July 12, 2012

King Lear

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One thing I have to say about King Lear is that if you watch the play on DVD, it doesn’t enhance the experience to be eating grapes during the eye gouging scene.

It’s a difficult play beyond some of the barbarous and frankly crazy scenes.  I read it twice and watched two different versions of it on DVD before its initial opaque-ness began to dissolve. When it finally cracked open, the themes rushed at me: Appearance and Reality, Disguise and Revelation, Blindness and Sight, Madness and Sanity, Transformation, Redemption, Fate, Do the gods even care? Is there significance to the fact that Cordelia and the Fool never appear together?  It’s an English professor’s either dream or nightmare of possible themes to assign.

Laurence Olivier described Lear like this: “. . .He’s just a stupid old fart.  He’s got a frightful temper. . . completely selfish and utterly inconsiderate.  He does not for a moment think of the consequences of what he has said. He’s simply bad-tempered arrogance with a crown perched on top.”  I’d say he’s much worse than that.  Narcissistic personality disorder comes to mind.  I found Lear to be disturbingly like my mother.

The story begins when Lear decides to retire from being a king so he can have some leisure.  The trouble is that he wants to unload the responsibility but none of the perks.  He still wants deference, attention, and for his every whim to be indulged.  He wants to be bad-tempered, officious and autocratic.  He wants to be the only person in the world who matters.

He divides his kingdom into three parts and plans to give one part to each of his three daughters.  In order to decide who gets the largest parcel, he asks his daughters to describe how much they love him. The elder two, Goneril and Regan, flatter and kiss up, telling him just what he wants to hear.  He laps it up.  The youngest, Cordelia declares that she only loves him as much as is due which is as much as he loves her.  I found this ironic since he isn’t capable of loving anyone but himself.

If Cordelia is a bit self-righteous, it’s nothing like the outrage that her father feels at her truthful answer.  “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?”


“Nothing will come of nothing,” he says, and he disowns and banishes her.

Lear plans to live for alternate months with Goneril and Regan bringing his entourage and demands with him –doesn’t that sound like fun? The two elder sisters, as soon as they come into their shares of the kingdom, proceed to do to Lear what Lear did to Cordelia.  They take away everything he has and finally refuse to allow him a place to live at all.  They turn him out into a fearful storm where his encroaching senility seethes into full-out madness.

For a while I puzzled over the older sisters’ bad behavior.  That was pure disassociation on my part.  Nothing comes from nothing.  I understand what it feels like to be raised by self-absorbed parents who have no idea that their attitudes and behavior impact their children.  I even wrote a memoir about it (

I believe that all human beings have a full capacity of human feeling and behavior.  We all have within us the many permutations of love, sadness, fear and rage.  I personally interpret the daughters in King Lear as aspects of myself.  I had a mother like Lear and I believe I responded to her at different times in the three ways represented by Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.

Goneril got so little love from her father that she now takes everything she can get for herself.  Her life is a 24 hour-a-day maintenance job.  My mother accused me of that kind of selfishness often enough:

“You think the world revolves around you!”

“Who did I learn that from?”

“I’m your mother!”


Regan is a sadist.  She gets sexually excited during the aforementioned eye-gouging.  Me, I had to spit out my grape.  Even though I think we are all capable of sadism, mine doesn’t rise to the level of Regan’s.  Schaedenfreude is probably the worst I can be accused of.  The murderous rage I felt toward my mother was pretty much confined to verbally abusing my analyst.  Becoming the abuser is a classic response to being abused.

Then there’s Cordelia. She has empathy for Lear in spite of how badly he treated her, and comes to his aid in the end.  In the beginning she is almost haughty in her idealistic refusal to play the stupid game he has set up.  This refusal begins the chain of events that end in her death and almost everyone else’s.

When my father was dying I told him the truth.  When my mother was dying I told her what she wanted to hear.  At the end of their lives I found a way to love them in the ways I knew they wanted.

I feel exposed.  But I think that is the effect a play like King Lear can have.  The archetypal themes strike deep and impel us to do what Edgar says in the last lines of the play, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” In spite of the dismal ending, I read possibilities of transformation and hope, which is a relief after the play’s frenzy and hate. Cordelia and Lear both die knowing that they love and are loved.

Here are the great lines:


*Love is not love when is mingled with regards that stands aloof from the entire point. (I, i)


*Now, gods, stand up for bastards!  (I, ii)


*This the excellent foppery of the world that when we are sick in fortune, often surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion.  (I, ii)


*I have years on my back forty eight.  (I, iv)


*Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away.  (I, iv)


*How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.  (I, iv)


*Striving to better we often mar what’s well.  (I, iv)


*Lily-livered (II, ii)


*I am a man more sinned against than sinning.  (III, ii)


*. . .foul Flibbertigibbet. (III, iv)


*Fie, foh, and fum

I smell the blood of a British man (III, iv)


*And worse I may be yet.  The worst is not

So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’  (IV, i)


*As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;

They kill us for their sport.  (IV, i)


*Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.  (IV, i)


*Howl, howl, howl! . . .she’s dead as earth.  (V, iii)









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