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[813] King Lear – William Shakespeare


“LEAR. To say I and No to every thing that
said: I and No too was no good Divinity. When
the Rain came to wet me once, and the Wind to
make me chatter, when the Tender would not
peace at my Bidding, there I found ’em, there
I smelt ’em out. Go to, they are not Men ‘o
their Words. They told me I was every thing:
’tis a Lie, I am not Ague-proof.” (4.6.100-107)

Under the coating of Shakespeare’s poetic language, King Lear is a straight-forward allegory on the battle of good and evil and about the prevailing of justice. At first introduction, Lear is a real monarch—“every inch a king.” As the play progresses, the coils of evil spread and Lear deteriorates into madness. The tragedy that engulfs the king swallows nearly all those near him as well.

The main plot involves King Lear, who takes the unusual step of abdicating and sharing out his kingdom among his three daughters. When asked how much they love their father, the older daughters, Goneril and Regan, both give effusive responses. The youngest, Cordelia, refuses to say more than that she loves him an appropriate amount. Outraged and offended, Lear disinherits Cordelia, who marries one of her suitors, the King of France, and leaves England.

CORDELIA. We are not the First
Who with Best Meaning have incurr’d the Worst. (5.3.3-4)

A parallel plot that mirrors the action between Lear and his daughters unfolds. The Ear of Gloucestor is deceived by his bastard son, Edmund, into turning against his legitimate son Edgar. Edgar has to take up the disguise of a beggar. The Earl is also betrayed by Edmund to Regan and her husband, Cornwall, who would rid of the Earl and make Edmund the successor and invade England. Edmund and Cornwall pair up to wreak havoc on Lear and Gloucestor’s family. This evil duo, along with Regan and Goneril’s adultery, drive the play forward to its tragic end.

The book is bleak but reflective of human nature. It deals with issues of justice and honesty, power and responsibility, youth and age. While Lear is responsible for his “blindness” and unwise actions, Shakespeare gives a rather gloomy message: the real world holds no guarantee of justice or fairness, and death comes to all of us, good or evil. Lear’s tragedy is a result of his inability to recognize reality; but ironically, he recognizes the grave errors of his ways and see things as they are during his insanity.

LEAR. I am a very foolish fond Old Man,
Fourscore and upward, not an Hour more
Nor less; and to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect Mind. (4.7.58-61)

Which entwines the notions of honesty and deception. Truth is often suppressed and honestly devalued. The older daughters and the bastard rely on cunning deception. This is also reflected in the blinding of Gloucestor. Similarly, it is only after Lear loses himself in the literal darkness of the storm and the mental darkness of his madness that he finally comes to know his true self.

King Lear is bleak, sad, and relentless. But even in the final tragic scene it has beauty. The beauty of truth. The world can be chaotic, untamed and dangerous but the truth will reign, regardless of the subversion.

270 pp. Everyman Library. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading King Lear


“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?” (III, iv)

King Lear is a tragic story but it’s also the most human plays of Shakespeare. No ghost, no devices, just plain humans and their vices and shortcomings. One of the major themes of the play is the inability to see things for what they are. The tragedy of King Lear is caused by his inability to recognize reality: (1) He believes Goneril’s and Regan’s lies about their love for him; (2) He falsely accuses Cordelia of being disloyal, when in fact, she is the only one of the three who loves him; (3) He banishes Kent for treason when he is the most loyal of Lear’s servants; (4) Lear falsely believes that he can abdicate responsibility without negative consequences. At this point in the play, Lear recognizes the plight of the poor in his kingdom and regrets not having done more to help them. At last, Lear recognizes his past folly, but it’s too late.

Eyesight and appearance. One who has eyes but is yet blind. It’s so much more relevant today in politics. One is blind to the intentions of cunning politicians. What about blindness to one’s responsibilities? The book is relentless about human vices and how being ignorant and blind to one’s shortcomings could doom him.

[756] A Raisin in the Sun – Lorriane Hansberry


” MAMA: My children and they tempers. Lord, if this little old plant don’t get more sun than it’s been getting it ain’t never going to see spring again. (She turns from the window.) What’s the matter with you this morning, Ruth? You looks right peaked. You aiming to iron all of them things? Leave some for me. (Act I) “

The story of A Raisin in the Sun is simple but epic. Published in 1959, it’s about a family living on the south side of Chicago struggling with poverty, striving to maintain dignity, and dreaming of a better life. One of the central conflicts was loosely based on an event from Lorriane Hansberry’s own childhood. In 1938, her family, in violation of a restrictive covenant that was legal at the time, bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. The fight that ensue, against both legal system and hostile neighbors, deeply affected young Hansberry.

RUTH: Shoot—these here rich white women do it all the time. They don’t think nothing of packing up they suitcases and piling on one of them big steamships and—swoosh!—they gone, child.
MAMA: Something always told me I wasn’t no rich white woman. (Act I)

The Youngers have been living in a “rat-trap” that has become too small and crowded for their needs. Mama’s grandson Travis has to bed down in the living room that also serves as the dining room. The family has to get up earlier in the morning so the bathroom, shared with neighbors, would be available. In receipt of insurance money of her recently-deceased husband, Mama buys a house in an all-white neighborhood to provide a home for her family. Mama is cutting edge in trying to defeat segregation, for she believes “there is no such thing as white folks neighborhood except to racists and to those submitting to racism.” (Act I) She is the meek protector of the house, tending her children, though grown-up, like plants.

The play explores significant themes in American literature: dreams, identity, power, and race. Every character has a very specific dream, and they struggle to cope with oppressive circumstances that rule their lives. Mama dreams of a house for her family. Walter dreams of success in business enterprise. Ruth dreams of a place for her family and a baby. Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor. These dreams both spur the characters on and frustrate them. They become consumed by their dreams and make decisions they might not ordinarily make because they are so frustrated by their lack of fulfillment.

MAMA: Then isn’t there something wrong in a home—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man? (Act III)

This play revolves around the conflicts within and between characters. Each one of them is a representation of something generational, a gender or race issue, and it’s a testament to Hansberry’s writing that her characters don’t come across as mouthpieces of the story. They are living, breathing human beings who have obstacles. What finally brings their inner conflicts to a boil are the demonstration of power through what one can achieve based on one’s race. Despite the myriad manifestation of racial discrimination, the core of the play is the human condition—how human beings struggle against oppression, struggle for individual fulfillment.

152 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[238] Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw


“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl…” [120]

Henry Higgins is an accomplished phonetician who can place anyone within two miles of London by the accent alone. On a rainy night in London, near Covent Garden, he scrupulously records the conversation between Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl, and Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a middle-class twit who is looking for a cab after a night in theater. Eliza’s appalling accent piques Higgins’ professional interest in her. The professor even boasts to one Colonel Pickering, another phonetician who happens to wait out the rain, that with three months’ training in the proper use of English, Eliza Doolittle could pass as a duchess.

Professor Higgins. A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of article speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare . . . dont sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon. [Act 1]

Eliza seeks Higgins’ help in order to improve her life; but Higgins takes pride in improving her social status. Higgins himself, albeit his prominent status as a scholar, has the spirit of a shy man who hides his spirituality and tenderness under a mask of coarseness and gruff demeanor. Not only is he careless about himself and other people, including their feelings, he treats people as mere experiment subjects. Even his mother complains about his offensive manner.

Higgins. Pickering: shall we ask this baggage to sit down or shall we throw her out of the window? [Act 2]

Higgins. Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language: I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba. [Act 1]

Higgins has transformed Eliza to his own image of class. This illustrates that people of high society appear to their lower counterparts as cold, selfish, and unfeeling simply because of their inaccessibility to the common emotions and their freedom from ordinary affection and jealousy. Although Eliza is remade in the eyes and standards of the supercilious Higgins, they have only bridged their gap in class with language, an instrument with which Higgins (and the social class to which he belongs) judges people, but their mutual refusal to yield to one another on a more intimate level roots in the preconceived difference. After all, Higgins has treated her no more than dirt under his feet.

Liza. [with sudden sincerity] I dont care how you treat me. I dont mind your swearing at me. I shouldnt mind a black eye: Ive had one before this. But [standing up and facing him] I wont be passed over.

This might be the most invigorating and inspiring scene of the play, even more than than Eliza’s triumphant performance as a duchess at the reception. She has been transformed into a human being who is savvy and capable of claiming dignity. This play is a lovely satire that directs to high society’s snobbery and willful ignorance.

175 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Shakespeare Series (2): Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is probably one of the most unthreatening and reader/audience-friendly Shakespearean plays in its accessibility. The plot of intrigue in the play, which amazingly affords a marked absence of powerful authority figures, draws on the conventions of popular inveighing comedy. In this whimsical plot, the calculating Sir Toby, who assumes a father figure to his cousin Lady Olivia, aims to dupe the foolish Sir Andrew out of his money. When the lady’s steward Malvolio rebukes Sir Toby’s rowdy drinking debauchery, his accomplice and eventual wife, Maria, takes over and makes the steward object of her gulling ingenuity. This neatly, dazzling interlocking of plot also contributes to the relaxing atmosphere on top of the usual Elizabethan theatrical embodiment of gender misconception and identity.

Twelfth Night on top of the festive spirit and dramatic forgery and facetious gulling is a search of human identity in all its strangeness and paradoxicality. It has gone beyond mistaken identity as traditionally understood in comedy to include disguise and gender misrecognition, a definitive phenomenon in which boy actors play women’s parts. It addresses a subtler and yet precarious issue in the situation of identical twins teetering on the risk of being mistaken. Identical twins are automatically ripped off their uniqueness, the unmistakable self. The broad appeal of Twelfth Night as a good-humored play is sharpened by its comedy of mistaken identity between the long-lost twins Sabastian and Viola. Although they are of different sexes, other characters in the play cannot distinguish them from one another when Viola disguises as a young man. This is a significant message from the play: in addition to the concomitant non-recognition and loss of identity, a conditional identity exists only under particular conditions of place, time, and context. The peculiarity of such a disguise and the duration of which is an interesting paradox that concerns what Viola has to lose rather than to gain by ceasing to be the young man.

Folly permeates the language of Twelfth Night. The device used against Malvolio is nothing but one aspect of the play’s satirical character. Folly reigns in the seat of wisdom (and maybe even the truth) in order to expose the foolishness of those who count themselves wise. And when the confusions of the masquerade bring home to all the truth, in sober daily life, we know neither our own identities nor the identities of our peers. The play sustains the idea that if the fool will become wise at the expense of persistent folly. The salient outcome is a play that is richly composed of deceptions: self-deception, delusion of love, alienation. And yet through all these confusions and carnival-like disguise clarification and self-knowledge are reached, just as a masquerade releases people from their everyday inhibitions and enable them to discover themselves.

Twelfth Night is not faultless despite its immediate accessibility and broad appeal. The unresolved tension that concerns the steward and numerous loose ends in the play constitute to the slight imperfections that are difficult to overlook.

Further Reading:
Shakespeare Series (1): A Midsummer’s Night Dream

Shakespeare Series (1): A Midsummer’s Night Dream

midsummerThis series responses to requests of readers who ask me to share my two cent on Shakespearean plays. Hope you find it helpful.

Even though in most of his comedies the entertainments are punctured by sarcastic comments and comic relief, Shakespeare, who has demonstrated keen devices of opposites, from long dignified prose to comic verse, strives not to repeat himself. Shakespeare seems to have enjoyed playing variation on a theme, dwelling on an idea (further developing an idea) hinted at in other parts of a play or in another play. A Midsummer Night’s Dream embodies both. The play sets in Athens, in the midst of summer, which is associated traditionally (and surreptitiously) to magic. Immediately the opening act sets the romantic plot and whimsical air in motion by presenting the conflict between the young lovers and their elders.

The interesting thing is that it seems A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be a swinger: the situation as it stands could validly issue in either tragedy (similar circumstances in Romeo and Juliet, in which families thwarted what meant-to-be love) or comedy. Shakespeare quickly resolves the dilemma and provides light to the darkness of the situation. He nudges the story to a direction in which the style does not involve the audience too snuggly in the lovers’ emotions. The love entanglement engenders enough body and reference to larger concepts to be viewed as image of some universal human experience: one so true-to-life that it inevitably and in no time provokes sympathy. The lovers’ lines are not completely out of place in a romantic comedy because the lines are generalized: because soon after the crisis Lysander brings forward a plan by which he and Hermia may get out of their difficult situation. Hermia will neither be forced to marry Demetrius or perpetrate defiance of the pre-arranged marriage that surely promises prosecution. So the hints of pathos and possibility of tragedy echo Romeo and Juliet.

One of the recurring themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as in Twelfth Night, and in Love Labour’s Lost, concerns the irrationality of love. In Twelfth Night, the gender disguise causes the confusion of love and identity of twins, and magic adopts the same course in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the King of Fairy decides to squeeze love juice onto Demetrius whom he has mistaken for Lysander. The idea of the tension between what people ought reasonably to feel and what in fact they do feel further gravitates to make a lasting impression. What is meant to make Demetrius requite the hapless Helena’s passion takes an unexpectedly convoluted turn to anoint Lysander’s eyes and he feels madly in love with Helena. Ironically he attributes this novel affection to his reason, which a mechanical later brings up in a sarcastic manner the antithesis between love and reason, whereas we know that the change has been effected by Puck’s juice.

Variation of a theme that is hinted at in other parts of play is no more quintessential than the seemingly irrelevant speech that demonstrates poetic merit. The exquisite speech on irrational weather bears significance that is otherwise easily dismissed as mere decoration. So much Titania might have alluded to the inclement weather, the passionate tirade provides the ground for the idea that quarrel between the young lovers causes confusion in the seasons. For in the height of Helena’s agony, she speaks about the danger of disaster and malevolent forces of nature and the caprice and irrationality of love. An atmosphere of a spell of illusion persists throughout the play, redolent of a recurrent notion of a dislocation between the senses, and between the senses and the brain. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shrouded by comic confusions, sheds light on lovers’ failure to reason and to keep pace with their emotions.