Yes, I understand and appreciate that it is hard to read Shakespeare’s plays; however, it is well worth the effort for he is considered by most to be the greatest playwright of all time.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England, went to grammar school there, and married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 years old. Eventually he moved to London and became an actor and playwright. In 1611 he returned to Stratford-on-Avon and continued his writing. In his 52 years he wrote 154 sonnets, several long poems, and 37 plays including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.
So why is he considered so great? The reasons are many, however, one of the most important reasons he is great is the wisdom that he brings to the subjects he writes about. He is not only a skilled writer, he is a great intellect. To demonstrate this we will examine King Lear.
The Tragedy of King Lear
This is the story of the King of England who has three daughters---Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The play starts out as Lear is an old man past 80 who has decided to divide his kingdom into three equal parts and give one part to each of his daughters. He asks each in turn what they think of him. Goneril and Regan, who are both married, flatter him by telling him how wondrously they love him. After each speaks, he gives them their share of his kingdom. Cordelia is the last to speak and she elects not to flatter him, although she does state that she loves him. The king, who expected Cordelia to praise him even more than the other two sisters, is enraged and disinherits Cordelia on the spot and gives her share of the kingdom to her two sisters.
When the Earl of Kent urges King Lear to reconsider what he is doing, the King only gets more enraged and banishes Kent from his kingdom. Cordelia marries the King of France and departs. The two sisters and their husbands go off to their palaces.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester is betrayed by his bastard son Edmund who convinces the Earl that his full-son Edgar has been plotting against the Earl. Edgar must flee to protect his life.
The two sisters band together and deny their father their full support and this so upsets him that he goes mad. When the Earl of Gloucester gives aid to King Lear, with Edmund’s conniving and support, the Duke of Cornwall and his wife Regan have his eyes put out. In the process, the Duke of Cornwall is wounded and dies. Also, both of the sisters are in love with Edmund. (In his blindness, the Earl of Gloucester now “sees” clearly that it is Edmund, not Edgar that is the villain.)
When Cordelia hears what is going on, she and her husband invade Britain in order to protect her beloved father who is roaming the countryside in his madness. Cordelia finds King Lear and her doctors help bring him back to sanity. All the while the banished Kent is doing his best to help out King Lear just as the good son Edgar is doing all he can to help his now blind father the Earl of Gloucester.
At this point you can see the happy ending coming down the road. The happy Hollywood ending is obvious. The King of France and Cordelia win the battle and banish the two evil sisters who have turned against their father. But, that is not going to happen. First of all, an English playwright is unlikely to write a play in which the French beat the English. It is bad enough that the French come to the rescue of an English King.
So what does happen? The French forces lose. Cordelia and her father King Lear are taken prisoner and the evil Edmund secretly orders them executed. Meanwhile, the Duke of Albany, realizing that the King has been poorly treated, hopes to make amends and turns against his own wife. Edgar shows up and challenges Edmund to a duel and kills him. Before he dies, Edmund tells them what he has done and they rush off to save Cordelia and the King---but they arrive too late. The Captain who was ordered to hang Cordelia has already finished the task. Meanwhile, the two sisters go off together and one poisons the other and then commits suicide by stabbing herself. Thus, in a matter of minutes, King Lear has all three of his daughters die.
King Lear is heart broken over the events that have occurred since he made his tragic mistake of dividing his kingdom up and dies in the final scene from the emotional pain he has suffered and thus ends the play.
I encourage you to read or watch the play to really appreciate its richness. It will now be easier for you to follow it with the above brief summary. However, while you do follow along, keep in mind the great lessons embedded in this play which makes it worth the reading and watching.
“The wheel is come full circle; I am here.” Act V, Scene III
At the start of the play he is a bastard with no future, he rises on the wheel to the very top where he is powerful, only to see him arrive at the bottom and is killed by his brother Edgar. So, be good to people on the way up as one day they are likely to pass you on their way up as you are going down.
“O, sir, to willful men
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters.” Act II, Scene IV
Although she is speaking about someone else, the lesson comes back to haunt her.
“Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.” Act IV, Scene VI
(If you have money, then the sins you commit are likely to be protected by your wealth---the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks---fails to pierce your protected status. If you do not have wealth, look out because you will have no protection.)
And, it is a lot tougher on you if you make some of the stupid mistakes that Lear makes. As Lear asks when his beloved daughter Cordelia has died:
“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?” Act V, Scene III
Lear finds no answer to this old question. Why should some who are good die and those who are less live? Parents inevitably ask this when their child dies.
Lear thought he would in his old age “shake all cares and business from our age” by giving away his kingdom to his daughters. Instead just the opposite happens. Perhaps this is the most important lesson of all. You should not live life as if you can arrive at some trouble free spot and retire. Life is not so designed. Life is meant to be a struggle from beginning to end.
Although the play has all of the above lessons wisely imbedded in it, if you step back and take an overall look at the play, it has a metamessage, that calls your attention to how:
People of high power tend to behave despicably.
This powerful message still is very much what we need to caution ourselves about today. Beware of politicians and corporate leaders.
At the same time, when people act out of love, they act well. Cordelia and Kent both consistently act out of love and concern throughout the play and they demonstrate for us that we can rise above our evil and power seeking tendencies.