In honour of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I thought it was high time to get around to some of the Shakespeare plays I’ve been putting off reading for a while now. And since I’ve been making my way through Shakespeare’s plays since the age of about thirteen, the play at the top of the list is now King Lear (currently #42 on my Classics Club list). I’ve always had an idea of what King Lear looks like; for some reason, I’ve always imagined the titular character of Shakespeare’s play to be a big, bear-like man, perhaps because of the similarity in the words Lear/bear, or perhaps because I watched too much Blackadder as a kid and my idea of a Shakespearean king is basically Brian Blessed in chainmail.
King Lear tells the story of Lear, King of Britain, who has three daughters. Being a whimsical and, one might argue, politically naïve monarch, he decides that he will hold a talent contest to determine how much of the kingdom each of his three daughters will inherit. Since the kind of clothing worn by Shakespearean women was not exactly suited to Britain’s Got Talent-style acrobatics, Lear decides he will go for a less physical approach. So he asks each of his daughters how much they love him. If you’re curious as to how this might play out, just imagine the spoiled rich girl from any 90s teen comedy ever.
So, instead of basing this monumental decision on politically sound reasoning, Lear holds a contest to determine which of his daughters is the biggest suck-up. His first two daughters, Regan and Goneril, go first, and absolutely nail it. They’re each given a sizable portion of the kingdom to rule alongside their husbands. Then it’s Cordelia’s turn to tackle this Open Mike Night situation. She’s stumped, because being a good little seventeenth-century girl, she can’t imagine loving and showing loyalty to her father at the expense of her loyalty to her husband. Which is why, she adds hurriedly, I’m not married. Despite delivering a stinging blow to her two sisters, Lear gets very angry indeed at Cordelia’s performance, and throws her off. The King of France takes pity on her because she’s so honest (read: hot) and marries her even though her father’s disowned her. Cordelia now disappears, off to be Queen of France for a while, and only returns at the end of the play to lament the fact that her dotty old dad has now gone completely barmy.
Lear’s madness is caused by the actions of his elder daughters. It transpires that Regan and Goneril hate their father, possibly because he named them after a conservative American president and a sexually transmitted disease, respectively. So they commence a great deal of scheming and murdering and fighting, which is all terribly gruesome and exciting (one guy, Cornwall, gets his eyes torn out and stomped on, and Regan gets to stab someone, an unusually violent opportunity for a female villain in Shakespeare, as they are usually content to do as Lady Macbeth does and keep their hands (comparatively) clean).
I could talk about one of the recurring themes in the play, that of nature and the natural, but it’s been done before, and to be honest, in reading through King Lear I found myself constantly distracted by something entirely different: the quality of the insults that were on display. Shakespearean insults are famously brilliant (one of my prized possessions is a collection of fridge magnets emblazoned with gems such as “thou smell of mountain goat!”. Incidentally, the fact that one of my prized possessions is a £3 box of magnets probably tells you all you need to know about the earning potential of people with English degrees). King Lear really delivers on this front. One of the earliest zingers is delivered by the Earl of Kent – he calls Oswald, Goneril’s servant, “you base football player” (Act II, Scene I). Oh, snap!
Not to be outdone, Lear jumps on the bandwagon, and at one point calls his own daughter “a boil, / A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, / In my corrupted blood” (Act II, Scene IV). Harsh words from a guy who ended his reign by essentially asking the question, ‘Who loves me, baby?’.
Kent expands on his earlier comments, spewing forth a veritable storm of bile in Oswald’s direction, calling him:
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.
(Act II, Scene I)
Phew. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that. In the end, of course, all these insults are as none, because it’s not just Lear’s daughters and their servants who are idiots; towards the end of the play, Lear exclaims: “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools” (Act IV, Scene VI), a comment which is at once a ringing condemnation of humanity and a self-aware jab at actors and the theatre itself.
I’d give Lear full points for the insults alone. And while I felt little sympathy for the foolish old Lear, or for the dull-as-doornails Cordelia, the play still managed to pack quite a punch. It may not be quite as intense or engrossing as Macbeth, Julius Caesar or, dare I say it, Romeo and Juliet, but if you want to watch an old man make a complete hash of both his family life and his kingdom, and throw in some excellent zingers along the way, then King Lear is the play for you.
Rating: 4 Stars