A first impression of King Lear can be obtained through film clips of some critical moments. The following clips from the Ian McKellen’s film give a brief introduction to the play and its dramatic flow.
In violation of a long-standing sense that dramatic action should be unified, a sense Shakespeare observed in his other tragedies, King Lear gives us not one, but two plots. One portrays Lear and his ungrateful daughters; the second relates the bastard Edmund’s efforts to usurp the role of his legitimate brother Edgar. The two plots run independently for the most part until the fourth act. But in keeping with good dramatic practice, both spring from suggestions given in the play’s opening two minutes. Kent and Gloucester discuss the king’s decision to divide his kingdom equally, settling it would seem a court intrigue between his daughter’s two husbands. They encounter Edmund, who was brought “saucily into the world” and who is to depart for nether regions soon. The dark background alone should tell us that neither of these conditions is real or stable; indeed, they explode almost immediately.
Both plots depend upon an old father believing the lies of his children. None of the children understand the gravity or consequences of their lies, but nor are they innocent or childish; they mean harm. Here is Goneril, lying to Lear. He then does what becomes one of the key metaphors of the play—he divides his kingdom. Division and cracking of kingdoms, families, hearts, minds, nature, and the play itself will ensue from Lear’s hope here, “that future strife may be prevented now.” Everything he does seems to guarantee the realization of what he hoped to prevent.
Nothing happens simply in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Rather than construct the bastard Edmund from some evil stereotype, Shakespeare gives him a legitimate reason for his hatred and cunning—he is hated himself for his birth, out of wedlock, and hence, cast off from all title to his father’s affections and estate. He says in this (beautifully written) opening soliloquy, in effect, that all men are created equal. It is helpful to know that in the Renaissance a “natural” child was one born a bastard, outside the law, suggesting an opposition between nature and law, or nature and what passes for civilization in the play. Edmund’s repetition of the word “base” turns its obvious meaning (“low, contemptible”) into a suggestion of another but opposite meaning (“basis” or “foundation”). Thus the many times someone in the play appeals to nature will generally provoke some kind of irony. The text follows.
Thou, Nature, art my goddess. To thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base,
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word—legitimate.
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow. I prosper.
Now gods, stand up for bastards!
An odd part of the play as we consider it today is the Fool. Kings had court jesters in Shakespeare’s day, a reason fools appear in so many of his plays. But King Lear’s Fool is the only one making a prominent appearance in a tragedy. (Fools are distinct from foolish people, the latter appearing routinely in all of Shakespeare’s plays.) Here the Fool acts the buffoon, a very wise buffoon, who stands in for Cordelia in a way, and instructs Lear (and us) on Lear’s foolishness. It is perhaps the nature of tragedy that we can only hear its meaning through its absurdity.
King Lear was designed for an open-air stage without a curtain, sets, or much in the way of props. Such stages were in Shakespeare’s day the most common form of public entertainment. Groundlings attending performances would be a nose away from the players, with whom they surely talked during a play. Many if not most in the audience would be illiterate. Thus Shakespeare had to entertain, indeed, may have considered entertainment his chief aim. Certain scenes in the play may have entertainment for their general purpose. This one, of Kent and Oswald cursing each other, would be a candidate.
Letters come and go in the play, always with bad if unintended consequences. Nunn decided to emphasize the point. Lear reads from note cards for his opening speech (which may mean he is senile, and can remember no other way, or that he really planned what he hopes to have happen, which plans go wildly wrong). Here Lear reacts to Goneril’s intention to “disquantity his train,” that is, reduce his knights from 100 to 50, the beginning of his systematic reduction in human status, via a written note (not in Shakespeare’s original). His abuse includes the play’s most famous line.
At the end Edgar says, “The gods are just” (although Nunn cuts this line from his production). However, his blinded father has previously said, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for the sport.” We are of course sympathetic to Gloucester—his blinding is one of the cruelest scenes in theater. But by the lights of the state made legitimate by Lear himself, Gloucester was a traitor; he should have been executed. The play sports in a way with a variety of ideas of justice. Here King Lear and his madcap crew on the heath conduct a mock trail of Goneril and Regan, the exertion of which puts Lear to sleep.
One of the play’s highlight moments unites a blinded, despairing Gloucester with a discarded, lunatic Lear who seems as comfortable with mice and weeds as human beings. But Lear is wise enough to say of Gloucester, “you see how the world goes.” Lear himself has been less than insightful from the beginning. Indeed, in the beginning the play launches a persistent reference to sight, seeing, and wisdom, including Lear’s ironic appeal to the radiance of the sun and his charge to Kent, “out of my sight,” a line given fullness by Kent’s reappearance in disguise, hence both “in sight” and “out of sight.” Within this grand metaphor, this scene brings consummate tenderness.
The battle lost, Lear and Cordelia head for prison. We hear from Cordelia no more. But Lear gives a magical speech—funny, sad, ironic, bitter, desperate, hopeful—that signals some return to sanity, but without a trace of kingship. It looks self-centered and insane, suggesting as it does that he and Cordelia can build a world of their own in prison. But what he proposes is the stuff of daily life. We have to ask on which side of the prison walls we live. Note that “gilded butterflies” in the Renaissance referred to over-dressed courtiers and flatterers. The words here are sometimes hard to understand. The text is below the clip.
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two shall sing like birds i’the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing I’ll kneel down
And ask of you forgiveness; and so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out –
And take upon us the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.
Take them away.
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
For more than 150 years the play called King Lear produced in England and America had a happy ending. Adapted from Shakespeare by Nahum Tate in 1681, it took Edgar’s victory of Edmund as a victory for the state. Lear has killed two of those attempting to kill him, saving Cordelia in the process. She and Edgar (who have been in love since the beginning of the play) share the throne while Lear, Kent, and Gloucester (who also lives) retire to an old-age farm. Such an ending would preclude this scene, of Lear carrying the dead (by hanging) Cordelia onto the stage howling at the universe. As with Edmund and Gloucester, Shakespeare creates a reason for her death. She was an invader after all, who lost, and suffers what any ordinary captured invader would suffer; indeed, she was killed in a far more gentle way than the average caught conspirator against the crown would have suffered in Renaissance England (drawn, quartered while alive, hung, beheaded, with head mounted on London Bridge for a few months as a reminder to others.) But Cordelia’s death was one crucial reason for Tate’s adaptation; even Samuel Johnson, one of Shakespeare’s great editors, found it offensive.