Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book 131: King Lear by William Shakespeare (Shakespeare Reading Month).

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

 I think I have become a bigger fan of Shakespeare's tragedies than his comedies...which is saying a lot because I love Shakespearean comedies. But there is something so dark and twisted about some of these tragedies, and I just can't get enough.

King Lear is the story of an aging King, named Lear, who determines to divide his kingdom among his three daughters while he is still living. He must think that they will take care of him in his old age and allow him to continue wandering and such until he eventually passes.

The play opens with King Lear discussing this with his three daughters; Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. One at a time, the daughter "confess" their unconditional love towards their father in exchange for getting their portion of the kingdom. Goneril and Regan proceed to flatter the aging king and pretty much lie to his face. When it comes time for Cordelia to speak, she refuses to flatter and to lie. Instead, she speaks simply and honorably, saying that while she loves her father, she isn't going to be false. This sends Lear into a bit of a grumpy mood. He banishes one of his loyal friends, Kent, for sticking up for Cordelia. He then decides to divide the kingdom in two for Goneril and Regan, leaving poor Cordelia without an inheritance. Luckily, the King of France heard the exchange and still loves Cordelia, so he whisks her away to marry.

Obviously, tragic things begin to happen. Now in charge of the kingdom, Goneril and Regan begin to mistreat their father. He gets into an argument with Goneril about how many men he can have attending to him. When she says no, he stomps off like an angry child to Regan. The two women agree that Lear is crazy and old.

In the midst of all that drama, there is also a side plot with the two sons of the Earl of Gloucester. One is legitimate and one is not, and of course, the illegitimate son starts some shenanigans to hurt his brother. This whole side plot winds up interweaving into the story of the two older daughters, as they begin to fight over men who aren't their husbands, reject their father, and start fighting.

It is a bit of a mess and I haven't even touched on more than two acts worth of information. The characters are all quite despicable, except for Cordelia and Kent (the rejected friend of King Lear). The rest of them are all quite awful-they manipulate each other and hurt poor old Lear. The older daughters, Goneril and Regan are flirtatious and conniving as they try and steal husbands and suitors...while being married.

And since it is a tragedy, it doesn't end well. Of course there is a bit of redemption, but there is also a lot of bloodshed and sadness at the end. And a few suicides in true Shakespeare fashion. The whole thing is depressing, but fascinating. You immediately get drawn into the chaos of this messed up and tragic family.

There are a lot of interesting characters in this one, which might be why I love it so much. First, the female characters are amazing and have some great lines. I kind of like how snotty and obnoxious both Goneril and Regan are and how they compare to Cordelia. I also loved Lear. I mean, he was probably crazy and seemed a bit nuts in parts, but in a way, I felt like he just needed a hug and someone to love him a  bit. Poor old coot.

But hands down, the best characters are Edgar and Kent. Edgar is the legitimate son of that Earl I mentioned above, and he has a scene near the end of the play where he talks with his father. It was a breathtaking scene-probably my favorite of the whole play. Kent, banished by Lear, takes on a disguise for the rest of the play and finds a place back in Lear's confidence. He is one of those loyal friends who continues to protect against the odds. I love that kind of loyalty in a character.

So yes, great play and one that I definitely want to see live!

“The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”


  1. Oooh! I like that you liked this, because I'm planning on reading it before Shakespeare month is over :) How exciting!

  2. This is one of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays - and I've always been a bigger fan of the Tragedies than the Comedies.

    Have you read Titus Andronicus, yet? Oh, man.

  3. This play broke my heart. I have to write my review and I can't bring myself to actually express how I felt about it. Oh, well.
    I love your review. Edgar and Kent were my favorite characters as well, along with Cordelia.

  4. I am dying to see this one live. It's such a great play.

  5. I really liked this play too! The movie with Laurence Olivier is fantastic. Olivier is very old when he produced it and he makes a perfect King Lear. You really feel the pain of this old man being abused by his daughters. Anyway, it's great.

  6. I meant to comment on this one when you posted! I guess I forgot. Anyway, this is a tragedy I'm itching to read. I own it in hardcover with lots of notes, and I'm thinking of reading it in May, after Clarissa. I think I prefer the tragedies to the comedies. :D