King Lear by William Shakespeare

A review of the historical play King Lear by William Shakespeare.

Image Credit: 
James Barry / Public Domain

William Shakespeare’s King Lear is, by my reckoning, his bona fide masterpiece, but even as a poet and a writer myself, it took me a long time to grow a fondness for the bard. After all, I was just an ordinary British kid in a sleepy-eyed seaside town stuck in a drab little excuse of a state school, which failed its OFSTED inspections and expelled its pupils at the slightest whiff of trouble.

Despite my passion for English Language and Literature, reading Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet for my SATs and GCSEs failed to convince me that Shakespeare was anything more than an archaic throwback—a relic, just like Chaucer—with dialogue almost as cryptic as an alien language and stage plays as unfathomable as Situationist performance art. I had no idea what Shakespeare’s characters were blabbering on about for most of the time, and this was long before Google Translate could have come to my rescue, even though it’d probably need a time-travelling algorithm to figure out the vocabulary of 17th century theatre-goers.

It wasn’t until I studied English at college that King Lear was offered as part of the A-Level syllabus when suddenly, something clicked. I got Shakespeare. I believed the hype. From its very opening scene in Act 1, King Lear had me entranced with its story of an old and weary monarch confusing sycophancy with love, banishing Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loved him, in favour of the two daughters who didn’t, simply because Cordelia refuses to profess her love for her father openly.

What follows next is Lear’s inevitable slide into madness after he carves up his kingdom among those with malicious hearts and ill-intentions, with Lear’s descent into mania depicted masterfully by Shakespeare’s atmospheric monsoon of apocalyptic but poetic wordplay. Ultimately, King Lear is a dark, cautionary tale, with much to say about power, duty and love, but laced with a bitter irony at its heart made all the more vivid by a creeping fog of cataclysmic foreboding.

As an unrelenting work of tragedy, King Lear dabbles in themes so bleak it defies belief Shakespeare had the balls to be so gutsy. Having been written in the early 1600s when people truly believed in the divine right of kings—the belief that one’s monarch is ordained by God to rule over the nation—King Lear can only be seen as a revolutionary work of satiric vision.

Having been blinded by his own hubris and gifting his kingdom to those with nefarious motives, King Lear’s wisdom and authority is challenged by the Fool, his court jester, as if the world has gone topsy-turvy with roles reversed. In fact, my favourite passage from King Lear which best illustrates this is in Act 3 Scene 2 where the Fool makes the following prophecy:

When priests are more in word than matter,
When brewers mar their malt with water,
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors,
No heretics burned but wenches’ suitors,
When every case in law is right,
No squire in debt nor no poor knight,
When slanders do not live in tongues,
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs,
When usurers tell their gold i’ th’ field,
And bawds and whores do churches build—
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion.
Then comes the time, who lives to see ’t,
That going shall be used with feet.

King Lear by William Shakespeare

This is Armageddon, writ large, which was no doubt a terrifying prospect for Elizabethan audiences. With Lear seemingly cursed as a result of his earlier misdeeds, the whole of mankind is now doomed to be swept up in a state of apocalypse and the world starts to come apart at the seams.

In fact, Lear’s psychological plummet into insanity is mirrored by its effect on the natural world. The ‘foul weather’ punishes ‘the little world of man’ with Shakespeare describing rain, thunder and storms lashing Lear’s kingdom as though the disgraced King has incurred the wrath of God, causing Lear’s mind to fall further into the abyss of dementia.

Despite its references to an omnipotent deity and knowingly hinting at how Lear has defied the natural order of things, by its closing act and existentialist denouement, King Lear could almost chill the icy heart of the most staunch of atheists. Its conclusion could well be interpreted as depicting a godless and meaningless universe, suggesting our world is fragile enough to be destroyed all-too-easily by sedition and the nature of evil.

This play was a real wake-up call to me as a writer and as a reader—it made me realise that Shakespeare’s work cannot be understood through the prism of theatre performance alone (Sorry, RADA!). Nor can Shakespeare be rendered more relatable in the form of televised drama (bad news for all the teachers relying on BBC adaptations to teach secondary school students, eh?).

In my opinion, reading King Lear taught me that Shakespeare’s most enduring contribution to modern English language is his poetic technique and (obviously) the thousands of words he bestowed to us within his body of work. I’d say King Lear is arguably one of the finest examples showing how Shakespeare used his poetic prowess to perfect nearly all the tenets of our modern lexicon—from language, to genre, to character motivation—to lend resonance, emotion and beauty to the stories he sought to tell.

Discovering King Lear was the first time I realised Shakespeare’s plays should not be read as if they are Hollywood screenplays, but as long narrative poems—for sure, King Lear is presented in a stage-based five-act structure, but for me, it’s the rhyme schemes, its metaphors, and its underlying themes, which lends the story its power.

To modern eyes, especially young ones, Shakespeare’s writing may not seem like it makes complete logical sense at first reading, but they evoke more intensity through the poetic inferences they conjure, and once you’re in tune with that frequency, you’re hooked.

Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but I do feel Shakespeare is foisted upon kids far too young. Perhaps it’s a maturity thing: my best guess is I had to occupy a particular headspace—I needed to understand more about myself and the world—before I could fully grow to appreciate Shakespeare.

That being said, I’ll always be thankful to the ghost of England’s finest playwright for the fact I was able to discover King Lear, for I can say with some certainty that learning to appreciate Shakespeare’s genius has made me a better poet, a better writer, but most of all, a better person.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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1 Comment

  • Seb Reilly says:

    King Lear is an incredible piece of work. It took me until well after school to appreciate Shakespeare, but the foundations were laid during education. I think, in some respect, that helped as it gave me an understanding of the language, along with a sense of context.

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