When a work of literature is deemed a “classic,” a fairly common reaction is that it must be boring, or inaccessible, or both. A better way to understand “literary classic” is that it never loses its relevance; it shapes timeless themes in transcendent form. It speaks to us emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically across the centuries.
Shakespeare’s magnificent “King Lear” is such a work — a family drama, a political and historical drama, a morality play, a story of reconciliation and redemption, a story of a powerful man’s choices yielding catastrophic results. It is also a story with a painfully bleak ending, offering the slimmest hope of social and political renewal.
Lear had been wealthy and powerful all his life. He controlled all those around him. His three daughters obeyed him. His servants and army were loyal to him. All obeyed because they feared him. But he was a flawed person, vain and unpredictable. As one of his daughters said: “He hath ever but slenderly known himself.”
This was evidenced by the retirement party he threw for himself before his court. The climactic moment of the event was when he required his three daughters to flatter him in a love contest. Lear planned to surrender his crown and divide his kingdom in three parts, awarding the best portion to the daughter whose profession of love flattered him most.
The two oldest daughters, who secretly despised him, flattered him in the most unctuous terms, cynically giving him what he wanted, so they could get what they wanted. The youngest (and his favorite) daughter refused to play the game and told him the truth: that her love was dutiful and appropriate. Lear turned on her immediately, denouncing her in the vilest terms before disinheriting and disowning her.
Lear’s oldest and most loyal servant stepped forward on her behalf, vouching for her honesty and her sisters’ hypocrisy: “What wouldst thou do old man?/Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak/When power to flattery bows?/To plainness honor’s bound/When majesty falls to folly.” Lear denounced him as a traitor and forced him into exile.
Lear soon regretted surrendering his crown after realizing that he also surrendered the power, the pomp, respect and flattery that went with it. When his two oldest daughters treated him with contempt, he ran off raging into a violent storm, breaking down mentally and physically.
In his isolation and encroaching madness, Lear began to understand that he had spent his entire life indulging himself, ignorant of the suffering of the poor, the sick and the homeless. In his darkest moment of degradation and despair, he recognizes: “Oh, I have taken too little care of this! Take psychic pomp;/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/That thou may’st shake the superflux to them/And show the heavens more just.”
As he descends further into madness, he also comes to understand the topsy-turvy nature of the world: that those who flattered him were not men of their words; that in courts of law it is difficult to tell “which is the justice and which is the thief.” He also rails against the very power he once wielded: “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not.”
His truthful daughter eventually finds him in this broken condition and provides comfort and a restful sleep for him. When he wakes up in her company, he initially thinks he has died and she is a welcoming angel. As he slowly recognizes her, he kneels to beg her forgiveness for his cruelty and folly. They are tearfully reconciled.
If the play had ended here, it would have been a joyful tale of redemption and reconciliation.
But it did not. The consequences of Lear’s foolish division of his kingdom and the trust placed in his vengeful older daughters played out in a final scene in which Lear, all his daughters, and others die violently.
The pieces of Lear’s shattered kingdom are picked up by the son of one of Lear’s dead noblemen. The play’s final words hearken back to the lies spoken at the beginning of the play, lies that precipitated the division and destruction of the nation: “The weight of this sad time we must obey;/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
King Lear is one of literature’s enduring tragedies; and like all classical tragedies, the flawed central figure here makes choices that cause his downfall and the downfall of his nation. Speaking across the centuries, this play echoes the weight of our sad time.
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”