“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” said George Bernard Shaw. He might have added: “Or a sadder one.” William Shakespeare’s play is a staggering triumph of poetic texture and metaphor, but also a shattering exploration of the soul’s darkest corners. It is so bleak that, for over a century, theatres tacked on a happy ending. The basic plot is simple: after the elderly Lear disowns the only daughter who loves him, he is left at the mercy of the other two, who scheme to take over his kingdom. Seeing his error, he goes mad as his realm collapses around him. By the end, almost everyone has died, leaving the audience to ponder the fragility of love, power, and justice in the world.
Lear is both a ruler and a father. In the strict hierarchies of Elizabethan England, he should have commanded total respect. Instead, his two older daughters mistreat him cruelly and rob him of all authority; much the same happens to his friend, the Earl of Gloucester. Although power structures are very different in modern-day England, we still recognise that Lear has been wronged.
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In King Lear, the baddies meet sticky ends – but, then, so do the goodies. As the characters wonder whether they get what they deserve, the question of divine justice emerges as a key theme. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport,” laments Gloucester, but his son, Edgar, insists that “the gods are just”. Today, we tend to consider justice in terms of the law.
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Lear starts off a little unstable; by Act IV, he is ranting and raving, a crown of flowers on his head. Yet while his madness causes his downfall, it also leads him to moments of piercing clarity. Similarly, his loyal companion, the Fool, speaks the truth, but in nonsense rhyme. In Shakespeare’s play, there is a fine line between wisdom and insanity. Can it help us understand mental health today?
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In the play’s remarkable climax, Lear wanders around a barren moor in the midst of a thunderstorm. While reflecting on his inner turmoil, nature’s awesome force also leads the king to confront his own relative insignificance. This is something of a motif in King Lear: the words “nature” and “natural” recur dozens of times. How different is our relationship with the weather today?
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At the play’s beginning, Lear rules the realm in a classic example of a patriarchy; then his two older daughters seize power. This is interesting in itself, but King Lear’s performance history has plenty more examples of gender reversals. As with all Shakespeare plays, each role was originally performed by a man. More recently, women have played Lear himself. How fluid is gender, really?
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