I read King Lear once in college and I actually remember the gist of the plot and the names of many of the characters, which is more than I can say about the first Shakespeare play we read for the AP Challenge, Measure for Measure. I found a receipt from Super Crown in my high school copy that says I bought this book on 5/12/94, which confirms Bethany’s memory that this was the last book we read for AP English. How absurd to make us read Shakespeare at the very end of the school year, don’t you think? I was hoping for something fun, something modern. But such is life. And I actually did enjoy King Lear. It’s sad, of course; it’s a Shakespeare tragedy, but at least amidst all the death in this play justice is served. It’s not like in the romantic tragedies. Poor Lear isn’t cut down in his prime; he’s an old man and is preparing for death the whole play, except when he goes mad and forgets entirely what he is about.
This is the plot as I remember it: Lear is king of England and he wants to “retire,” and divide up his kingdom amongst his three daughters before he dies. The way he is going to decide who gets what is to have his daughters tell him how much they love him. His two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, play this game very well and spout off beautiful speeches about how much they love dear old dad. Cordelia, the youngest, who actually loves Lear the most of the three daughters, tells the truth and says that of course she loves her father but she is going to love her future husband more, for the obvious reason that he’s her husband. This makes Lear furious and he disinherits her. One of Cordelia’s two suitors abandons her at that moment, and the other one says he doesn’t care about the money/land and off they go to France or somewhere. As the play proceeds, Goneril and Regan belittle and abuse their father more and more, taking away his entourage of soldiers until he is alone with his court jester, wailing on the moors, completely insane. And then a bunch of people die, but some live. I remember that though Lear dies at the end of the play, justice seems to be served—he figures out before the end that Cordelia is the good daughter and that Goneril and Regan don’t really love him. I believe that the two evil sisters turn on each other before they die, as well.
I’m curious to see if the scenes of Lear wailing and mad on the heath are more powerful to me now than they were then. I’ve watched older clients and older pets and older relatives age and change and lose themselves as their brains degenerate. That was knowledge I didn’t have at seventeen when we read this play. I see it in my dog every day, and it’s terrible to watch. I really think that I’m going to find King Lear more emotional at thirty-five than I did the first (or even second) time around.
You know what I just learned in googling “King Lear Images” to find a picture for this post? There are a lot of famous old actors who have played King Lear. The picture above is of Sir Ian McKellen, who is probably my favorite actor over seventy.