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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.

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.