Self-proclaimed bibliophile, culture nut and nerdfighter. English lit. and linguistics geek. Future career in publishing.
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.
4.6, ll. 75-79
Warning: This review will be spoiler heavy and I'm not using the spoiler cut tags. If you haven't seen, read or even heard about King Lear, read my review at your own risk.
King Lear is about a king who decides that he's done with the performative side of being a king and chooses to split up his kingdom for his three daughters to inherit. Unfortunately, the one he loves best (Cordelia) is unable to say what he wants to hear and so she is ousted from the kingdom and disowned. The other two sisters seek to gain more power and end up terrorizing the king and reducing him to madness.
This is quite possibly Shakespeare's most tragic play because of the injustices that happen to a bunch of different characters. However, I also think it's one of his hardest to read, analyze and even understand. The plot is quite convoluted and is a bit draining when trying to read because so many things are referred to in passing or in one line, so it's kind of hard to pay attention. The reasoning behind Lear's mental break is never fully revealed (that I saw), in comparison with Edmund's diabolical plot. Goneril and Regan are very unlikeable characters in their conniving ways, but their true purpose is still unclear to me. What is the point in tormenting an old man, especially one that is their father, when they (well, technically their husbands) have all the power?
The true tragedy of the play is in the separation of Lear and Cordelia, and Cordelia's subsequent death. From the beginning, it's fairly evident that Lear's favourite daughter is Cordelia; no one, not even he, denies this. But the fact that she can't tell him in front of the court how much she loves him is such a sticking point that I can't believe he really knows his daughter at all. Despite her being his favourite, he doesn't seem to know how she really feels: it's obvious she loves him, she's just not great at flashy speeches with no substance like her sisters are. That Lear could be so unnerved by her refusal to vocalize her love for him is really his own fault, especially when he's so quick to believe Goneril and Regan who don't really say much other than "I love you so much, you're the best, I love you a lot" and "I love you more than her," respectively.
I think Cordelia's death hits home a lot harder than the others because of Lear's reaction: his favourite daughter just died in front of his eyes after he'd recently reconciled with her. Then, he dies from heartache. Can you say my tear-ducts are working overtime? I like Shakespeare's focus on familial love here; it's more effective than a romantic love like we see in Romeo and Juliet. The reason is because familial love is more at the core of a human being in my opinion (though, for some families, it's just not possible) and I'm sure many people want that sense of security, warmth and community that is associated with it. That's why I think King Lear is so tragic.
What I can't get behind is the lack of true motive coming from Goneril and Regan, and even Edmund (yeah, Gloucester is an asshole to him, but Edgar doesn't seem to have done anything wrong). There's also the difficulty with following Lear's mental breakdown and the force of his anger. It's so hard to read when the poetry is so flowery. True, Lear rips new ones into Cordelia, Goneril and Regan, but the speeches are so well thought-out that it doesn't even look like it's out of irrepressible rage.
Shakespeare follows decorum too well for this tragedy to really be more than just a ball of sadness (but Ben Johnson would be happy!). It's court plots and evil plans feel like they're thrown to the wayside in favour of the tear-jerking moments and so it's hard to understand because they're not developing enough.
Perhaps this is one of those plays that is most certainly much better suited to the stage.