Shakespeare’s King Lear captures family relationships (father to daughter, father to son, brother to brother, sister to sister) in an undeniable tragedy. Lear is betrayed by his two eldest daughters and Gloucester is betrayed by his eldest (and illegitimate) son. But although there is broken trust and mourning, there are also tender expressions of true love from children to their parents. Cordelia and her father and Gloucester and Edgar give the play a gentleness that I did not at all expect in a high dramatic tragedy highly reminiscent of the Ancient Greek tragedies.
As King Lear retires, he asks his three daughters how much they love him. His two eldest daughters flatter him as he desires, but Cordelia, who truly loves him, refuses to speak eloquently and is disowned. As Goneril and Regan, the older daughters, shame Lear into madness, Gloucester’s illgeitmate son, Edmund, seeks revenge for his belittled status in the family by gaining power over his brother Edgar. I loved these parallel sides to the same type of relationship: children refusing to honor the parent; children insisting on honoring the parent. I most appreciated Cordelia’s devotion to Lear and Edgar’s devotion to Gloucester. The latter relationship seemed much stronger and I loved the touching scene on the “beaches” of Dover.
I really like the way the editor summed up these relationships as follows: “Gloucester shakes his head sadly over Lear’s in justice, folly and selfishness as he duplicates his actions.” (page 23, introduction by Alfred Harbage in the 1970 Pelican Shakespeare.) Some people who read or watch the play will see the two fathers as the ones to blame for the end result. On the contrary, I pitied them both. They are old men tired after long lives. They make mistakes in their parenting because they are old. In the end, I found myself fascinated by the two children (Cordelia and Edgar) who dedicated themselves to saving their fathers, despite the harshness with which they’d previously been treated. It reminds us that we can choose our reactions to the follies of those around us (“Timshel!”).
There are other relationships in the story that could be explored, such as master to servant and husband to wife. I mention the first because Kent was one of my favorite characters; I loved seeing his loyalty to King Lear as he served him in disguise. Gloucester also served the King with bravery. Oswald’s servant relationship to Goneril and the Fool’s relationship to Lear were also key, but neither of them interested me much. I also noticed that the women were stronger than their husbands in this play, much like in Macbeth (which I read in October). The introduction to my edition mentioned these two plays were written about the same time, and that seemed like a convenient coincidence to me.
I wasn’t going to read King Lear right now, but my husband and I recently watched the Laurence Olivier version. (He was 75 when he played King Lear, and deservedly won an Emmy for his performance.) While he couldn’t stay awake, I was enthralled. I couldn’t take my attention away from the train-wreck that was this story. I had to read it. Watching it first really convinced me that plays are meant to be watched and not read. While reading it let me take in all the great speeches and possibly remember them better, reading King Lear lacked the magic that the acting created. It was so well done.
Reading and watching King Lear reminded me how much I love Shakespeare. I really must visit him more often than every six months.
Which do you do more often: watch a play via movie or live performance or read a play? I can’t really get to the theater much now but I think I should watch them more often. I enjoy them!