Thoughts on “King Lear”

This is another play that I happened to study in an English class at some point, probably in high school.  I recalled enjoying it, so it was another play that I was somewhat looking forward to.  And it’s a tragedy, which certainly is a point in its favour.

The basic premise is that King Lear is aging and is probably even entering into his dotage — and is probably a little senile — and so he decides to divide up England among his three daughters.  But before he does so, he asks them how much they love him.  The two older ones — Goneril and Regan — praise him profusely and talk about how great their love for him is, but the youngest — Cordelia — says that she cannot declare that she loves him more than anyone else ever.  This enrages him and he cuts her off from her inheritance over the objections of his closest advisor, and doing so almost scuppers the proposed marriages that he was considering for her, but the King of France maintains his suit in spite of not receiving a dowry and in the face of Lear’s displeasure and marries her, taking her away to France.  Lear also turns his anger on his advisor and exiles him.  Lear is supposed to spend his time staying with his two daughters, but while staying with Goneril he causes her some trouble both with his actions and with his sizeable retinue, which she wants to reduce.  When he refuses, she insists and he attempts to go stay with Regan, but she is on Goneril’s side and they insist that he reduce his retinue and moderate his behaviour to a degree that he considers unacceptable.   Ultimately, they lock him out in a storm, which seems to badly impact his mental state as he slips into insanity.  Meanwhile, his advisor has disguised himself and returned to England, and he supports him.  At the same time, another noble is trying to take his brother’s inheritance and contrives a charge against him that is false, and then wrangles his way into Goneril and Regan’s good graces, which causes them to want to ditch their existing husbands and marry him instead.  Goneril’s husband is reasonable and opposes their general aims and treatment of their father, but Regan’s husband is as cruel as they are.  Cordelia eventually returns with an army from France and they find Lear, but lose the subsequent battle and the other noble orders Cordelia killed while being taken into custody, which is the last straw for Lear’s sanity and he dies as well, while Regan’s husband was killed earlier which causes the two of them to kill each other to try to land the noble, and then of course the noble is executed as well.

For a good tragedy, we should be able to see the tragic events coming but note that the personalities involved will make it so that they can’t avoid those outcomes.  But here that doesn’t seem to be the case.  There was no reason for Cordelia to respond to Lear’s question about how much she loves him the way she did, as she goes over and above simply saying that she wouldn’t flatter him to trying to make rather specious arguments about how she’d have to spare some love for her husband and so on and so forth.  Once she finds out about Lear’s condition, there’s no real reason for her to invade as opposed to simply trying to bring Lear back to France, especially once she finds Lear and can return with him.  The play doesn’t establish that she and her husband — who returned to France and so wasn’t with them to be captured — were really trying to re-establish her legacy or restore Lear’s, and there seemed to be little reason for them to do so.  And yet, that’s the precise event that leads to Cordelia being captured and ultimately killed, which is the real tragic event that we’re supposed to focus on, but it ultimately ends up being nonsensical, which hampers the tragedy.

A big part of this, though, is that we don’t get to know Cordelia very much throughout the play, and so we have a hard time discerning her motives.  She is far too outspoken early on in the play, but we can feel a little happy for her when the King of France wants to marry her anyway, and it would have been nice if she had been able to keep that.  But then we don’t hear much of anything from her for pretty much the entire rest of the play, which leaves her motives in returning with an army unclear.  And as noted above, since that’s what ultimately costs her her happy ending we really need to understand what her motives are.  So we think that she was unfairly treated but could have happiness with the King of France, all of which is tossed away for an invasion that she didn’t need to do and that we are given no reason for.  So it isn’t the case that the tragedy follows from who she and Lear are, because we don’t really know who she is and we have to think that she should have been smart enough to avoid it, which makes it an inferior tragedy.

The tragedy also suffers from portraying the other sisters inconsistently.  They seem to have a point in arguing that Lear’s retinue is too large and too rowdy for them to support, that Lear himself can’t seem to control them, and that Lear in fact can’t even seem to control himself as he acts out against their servants and commits violence upon them.  Since they aren’t his servants, it seems like they’d have a point that he should treat them better and given the slip in his mentality it’s also reasonable to think that he’s doing that unreasonably and so when they didn’t deserve it.  But the play then quickly moves to make them almost cartoonishly villainous, locking him out in a raging storm and then immediately contriving to throw over their husbands for the other noble and contriving to kill their husbands and each other.  The shift from them being flatterers but seemingly committed to looking after their father and only reconsidering because he’s causing so much problems to people who would commit such crimes and care not one whit for their father is way too quick and moves them from being interesting antagonists to boring ones, so it cannot be a tragedy that the entire family dies, but their deaths also aren’t a relief or give us a sense that they received justice or a sense of irony that they ultimately destroyed each other.  Perhaps if the noble was a more compelling character it could be seen as the result of his schemes, but he isn’t and so really the only feeling their deaths instilled in me was relief that at least Goneril’s husband lived.

But I think the big issue here is that there isn’t really enough plot here to fill the number of pages this play has.  “Macbeth” covers 27 pages in my edition, while “King Lear” covers 39.  But “King Lear” certainly does not have a more involved plot than “Macbeth” does, and in fact it’s a pretty simple one at its base:  elderly King hands his property over to his children on the basis of flattery and exiles the one that wouldn’t flatter him, but it turns out that the only one who was truly loyal to and loved him was the one he exiled.  Yes, I outline a lot of things happening in the plot above, but they are mostly disconnected at least in terms of the characters — a theme of family members betraying family members and elderly nobles being fooled by words in lieu of deeds — and so there doesn’t seem to be a lot happening in the plot, and yet it seems to be spending a lot of time doing it.  As such, at times I found myself bored while reading it, which is not something I’m used to having happen in one of Shakespeare’s dramas/tragedies.

And ultimately, at the end of the play, I didn’t have a sense of tragedy like I did in “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet”, but instead felt, well, depressed.  I would really have liked Cordelia to survive and live in France, and felt her death was pointless, along with pretty much all of the other deaths.  It didn’t follow from the characters as written in the play because the play doesn’t really establish their characters in the play, and so it wasn’t a tragedy that they could have avoided but wouldn’t because of who they are, but instead seems more like them making stupid mistakes and unnecessary moves that led to their downfall.  That’s depressing, not tragic.

That being said, Shakespeare does manage to get us to care about Cordelia, which is why the ending was depressing, and his writing is indeed on form here and so the speeches and dialogue still works.  So it’s still a well-written play.  However, that I was ultimately so depressed by it means that it won’t be one of my favourites.  Still, it’s better than most of his comedies and most of his historicals.  It’s just, in my opinion, an inferior tragedy.

Up next is the sequel to “Julius Caesar” in “Antony and Cleopatra”.


One Response to “Thoughts on “King Lear””

  1. Thoughts on “Timon of Athens” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] play reminds me a lot of “King Lear”, with the old and wealthy lead surrounded by flatterers who won’t actually do anything for him […]

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