By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
So great is the suffering depicted in Shakespeare’s King Lear that one has trouble finding the words to write about it. It is a play that relentlessly challenges its readers and theater audiences with the magnitude, intensity, and sheer duration of the pain that it represents. While other tragedies, including many of Shakespeare’s, depict their characters experiencing a measure of joy and satisfaction before the onset of their misery, King Lear offers us no such relief. From beginning to end, all of its figures suffer, and all attempt various strategies to escape their suffering—some hardening their hearts, others engaging in orgies of violence, many devoting themselves to alleviating the suffering of others, Lear himself raging against his own pain until his sanity cracks. In this play only death seems to provide escape from “the rack of this tough world.”
What, then, keeps bringing us back to King Lear? There is, of course, the power of the language. Once one has absorbed this play, one can articulate one’s own suffering; one can put language to one’s horror in the face of human cruelty and poverty; one has words to express the depths of grief that follow on extreme loss. But the fact that King Lear is almost equally powerful when translated (for example, into Japanese), converted to film, and set in lands far different from ancient Britain makes it likely that it is the story told in Lear that, in large part, draws us to the play. Within Lear are stories of two families, each caught up in a struggle between greed and cruelty, on the one hand, and support and consolation on the other. Each family is centered in an aging father, one an imperious near-tyrant, the other a gullible sensualist, each of whom sees his children through a distorted lens and, turning against the child who truly loves him, unleashes in his other child (or, in Lear’s case, children) enormous greed, lust, and ambition.
This double story draws us because it tells us about families—about fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, sisters and their husbands and lovers, brothers natural and unnatural. In this play, ordinary jealousies, demands for love, sibling rivalries, desire for money and power, petty cruelties are all taken to the extreme; we can see ourselves and our small vices magnified to gigantic proportions. Also in this play we can see the end of our lives, with old age portrayed in all its vulnerability, helplessness, pride, and, finally, perhaps, wisdom. Lear had envisioned a world in which old men would continue to be respected even after giving away their money and their power, a world in which everyone would behave as Kent does, continuing to admire and obey because of the authority that inheres in Lear himself. Lear learns that once time and age have weakened one, without money and power one is almost helpless against the ravages of greed and power-hunger—but his final speech to Cordelia suggests that he also learns that, finally, greed and power-hunger do not really matter. Lear moves out of the world of the young and the middle-aged and into an old-age world of letting go. This play’s special understanding of old age explains in part why this most devastating of Shakespeare’s tragedies is also perhaps his most moving.
After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to “King Lear: A Modern Perspective,” by the late Professor Susan Snyder of Swarthmore College.