King Lear

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This month’s Great Books read was King Lear, a play I’m not all that fond of because I think Lear was foolish for coming up with that contest which pitted his daughters against each other to publicly state how much they loved him. Then he acted like he knew nothing about these women and put his future in the hands of the two most selfish adult children I’ve ever seen.

So after reading the play, rather than rereading it, I watched the 2008 BBC/PBS production of King Lear starring Ian McKellen. Wow! This masterpiece gave me a new appreciation of the play. The acting highlighted the lust Regan and Goneril had for Edmund, as well as Poor Tom’s (a.k.a. Edgar’s) status and his parallel status to Lear. When reading I can confuse characters like the sons-in-law, but viewing a production eliminates that.

I still think Lear –

  1. should have kept ruling since he didn’t want to completely relinquish his power, no matter what he claimed and shared power wasn’t going to work and
  2. should have thought about his daughters’ personalities for a minute or two and realized how this game of his would end badly.

As usual Shakespeare created intriguing characters, most of whom are flawed. He creates parallels such as Glouster’s literal blindness (in addition to his figurative blindness towards Edmund his conniving illegitimate son) and Lear’s blindness towards his daughters.

I still wonder:

  • Why Kent didn’t take leadership with Edmund acting as a mentor? It seems that he chose suicide instead.
  • Are we really to believe Gloucester, though blind, believed he had fallen off a cliff, when in fact Edgar had tricked him and protected him? That wasn’t believable. When a person’s falling there’s a certain sensation independent of sight.
  • What was Shakespeare’s aim in writing this play? Some argue its a look at old age because a lot of families have difficulty when elders retire. However, while I can see this applying to elites from Queen Elizabeth to Prince Charles (though I think she’s assured of a roof over her head no matter what and her holding on to the crown has to do with Charles’ marriages and his personality) or a CEO and founder of a business empire, I don’t believe it applies to middle class families.

Even though I don’t buy the premise of the story and found so many characters unlikeable, e.g. Regan, Goneril, Oswald and Edmund. While I can understand their motivations, they’re so loathsome.

Here’s a discussion of Lear from the BBC’s program “In Our Time.”

Some favorite quotations:

King Lear:

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is To have a thankless child! Act I, Scene 4

Kent to Oswald:

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition. Act II, Scene 2

Lear to Cordelia:

“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.” Act V, Scene 3

 

Fr. Laurence, Why?

For my online book club we read Romeo and Juliet, which my students are now reading as well. Once I get to Act 4, I want to just ask Friar Laurence why on earth he thought this plan with Juliet taking a sleeping drug would work. Why not tell her parents, Friar? Since she’s already consummated her marriage to Romeo, wouldn’t the Capulets and the Montagues have to make the best of things?

The Friar even tells Paris he doesn’t like the hasty marriage to Juliet. That’s a great start. Just tell the truth or if he’s such a coward, tell the parents they have to wait a certain amount of time after Tybalt’s death to marry. Then have them tell the truth. One of them would get the courage to.

I realize Shakespeare took the story from another source, a poem by Arthur Brooke and he saw that it had a lot of powerful elements, but there are some glaring mistakes in the plot.

Anonymous

Anonymous speculates that William Shakespeare didn’t write his plays and offers a theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford did. Though I don’t buy this idea because I do think genius springs up in all classes, I do love historical and even speculative historical fiction enough to enjoy a film that has an interesting theory.

For a couple hours it was worth it to put aside my beliefs and enjoy rich costumes, romantic landscapes of yore, even the muddy ones and bold dialog (though it wasn’t as Shakespearean as Elizabeth Rex‘s dialog). The thesis put forth is that the Earl of Oxford had the education and background that William Shakespeare lacked and he wrote plays to influence Elizabeth as she ruled the British empire. The implication is that a woman wouldn’t have been wise enough to rule as successful on her own. Well, I don’t buy that, but I did find it interesting to see what this screenwriter believed as the story takes a lot of interesting twists.

I will quibble with the portrayal of William Shakespeare. Here he’s a buffoon and one that’s a far cry from say the jester in King Lear. In fact, we’re told that although he can read, he can’t write. Poppycock. Writing isn’t hard and in a week Asian students have the alphabet down. We know Shakespeare went to grammar school and unless his hand was injured during that entire period, someone would have taught him how to actually write letter.

The film proposes that the 17th Earl of Oxford was the real Bard. In the film this earl was very stately, but for the life of me I can’t recall a line of dialog he said. Now if a film wants to depict the real Shakespeare, shouldn’t that character be eloquent, someone who’s conversation is memorable? That’s why the film failed. I wasn’t convinced that because this man was well dressed and was given a good education, that he was a genius. Genius isn’t that well hidden.

The political intrigue gets complicated, but not impossible to follow. But then I’d seen Elizabeth Rex recently so I knew about the intrigue and the Earl of Essex‘s execution. I do wish someone, perhaps a woman, would write a play about Elizabeth that isn’t so skeptical of her ability to lead.