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on June 8, 2015
Much has been made of the state of mind of King Lear, by scholars and theater critics alike. The idea of dividing his kingdom among his three daughters and asking each of them to profess how much they love him, is highly questionable. What good could possibly come of it? Of the three, only Cordelia is truly honest, and Lear would know this. Her lack of pretension and innate honesty is surely why he loved her most. Still, he rages at her failure to give him the answer he wants, withdraws her third of the kingdom, and banishes her. Then, equally unwise, he places himself in the hands of the two conniving daughters who, seeing what he’s done to Cordelia, conclude he’s senile and therefore not to be trusted or, as it turns out, even tolerated. One thing leads to another, and Lear finds himself cast out into the storm, with his faithful companion, the Fool. Cordelia is deeply hurt but lands on her feet. She marries the French King, which means all of France rather than a third of Britain is her domain. She returns with French forces that are defeated and she is captured.
Whether Lear is foolish, paranoid, or senile, he has grown old without becoming wise. Up to the beginning of Act III, he has done little to win our sympathy. He blames everyone but himself for his suffering. The Fool rides him, continually holding up to him the fact of his own folly, while Lear remains clueless. Lear: “Dost thou call me fool, boy?” Fool: “All thy other titles thou hast given away.” The irony of their exchanges is the Fool speaks truth, while Lear remains delusional, incapable of uttering a rational sentence. One of the extraordinary aspects of the play is Lear’s transformation, from out-of-touch king who lacked humanity who, as he sips into madness, treats those around him with humble courtesy, perhaps knowing for the first time what it is to be truly human. It’s not until he’s become mad that he sees and speaks truth.
The other extraordinary aspect of the play is the role of forgiveness. Lear’s awakening from madness to find himself in the presence of Cordelia, the daughter he so wronged, is one of the most touching scenes Shakespeare ever wrote. Lear cannot believe she would forgive him, after all he has done. He asks for poison instead. Lear: “If have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me, for your sisters have, as I do remember, done me wrong. You have some cause, they have not.” Cordelia: “No cause, no cause.” In his short pithy book, “Shakespeare and Forgiveness,” the author William H. Matchett, writes: “Lear, in his readiness for poison, indicates the degree to which he considers himself unforgivable, his acknowledgement that he was to blame. Cordelia’s is the supreme forgiveness which denies there was anything to forgive. It is, then, only Lear’s great need for reassurance that has him, even after it has been given, continuing to ask her to ‘forgive and forgive.’ When they have been captured by Edmund, and Cordelia asks, ‘Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?’ Lear protests: ‘No, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison: We too alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down Ask thee of forgiveness.’”
Alas, we expect a happy ending, but that is not to be. Writes Machett: “In the ‘King Lear’ world, forgiveness is not enough. That it exists at all makes this world richer than those of (the plays) ’Julius Caesar’ and ‘Troilus and Cressida’; that it exists is also precisely what makes Cordelia’s death so overwhelmingly heartbreaking. We think we have a promised happy ending—no device to conclude a play, but a fully realized triumph of love—and then it is taken from us in what must be the most shattering catastrophe in all literature.”
King Lear is tough to watch and is perhaps an acquired taste. Shakespeare’s play fared unhappily from 1681 when it fell into the hands of Nahum Tate, who revised the script to produce a happy ending. For 150 years, Tate’s was practically the only version that audiences would accept. In the course of two revivals (in 1823 and 1826), more of the original play began to be performed. By 1850, the original play was pretty much restored, and that’s how it’s been performed ever since. The Penguin Shakespeare is a good as any, well-footnoted and with a lively introduction (by Stephen Orgel of Stanford University) to set the scene. Whatever edition you do choose, to fully appreciate the play, I recommend Matchett's book (above) and "Shakespeare" by Germaine Greer. Five stars.