365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

268. King Lear – the bare-bones summary

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Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is not an original story. It is based on a legend of a king who divided his kingdom into three parts among his daughters, with devastating results. In Shakespeare’s version of the play, these happenings are downright heartbreaking. The play is an incredibly complex and lengthy piece of work, so it is one that is very difficult to summarize, especially with all of the sub-plots that take place throughout. However, at its heart, the story may be simplified if the plot of Lear is followed exclusively.

King Lear, an aging man, has three daughters whom he loves very much. There is Goneril, Regan, and his youngest and favorite, Cordelia. In order to decide their inheritance, he devises a challenge: they may “win” a part of the kingdom by telling him exactly how much they love him. Goneril and Regan gladly play along, praising their father beyond all reason in order to get their share. Cordelia, however, chooses to tell her father the truth, and criticizes her sisters for claiming they love Lear with their whole hearts while having husbands at the same time. Lear, enraged, banishes Cordelia and strips her of any inheritance and dowry she may have had.

Goneril and Regan seize their opportunities to act out on their greediest desires and end up casting their father away, leaving him utterly destitute and accompanied only by his Fool. They heartlessly allow Lear to literally be left out in the rain, during which he delivers perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most powerful speeches: the “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks” soliloquy. As the brilliant Canadian television program “Slings and Arrows” put it: “Lear IS the storm.” (A side note: watch the third season of “Slings and Arrows” to get a wonderful idea of what Lear is all about and to see some incredible performances of the play.)

Lear’s mind and fortunes deteriorate more and more, and several of his subjects are brought down with him. Kent, whom he had also cast away, has disguised himself as a peasant and joined Lear to continue serving him, and it is Kent who can be considered the moral center of the play. Lear is later arrested, and he is reunited with Cordelia. Though the circumstances are dire, they cannot help but to be happy. It is a scene that often brings audiences to weeping when Lear, even in some madness, realizes that Cordelia is there and that he has made a mistake in casting her away.

As is the true nature of tragedy, the hero is brought to his end. Lear’s spirit and body finally give out when Cordelia is hanged. He mourns over her body before dying himself, with Kent at his side and the body of his beloved daughter nearby.

It is one of Shakespeare’s most mature works, and it is the challenge of a lifetime for actors portraying Lear. For audiences, “King Lear” is usually an experience never to be forgotten.

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Written by Caroline Mincks

June 26, 2010 at 8:44 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , ,

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