Sunday, February 20, 2011

Discussion: King Lear

The play: King Lear

The plot tweet: King Lear divides kingdom among two daughters, disowns the third = unwise. The 1st and 2nd drive him mad, the 3rd dies trying to save him.

My favorite line:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous;
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.


When I was learning to read, one of my favorite chapter books was The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh. It tells the story of humans who flee the destruction of Earth and colonize a new planet, leaving quickly and taking very little with them. They are allowed just one book each. The narrator's father chooses A Dictionary of Intermediate Technology, because he wants to be useful. The sister chooses a book about ponies, and the brother chooses Robinson Crusoe. The narrator herself chooses an empty notebook, which eventually becomes the chronicle of the colonists' new life.
We didn't think. We were excited, disturbed, and we hadn't really understood that everything else would be left behind. Father looked wistfully at the shelves. He picked up The Oxford Complete Shakespeare. "Have you all chosen your books?" he asked. "Yes," we told him. He put the Shakespeare back.
In the end, the new planet's library includes important works like Grimm's Fairy Tales, Homer's Iliad, and three copies of Robinson Crusoe. But there's not a single thing by Shakespeare, and the colonists try in vain to piece together their memories of Hamlet. Even as a child, I recognized this as an incalculable loss.

I often think about The Green Book when people ask me which of Shakespeare's plays is my favorite. If you can rescue only one, which one do you save? Shakespeare is so much a part of the fabric of our culture, it's hard to imagine life without Romeo and Juliet, Hal and Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, Lear, Puck, Iago and Macbeth.

Which one do I save? If I'm founding a new colony on a distant planet, where the book I choose will enrich a new culture's intellectual development, I choose Hamlet. I don't see how it can be otherwise. But, if I'm going to be marooned alone like Robinson Crusoe, with just one book to my name, I choose King Lear. There is nothing else by Shakespeare, or by anyone else, to match its grandeur and beauty.

In one blog post, it's impossible even to give an overview of the critical discussion of King Lear. I once wrote a 20-page paper about the delivery of just three words ("What need one?"), and that is just one of thousands of issues raised by this play. We could spend years discussing the ramifications of the sub-plot (which is unique among Shakespeare's major tragedies), the role of the Fool, the multiple (and sometimes conflicting) meanings of words like nature and nothing, and the tragedy's odd echoes of the medieval morality plays. As many scholars have done, we could also debate whether this play is even actable.

But let's not. Maybe it's because I just took a two-hour yoga class, but today I'm inclined to appreciate rather than analyze. I am grateful to have King Lear. And Hamlet. And the 36 other plays, too (although, truthfully, I could do without Merry Wives). I am grateful to know Lear, Cordelia, Kent and even Edmund, cold as he may be.

That said, it's important to remember that what makes King Lear so powerful is its horror, or more specifically a sense that Lear's collapse has broader apocalyptic implications. This summer, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, and the apocalyptic element was emphasized in scenery that literally fell apart as Lear descended into madness. Before the play started, the actor who played Edgar sat, alone and obviously devastated, on a ruined stage, creating a loop of prologue and epilogue. For the very few characters who survive this play, there's nothing much left of the world they knew.

The production was deeply horrifying, and in that respect it was tremendous. It was the best production of King Lear that I have ever seen, and the best production I ever hope to see. I wept, as did everyone else, for a fictional character we'd met just two hours before. That is the power of all great tragedies, and of Shakespeare's work in particular, and most especially of King Lear.

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