of concealed identity confusing? How do you distinguish the concealment resulting from the deliberate deception of the one concealed (e.g., Kent) from those based on the limitations of the one being decieved (e.g., Edgar and Gloucester)?
- Finally, what dramatic purpose does Cordelia’s death accomplish? Is it, as some have suggested, excessive and unnecessary?
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