Shakespeare’s King Lear has decided he’s old enough to “shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths, while we Unburdened crawl toward death.” Retirement was not prevalent in those days, though—especially not for kings. And though Lear speaks of crawling towards death, he’s still vigorous enough to want to retain his title, a certain amount of power and authority, and 100 knights. So his first mistake in the play is trying to slough off responsibilities he should have maintained.
Lear’s second mistake is pitting his daughters against one another to appeal to his vanity. He wants to hear how much they love him, and he’ll divide up his kingdom proportionately according to their answers. Daughters Regan and Goneril lay the flattery on pretty thickly. But Cordelia, his youngest and favorite, refuses to play along though she loves him (and will later prove to be the only one of his children who truly does).
So Lear banishes Cordelia. Kent, one of his most trusted advisors, tries to talk sense into the king and is banished as well.
Regan and Goneril then scheme with their husbands to crowd Lear and and take over fully.
A subplot involves Gloucester, a lord with one legitimate and one illegitimate son. Not only is Gloucester immoral, he makes lecherous jokes about his illegitimate son’s mother right in front of the son. The illegitimate one, Edmund, resents his position and treatment and makes up a story that his brother, Edgar, is plotting against their father. Gloucester shows a lack of wisdom and discernment by believing Edmund outright without checking on the facts.
So there are parallels in both families with good kids vs. bad kids, power struggles, old men acting foolishly, younger people acting treacherously.
King Lear is a tragedy, so most of the characters do not fare well by the end. Some exhibit unspeakable cruelty. But a few—Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, a couple of servants—show kindness and compassion even though they are the most wronged.
One of the play’s themes is seeing clearly. When Kent stands up to Lear, he encourages him to “See better, Lear.” Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out in what many consider one of the most violent scenes in play history. It’s only after losing his physical sight that he begins to see the truth about himself and his sons. It’s only after Lear is turned out that he begins to understand he was foolish.
There are a number of other themes throughout the play: power, generational conflicts, loyalty, forgiveness, justice.
I listened to an audiobook version called SmartPass Plus Audio Education Study Guide to King Lear. It seems to be geared for high school students. A Passmaster gives an introduction, takes a “student” back to Shakespeare day and discusses aspects about him, the times, the Globe Theatre. Then the Passmaster provides commentary and explanation all throughout the play. I admit it got a bit tedious having the dialogue interrupted every few lines. But I am so glad I listened to this version. The acting was excellent. I got much more from hearing the tones and inflections than I would have just from reading. And the commentary did provide valuable insight. Not only did the Passmaster explain what was going on in the play, she couched some of the activity and dialogue in the times, explained the difference between what words meant then vs. now, etc.
In some ways the introductory material in the audio version gave me more than I needed to know to understand the play. But I did enjoy the information about the Globe Theatre. It appeared round and had a thatched roof around the outside. The middle was open to the sky, and the cheaper tickets allowed people to stand in the middle, under the open roof. More expensive seats were in tiers under the thatch roof.
A classic play was one of the categories for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge. After considering a couple of options, I decided to listen to King Lear. My alma mater used to put on one or two Shakespeare plays a year, and Lear was one of my favorites. So I really enjoyed hearing it again.
I knew that Shakespeare could be bawdy in places. My school had sanitized their productions, but this version does not. I wouldn’t have caught some of crudity without the Passmaster explaining what some terms meant then.
But overall, this was an excellent production of a great play. It has so many layers, I am still thinking about them days later.
Have you read or seen or listened to King Lear? What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?