While I would be hard pressed to say which of Shakespeare’s tragedies is the greatest, there are many critics who feel that King Lear is the best. When I took a Shakespeare course in graduate school, I chose to concentrate on Anthony and Cleopatra, so I have always been partial to that play. But it is almost unstageable—so many scene changes. And, it doesn’t really seem to be so tragic a tragedy.
When I taught a survey of literature course recently, the text I used included Hamlet, so I had the students read that. Well, after a while, Hamlet himself gets a little tedious, and I feel like saying—oh, get on with it; do whatever you’re going to do and be done with it. But, Hamlet as a character has more lines of dialogue that almost any Shakespearean character (all those soliloquies!).
We saw King Lear in the New Theatre in London, which is arranged so that it is almost in the round. Our seats were quite close to the stage, so that throughout the play, we had a wonderful view of all the actions.
This production opens with a flourish of trumpets, and a wordless parade of the characters—King Lear resplendent in a red military uniform, followed by his daughters, their husbands, and other court dignitaries. An organ plays sonorous majestic music, and no words are spoken at all. The effect is of a kingly court, full of power and pomp.
When the first scene opens, King Lear is full into his plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, asking of them only that they demonstrate their love for him in words. He knows he is growing older and that kingdoms are ripped apart in succession battles, so he wants to settle the question of succession before he dies. All he asks in return for handing over his kingdom is that he can stay with each daughter for portions of the year.
The eldest daughter Goneril, who is married to the Duke of Albany, loudly proclaims her love for her father. Then the second daughter, married to the Duke of Cornwall, outdoes her elder sister and proclaims even more floridly her love for her father. Finally, King Lear turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia—she is his favorite. He expectantly awaits her words, assuming she will outdo them all.
Cordelia, however, demurs. She refuses to play the word game, and for her virtual silence, her father disinherits and disowns her, giving her portion of land to Goneril and Regan. In great anger, Lear proclaims “Nothing will come of nothing.” When his faithful courtier, the Earl of Kent, protests, Lear turns on him and also banishes him from the kingdom.
The stage is set. You can almost guess where the story is going to go. However, Shakespeare throws in some additional characters and sub-plots to confuse the reader/viewer. He adds another courtier, the Earl of Gloucester, who has two sons—one legitimate named Edgar, and one illegitimate named Edmund. And you also have one of the most famous foils in all of Shakespeare in the character of Lear's fool, who frequently speaks more truth than any of the characters.
There you have it. The play then weaves a plot that explores many themes:
--who has the right to inherit from a parent—those who profess love, but do not show it, and those who love without having to profess;
--what does it mean to possess great power; what are the legitimate uses of power;
--what happens when a powerful man begins to lose his grip on power;
--what happens when a man begins to lose his grip on sanity;
--what does it mean to see and understand.
In fact, all through the play the imagery and language returns again and again to the theme of blindness (obviously standing for lack of perception); and the theme of madness. It is the madness theme that is most poignant. Early in the play, Lear has an inkling that he is losing his grip, and he says plaintively:
O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!
King Lear, 1. 5
Perhaps the most famous scene in the entire play is at the beginning of Act III. Lear has been living with his daughter Goneril, and she has thrown him out. He tries to go to Regan’s castle, but she refuses him. So he is wandering around on the bleak heath where a mad storm is brewing (the storm in nature signifying the storm in Lear’s mind). He speaks:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
King Lear, 3. 2. 1
Ian McKellen was riveting portraying the gradual decay of this once proud king. He stood chest drawn up in full kingly regalia at the outset of the play. And as each insult comes his way, his shoulders droop, and you see the glint of insanity in his eyes. By the time you see him on the heath in the storm, you know he has lost all reason.
One scene absolutely took my breath away, both in its unexpected suddenness and in its perfection in depicting Lear’s dissolution. McKellen’s costume in the storm scene is something that looks like a night-shirt. At one point, he lifts it over his head, and stands practically nude before the audience. Ian McKellen, standing not much more than 20 feet away from us, with his genitals on full display! But then, I thought, how true—a person who has lost his touch with sanity, has no sense of social propriety. Clothing becomes optional, and even irrelevant.
The play ends, after the many twists and turns of the two plots, as with so many Shakespearean tragedies, with most everyone having died, or dying in the final scene. Cordelia and Lear are briefly reunited, only for Cordelia to be put to death, and Lear to do of grief.
Most of the Shakespeare tragedies have a single line that seems to capture the essence of the tragic protagonist. In King Lear, it is Lear’s proclamation that:
I am a man/
More sinned against than sinning.
King Lear, 3. 2
*Photographs are from the website