King Lear, along with Hamlet, forms the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s art. As such, the play seems beyond criticism, or even analysis. The greatest artists set their own standards; they can only be measured against themselves; and as Shakespeare is a giant among giants, his masterpieces are doubly beyond reckoning. Even Harold Bloom, who has something to say about everything, insists that these two plays “baffle commentary”—although it doesn’t stop him from trying. I have difficulty even doing that. Hamlet is among my favorite works of literature, one I have read and seen many times, and yet I cannot think of a single thing to say about it.
Silence is probably the wisest and best course in these situations. But I will stick my neck out a little and try to digest the indigestible, and write a little something about Lear.
This play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters. From the first, we are both attracted and repelled by Lear. He is foolish, vain, egotistical, irritable, rash, and imperious. He is clearly not fit to govern a house, much less a kingdom. The transparent flattery of Regan and Goneril, and the equally transparent sincerity of Cordelia, produce the exact opposite response that they should in Lear. Such a poor judge of character, coupled with such a quick temper and a dogmatic devotion to his own impulses—evidences by his disinheritance of Cordelia and his banishment of Kent—can by neither loved nor respected.
But Lear demands the viewer’s love. He cannot be simply dismissed as a bumbling old man. He is a bumbling old man, yes, but he is also charismatic beyond measure. Every utterance of his is supercharged with passion. He is histrionic, even hysterical; and yet his wounded pride, his kingly dignity, is utterly persuasive. He is every inch a king. Nothing but lifelong power and command could produce a man so totally unable to control his impulses, and so regally disdainful of everything that opposes his will. What is perhaps most lovable about Lear is his directness. Those whom he loves, he loves unstintingly; and unstinting is his pain and disenchantment when his love is not returned. There is nothing dispassionate about Lear; he lacks completely the ability to be calculating and shrewd. And this is both a weakness and a mark of nobility; it makes him vulnerable, but it also makes him loveable.
His foil in this is Edmund. Edmund is pure calculation. He feels nothing for nobody—not for his brother, nor his father, nor his two lovers. It is his total lack of sentiment that allows him to shrewdly manipulate others, much like Iago does. Gloucester, Edgar, Goneril, and Regan all assume that Edmund would not betray them, since he is seemingly tied to them by emotional bonds. This description makes him sound psychotic; and yet, for many, he is the most likable character in the play. It is such a relief when he comes on stage. His cool cynicism and dry wit are a necessary reprieve from the ceaseless torrents and whiplashing anger of Lear. Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking that Edmund, so stealthy, so cunning, so self-controlled, would make a far better king than Lear ever did.
Aside from passion and placidity, another theme in this play is sanity and madness, wisdom and folly. The Fool, despite his name, is perhaps the wisest characters in the play, constantly upbraiding Lear for his mistakes. Although dressed like a jester, he lives like a sage, abiding simply and apart from the machinations of power. He bestows his love on the worthiest characters, Lear and Cordelia, and is the loyalist of friends and servants. Edgar, disguised as a madman, is hailed by Lear as a philosopher; and Edgar himself, upon witnessing Lear’s descent into madness, notes that Lear’s ravings have some strange sense: “O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness!” Meanwhile, all the sober plans of Edmund eventually come to naught. Is Shakespeare implying that true wisdom and reason cannot be expressed in ordinary language, but must take the form of poetic ravings or lewd jokes?
Few scenes in literature, if any, are as tragic as when Lear walks out with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms. There is no silver lining in the tragedy. He loses everything—and then dies. Audiences in previous ages thought that this was too harsh, and the play was often performed with a happy ending. We moderns have re-acquired a taste for the bleak. Yet the play is still heartrending. Gloucester in particular attracts my sympathy. Fooled into betraying his loyal son, and betrayed in turn by his disloyal son, blinded for showing kindness to Lear, cast out a broken man intent on ending his own life—it’s a torture to watch. Lear’s story is even darker, for at least Gloucester dies of a happy shock. With Lear we witness a noble and kingly soul, who loves and is loved by many, who is reduced to a babbling fool, who is stripped of everything he owned, even his senses, and who finally dies of heartbreak.
Well, there’s my meager attempt at a review. At least now I can say that I’ve tried.