Monday, April 18, 2016

King Lear - Shakespeare

King Lear is an old king and he wishes to semi-retire.  He will still enjoy the title and prestige of being king, and even have a cohort of knights at his beck and call, but he will leave the nuts and bolts of running the kingdom to others.  To this end, he has called his three daughters together so that he can divide the kingdom among them.  Before the division occurs, he asks them each to tell them how much they love him.  The first two, older and married, both give fawning answers while the third one, Cordelia, squirms.  To add to her stress, she has two suitors present, and her hand will be given to one of them.  King Lear asks her what she has to say and she simply answers 'nothing'.  He tells her that 'nothing will come of nothing' but she still can't bring herself to flatter him.  In a fit of pique, the king disinherits her and casts her away.  The king of France still sees value in her so he decides to wed.
One of the king's men, Kent, quickly tries to tell the king he is making a mistake.  The king exiles him too.  The rest of the kingdom will be split between the two older daughters.  Kent quickly returns in disguise and still tries to help the poor king.
As all of this is happening, another noble, Gloucester, is at the mercy of a plot.  He has two sons, one of whom is a bastard.  The bastard has a plan to put his half-brother in the wrong and become the full heir.  He also has plans to seduce both of Lear's daughters and take over their property as well.
King Lear decides to split time between his daughters but they no longer treat him with respect.  They want to pare down his knights or have them removed completely.  The king, enraged at this discrespect, leaves into the night and storm.  While in the storm on the blasted heath, he begins to understand what an awful person he has become.  He ends up sheltered with his fool, the disguised Kent and the disguised rightful son of Gloucester.
Meanwhile plots are afoot everywhere.  Gloucester is taken as a traitor and horribly blinded.  There is confusion and fighting.  The king and Cordelia are taken prisoner together.  An order goes out to have her killed.  Kent is finally able to put things right and unmask the plot but it's too late.  Lear enters carrying his dear, dead daughter.  He huddles over her and then his heart gives out and he too dies.

This was my first experience with King Lear.  I had read a bit about the play, but never seen or read it until now.  The story has an inescapable awfulness to it.  From the time that Lear gives up his power and falls prey to the uncertainty of plots, everything simply goes downhill.  The kingdom is wildly vulnerable and there is no good person in authority to put things right.
The two wicked (as it turns out) older sisters try to take advantage, but they don't realize that they are also pawns of the bastard.  Gloucester is unaware of what's happening until it's too late.  Kent tries his best, but there is little he can do.  Lear's fool gives vague warnings but they come to nothing.  Everything is awful.
There is a faint bit of hope at the very end.  Lear might think that Cordelia is still alive right before he dies.  The text isn't clear and I'm sure it could be played either way.  Even that though, is a very faint keyhole of hope.

King Lear himself is fascinating.  He is powerful and always has been.  He is also old, very old.  He wants to have the benefits of being king without any of the actual responsibility.  And if he is crossed, his reaction is extreme.  If he had simply had a calm talk with his daughter Cordelia, all of his personal tragedy would have been averted. 
From a modern perspective, I'm amazed that not all kings are like this.  To be born with such power...  Shakespeare, of course, contrasts different approaches to this power.  Richard II, for instance, is much different than Henry IV or Henry V.  In some ways, King Lear is the danger that Henry V presented to the English people.

Oh, poor Gloucester!  I can't imagine what a scene that must have been for the first audience that saw it.  Truly terrible.

I suspect that 'King Lear' is a play that one must come to at different times of life.  (Several of the other tragedies fall into this category too.)  After this, my first time, I'm somewhat stunned.  I wonder what I'll think in ten years time.

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