King Lear by William Shakespeare

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Cordelia's Farewell by Edwin Austin Abbey (via Wikipedia Public Domain)

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.

King LearI 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!

Reviewed on March 31, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I wrote my thesis on Lear (and Montaigne)! Love it. Edgar is such a fascinating character to me; how he waits so long to reveal himself to Gloucester, and his feigned madness. I think there’s so much difficulty trusting, and he’s continually torn between devotion to his father and fear lest he be rejected again like he was when Edmund betrayed him at the beginning & Gloucester believed Edmund rather than Edgar. Cordelia never seems to go through the same depth of fear & trial – or if she does, it happens off-stage, in France.

    Plus, some of the most gorgeous poetry in this play. I normally much prefer watching a play to reading it, but I find with Shakespeare that doing each has its own rewards – I do love to have time to linger over his lovely language a bit while reading.
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Essay Mondays: Borges =-.

    • Emily, wow, so you’re a Lear expert! I loved it too, and I can see enough in it to explore in a thesis! I wasn’t as drawn to Cordelia, but I do think Lear’s madness wonderfully portrayed (Laurence Olivier did a great job!!)

      I agree re: the poetry in this play. It made reading it rewarding, just different from watching it!

  • I do see plays more than I read them these days, and seeing King Lear with Stacy Keach last summer was one of my top ten theatrical experiences ever. The production was so raw and disturbing, which is just right for Lear. I read the play back in high school and again in college and liked it then, but seeing it, especially such an excellent production, make me love it.

    And I agree with you that the Edgar/Gloucester relationship is more moving than the Cordelia/Lear one. I never found Lear’s story all that compelling until I saw it on stage. It was always Gloucester and his sons that got my interest in print.
    .-= Teresa´s last post on blog ..The Two Towers: LOTR Book 4 =-.

  • Oooh, I’m so glad you covered this one, Rebecca! It’s probably the one play by Shakespeare that I’m most anxious to read! I pretty much know nothing about the plot, so I’m really looking forward to experiencing it.

    I find that I like a combination of reading and watching. I like being able to mull over the language that Shakespeare (or whomever) uses, but I do find it more difficult to become absorbed in a play as I would a novel, so I find visual adaptations (whether they be live performances or films) really helpful as well.
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“The Lunatic, The Lover, and The Poet” by Myrlin A. Hermes =-.

  • Love Lear! I like Kent a lot. When it comes to Shakespeare I enjoy both seeing and reading the plays. I find it to be complimentary. I gain a broader understanding by seeing it acted but find such great pleasure in being able to read and reread certain passages.
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..Vertigo =-.

  • I read plays far more often than I’m able to go see them, but I wish it were the other way round. Whenever I see live theatre, it reminds me of how many zillion times better it is than just reading a play. King Lear is the Shakespeare tragedy I’ve been saving. I’ve never read it, and my plan is not to read it until I’ve seen it as a play first.
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Review: Enlightened Sexism, Susan Douglas =-.

    • Jenny, oh wow, you’re good to hold out. It’s very delightful. If you can’t see it live, I would recommend the Laurence Olivier movie. He does such a great job!

    • Trisha, I think I’ve watched and read Hamlet (time for a reread) and I’d have to agree it’s pretty extraordinary. But it lacks the great emotions in Lear, so I’d have to agree with you!!

      As for the going to the theater, I’d suggest it’s meant to be seen first, because seeing it is how it’s meant to be appreciated it. Although I totally agree about reading first when it comes to fiction…

  • I do think plays were meant to be watched instead of read. I think that’s one of the reason why people end up disliking Shakespeare. If you see it, the language doesn’t seem as difficult because you have visual cues, and you don’t get bogged down in reading who said what or stage directions.

    I took a Shakespeare class in college and my professor had us watch at least 10 of the plays, in addition to reading 16. That experience really taught me how important it is to watch them instead of just read them. I would have defended reading them over watching them until that class. They are also usually funnier or sadder when watching them than when reading them. That doesn’t mean I don’t think people should only watch them, but I think they are meant to be watched. I enjoyed watching the BBC versions and reading along with the text for that class. They’re performed as plays instead of movies and usually stick almost exactly to the text. I also really like the Lawrence Olivier version of King Lear though. He’s quite brilliant.
    .-= Lindsey´s last post on blog ..Her Fearful Symmetry =-.

  • Lindsey, I think you have a good point, re: people disliking Shakespeare. That’s an incredible number of plays for your college class! Awesome professor. I really need to push myself like that, because I LOVE Shakespeare when I get to him but he’s always pushed to last place in terms of priority….which is too bad!

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