Alan A. Stone on William Shakespeare's tragedy
|Stacy Keach and Edward Gero in the 2006 Goodman Theatre production of King Lear.|
Photograph: Liz Lauren
For centuries after Shakespeare wrote King Lear, interpreters refused to accept the play’s desolation and lack of redemption. Nahum Tate gave it a happy ending in 1691, and for 200 years a redeemed Lear and the Earl of Gloucester would peacefully retire while their good children, Cordelia and Edgar, marry and rule a unified Britain. As late as the start of the twentieth century, preeminent Shakespeare scholar A. C. Bradley lectured that Lear had reached transcendence through his suffering and died happy. Even though the play contains the bleakest line in all of Shakespeare—Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never,” as he holds his daughter’s dead body in his arms—Bradley insisted on a Christian moral to the story.
Today King Lear is recognized as the greatest tragedy in the English language, less brilliant than Hamlet but more profound and prophetic: “Humanity,” the Duke of Albany laments, “must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep.” There is no god or justice in the pre-Christian world that Shakespeare invented for Lear. Stanley Cavell’s justly famous essay “The Avoidance of Love” captures the paradox of Lear for modern audiences. “We can only learn through suffering” but have “nothing to learn from it,” he writes.
Stalin’s reign of terror, Hitler’s concentration camps, and the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave philosophers, literary critics, and theater directors a context for understanding Shakespeare’s grim text. Even so, actors and directors remained puzzled by Lear. Lear himself asks in Act I, “Does any here know me?” Was he already senile before he divided up his kingdom in exchange for public professions of love from his three daughters, or was he driven mad by the consequences of his rash decision as he realized that the two daughters who professed so much love and devotion—Goneril and Regan—now ruled over him? Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, lock Lear out of Gloucester’s home, and leave him in a terrible storm. “Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout till you have drenched out steeples,” he cries. But there is also pathos, “Here I stand your slave, a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.” Lear is at once emotionally transparent and unable to acknowledge what he has done—“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he wonders. [Read more]