Having then just read Le Père Goriot, a French novel partially based on King Lear, now seems like the perfect time to make up for my shortcomings with Tony's Reading List's first Shakespeare review, looking back at the inspiration behind the Balzac novel. Once more unto the breach, dear friends?
King Lear is, of course, a classic tragedy, the tale of a great man with a fatal flaw. Lear, a pre-Roman King of Britain, has had enough of life at the pointy end of politics and decides to abdicate his throne, splitting up his kingdom and passing on his power to his three daughters and their partners. While he is pleased with the sycophantic professions of love from his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, he detects a lack of respect in his youngest daughter's (Cordelia's) words and disowns her. Cordelia then departs with the King of France, a suitor who is prepared to take her hand in marriage even without the sizeable dowry expected.
After putting his kingdom in the hands of his sons-in-law, Lear settles down for a nice, relaxing retirement spent shuttling between their castles, bringing with him a train of a hundred knights for carousing, jesting and general courtly merriment. Alas, daughterly love only extends a certain way, and with Goneril and Regan, it doesn't even reach that far...
The two sisters are wonderful characters, reminders that strong women didn't suddenly pop into existence at the start of the twentieth century. The royal siblings are far from passive, taking an active part in the ruling of their father's kingdom, and they constantly speak and act in ways which can only be described as, well, masculine. They're also not above using their womanly charms to get ahead, with both queens making passes at Edmund, illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester and a comrade in arms in their political struggles. This passion and ambition proves their downfall, however, as the sisters prove too selfish and ambitious to work together; this kingdom ain't big enough for the both of them.
While the plot is interesting, a lot of the charm in Shakespeare comes from the language, which is surprisingly subtle and varied for someone who was basically a farm boy from the provinces. However, ignoring all the elegant wordplay, subtle innuendoes and newly-coined phrases, I prefer to concentrate on one of the less-appreciated of Shakespeare's skills: swearing. I believe that it is no accident that English seems to have a greater repertoire of taboo words than many other languages and that foreign students are fascinated (and perplexed) by the range and flexibility of our language of insults - it's all because of Will. Exhibit A is Kent's tirade at Oswald when the King's retainer comes across Goneril's fawning servant. He calls him:
"A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy-worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson glass-gazing super-serviceable finical rogue, one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition." (II.2, L13-22)Oswald son, consider yourself well and truly dissed...
I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that King Lear fails to end happily (do you not understand the word tragedy?), and the moral of the story, if there is one, is that early retirement is not all that it's cracked up to be. As Old Goriot found, it's probably wise to keep your kids waiting a little for their inheritance, no matter how impatiently they are willing you to hang up your sword. Edmund, in Act I.2 (L72-5), putting his words in Edgar's mouth, says:
"...But I have heard him oft maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age and fathers declined, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue."If only Lear had consulted a financial planner before making his retirement plans, he could have spared himself a lot of trouble (hindsight's a wonderful thing).
So, all in all, a most entertaining and thought-provoking tale, but, as always with Shakespeare, there's a bit of a caveat. His works were not really designed to be read, but to be seen (preferably in an open-air toilet of a theatre, in the company of hundreds of plague-ridden plebs), and the true greatness of the piece only becomes apparent when you see it brought to life. As with every time I've read anything by Shakespeare, on finishing King Lear I promptly decided that I would watch it at some point, either on screen or (less likely) on the stage. As with every time I've said that, I expect that I'll find myself remembering that promise in a decade's time and wondering why I haven't quite got around to doing it yet.
Maybe when I take early retirement...