Continuing with Shakespeare Week because that’s what the random generator demanded, we have King Lear, another of Shakespeare’s four High Tragedies. On a side note, the man wrote Macbeth, Othello, and Lear all in the same three-year span of time, along with several other plays, so if you ever want a benchmark for your own accomplishments, there’s that I suppose. King Lear is noteworthy for three reasons:
- It’s long, clocking in at around three hours. It’s not Shakespeare’s longest, but it is far less action-packed than most of the other longer plays, and often repetitive in its motifs.
- It’s grim. Much of its length is spend watching a poor old man and those he once loved fall into despair, slowly and painfully. It is one of Shakespeare’s hardest plays to get through.
- I always want to spell it “King Leer” for some reason. Oh, and many people who find Hamlet too conventional consider Lear to be Shakespeare’s greatest work.
3P Reviews Series: King Lear
Audience Assumptions: Non-academic
Part One: Poor Tom’s A-Cold
King Lear follows the story of an old king who wants to divide his kingdom up amongst his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. He decides that he will ask his daughters to tell him how much they love him and he will award the greatest portion of wealth to the daughter who loves him most, expecting it to be his youngest and favorite, Cordelia. Regan and Goneril fall over themselves to proclaim their devotion to their father, out of greed for the prize, but Cordelia tells him the truth that she loves him as is fair, but that this contest is unreasonable. Distraught that his favorite daughter loves him least of his progeny, Lear casts Cordelia out with no inheritance and splits his wealth between his more selfish daughters.
The decision disrupts Lear’s court, even as he banishes those who question him. Regan and Goneril soon devise ways to take everything from their father in his old age, including his sanity, casting him out into the wilderness with only his Fool and a disguised friend for company.
Lear’s eldest daughters plot to gain even more power, eventually destroying each other, and Lear is briefly reunited with Cordelia before her sisters’ machinations catch up to her and she is executed. Lear dies of a broken heart, surrounded by the small crew of those who remained faithful to him.
There are many characters less directly connected to Lear in the play, and their machinations make up much of the story’s run time, but Lear is the titular character and his arc is the one people remember, with good reason. Lear is a tragic figure in both the classical and modern sense, a king whose hubris is his downfall, but also just a senile old man abused by people he trusts. It’s not as explicitly entertaining, and to be honest, when I was younger, it was easily my least favorite of the High Tragedies.
A part of us likes seeing characters suffer. Sometimes it’s because we disconnect from the violence they’re experiencing, as in Chuck Schumer cartoons or violent video games. In stories where we empathize more with the characters on-screen, suffering becomes a more complex experience since there’s a change the audience will suffer too. For many, an element of sadism is appealing when the situation is otherwise safe. The adrenaline you get from a scary movie or the tears that come from a sad romance trigger a perplexing sense of satisfaction. The strength of this response varies from person to person, but everyone has boundaries, and the threshold where an intense scene goes from being thrilling to being nauseating is often thin. Lear can overstep it, because it is almost unrelentingly depressing. The slow pace of the play and the complexity of the side plots can make it frustrating to watch, especially when the reward for emotional investment in the story is overwhelming sadness.
But if you can get over that, the play has some cogent things to say about power, madness, and the unstoppable march of time.
Part Two: Tears, Sweat, and Blood
To fully understand this play requires considerable historical context, as it was based on a well-known mythological character referenced in other work of the time, and like many of Shakespeare’s plays, it comments on the political environment of the era. I do not have considerable historical context, nor am I especially interested in discussing the play from an academic standpoint, so like with the Macbeth review, I’ll dive into what stands out about it for me.
First is the characters. Shakespeare tends to rely heavily on archetypes and most of his characters can be summarized in one or two characteristics, their names often playing into related puns. His better plays do this too, but offer complexity through the characters’ actions later in the story. In this particular play, Shakespeare sets a precedent for many of his characters, then contradicts that precedent to make the audience question the validity of their assumptions.
The first character this comes up is with Cordelia, whom the audience knows loves her father sincerely even as she claims she can tell her father nothing to convince him she loves him more than her sisters. Cordelia is loving, but not to an exaggerated degree. In her mind, seeing through her father’s petty inheritance contest and telling him it straight should be enough to prove her love. She’s not a child willing to play such games, but a capable adult, even commanding an army alongside her husband later in the play. However, she’s often remembered as the porcelain doll Lear sees her as. He cherishes her more than her sisters because she’s the youngest and most innocent, even before he realizes his other daughters’ cruelty. Cordelia is the object of Lear’s desire, often in a somewhat frustrating way. She’s pleased to be reunited with her father at the end of the play, but he comes to her in desperation, wishing for her to be his caretaker. She dies at the end of the story only because Lear and his his court are fond of her; by fawning over her, they make her a target to their enemies, regardless of Cordelia’s association. She becomes a prop to be moved about the story, despite her character complexity speaking to her desire to play a more pivotal role.
Her sisters, likewise, appear to be one thing and end up another. Obviously they pretend to love their father then screw him over, and they pretend to get along then actually murder each other. Their roles in the play are much more involved than this, though, as they manipulate their father into giving up his throne and torture a man who tries to help restore him to the throne. Their cruelty is never in question in the last half of the play, but their cleverness is. They initially seem savvy to the political game, knowing what to say to their father so that he gives them what they want with little fight, but much of their success becomes apparent as plain luck or lack of scruples by the end. Regan and Goneril are brought down fighting over a man, abandoning their husbands for the character of Edmund, who himself is similarly empty-headed. The villains in this play talk a good talk, but they value cruelty over all else, and while this serves them when the people around them are all gullible, they turn on each other almost immediately to deadly effect.
There are two fools in this play, one Lear’s actual Fool, and one Edmund’s brother in disguise who travels with Lear and the Fool. Shakespeare was very fond of fools, writing at least one into most of his plays and utilizing an archetype he possibly invented. In Shakespeare’s works, the fool, typified in King Lear, looks and often acts like the court jester Elizabethans would have been familiar with, people hired to entertain the wealthy by acting like the poor (or at least how aristocrats liked to think of them) and mentally disabled. However, court jesters were often themselves actors, highly skilled in many forms of entertainment and granted leeway to strip away the boundaries of class culture, to say things to kings that no one else would or could. Shakespeare apparently admired the art of the fool, as his fools are frequently voices of wisdom who speak not only to the characters, but the audience as well. Lear’s Fool is something of a guide, a foil to the old man as his power wanes, but also there to help and comfort him at his lowest points. The other fool in the play, the fake fool Edward, who goes by the name of Poor Tom, has far more exaggerated and absurd lines, other characters even pointing this out at times, but as he falls into the role and comes to help his own frail father, he settles into the role of a more Shakespearean fool.
The fools are also legitimately funny. They frequently serve my favorite role for comedic characters, which is to simultaneously alleviate tense situations while also heightening later ones by association.
The final turn of character applies to Lear himself, but also to one of his court members, the Earl of Gloucester, who finds his situation paralleled. Lear is a king brought down by his cruel daughters, but also by his own oversights. He is old, likely not in full control of his faculties, even when his “madness” appears to clear up. At his lowest, he runs out naked into a storm, in fury, demanding Nature itself, and God by proxy, to strike him down because it cannot take any more from him than his life. (Fun fact: because King Leir was a pagan god, the characters only even mention gods plural in the play; nature is mentioned as many times and in similar contexts, but seems to serve more as a stand-in for the Christian version of Elizabethan England.)
Gloucester, whose sons are Edmund and Edward, is likewise brought down by a callous child, and seeks reparation from the good one. However, in the comparison between Lear and Gloucester, a curious question of culpability arises. As mentioned, Edmund, Regan, and Goneril are all cruel, but rather short-sighted, and they all die as a result. They are irredeemable and play into stereotypes, Edmund especially being Gloucester’s illegitimate son, but the play implies, especially early in its run, that perhaps their fathers have a role in the horrible people they grew to become. Even before their children betray them, both Lear and Gloucester have clear favorites, and their least favorite children are well aware of this. Gloucester treats Edmund as lesser for being a bastard, and let’s be clear, who’s fucking fault is that, Gloucester? Lear pays far more attention to Cordelia than his other daughters, assuming that she’ll get the largest share and care for him in his old age even before the contest has begun. The play never goes so far as to imply that the villains would have been better people if their fathers had treated them fairly when they were younger, but it likewise allows that interpretation. Pretty racy for the 1600s.
Part Three: The Sound of Madness
Shakespeare is fond of the term “madness.” It plays a particularly important role in this play, as half of the characters are literally and figuratively going mad, and the other half are pretending to do so. Madness could mean a lot of things to Elizabethans, as mental health science was just a few steps below physical medicine at the time, which is to say, somewhere near the mantle. (Look, this was a time when the guy who cut your hair was also your dentist, and teeth were a leading cause of death. Even with people still simultaneously pooping in and getting water from the Thames. Good job, England.)
Madness generally tends to refer to erratic behavior in Shakespeare’s plays, especially in characters who are consistent in their actions before. Somewhat unique for the time, especially given that punishments for insanity were effectively torture, many of Shakespeare’s protagonists are either accused of being mad or apparently driven into it. Often, it takes the form of symptoms we now know to apply to mental disorders, such as hallucinations, delusions, depression, and self-harm. In Lear, though, ignoring the sadism of the villains and the fools, who are of reasonably sound mind according to the story, Lear himself conjures an image of the loss of mental faculties associated with aging.
I’m not an expert on anything medical, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but many people experience some disorder later in life that affects their perception of things. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are two of the most common, and both terms actually apply to several different diseases with similar symptoms. Among these are disorientation, loss of memory, a reduction of social faculties, and agitation. Throughout the play, Lear is prone to these sorts of behaviors, and on the whole, they get worse right up to the end. To a large degree, if Lear is or is going senile over the course of the play, he’s already in a pretty bad place in the beginning of the story. A lot of critics read into Lear’s child-like approach to divvying up his kingdom as him needing help even before the play begins. He loses his power because of those who exploit his lack of mental acuity, and they do so easily, leaving him dependent upon anyone who would show him pity.
This is what makes King Lear so depressing to watch or read for me. Unlike in the other High Tragedies, Lear is not an antihero. He doesn’t get into spats, he’s not concocting ruses to trick others, and he does morally dubious things at the start of the story, but his intended punishments are worn easily by those who befall them, and are nothing compared to his attempts to do good. In trying to give his daughters their inheritance, he sends his country into complete chaos. In trying to get Cordelia to declare herself the delightful princess he has always seen her to be, he instead encourages her to say the opposite. In trying to spend time with his daughters, he loses everything he has left. And in trying to reunite with Cordelia, he dooms her to death.
These are not the actions of a vicious ruler. Maybe Lear was that in his earlier life, but he’s not that anymore. He physically can’t be. Everyone knows he shouldn’t be making these decisions anymore, but no knows how to put it to him gently, and on some level, he seems to understand that his age is catching up to him. He’s just waited too long to do anything about it.
King Lear is not mad, he’s old. The tragedy of his story is that this point in life comes to everyone, and no matter how sharp or strong or well-meaning a person is in their youth, if they live to a ripe old age, chances are, they’ll be fully dependent on the kindness of those around them. Lear has people to help him through hard times, but they’re not the people he wants, and even they can’t stem the tide when all that defined him has crumbled away, piece by bloody piece.