What is real love? How do we learn to forgive?
And is anyone ever beyond redemption?
Shakespeare explores some of life’s most profound questions in the story of Lear: a fallen king and rejected father alone in a world that has lost its meaning. A breathtaking journey of love, loss, and restoration, this touching and terrifying tragedy reminds us of what it means to be human.
Lear, the formerly powerful, but now aged King of Britain, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril (married to the Duke of Albany), Regan (married to the Duke of Cornwall), and Cordelia (not yet married). In a ceremony, Lear asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Regan comply, but Cordelia refuses to speak. Wounded and furious, Lear disowns his former favorite and banishes the earl of Kent, who had come to Cordelia’s defense. Lear declares that he will divide his time between his eldest daughters’ estates with a train of 100 knights. Despite the loss of her fortune, the King of France still wishes to marry Cordelia, and they depart for his country.
Meanwhile, Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, plots to remove his favored elder brother, Edgar, from his father’s good graces. He forges a letter implicating Edgar in a plan to take Gloucester’s life, and gives it to their father.
We return to Lear in the midst of his stay at Goneril’s, where he is rejoined by the loyal Kent, now in disguise as “Caius.” When Goneril attempts to reduce the number of Lear’s knights, Lear is insulted and takes flight to his other daughter.
At Gloucester’s house, Edmund succeeds in fully framing his brother Edgar, causing him to flee to the wilderness. Regan and Cornwall arrive and take Gloucester’s side, and commend Edmund for his noble behavior. Also arriving at Gloucester’s are Kent and Goneril’s servant Oswald, each with letters for Regan. The two fight, and Kent winds up in the stocks, which outrages Lear upon his arrival.
Finding no warmer greeting from his daughter Regan, Lear ventures out into the dark night and rising storm with his Fool and Kent. Seeking shelter, they run into Edgar, now pretending to be a mad beggar named “poor Tom.” Gloucester goes to rescue Lear from the storm, and Edmund betrays his father to Regan and Cornwall as a traitor. They then pluck out Gloucester’s eyes as punishment. Cornwall is mortally wounded by a servant.
Though Albany and Cornwall had been preparing for civil war against each other, instead they join forces (with Edmund at the head of slain Cornwall’s men) to do battle with Cordelia and the French. A fight ensues, France loses, and Cordelia and Lear are taken prisoner. Edmund, who had been wooing both Goneril and Regan, wishes to take the English throne. He secretly sends a Captain to have Lear and Cordelia murdered in their cell. Goneril poisons her sister Regan out of jealousy, and Edmund is confronted by Edgar in disguise and wounded, after which, Goneril flees and commits suicide. Before dying himself, Edmund tells the group of his plan for Lear and Cordelia. A rescue is sent, but it is too late, and Lear returns carrying Cordelia’s corpse. In his grief, Lear dies. Kent says he will follow, and Albany declares Edgar the new King of Britain.
Lear: Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Fool: Lear’s shadow.
King Lear has haunted me for a long time now, ever since I was a college junior enrolled in my “Advanced Shakespeare” class with my favorite English professor. I was excited to take it and delve into more of the obscure Shakespeare plays-really spend some time with Troilus and Cressida, perhaps, or Pericles. So imagine my surprise the first day of class when I arrived to discover that we would be spending the entire semester on just one play: King Lear. I thought, “A whole semester on one play? How is that possible? What will talk about all those classes?”
I was in for an adventure, though, because not only did we have plenty to talk about, I left that class thinking I could spend at least two or three more semesters exploring the play. I also left with a strong desire to direct it: to engage with the text in a performance context and continue on the road to discovery and understanding.
Years later, I finally have the opportunity to tackle this rich and brilliant text with a company of talented actors and designers, and I have been learning more about the play with them every day. Stage tradition has given us either a Lear as tragic King, or Lear as misunderstood everyman, though I think he is actually both. He begins the play “every inch a King,” dressed in his robes and finery, attended to by many, deferred to by all. He has had absolute power all of his life, and is so convinced of the sincerity of those who bow to him, that he feels comfortable stepping down as King and dividing his lands and power amongst his daughters and sons-in-law.
As the play continues, the audience, along with Lear, realizes what a mistake he has made. As he faces his daughter Goneril who wants to reduce his followers and take control of his life, he asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?,” wanting to know, is he still the King? Will anyone there stand up for him, show him the respect that is his due, and that he has always received his whole life? The answer, (given by the Fool in the Folio version of the text, and Lear himself in the Quarto) is “Lear’s shadow.” He has become just a shadow of his former self, the pale colorless reflection of the powerful man he used to be. Later, in the midst of his madness, and stripped of all the “addition of a King,” Lear realizes, “Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all.” Now, as just a man, Lear understands how his position blinded him to the true natures of those around him.
Speaking of “Nature,” and “Blindness,” those are also two themes that run throughout the play. Listen for their use by Edmund the Bastard, as he justifies his villainous behavior, or Gloucester as he struggles to understand his fate. “Nothing will come of Nothing,” Lear tells his daughter Cordelia, who refuses to publicly speak of her love for her father, and he is correct, as “nothing” returns in the play again and again, leading to some critics to view this piece as nihilistic or as a precursor to existentialism. Whatever it is, it is fascinating, and I hope gives you lots to think about and ponder after you leave the theatre.