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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'We That Are Young'

Ink illustration of Lear and Cordelia
Ink illustration of Lear and Cordelia

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Rachel B. Dankert, Learning and Engagement Librarian, shares items she presented on September 2, 2021 as an introduction to We That Are Young by Preti Taneja. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.

Nihin, nothing. Whether in Urdu or English, Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young shows that family disagreements, severed bonds, and selfishness come to nothing—loss and destruction. The novel takes its refrain, “Nothing will come of nothing,” (1.1.99) from the titular king whose story is told through a rotation of voices from an opulently wealthy family of the 21st century in India. Following the thread of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Taneja’s novel deepens our understanding of the central characters by rotating through each voice in their turn.

18th century manuscript recipe book

Receipt book of Elizabeth Smith, recipe “To make a Curry,” 1749-ca. 1800. Folger call number W.a.136.

The trouble began at the family meal. Dished up by Gargi (Goneril), dishes passed by Radha (Regan) with a table surrounded with sons-in-law and close confidants who had been brought into the family fold—this lunch at the Farm was the beginning of the unraveling. At that lunch, Sita (Cordelia) the youngest daughter of Devraj Bapuji’s (King Lear’s) refuses to love him the way he demands and obey his orders for marriage.

Ink illustration of Lear and Cordelia

“Lear, Cordelia” illustrated by Louis Rhead for Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, ca. 1918. Folger call number: ART Box R469 no.41 (size S).

We can imagine that scene at the Farm through this image where we see Lear accusing Cordelia of a lack of proper filial love and duty. Devraj feverishly analyzes Sita’s “lack of love” for her father throughout the novel, opening us to the possible unstaged emotional decline of King Lear. In the Lambs’ didactic retelling of King Lear for which this illustration was created, they make it clear early in the story that Cordelia’s love is the one to emulate.

Illustration of Edgar, Gloucester and Lear on the heathr

Edgar & the Duke of Gloster [sic] meeting King Lear, who in his madness is proclaiming himself ‘every inch a king.’” Folger call number: ART File S528k6 no.35 (size XS).

The novel also gives insight to the motives of another set of children, those of Devraj’s righthand man, Ranjit. One of Taneja’s creative additions to the Lear narrative is the scene in which Jeet and the blinded Ranjit (Edgar and Gloucester) visit the mountain on which Ranjit considers ending his life. Rather than meeting with the declining Devraj in a remote setting seen in this image, they stand at a distance from him in a crushing crowd of his followers.

We That Are Young refreshes Shakespeare’s King Lear by layering voices, addressing complicated politics, and infusing it with her culture and place in the world. To learn about India’s special relationship to Shakespeare’s plays, watch and read more here and listen to the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast “Shakespeare and India.” To immerse yourself in the real-world materials that influenced this month’s pick, visit our curated collection of King Lear images.

Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and whiteRegistration for our October session, when we will discuss Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, opens Tuesday, September 7. We hope you make a plan to join us!

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: