There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity. The artful involutions of distinct interests, the striking opposition of contrary characters, the sudden changes of fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope. There is no scene which does not contribute to the aggravation of the distress or conduct of the action, and scarce a line which does not conduce to the progress of the scene. So powerful is the current of the poet’s imagination, that the mind, which once ventures within it, is hurried irresistibly along.
—Samuel Johnson, The Plays of William Shakespeare
For its unsurpassed combination of sheer terrifying force and its existential and cosmic reach, King Lear leads this ranking as drama’s supreme achievement. The notion that King Lear is Shakespeare’s (and by implication drama’s) greatest play is certainly debatable, but consensus in its favor has gradually coalesced over the centuries since its first performance around 1606. During and immediately following William Shakespeare’s lifetime, there is no evidence that King Lear was particularly valued over other of the playwright’s dramas. It was later considered a play in need of an improving makeover. In 1681 poet and dramatist Nahum Tate, calling King Lear “a Heap of Jewels unstrung and unpolish’d,” altered what many Restoration critics and audiences found unbecoming and unbearable in the drama. Tate eliminated the Fool, whose presence was considered too vulgar for a proper tragedy, and gave the play a happy ending, restoring Lear to his throne and arranging the marriage of Cordelia and Edgar, neatly tying together with poetic justice the double strands of Shakespeare’s far bleaker drama. Tate’s bowdlerization of King Lear continued to be presented throughout the 18th century, and the original play was not performed again until 1826. By then the Romantics had reclaimed Shakespeare’s version, and an appreciation of the majesty and profundity of King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest achievement had begun. Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared the play “the most tremendous effort of Shakespeare as a poet”; while Percy Bysshe Shelley considered it “the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world.” John Keats, who described the play as “the fierce dispute / Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay,” offered King Lear as the best example of the intensity, with its “close relationship with Beauty & Truth,” that is the “Excellence of every Art.” Dissenting voices, however, challenged the supremacy of King Lear. Essayist Charles Lamb judged the play to have “nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting” and deemed it “essentially impossible to be represented on a stage.” The great Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley acknowledged King Lear as “Shakespeare’s greatest achievement” but “not his best play.” For Bradley, King Lear, with its immense scope and the variety and intensity of its scenes, is simply “too huge for the stage.” Perhaps the most notorious dissenter against the greatness of King Lear was Leo Tolstoy, who found its fable-like unreality reprehensible and ruled it a “very bad, carelessly composed production” that “cannot evoke amongst us anything but aversion and weariness.” Such qualifications and dismissals began to diminish in light of 20thcentury history. The existential vision of King Lear has seemed even more pertinent and telling as a reflection of the human condition; while modern dramatic artistry with its contrapuntal structure and anti-realistic elements has caught up with Shakespeare’s play. Today King Lear is commonly judged unsurpassed in its dramatization of so many painful but inescapable human and cosmic truths.
King Lear is based on a well-known story from ancient Celtic and British mythology, first given literary form by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1137). Raphael Holinshed later repeated the story of Lear and his daughters in his Chronicles (1587), and Edmund Spenser, the first to name the youngest daughter, presents the story in book 2 of The Faerie Queene (1589). A dramatic version—The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters, Gonerill, Ragan, and Cordella—appeared around 1594. All these versions record Lear dividing his kingdom, disinheriting his youngest daughter, and being driven out by his two eldest daughters before reuniting with his youngest, who helps restore him to the throne and bring her wicked sisters to justice. Shakespeare is the first to give the story an unhappy ending, to turn it from a sentimental, essentially comic tale in which the good are eventually rewarded and the evil punished into a cosmic tragedy. Other plot elements—Lear’s madness, Cordelia’s hanging, Lear’s death from a broken heart, as well as Kent’s devotion and the role of the Fool—are also Shakespeare’s inventions, as is the addition of the parallel plot of Gloucester and his sons, which Shakespeare adapted from a tale in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. The play’s double plot in which the central situation of Lear’s suffering and self-knowledge is paralleled and counterpointed in Gloucester’s circumstances makes King Lear different from all the other great tragedies. The effect widens and deepens the play into a universal tragedy of symphonic proportions.
King Lear opens with the tragic turning point in its very first scene. Compared to the long delays in Hamlet and Othello for the decisive tragic blow to fall, King Lear, like Macbeth, shifts its emphasis from cause to consequence. The play foregoes nearly all exposition or character development and immediately presents a show trial with devastating consequences. The aging Lear has decided to divest himself of kingly responsibilities by dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. Although the maps of the divisions are already drawn, Lear stages a contest for his daughters to claim their portion by a public profession of their love. “Tell me, my daughters,” Lear commands, “. . . Which of you shall we say doth love us most.” Lear’s self-indulgence—bargaining power for love—is both a disruption of the political and natural order and an essential human violation in his demanding an accounting of love that defies the means of measuring it. Goneril and Regan, however, vie to outdo the other in fulsome pledges of their love, while Cordelia, the favorite, responds to Lear’s question “what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters” with the devastatingly honest truth: “Nothing,” a word that will reverberate through the entire play. Cordelia forcefully and simply explains that she loves Lear “According to my bond, no more nor less.” Lear is too blind and too needy to appreciate her fidelity or yet understand the nature of love, or the ingenuous flattery of his older daughters. He responds to the hurt he feels by exiling the one who loves him most authentically and deeply. The rest of the play will school Lear in his mistake, teaching him the lesson of humanity that he violates in the play’s opening scene.
The devastating consequences of his decision follow. Lear learns that he cannot give away power and still command allegiance from Goneril or Regan. Their avowals of love quickly turn into disrespect for a now useless and demanding parent. From the opening scene in which Lear appears in all his regal splendor, he will be successively stripped of all that invests a king in majesty and insulates a human being from first-hand knowledge of suffering and core existential truths. Urged to give up 50 of his attending knights by Goneril, Lear claims more gratitude from Regan, who joins her sister in further whittling down Lear’s retinue from 100 knights to 50, to 25, 10, 5, to none, ironically in the language of calculation of the first scene. Lear explodes:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s .
Lear is now readied to face reality as a “poorest thing.”
Lear’s betrayal by his daughters is paralleled by the treachery of the earl of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, who plots to supplant the legitimate son, Edgar, and eventually claim supremacy over his father. Edmund, one of the most calculating and coldblooded of Shakespeare’s villains, rejects all the bonds of family and morality early on in the play by affirming: “Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law / My services are bound.” Refusing to accept the values of a society that rejects him as a bastard, Edmund will operate only by the laws of survival of the fittest in a relentless drive for dominance. He convinces Edgar that Gloucester means to kill him, forcing his brother into exile, disguised as Tom o’ Bedlam, a mad beggar. In the play’s overwhelming third act—perhaps the most overpowering in all of drama—Edgar encounters Lear, his Fool, and his lone retainer, the disguised Kent, whom Lear had banished in the first scene for challenging Lear’s treatment of Cordelia. The scene is a deserted heath with a fierce storm raging, as Lear, maddened by the treatment of his daughters, rails at his fate in apocalyptic fury:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!
Rage, blow You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak cleaving thunderbolts, S
inge my white head; and thou all-shaking thunder,
Strike fl at the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack nature’s mould, all germens spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man.
The storm is a brilliant expressionistic projection of Lear’s inner fury, with his language universalizing his private experience in a combat with elemental forces. Beseeching divine justice, Lear is bereft and inconsolable, declaring “My wits begin to turn.” His descent into madness is completed when he meets the disguised Edgar who serves as Lear’s mirror and emblem of humanity as “unaccommodated man”—a “poor, bare, forked animal”:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
Lear’s suffering has led him to compassion and an understanding of the human needs he had formerly ignored. It is one of the rare moments of regenerative hope before the play plunges into further chaos and violence.
Act 3 concludes with what has been called the most horrifying scene in dramatic literature. Gloucester is condemned as a traitor for colluding with Cordelia and the French invasion force. Cornwall, Regan’s husband, orders Gloucester bound and rips out one of his eyes. Urged on by Regan (“One side will mock another; th’ other too”), Cornwall completes Gloucester’s blinding after a protesting servant stabs Cornwall and is slain by Regan. In agony, Gloucester calls out for Edmund as Regan supplies the crushing truth:
Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call’st on him that hates thee. It was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us,
Who is too good to pity thee.
Oedipus-like, Gloucester, though blind, now sees the truth of Edmund’s villainy and Edgar’s innocence. Thrown out of the castle, he is ordered to “smell / His way to Dover.”
Act 4 arranges reunions and the expectation that the suffering of both Lear and Gloucester will be compensated and villainy purged. Edgar, still posing as Poor Tom, meets his father and agrees to guide him to Dover where the despairing Gloucester intends to kill himself by jumping from its cliffs. On arriving, Edgar convinces his father that he has fallen and survived, and Gloucester accepts his preservation as an act of the gods and vows “Henceforth I’ll bear / Affliction till it do cry out itself / ‘Enough, enough,’ and die.” The act concludes with Lear’s being reunited with Cordelia. Awaking in her tent, convinced that he has died, Lear gradually recognizes his daughter and begs her forgiveness as a “very foolish, fond old man.”
The stage is now set in act 5 for a restoration of order and Lear, having achieved the requisite self-knowledge through suffering, but Shakespeare pushes the play beyond the reach of consolation. Although Edmund is bested in combat by his brother, and Regan is poisoned by Goneril before she kills herself, neither poetic nor divine justice prevails. Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner, but their rescue comes too late. As Shakespeare’s stage directions state, “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms,” and the play concludes with one of the most heart-wrenching scenes and the most overpowering lines in all of drama. Lear, although desperate to believe that his beloved daughter is alive, gradually accepts the awful truth:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all. Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Lear dies with this realization of cosmic injustice and indifference, while holding onto the illusion that Cordelia might still survive (“Look on her, look, her lips / Look there, look there!”). The play ends not with the restoration of divine, political, or familial order but in a final nihilistic vision. Shakespeare pushes the usual tragic progression of action leading to suffering and then to self-knowledge to a view into the abyss of life’s purposelessness and cruelty. The best Shakespeare manages to affirm in the face of intractable human evil and cosmic indifference is the heroism of endurance. Urging his despairing father on, Edgar states in the play’s opposition to despair:
. . . Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. Come on.
Ultimately, King Lear, more than any other drama, in my view, allows its audience to test the limits of endurance in the face of mortality and meaninglessness. It has been said that only the greatest art sustains without consoling. There is no better example of this than King Lear.