I was surprised that this one (or two, rather) would take me so long to get through. The History of King Lear is actually the “Quarto” text, and The Tragedy of King Lear is the “Folio” text. The Folio came out about 4 years later, and I wish like crazy I’d read that one first. It took me several days to get through the Quarto text, and the Folio cleaned it up rather well (according to the editor, Shakespeare took out over 600 lines after the first printing).
I can see why–the Quarto text is meandering in a lot of ways, and the Folio is easier to digest. Just giving you a heads up.
Anyhoo, The Tragedy of King Lear is about a king who is about to retire in a sense and split the kingdom into three parts for each of his daughters (and their husbands) to control. Lear is easily flattered and vain, and when he questions his daughters about how much they love him, the two older ones, Regan and Goneril, wax poetic about it. Cordelia, his favorite and the youngest, has nothing to say because her love was supposedly apparent the whole time. Enraged, he disowns her and gives what would’ve been her parcel to the other two, while the King of France takes her to be his wife, even though she no longer has a dowry.
And that’s in the first two pages.
Lear’s vanity is such that he expects to still be treated as a king even though he’s given up the responsibility, and he learns the hard way that his family has other plans. The sisters don’t wait long to strip him of all his power until he’s nothing more than a common old man.
But this isn’t the only family dilemma. Another, the Earl of Glouchester, has a son named Edgar and an illegitimate son named Edmund. Edmund has no status or power, really, and plots to make Edgar look guilty of conspiracy to kill his own father and get the inheritance quicker. Enraged, Gloucester tries to have Edgar apprehended, while Edmund plots his father’s downfall.
The two family stories merge very well. The sisters’ ambitions outweigh their husbands. Albany is Goneril’s husband and he’s largely loyal still to Lear, but is blind to what’s going on around him. Cornwall is Regan’s husband, and he’s largely in step with his wife’s plans… at least until Regan and Goneril stop scheming over the country and instead start competing for Edmund, who seduces them both.
This play is ripe with major action interspersed with quieter moments (or rather, with the storm, definitely not quiet, but contemplative). Lear’s struggle to maintain the trappings of power without the responsibility eventually drives him mad, especially after both his daughters cast him out of their homes and take all his retainers and knights away. Only his Fool remains to speak to him, and eventually other characters who teach him humility after the storm starts the process.
And Cordelia, his faithful daughter, is coming with an army to help him regain the crown.
This is a crazy complex work, with plots on plots, and so many emotions. Often mentioned, Lear’s monologue during the storm would have to be fascinating to see on the stage or in a film. I don’t know of any Western film versions of King Lear offhand (I’ll have to look that up), but I’m definitely considering watching Kurosawa’s Ran pretty soon.
I don’t want to spoil everything that goes on in the play. As long as you read the version that has actual acts and scenes, you’ll be in good hands (the way to tell the Folio and Quarto versions apart is that the Quarto is composed only of scenes, no acts, and that makes it hard to see where the story is going to end–and how soon!)
I wouldn’t mind seeing this one on the stage. I think with great actors, I’d be able to understand it a lot better, and I’d love to see how Edmund really is with the ladies, and Lear’s confronting the storm.
Worth a read for a tragedy of epic proportions.