Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Classic of the Week: King Lear

Ian McKellen as a slightly crazed Lear

Now, to continue my Wednesday Classic series, which for the past couple weeks has been exclusively Shakespeare, I bring you another tragedy. While Hamlet is a role for a young actor and Macbeth for one of almost any age, this role is one to crown the career of an old, established actor (such as Ian McKellen, who did a wonderful version just a couple years ago.) The play is:

King Lear By William Shakespeare

This play is one of Shakespeare’s longer and more complex works. There are actually several different versions of the text, so it can be hard to tell exactly what’s the ‘right’ version. The basic plot of King Lear revolves around two families, the Lear family and the Gloucester family. King Lear is growing old, and so he decides to divide his kingdom up between his three daughters, giving the biggest portion according to who loves him most. The oldest two daughters lavish false praises on their father, while the youngest, Cordelia, tells her father that she loves him as much as she owes him, and gets banished. Lear’s other daughters then take over the kingdom and cruelly throw Lear out into a storm.
Lear at the beginning of the play

Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester has two sons. The older, Edgar, is a legitimate son, while the younger, Edmund, is, as he repeats often, a ‘bastard’. Edgar, of course, is due to receive all the inheritance, but Edmund manages to trick Gloucester into believing that Edgar is planning to kill him, so Edgar gets thrown out. Then Edmund throws Gloucester out and takes over.

Edmund, Gloucester's evil,
bastard son
Because of this double plot, it can sometimes be a little difficult to understand King Lear. I personally found it much more difficult than either Macbeth or Othello. The plots do eventually merge and lead to the inevitable conclusion of almost everyone dying, but for awhile it can be difficult to figure out what’s happening to which family.

The most terrible thing about King Lear is that it’s set in a universe that is completely random and merciless. Instead of mentioning God and talking about heaven and hell like Shakespeare does frequently in his other plays, the characters all pray to ‘the gods’ who never intervene as the tragedy only worsens. In the middle of the play, Gloucester, blind and wandering about in the middle of a storm, speaks the lines: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.’ This idea of the senseless, unfeeling universe dominates King Lear, increasing the sense of tragedy and utter hopelessness.

Keira Knightly is rumored to play Cordelia in an upcoming
big screen version of King Lear.
In short, King Lear is not a play I’d recommend as readily as Macbeth or Othello. Though all three are dark, King Lear is perhaps the worst. Lear makes the smallest mistake of any of these characters, an error that in any other world could have not made any difference. He also repents of it by the end of the first act, but it’s no use. Macbeth and Othello could have stopped the tragedy by changing their minds early on in the play, but Lear is helpless. King Lear is a very good play, but filled with a sense of hopelessness. As my sister said after watching it, “Shakespeare must have been very depressed.”

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