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King Lear

A tragic play by William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare's most powerful play is not for sissies.

  • Dec 1, 2008
Rating:
+5
"King Lear" is where Shakespeare takes off the gloves. He brings us right to the edge of the abyss, then kicks us over that edge. This is the most devastating by far of the Shakespeare tragedies -- a play which leaves the reader shattered as the curtain falls.

I find it hard to explain where the visceral power of this play comes from. The plot is fairly typically Shakespeare, perhaps a little more complicated than usual, mixing elements taken from legend and from the historical record. At the outset, Lear is a narcissistic, bullying despot. His two older daughters, Regan and Goneril, are a couple of bad seed cougars, both of whom lust after Edmund, an equally amoral hyena. Their goody-two-shoes sister Cordelia behaves with such one-note pointless stubbornness, it almost seems like she's not playing with a full deck. Over in the Gloucester household, Edmund (the [...] hyena) is plotting against both his brother Edgar and his father. Lear's court is filled with lickspittle sycophants. Only two people have the guts to speak truth to power, and one of them wears the costume of a Fool. There's a nasty storm brewing on the heath.

Fasten your seatbelts - it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Characters in "King Lear" pay dearly for their weaknesses. Gloucester is blinded in order that he might see, but is denied any lasting happiness; after reconciling with Edgar, he dies. Lear will be driven insane before he finally learns to empathize with the poor and the meek. We watch him return from the brink of madness only to discover that's not enough. Before the curtain falls, Shakespeare gives us what is arguably the most brutal scene in his entire work.

Enter Lear with Cordelia (dead) in his arms -

Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heavens vault should crack. She's gone forever.

Even if, like me, you find Cordelia a saccharine, two-dimensional character, this scene is shattering. Two pages later, after learning that his fool has hanged himself, Lear dies, broken-hearted. Edgar, Kent and Albany - literally the only characters still standing - are left to bury the dead and move on, as best they can.

Why do I find this the most affecting of Shakespeare's plays? (I've seen seven different stage productions, and two on TV, and it only gets more powerful upon repeated exposure.) I can't really pin it down - it's a combination of various elements. The characters are idiosyncratic, fully realised, and their behavior is highly relatable, so the play is convincing at the level of the individual protagonists. But the fable-like nature of the opening scene also confers a kind of universal quality to its message, and the themes explored within the play - abuse of power, relationships within families, responsibilities of parents and children, the breakdown of the natural order and its consequences, the human capacity for enormous cruelty - are no less relevant today than in Shakespeare's time. The skillfully constructed parallel plotting of the Lear and Gloucester arcs adds to the power of the story, the breakdown in natural human behavior is further accentuated by the raw fury of the elements during the storm scenes, where Nature echoes Lear's fury.

Ultimately, there's no getting away from the uncompromising bleakness of the play's message. In Gloucester's words - "as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport". The nihilism of "King Lear" has always disturbed audiences, and it was common during the 18th and 19th centuries to stage an altered version, in which Cordelia was allowed to live, implying a more upbeat view of human nature. But, given what the events of the last century demonstrate about mankind's vicious capacity for self-destruction, one has to think that Shakespeare got it right first time. As usual.

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Quick Tip by . June 25, 2010
I found this to be a dull and slow-moving play. It had some moments of interest, but I didn't care for it at all.
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Tragedy in five acts by William Shakespeare, performed in 1605-06 and published in a quarto edition in 1608. One of Shakespeare's finest tragedies, the work displays a pessimism and nihilism that make it a 20th-century favorite. The aging King Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, allotting each a portion in proportion to the eloquence of her declaration of love. The hypocritical Goneril and Regan make grand pronouncements and are rewarded; Cordelia, the youngest daughter, who truly loves Lear, refuses to make an insincere speech to prove her love and is disinherited. The two older sisters mock Lear and renege on their promise to support him. Cast out, the king slips into madness and wanders about accompanied by his faithful Fool. He is aided by the Earl of Kent, who, though banished from the kingdom for having supported Cordelia, has remained in Britain disguised as a peasant. Kent brings Lear to Cordelia, who cares for him and helps him regain his reason. The Earl of Gloucester likewise spurns his honest son, Edgar, and believes his conniving illegitimate son, Edmund. Edmund allies himself with Regan and Goneril to defend Britain against the French army mobilized by Cordelia. He turns his father over to Cornwall--who gouges out Gloucester's eyes--then imprisons Cordelia and Lear, but he is defeated in battle by Edgar. Jealous of Edmund's romantic attentions to Regan, Goneril poisons her and commits suicide. Cordelia is hanged. Lear, ...
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ISBN-10: 0140707247
ISBN-13: 978-0140707243
Author: William Shakespeare

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