Prior to reading Lear, I hadn't read a Shakespearean play for four years. As soon as I started to read him, I remembered that he is a genius and that none of his reputation is groundless hype. "Oh yes. That's right. He's the greatest writer who ever lived" I thought. It will no doubt take a few years to decide exactly what I think of this play but it is clearly up there with my second and third favorite Shakespeare plays; The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice. I started and stopped this play several times in years prior and I think I must have been waiting for the perfect time for it. It is a play about an old man and is, in some ways, for older people.
The language is of course as good as any writer. The only writers that could combine poetry and narrative technique as well as Shakespeare were Dante and perhaps Homer at his very best. Lear is Shakespeare at his very peak. He manages to write a stirring and beautiful scene in which one of the main characters has his eyes gouged out on stage.
Sharing a lot in common with both the Tempest and Wuthering Heights, the weather and the landscape, especially in the crucial third act, match the internal conflicts of the character's. It is, like both those other works, a work about betrayal. In fact, it is probably the best work ever written on pure malevolent betrayal and it really is almost exclusively focused on the consequences of that betrayal. The betrayal by his daughters literally drives Lear mad. There is really no redemption in the main story for anyone and interpretations of the play that find Lear redeemed are I think wrong. He is swept down into hell along with almost everyone else, and Shakespeare does not take the edge off his portrayal. Shakespeare does not even let Cordelia survive. This is contrasted with the secondary story of Edmund's betrayal of his father Gloucester which is motivated and which there is an element of redemption and of the good guys winning. It's main purpose is I think to highlight the almost totally bleakness of the main action.
This action is relentless. In the first scene we get an act of naive love and generosity in which the aging Lear literally gives his kingdom away. This act is presented as both loving and foolish and part of the darkness of the play is that Shakespeare seems to be saying do not give up any of your own power over your personal destiny even for paternal love. Almost immediately, Goneril and Regan betray their father over what amounts to nothing. Essentially they destroy their own father who has given them a kingdom, because his jester is rude and his knights are irritating the serving staff. I think a crucial element of the play is that his daughters cruelty is really a casual almost unmotivated cruelty. This contrasts with the betrayal by Edmund which is at least motivated by a desire for power and wealth. The lack of motivation of the daughter's gives a kind of demonic element to the villainy that is almost never there in Shakespeare's portrayals of evil.
It is a strange kind of tragedy. It is a tragedy where the hero's tragic flaws are really a naive love and a willingness to give up power over his own destiny to people he loves and trusts. It is also strange for Shakespeare, in that his normal emphasis on psychological realism is not all that important and, that like the landscape, the characters take on more archetypal roles than is normal for him as a writer. There are an array of good and noble and self-sacrificing characters arrayed against a mirrored group of evil characters. In Lear's daughter's we find pure benevolence in Cordelia versus a pure malevolence in the other two daughters.
Interestingly, no one is really able to exercise any control over their own fate. Lear foolishly gives away his Kingdom. Cordelia stands frozen near by. Kent's warnings are unheeded. They are both sucked down into the vortex. The two sisters betray their father all for no reason and then are sucked down and destroyed in turn. Both good and evil are incapable of dealing with the consequence of the betrayal. There is the dark and wild storm on the heath: a kind of powerless of both good and evil to control their own fates. The only one who is making any sense in the whole play is the enigmatic figure of the fool, who is quite unlike any other fool in Shakespeare, but even the fool is not an actor merely a commentator on the action and he is also explicitly a fool.
The whole thing feels like a giant whirlpool sucking vortex into hell. It is much much darker that any other play of Shakespeare's and there is a helplessness and futility to it that is not there in Shakespeare's other tragedies which are much more about watching tragic flaws unfold.
It strikes me as both more modern and more primal than a typical Shakespeare play. There is a touch of the post-holocaust world of modern, incomprehensible, unmotivated, civilized savagery and a touch of the primal, the primitive, of out of control passions, a savagery reflecting and being dominated by the savagery of nature.
Beautiful and lovely book on malevolent evil and betrayal. It changed me as I read it, which only a few dozen books have ever managed to do.