Wednesday, June 2, 2010

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry

These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man

More sinn'd against than sinning.

So, four years into 50 Books, I’ve finally read my first Shakespeare. I can’t say, not having read anything else by the bard, whether King Lear was a good or bad choice. It seems like a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I was unfamiliar with the story, so there was some suspense that wouldn’t have been present had I chosen, say, Romeo and Juliet. On the other hand, King Lear may be Shakespeare’s most complex play, and, reading it mostly without commentary like I did, I’m sure I missed a lot.

But the real question is, is it good? And I am thankful to validate Shakespeare scholars everywhere when I say, yes, it is. King Lear is a seriously dense play, full of double crosses, emotional subtleties, eye gouging, and swordfighting. The basic gist is this: One day, King Lear, old and ready to pass on his power, gathers his three daughters, Gonreil, Regan, and Cordelia. He asks each of them how much they love him, and while Gonreil and Regan answer with flattering hyperbole, Cordelia attempts to give an honest answer, and, for her troubles, is banished. The remaining daughters set in motion a fairly complex plot, most of it out of their control, which ends with almost the entire cast dead, including King Lear himself, who first has a short period of being completely bonkers. And yes, these are spoilers, but Lear is a tragedy, after all.

I don’t feel competent to really dissect Lear, but here are a few observations. King Lear himself is a pitiful character, overthrown by his own pride but unable to see it. It’s ironic that he makes almost as much sense crazy as he does sane, having the gall to claim himself wronged after banishing his truest daughter for the unforgivable sin of honesty.Not that the moral/sane characters get off much better. Many of them receive their unearned comeuppance. In spite of Albany’s late declaration that divine justice has been served, it’s difficult to see any justice or order at all by the end of King Lear. In that way, the play functions as a critique of divine intervention, and takes no sides. Good does prevail in the end, but at what cost? Is justice gained through injustice just at all? In the same vein, it’s interesting that Shakespeare chose to set Lear in a pre-Christian world. It allows him to ask difficult questions that nevertheless require some transposition to consider in a Christian context.

Although Lear is hundreds of years old, it’s likely to always be resonant. Leaders don’t change much, and neither do men. Kings will always be brought low by pride, the good will always die at the hands of the wicked, and the question will always remain, can it really be any different?

Chris's Review


Christopher said...

I think you could argue that since, at the end, the most clearly deserving person--Edgar--becomes king, the whole mess actually ends in some sort of sensible order.

Brent Waggoner said...

That's true, but it doesn't seem like it's very cut and dried. After all, Cordelia and the Duke are still dead. True, the bad guys get their comeuppance, but the family is destroyed and innocents are killed. I think it's sort of ambiguous.

Christopher said...

Of course, I think all those things could be described as the effects of being "out of order"--"nature finds itself / scourged by the sequent effects" of the unnatural eclipse. Edgar's succession to the throne is not necessarily a result, but a corrective.