KING LEAR

OUT, VILE JELLY! WHERE IS THY LUSTRE NOW?

Joseph Marcell as King Lear – Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company

Well, I’m back. I never did stop sitting in on my beloved Shakespeare class, but I did lose the desire to write. I lost the desire to do a lot of things after November 8th. But I just can’t let the foolishness and utter stupidity of people prevent me from doing the thing I love most, so let’s talk about King Lear.

Overall, I liked this play a lot. However, I found that the acts were far too long, and that way too much happened in them. This doesn’t really mean anything if you’re seeing the play unfold before you, but if you’re a student in a class like I was, it’s a bit hard to keep track.

But here’s the big question: do you pity King Lear?

Because I am a hard-hearted no-nonsense person, I don’t. “But Shereen,” you say, your voice filled with sympathy for Lear, “he changes!”

Characters change so often in Shakespeare’s plays. And I do appreciate that many of them decide to stop being awful, but I really don’t think that their previous actions deserve to be overlooked just because of that. King Lear’s silliness and ego drove his kingdom to ruin. I am capable of overlooking small errors in judgement, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

The play opens in the most ridiculous way:

KING LEAR
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.
Our son of Cornwall
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this house a constant will to publish
Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.
The two great princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn
And here are to be answered. Tell me, my daughters –
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state –
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest born, speak first.

For heaven’s sake, Lear, a test of love? The sensible thing to do would be to split the kingdom evenly between Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia – but no. King Lear wants to know who is willing to stroke his ego the most, so that he may give them the rewards they deserve. Such nonsense!

Cordelia is having none of this:

KING LEAR
– Now, our joy,
Although our last and least, to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interessed, what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’? Speak.

CORDELIA
Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR
Nothing?

CORDELIA
Nothing.

Cordelia is the only child of Lear’s that genuinely loves him. She tells him she loves him as a daughter should love her father, no more and no less. Lear is not impressed by this. The King of France, who ends up being very sensible, whisks Cordelia off to France to be his Queen – because, as he rightfully notes, this entire situation is incredibly ridiculous.

But I want to talk about Cordelia’s response for a second here, because it sparked a bit of a discussion in class. An overwhelming majority of students wanted to know why Cordelia was so terse in her response to her father – is she unable to read a room? Why not embellish her language a little? Tell her father what he wants to hear?

I spoke up in defense of Cordelia. She is who she is, and she makes a decision in that moment that she will not pretend to be anything but herself. She speaks honestly because she is a fundamentally honest person. Although it results in her undeserved banishment, you have to love Cordelia simply because of her insistence to stay true to herself.

It’s funny, because the entire class expressed admiration toward Edmund for being so unabashedly unashamed of who he is. Why is it okay for Edmund, and not Cordelia? It seems that even when analyzing a play published in the 1600s, people are unable to shake their internalized standards for women.

But speaking of Edmund…I love him. He reminds me a lot of Richard, who also had the habit of divulging all of his sinister plans to the audience. He screws Edgar and Gloucester over so completely – it really is a sight to behold.

I found Goneril and Regan’s sudden infatuation with him to be both hysterical and unexpected. When I read these lines:

GONERIL
My most dear Gloucester!
O, the difference of man and man!
To thee a woman’s services are due;
My fool usurps my body.

I immediately began to choke on the food I was eating, because this was just too much. Where did it come from? How did this happen?

I don’t have a proper answer for you. All I can say is that, much like Richard III, Edmund’s brand of evil is incredibly charming. Even I couldn’t help being a bit taken with him, despite the fact that he was wreaking havoc.

But by play’s end, he seems to have changed his tune:

EDMUND
I pant for life. Some good I mean to do
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send –
Be brief in it – to th’ castle, for my writ
Is on the life of Lear, and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.

ALBANY
Run, run, O, run!

EDGAR
To who, my lord? [To Edmund.] Who has the office?
Send thy token of reprieve.

EDMUND
Well thought on. Take my sword. Give it the Captain.

EDGAR
[To a Soldier.] Haste thee for thy life.

EDMUND
[To Albany.] He hath commission from thy wife and me
To hang Cordelia in the prison, and
To lay the blame upon her own despair,
That she fordid herself.

I have to say that for someone who has been severely injured, Edmund sure takes a long time to die.

There are two ways of seeing this sudden change in Edmund. Either he’s actually feeling awful for ruining everybody’s lives, or he’s just trying to cause one last bit of drama to make the most out of his last moments. I would agree with either, honestly, but I love the second analysis. Edmund is a terrible person – and perhaps it’s best to just leave him as such rather than try to make an angel out of him at the very last minute. He pipes up about Cordelia and Lear’s fates, and that immediately causes a frenzy. Just how he likes it, no?

King Lear is a tragedy, and so it ends the way you’d expect. I felt terribly for Cordelia.

KING LEAR
And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never –
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

[He dies.]

Ah, Lear, you poor fool. I love the repetition of the word ‘never.’ Shakespeare is masterful with language, that much is true – even I, King Lear’s biggest critic, could feel the depths of his grief as he held Cordelia’s dead body in his arms.

But, even then, a small voice piped up in the back of my mind: he did this to himself. If you can trust Shakespeare to do anything, it’s to show you what ruin foolish behavior can result in.

And, unfortunately, that sentiment is far too relevant to current events. What on earth would Shakespeare think of us now?