I’ve had this blog in storage for a while, not feeling like I had a lot to add to it. Then I saw one of those “30 days of. . .” memes that have been floating around, which I’ve successfully avoided doing so far. But this one is 30 Days of Shakespeare and since, for some reason, geeking out about the Bard has been one of my primary uses for this blog, I figured I’d get in the action. Starting with the obvious!

Day #1: Your favorite play

I used to say that King Lear wasn’t my favorite play, it was just the one I felt like talking about the most, but at some point I’ve found, if you obsess over something enough, it turns into a favorite. So I guess it really is Lear, which is an interesting choice in some ways because I think I’m not especially interested in the topic that the play is nominally about.

The action of Lear is set into motion when an aging monarch decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. The “bad” daughters flatter him, the “good” daughter talks back, the king makes an impulsive decision to disinherit and banish her and, as the saying goes, consequences ensue. A lot of the political fallout centers around the duties of a righteous monarch. (N.B. If you sit down and think about how many Shakespeare plays of all genres center around succession crises, it isn’t at all surprising given the historical moment he was part of, but it’s eye-opening nonetheless). The whole discussion of what makes a good king, of course, is informed by a lot of patriarchal assumptions that don’t mean much to us today (don’t mean much to me anyway).

Yet I love this play — love it mostly, I think, as a family drama, albeit one with a very widespread concept of family. To say it’s about man’s inhumanity to man is perhaps anachronistic, but what fascinates me about Lear is how the tragedy grows out of a slow accumulation of small acts. Cordelia doesn’t intend a great defiance of her father; Lear doesn’t go in planning to banish his favorite daughter. One person inflicts a hurt, another hurts back harder. Goneril and Regan leave their aged father to run out into a storm, rationalizing not indefensibly that he’s chosen his own fate. Then they bar the door. Then they threaten anyone who helps him. Then, suddenly, we’re at the blinding of Gloucester — probably the most horrific act of onstage violence in the Western canon (the maimings in Titus Andronicus and Macbeth’s murder of Duncan happen offstage, in the clasical style — and I can never quite figure out what happened to get us to that point. That may explain by obsessive rereading of the text, trying to figure out the point of no return.

Not that any of this really explains my love for the play. That’s in the language, of course, but it’s also in the richness and variety of the characters and relationships. They form an interconnected web of affections, resentments, and dependencies, so that you can’t imagine any individual character outside of the play. It’s easy enough to take Hamlet out of Hamlet (he’d find something to soliloquize about) but try to imagine Lear without Cordelia, Edmund without Edgar, or Goneril without Regan.

I think, also, at one point in my life I loved this play because I thought it was all about pain, about the emptiness of existence, the nothingness of everything. Not that I really believed that life was meaningless, but that I was attracted to the aesthetics of despair. I tended to see Edgar, one of the few characters to survive, as the butt of the play’s joke; he’s literally the guy in the tragedy who walks around saying, “At least things can’t get any worse.” Now I see the play as being something more complex than that, and so I’m more sympathetic to Edgar. He’s the character who faces unspeakable, unexplainable loss, and continues to look for a way to explain and respond to it. He’s the guy who “wins” King Lear, which is an awfully small victory, but since somebody has to keep moving forward, it is a victory.

Tomorrow: Your favorite character

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