King Lear is a crazy old rich man – think Ted Knight from Caddyshack. I picture him in the first scene dressed in golf pants and yachting cap, making an absurd farewell speech in the bookcased walls of his study. He’s pacing with a self satisfied smile, with a portrait of himself above a fireplace. His two elder daughters Goneril and Regan are WASPy women who rule over their husbands, planning every step on the social climb. They need this inheritance because they’re already spending it – they’ve hired decorators for the castles and new staff for the farms and kitchens. They look down in scorn at the youngest Cordelia, for she is the father’s favorite and has a set of values and principles that irks their callous sensibilities. Cordelia is unmarried and presently courted by two suitors, Burgundy and France.
Lear has assembled this cast to make a public show of his generosity, to extract declarations of love from his daughters so he can dole out his land and money accordingly. I’m reminded as well of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums in which Royal announces he has “a bad case of cancer” to garner some sympathy from his dubious children. It’s a farce. And the two elder daughters treat it as such, obliging him with phony expressions of their love. But Cordelia doesn’t see the humor in any of this – she sees her father as a sick man, publicly playing out his senility onstage. She refuses to play along. Cordelia is the moral center of King Lear, though it is important to note that her role is relatively small. King Lear is not a moral play. It is a “miracle play,” to quote Harold Goddard, who was quoting in turn from one of his students: “It says everything, and if this is the last and final judgment on the world we live in, then it is a miraculous world.”
The first scene is the busiest opening scene in all of Shakespeare. We are given some of the background by Earl of Gloucester, a savvy politician who has also just introduced his illegitimate son Edmund to Earl of Kent, a loyal member of Lear’s court. Gloucester can’t help but make some dirty jokes in front of him (“there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.”) He’s a lesser member at the Caddyshack Bushwood Country Club, who regularly golfs and lunches with Lear but isn’t necessarily loyal to anyone but himself. Kent on the other hand has a rugged sense of loyalty to Lear that knows no bounds; to say he’s Bill Murray’s Carl is not doing either a disservice. He’s a good if somewhat crude man, who’s unafraid to speak harsh truths and make raunchy jokes. They both witness this bizarre spectacle that unfolds in Lear’s court: the two elder daughters singing platitudes to get their inheritance, then the youngest refusing to oblige. “Nothing,” Cordelia says. Lear is stunned: “Nothing will come of nothing.” That is: no ass kissing, no inheritance. And there is more – after she still refuses, Lear then cuts her off completely in front of her two suitors. Burgundy has no interest in a poor princess without a kingdom, but France for his part delivers a fine expression of true love: “Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised.” France is a true romantic poet, a decent man, but he really has no place in a play like King Lear. He whisks Cordelia away never to be seen onstage again. Kent openly objects to Lear’s behavior, but he is banished for his efforts. All are stunned by this display, except for Goneril and Regan who seem perfectly content to have their land, senile father and all.
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We are already making some assumptions. King Lear is a vain, vindictive man, casting off his loyal friend and loving daughter. We might also have some sympathy for Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard who is openly mocked by that favored Shakespeare epithet “whoreson.” These assumptions are wrong. We must understand that Lear is approaching senility from the start. We must have empathy for him. We can laugh at him if we want, but we shouldn’t see him as a villain. Again think of Ted Knight – a silly, arrogant man but not necessarily a bad one. Furthermore, his idea of abdicating the throne and passing his kingdom down to his daughters is not pure vanity. Recall the speech in Richard II about the fate of all kings: “some slain in war, some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d; all murder’d.” In that sense, Lear’s plan is progressive – he’s just handing down the family business to his children. Of course the real problem with this plan is that Lear wants to hand over the crown while retaining all the perks of the office. It’s like George W Bush camping out on the White House lawn to paint his stupid dog pictures.
To address our other assumption, poor Edmund the mistreated bastard son. Edmund is Cartman from South Park, while Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar is Butters. Edmund is coldly manipulative, engineering his plan for maximum benefit to himself and calamity for others. Edgar like Butters is trusting, morally good but imbecelic. Just as Edmund can adapt and improvise with malevolence as his plan unfolds, Edgar embraces stupidity. Like all Shakespeare villains, Edmund has fair grievances and a sharp wit. Why should he be so disrespected, denied a proper chance in favor of his dumb half-brother? In fact, Edmund expresses the most sophisticated philosophy in the play, when he responds in an aside to Gloucester’s blaming of the kingdom’s troubles on “nature.” (Nature, we can assume, is another term for astrology or religious belief in this context.)
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star!
Edmund’s plan requires the framing of his brother for conspiracy to murder their father. His opening move is obviously transparent and Cartmanesque, pretending to hide away a letter as Gloucester returns from the scene at Lear’s court. Gloucester of course demands to see it and Edmund expresses suitable dismay at the possibility that good Edgar could be so corrupt. Conveniently, Edmund suggests a scheme to provide proof, so he stages an attack just he warns Edgar to flee the kingdom. He tells him that there’s been a misunderstanding and their father is angry but of course he’ll take care of anything. Trusting Edgar runs off, eventually removing all his clothes and donning the appearance of a wandering lunatic. The role suits him perfectly. Edmund has no problem with seeing his father so troubled by this apparent murderous conspiracy of his beloved son.
Meanwhile Goneril and Regan have entered into a partnership to freeze out their father from any remaining power. It’s worth making a distinction between their husbands – Goneril’s husband Albany basically follows her lead though he evinces some trepidation, while Regan’s Cornwall is quite equal to her treachery. Goneril has a steward named Oswald, who is like an impish Hollywood assistant revelling in his limited authority. We picture him busy on the phone, casually telling Lear to take a seat in the waiting room before Goneril will see him. He won’t even call him king; “my lady’s father,” he says, the height of disrespect. By now Lear has been joined by loyal Kent in disguise, whose street values are so insulted by Oswald that he kicks, insults, and fights him.
Why is Kent so loyal? Here is another key point to understanding the play. Lear is a good man, even if has seemed a vain king and poor father. He has a court full of boisterous knights and drunks. The Caddyshack golfers who loudly raunch up the grill room on a Sunday afternoon. And his most trusted confidente is his Fool. A Fool is a court jester, a personal comedian who provides constant entertainment for the king. But the Fool is the true voice of reason in this play, however couched his truths may be in absurdity. The Fool speaks the truth to King Lear, insults him, makes him the butt of his jokes. (Lear: “Dost thou call me fool, boy?” Fool: “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.”) If Lear is Ted Knight, then the Fool is Rodney Dangerfield, upending vanity and power with humor. But Lear loves the Fool, accepts all jokes and insults willingly. This is a clear sign that Lear is no villain. Recall Julius Caesar’s astute observation about conspirator Cassius: “he hears no music; seldom he smiles…such men as he never be at heart’s ease.” Lear hears the music, he likes to laugh, even at himself. He seeks love from his daughters, however misguided his initial plan. We see that Lear can be redeemed and by the end of Act II we hope him to be.
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The play changes in Act III, turning into something else entirely. We can dispense with our pop culture comparisons and any hopes for a happy ending. The final three acts of King Lear are drama of an otherwordly sort, brutal and haunting and very special. There is nothing else like it, not even in Shakespeare. This is a godless universe. We’re not talking in terms of atheism, but more in a dramatic sense. The gods have abandoned or cursed this world. This is an intentional thematic element, as the characters routinely refer to ‘the gods’ in this manner; we have Gloucester’s famous line (“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport”) as one of many examples.
We begin Act III with a thunderstorm, with Lear and his wandering crew finding some solace in a hovel. A sad court he has been reduced to: the Fool, Kent in disguise, and later Edgar also in disguise as wandering lunatic. The traumas Lear has endured have inflamed his senility – he takes his imaginary throne in the hovel, receiving counsel from Edgar’s babbling nonsense, speaking to stray cats as his daughters. Meanwhile Gloucester the politician has recognized the severity of these troubles – the kingdom itself is jeopardy. He has received a letter about a possible French invasion, so he decides to search out for the king and return some stability to the kingdom. He gives the letter to Edmund, who of course sees the opportunity for further mischief. He informs Cornwall of his father’s actions; recall that Cornwall is the more brutal of the two husbands and the one basically in charge of the operation at this point.
Gloucester heads off to the wilderness to find Lear in a sad state (“What, hath your grace no better company?” he asks at the sight of crazy Edgar, whom he doesn’t recognize as his own son). He and Kent then decide to contact Cordelia, so he returns to the kindom where Cornwall and the sisters are waiting for him with incriminating evidence. We are then witness to the most brutal scene in the play – Gloucester accused of being a traitor, then publicly blinded by having his eyes ripped out. We are not spared the gruesome details and by the end he is left onstage bleeding, with servants rushing about for rags and egg whites. One of the servants shouts, “Now, heaven help him!” Not likely.
Blind Gloucester wanders back off to the wilderness, where he finds Edgar still disguised. Gloucester’s narrative now mirrors Lear’s to some degree. Gloucester wishes only to be led to the cliffs of Dover, where he can leap off to his death. And Edgar, who though tortured and conflicted still doesn’t reveal his true identity, pretends to lead him and tells him to jump. When he only just falls to his feet, Edgar tells him with another voice that he flew and was saved by divine intervention. It’s a tragic bit of farce – but isn’t death itself? Gloucester will now accept his affliction and live on, while Edgar holds his hand as if at the bedside at a hospital. See how we must give up our South Park comparisons? We can’t joke about King Lear anymore.
The reconciliation of King Lear with Cordelia follows with the poetic height of the play. She has returned with the French army, as we will recall that the good King of France loved her and married her. Lear is a bit of a wreck at this point, a wandering king without a kingdom or a family, wearing flowers for a crown. She’s been aware of his madness from the start – this is why she was so evasive in that first scene – so the sight of him now breaks her heart. He too is keenly aware of his sin against her, and perhaps his full descent into insanity was a sort of psychological defense. Again we have a picture of the child at a parent’s bedside, a deeply moving, very human sort of scene:
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
And so I am, I am.
Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you 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.
No cause, no cause.
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Cordelia forgives him – in fact, her love is such that there’s nothing really to forgive. Those scenes serve as the climax of the play, the spiritual height. What follows is a brutal, tragic exclamation point. Things must end bloody in big Shakespeare tragedies, and King Lear ends in a rush of quick deaths. By now Goneril and Regan have both fallen in love with treacherous Edmund; Cornwall has died from a servant’s wound, while Albany has summoned enough moral courage to turn his back on all of this nonsense. Albany had always been quietly disapproving of these schemes, but the blinding of Gloucester went well beyond the comfortable levels of social climbing. He also discovers evidence of an affair between Edmund and Goneril, who is at deathly odds with her sister over the conniving bastard. The French army is fought back and Lear and Cordelia imprisoned. Nearly everyone eventually dies – we can make a comparison to the end of Hamlet, though this isn’t as dramatically satisfying. Fair enough. One of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths as a writer is the willingness to veer off course, to follow his muse wherever it might go regardless of “proper” plot. This is surely how a bar ruffian in Henry IV became Falstaff, or the classic tale in Pericles got off into a comical sideplot at a whorehouse. We can forgive a rushed ending in exchange for the high poetry at the cliffs of Dover and the forgiven king.
We must also endure the final tragic picture of Lear with dead Cordelia in his arms. Though Edmund attempts redemption before his death, it is not in time to call off her execution. The Fool has been hanged as well. Lear’s most loyal companions – the one who followed his descent into madness and the one who brought him back – are both gone. Lear himself dies with some mysterious final vision: “Look there, look there!” The kingdom is in shambles, with Kent, Edgar, and Albany left to pick up the pieces. The final stage direction: “Exeunt, with a dead march.” Have a great night everybody, drive home safely!
There is perhaps a lesson that can be extracted here about aging and acceptance. King Lear wanted the benefits of charity without sacrifice. Or we might say something about unconditional love and forgiveness. But that’s just imposing sentimentality on a work of art that actively resists those shallow definitions. Is it an existential play? Perhaps, but any sort of label feels insufficient to bound its miracle. As Lear says, “Nothing comes from nothing.” Or as Dylan sang, “Nothing is revealed.”
Albany has the most fitting phrase in summation: “Our present business is general woe.” How apt. How timeless. King Lear will never go out of style.