King Lear Introduction
In A Nutshell
King Lear is everyone's favorite Shakespearean tragedy about an aging king who decides to become a nudist.
Er—hold up. King Lear is Shakespeare's most gruesome tragedy about a nobleman getting his eyes gouged out, Oberyn Martell-style.
Hmm. Still not getting all of the pertinent points in. Okay: King Lear is a super-tragic play by some guy named Bill about how, 50-66.6% of the time, your offspring will try to kill you.
It's no good. There's simply no way to be pithy about King Lear. There's a Game of Thrones-level world of hurt happening in this tragedy. There's also an Encyclopedia Brittanica-level amount of British history. And enough family dysfunction to make Sigmund Freud spit out his cigar in fright. Oh, and about a zillion eloquent quotable quotes—this is Shakespeare we're dealing with, after all.
So here are the facts, folks. King Lear is a tragedy by the big Billy himself, William Shakespeare. The play's action centers on an aging king who decides to divvy up his kingdom between his three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia) in order to avoid any conflict after his death. Early retirement and the division of the kingdom turn out to be a big no-no. Lear's actions end up destroying his family, tearing apart the kingdom, and causing a big old war, leaving just about everyone dead by the play's end.
King Lear was written between 1604 and 1606, after King James I of England (also known as King James VI of Scotland) ascended the English throne (1603). (FYI—King James just so happened to attend a performance of the play at Whitehall on December 26, 1606.)
For the past several decades, the crazily brilliant King Lear has been regarded as one of Shakespeare's greatest works, perhaps even better than Hamlet. Weirdly, this wasn't always the case. After the English Civil War (1642-1651), the play came to be regarded as a theatrical flop. The excessive portrayal of cruelty and suffering in Shakespeare's play (especially the violent blinding of Gloucester, Lear's descent into madness, and the tragic death of Cordelia) was deemed to be just too much.
It seems that after a long and grueling English Civil War, audiences were looking for something a little more upbeat and less cynical. Enter playwright Nahum Tate, who rewrote Shakespeare's play in 1681 so it would have a happy ending. (We're not kidding—he made some big changes.) In Tate's version, Lear and Cordelia live and Cordelia falls in love with and marries Edgar. (Tate was a wimp.)
We don't want to spoil the ending for you but, that's not what happens in Shakespeare's original.
But by the 1960s people were ready for a raw, real-deal Lear. After the Holocaust and two World Wars, the vision of human life presented in King Lear didn't seem overly cynical—it seemed pretty realistic. The play's graphic violence suddenly seemed appropriate. So did Lear's suggestion that gods either don't exist or, if they do, they like to torture humans. Productions of Lear (notably, Peter Brook's 1962 stage production) multiplied, and it's been riding a high tide of popularity ever since.
And, while you might not be able to Netflix a star-studded version of King Lear (why not, Hollywood? Why not?!), adaptations of Lear are everywhere you turn. Elements of this play have been used in about a zillion other texts, from hugely important classics of Japanese film like Akira Kurosawa's Ran, to 20th Century American literary classics like Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, to The Beatle's song "I Am The Walrus."
It may have had a rocky past (hey, so did Moby-Dick) but, given the breadth of its influence—not to mention its brilliance—King Lear is here to stay.
Why Should I Care?
Yo, how about this one: it's by Shakespeare.
And if that doesn't impress you, try this one on for size: it's a tragedy by Shakespeare. It's not one of his fusty histories or cheesy comedies (not that those are anything to sneeze at, but the tragedies are in a class of their own).
And if that doesn’t impress you (tough crowd): it's considered by many to be Shakespeare's best tragedy, outranking ever Hamlet. That basically makes it—according to some very brainy lit critics—the most important play by the most important playwright that ever wrote in English.
Yup. If that isn't doesn't activate the "must read now!" part of your cerebral cortex (hey, we're lit nerds, not neurosurgeons) we don't know what will. Seriously. We have no idea.
So why is this such a brain-shatteringly important read? Isn't King Lear just a play about a senile old man who makes a series of bad political decisions until just about everyone winds up dead? Nope: King Lear is about a whole lot more than Lear's political crisis. When it comes down to it, family relationships—not just politics—are at the heart of the play.
Famous literary critic Stephen Greenblatt writes that "the focus of Shakespeare's tragedy" is "Lear's folly," which amounts to his decision to "rashly disinherit the only child who truly loves him" (Introduction to King Lear, Norton Edition). In other words, when Big Papa Lear disowns his loving daughter, Cordelia, he pretty much sets in motion the tragic events that follow—Goneril and Regan betray their father (they throw him out into the cold before proceeding to fight one another over a guy), Lear becomes homeless and wanders around the kingdom, war erupts, Goneril poisons her sister, Regan, and then kills herself, Cordelia is unjustly put to death by order of her sister's lover, Lear dies of a broken heart, and so on.
In other words, Lear's whole family ends up dead.
So, is Shakespeare telling us to be nice to our families? You bet. He's also telling us that family drama is universal and timeless. So, after you read Lear, you'll definitely want to give your annoying little sister a hug instead of trying to steal her evil boyfriend—you'll also want to rethink your plan to poison your sibling and throw your aging father out onto the streets after he gives you your own kingdom. Or, you know, put on a happy face at the next (predictably insane) family Thanksgiving.