King Lear

Why This Play?:

I just saw a very interesting production of Lear this past weekend at California Shakespeare Festival.  I was so excited to see one of the most intense, densest plays I’d ever studied, just to see how that level of drama would be staged (and I’m always curious to see what text gets cut along the way).  Plus, literature-challenged Hubs decided to join me! 

The Tragedy of King Lear would best bear the subtitle “How Not to Be a Family, in Every Possible Way”.  We see here examples on how not to parent, how not to act towards a spouse, how not to treat your siblings, and how not to carry out filial duty.  Generational power struggles abound!  And when is it ever a bad time to dive headfirst into an insanely dark tragedy that studies the cruelties of man as determined through free will rather than a pre-destined course?

Kjerstine Rose Anderson as the Fool and Anthony Heald as Lear

So What Happens?:

Lear is an aging king in the way olden days of Britain.  He’s decided the time has come to retire, so he opts to split his kingdom among his three daughters.  But first he’s going to indulge himself by making them speechify on how much they each love him – biggest portion of the kingdom goes to the biggest show of love.  His girls Goneril and Regan wax on and on about how he’s the only man in the world.  The youngest (and his favorite), Cordelia, answers honestly that she loves her father and will split that love between him and her husband when she marries.  Not good enough for Papa Lear, who was expecting a third session of fawning and flattery.  He flies off the handle and banishes her with no dowry, splitting her share of the kingdom between her sisters.  His pal and loyal servant, the Earl of Kent, tries to talk him out of his crazy, but the irate Lear banishes him for good measure.  Kent leaves, and Cordelia sets off to marry her suitor, the King of France, who likes her regardless of her new lack of political sway.

Cordelia in the Court of King Lear (1873) by Sir John Gilbert

In a parallel story, Lear’s buddy Duke of Gloucester has two sons – Edgar, the eldest from marriage, and Edmund, his illegitimate child.  Edmund is tired of playing second fiddle and not being seen as a “real” son with all its rights and privileges.  He wants power, and he wants to take down his father and half-bro, so he forges a letter from Edgar claiming he wants to seize the family lands and title.  Goneril has returned home with her husband, Duke of Albany, and Lear has come to live with them for a while.  She complains to servant Oswald that Lear’s entourage of knights is upsetting her home.  The banished Kent returns disguised as peasant “Caius”, gets hired on by Lear, and berates Oswald for not respecting Lear.  Goneril hears of this and it’s the last straw.  She wants his entourage reduced, Lear gets pissy because he doesn’t feel respected, and he curses her fertility/future children in one blow.  He flounces off haughtily (entourage of 100 knights and a Fool in tow) to Regan’s palace and both “Caius” and Oswald are sent ahead with messages from their respective masters.

But first, a stopover at Gloucester’s castle.  Edmund has convinced Edgar that daddy Gloucester is mad at him, so he flees.  Edmund then convinces Gloucester that Edgar wanted G dead, so G renounces Edgar and claims Edmund as his heir.  All of a sudden, Regan and her husband Cornwall show up to tell G of the problems between Lear and Goneril.  Oswald arrives with messages from Goneril and he and “Caius” get into a brawl.  Cornwall breaks up the fight and puts “Caius” in the stocks – note that it’s a huge sign of disrespect to treat royalty’s servants in such a manner.  Alone in the stocks, Kent peruses a secret letter from Cordelia (now Queen of France), who knows of Lear’s hard living situation/dismissal and is sending her army over to Britain to restore him to the throne.  Around this time, the vanished Edgar decides it’s safest to traverse the country disguised as an insane beggar, and he dubs himself “Poor Tom”. 

[Are you keeping up?  Because all the aformentioned crazy is just set up.  It doesn’t even get us through all of Act 2!]

Lear swoops in on Gloucester’s castle on his way to Regan’s, and sees his servant “Caius” in stocks.  As we now know is the norm, this sends him flying into a rage since he (rightly) feels no one respects him any longer.  “Caius” is released, Regan finally agrees to meet with Lear, and she tells him he’s old and needs to check his entitlement.  Goneril arrives, and the sisters hassle their father about his age and how many knights he really needs in service.  While they may have some solid reason backing their arguments, they’re pretty unkind about the whole thing.  Lear is livid, and a literal storm is a-brewing as he…storms off (sorry).  Regan instructs Gloucester to lock up his castle, leaving her father outside to learn a lesson about who’s really in charge now. 

In the castle, Gloucester tells Edmund that he has a letter indicating that the King of France is on his way over to restore Lear to the throne.  Edmund decides to use this secret letter as his father’s undoing.  And Lear’s out wandering in the night in the storm, accompanied by his Fool.  He realizes that he’s starting to lose his marbles:

He befriends “Poor Tom,” the seeming madman who’s really Edgar in disguise.  Gloucester braves the storm to find Lear and make him take shelter, where Lear directs the Fool and “Poor Tom” in a mock trail of Goneril and Regan.  Gloucester sends him to Dover to avoid his daughters, who are plotting to kill him.  Inside, Edmund has delivered Gloucester’s letter to Cornwall, and everyone’s out for blood.  Goneril and Edmund head back to her place to inform Albany to ready for war against France.  Regan and Cornwall capture Gloucester, deem him a traitor, and gouge out his eyes.  G’s servants try to defend him, and one delivers a deathblow to Cornwall, dying in the process himself. Gloucester realizes that Edmund doesn’t exactly have papa’s interests at heart.  Regan turns G out of his own castle, with some servants in tow who are basically trying to administer first aid to the poor sightless man.

Back at Goneril’s, she’s become smitten with Edmund.  Her husband Albany thinks that her behavior is horrifying.  News arrives that Gloucester is maimed and Cornwall slain.  Albany claims he’ll be revenged on Goneril and Edmund.  In the other castle, Regan obtains a love letter from Goneril to Edmund, and warns servant Oswald that his mistress shouldn’t set her sights on Edmund since she’s married and widow Regan is the one who’s entitled to remarry.  On the way to Dover, “Poor Tom” comes across a suicidal Gloucester, who asks to be led to the cliffs.  Edgar convinces his father that he jumps and survives.  A fully crazed Lear arrives on the beach and comforts Gloucester.  Cordelia’s French attendants arrive, desperate to bring Lear to her, but he runs away.  Oswald comes looking for “traitor” Gloucester, Edgar fights him, kills him, and retrieves the letter he was carrying (from Goneril, asking Edmund to kill Albany).  Lear is subdued by the French army, and Kent shows himself to Cordelia.  They all are near when Lear awakes and recognizes his daughter.  He asks for forgiveness, and they lovingly reconcile (a scene that makes me cry just in reading it).

We’re now smack in the middle of a war.  Disguised Edgar sees that Albany gets the letter plotting his death.  Lear and Cordelia are both taken prisoner by the English army (Goneril and Regan’s troops).  Edmund sends orders to the jailors to have Cordelia and Lear killed.  Albany arrives and arrests Edmund and Goneril.  Regan, who’s there to claim her man, suddenly gets sick and leaves.  Edgar now arrives on the scene (still disguised) and challenges Edmund.  They fight, but Albany stops them and confronts Goneril about the letter.  She’s aghast and departs.  Edgar reveals his identity and news of his father’s death (which happened after they reconciled).  News comes that Goneril poisoned Regan, then stabbed herself – both are dead.  Kent comes on the scene, and Edmund tells everyone of his orders to the jailors.  But it’s too late to stop them, as Lear arrives with a dead Cordelia in his arms.  Edmund dies, and Albany restores royal power to King Lear.  But the poor man is overcome with all the heartache he has endured, and he dies on the scene.  Kent, the ever-loyal servant, claims that he will follow his master to death.  Albany and Edgar are left to rule Britain in the wake of tragedy.

[Holy shit.  * Collapses in a heap *]

Check This Out:

The CalShakes production had some definitive highlights:

  • The set was so insanely cool.  On the stage was this huge cube made of frosted glass panes, chain link fence, sliding doors, and ladders.  It could be rotated and reconfigured.  Actors could enter and exit through it, and climb up top.  Since it was see-through, you could always see what everyone was doing.  Can’t give that set designer enough praise.  I took one very poor photo of the stage:

Side view of mysterious set piece box, prior to play starting.

  • Anthony Heald as Lear was completely captivating.  He played his character’s early vacillations from rage to hurt/self-pity as a wonderful foretelling of Lear’s madness that comes on in Act 3, almost like a split personality.  It was nice to see that groundwork laid so the full descent to madness didn’t seem so abrupt. 
  • To support that idea, the show double-cast Cordelia/Fool, which was most effective as the Fool was played as a child-like playmate who was a figment of Lear’s imagination (no other characters acknowledged her, so this was a decided show of Lear’s slide into madness earlier in the play than the text alone might indicate).
  • Edmund was a complete delight, a man downright gleeful in his villainy – but without seeming out of place.  I’ve never heard a more upbeat (but still moving) take on the “gods stand up for bastards” speech.
  • During intermission, Hubs voiced what I was thinking the entire first half: the ladies playing Goneril and Regan were lackluster.  Two such great roles, but neither were played with much power or strength.  The text plays to me as wild frustration and passion on Goneril’s end, and condescension and animosity in Regan, neither of which were emphasized in this show. [I fully acknowledge that my long-ago dalliance in acting makes me a terrible “armchair quarterback” when it comes to Shakespeare performances.]
  • Apparently, the student reviewer at UC Berkeley had the same reading on the show as I.

Again, Thug Notes for the win!

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Slings & Arrows (see more on my take on the show here).  The third (final) season focuses on the company’s production of King Lear…as interspersed with the company’s alternate production of a new musical that is a hilarious send-up of Rent.  That season is the best possible mixture of comedy and heartbreak.  WATCH IT.

Thoughts and Themes:

King Lear isn’t exactly a show that lends itself to date night.  Yet I was able to talk Hubs into it.  Luckily, the Bruns Amphitheater happens to be a gorgeous venue with a great bar and food.  We had a lovely time in the eucalyptus grove with our whiskey cocktails prior to miring ourselves down in the tale of a family torn apart by greed and pride.  

My husband is an engineer, a solver of problems, a funny and warm man.  We have very similar senses of humor and enjoy a lot of the same TV shows and movies.  One of the biggest differences between us is that I am an avid reader, and my glorious Hubs has not read a book (aside from picture books to our children) since his college-required English courses nigh on 15 years ago.  Yet I’ve never had to drag him to a Shakespearean show – he always comes voluntarily, is convincingly excited, and bones up on the story beforehand.  Major high fives to a good man for heeding my advice on reading two separate plot descriptions and hearing my own canned outline of Lear prior to seeing it.  There’s so much behind-the-scenes action in this one, it can be tough to follow with no prior exposure.  Hubs insists he fully enjoyed the show (and to his credit, he laughed in all the right parts and didn’t nod off once).  I love this man.

Handsome Hubs, enjoying some wine, sunset, and amazing scenery at Bruns Amphitheater prior to King Lear

Of all the Shakespeare plays that he has seen with me (this would be his fifth), it never occurred to me that King Lear would be the so impactful on us.  The morning after the play, we went on a hike and discussed all that we learned about marriage, parenting, and being a good child and sibling.  In other words, we obviously need to do the opposite of everything done by almost all of the characters in King Lear.  Biggest lessons were as follows:

  • In parenting, it’s important not to constantly pit your kids against each other, or make favorites known.  Helping to foster healthy (half)sibling relationships can help you to maintain your title, lands, and eyesight in the long run.
  • Write your will with a clear and sober head, when none of your potential beneficiaries are around to sway you one way or the other.  Best to die off and let them duke it out afterwards so war with France isn’t seen as the legacy of your reign.
  • Take a deep breath, and make an attempt to listen to others.  You may not agree with or like hearing what they say, but that doesn’t make their feelings any less valid.  Sometimes agreeing to disagree is just the way to go, especially if it keeps you from having to spend a cold night out in the rain with your Fool.

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm (1851) by William Dyce

  • If you are married but come across someone else whom you find attractive, it is best to keep contact with that person at minimum.  No sense in courting temptation, as it may also be courting your sister.
  • Encourage your aging parents to determine and make known their desired living situations before they move in with you or to a retirement facility.  Those conversations upfront can help avoid awkward feelings and help sort logistics about how many knights can be properly housed.
  • When you are a guest in someone else's home, best to not torture and maim your host, in case one of their loyal servants is willing to defend his employer to the death.

And should you go against any of these edicts, remember that you have only yourself to blame, not the fates/gods/stars.  To quote Edmund:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,when we are sick in fortune, -- often the surfeit of our own behavior, -- we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion… (I.ii. 116-120)


Thanks for taking this break into the darkside!  Any other lessons to be learned from Lear that I didn't catch, feel free to share!  Next up, I'm going to return to the Henriad to finish out Henry IV, Part II...