Monday, February 28, 2011

School Reading: King Lear by William Shakespeare

Another book from British Lit.
Based on historical and literary sources from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the tragedy of King Lear tells the entertwined stories of Lear and Gloucester. An aging Lear decides that he will divide his kingdom between his three children, all daughters, based on how much they love him. When he asks them, the eldest two, Goneril and Regan, give lengthy, rather obsequious answers detailing their undying love of him. Cordelia, however, simply replies that she loves him as much as a daughter is meant to love her father. Angered by her answer, Lear disinherits Cordelia, and she is sent off to France with her new husband. Back in England, Lear discovers that his other daughters actually hate him and are plotting to overthrow the remaining vestiges of his power. Too late he finds out that Cordelia is the true daughter. Does he have enough time to redeem her and his kingdom?

Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester is having similar domestic problems. His illegitimate son, Edmund, has returned from almost a decade abroad. He appears to be a model son - he even exposes Gloucester's other son, Edgar, as a scheming, would-be evildoer whose machinations are intended to depose Gloucester. Once Edgar is on the run, however, Edmund succeeds in overthrowing his father, and Gloucester joins Lear in the league of disillusioned fathers who have lost their kingdoms, health, and beloved children.

I really enjoyed King Lear. Shakespeare has so much more to offer than the ridiculous romance of Romeo and Juliet! (If you don't agree with my assessment of that play: they're about 12 or 13, Romeo was originally in love with another girl, they know each other for a week, and they kill themselves?!!) The storyline of the play drew me in, and I found analyzing a play while reading it surprisingly enjoyable (by the way, I'm planning on majoring in English lit, among other things). While the story is primarily a tragedy centered around human follies (of the good characters) and ambitions (of the evil characters), there are some funny parts as well. Take this list of insults, for example: "[thou art] 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, superserviceable, finical rogue; [a] one-trunk-inheriting slave" (act two, scene two). Even in a tragedy, Shakespeare has to get his insults in...

For anyone who is interested, all of the Shakespeare I've read was for various English classes. In 8th grade language arts I read A Midsummer Night's Dream (I was Puck), in freshman English Romeo and Juliet, in senior English Hamlet (I was Polonius), and now King Lear for college British Lit. A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet are my favorites.

My copy of this book, the 2005 Bantam edition, was provided by my school.

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