The Tragedy of King Lear

Lear is a complicated, complex, heartrending play. It has raised very different questions and evoked very different emotions for me as a 55-year old mother of two young adults, than it did when I first read it as a 20-year old college junior. That “seeing” of the play through different eyes illustrates one of the play’s main themes; how we see, or don’t see, things. This play revolves around those gelatinous orbs and their function and dysfunction. There are 101 references to eyes, sight, seeing, vision, and blindness in this play, and that is certainly apropos. The action unfolds and revolves around those globes within our globes. It is a play about vision, blindness, and perspective.

In this viewing, this seeing of the play again, I feel compelled to challenge the conventional vision of poor Lear; wronged by his monstrous, practically mutant offspring. I choose, instead, to turn the focus more critically on Lear. On what he’s done. Not what the bad girls have done. And when I do that, I see a very different play.

I have seen it performed twice recently. Once at BAM with Derek Jacobi in the lead role. I cried for nearly the entire play, so gut-wrenching was his performance and the pathos it evoked. And once in Central Park with John Lithgow as Lear and Annette Bening as Goneril. Such egregious miscasting. I was bored. Almost irritated. That viscerally different reaction to each staging mirrors my vastly different reaction to my reading of the play at very different stages (pun fully intended) in life.

At 20, I sat in Professor Paul Cubeta’s living room with eleven other juniors, drinking tea and eating the lemon squares his wife had prepared for us. We explored, and I “saw” the classic themes of the father sorely wronged by ungrateful, cruel offspring. The betrayal caused the father to face his own mortality and resulting in anguish. At 55, I sat in Starbucks, drinking decaf. Facing an empty nest and young men who I may have created but no longer view me as sovereign, I questioned his parenting skills and decisions. The storm, instead of revealing his mortality, shoves a mirror in his face. It makes him look at himself. And that reflection drives him crazy.

The question for me this time is not how Goneril, Regan, and Edmund could possibly have done what they did (despite its extreme horridness). I suppose that wasn’t the question at 20 either in some ways. I was very good at being bitchy to my parents at that age, despite all they’d done for me, including taking loans to pay the tuition for me to be at this prestigious college studying Lear in a Victorian sitting room eating lemon squares. But rather, what does it mean to be a good parent, and in Lear’s case, a good sovereign (in some ways just a broader interpretation of parent), and did he do that? Did he earn better treatment? I questioned how he raised his girls alone. Like in most Disney tales, this one features a single parent and an unexplained absent parent. We have no idea who their mother was, when she died, or how she parented them before she died. Lear only references the girls’ mother twice in the play. Once he uses the word “mother” to mean hysteria (II,iii,56) and then to tell Regan that if she’s not happy to see him simply by virtue of his being her father, then her dead mother must be a whore. (II,iv,130-1) We have no idea what Lear taught or modeled for them. We have no idea idea of what kind of parenting their mother provided while she was alive, and have no idea when she died. Certainly at that time, sovereigns would likely have done little hands on parenting. What does it mean that they are motherless children in this patriarchy? I think it hints at a gaping hole in their emotional and social development.

My argument, then, is this: Regan and Goneril’s behavior is so heinous that it demands all our attention and forces us (and the other characters) to be appalled. It obscures the fact that Lear may have neither been a good father nor a particularly good sovereign, and may, to a certain extent, have reaped what he sowed.

As we meet Lear he is about to sell his youngest daughter Cordelia in marriage to the highest bidder. While such politically expedient marriages were commonplace at that time, Cordelia must have been filled with trepidation. But instead of getting down to business to relieve her suspense, Lear interrupts the auction to famously and ill-advisedly “express our darker purpose:” (I,i,36) to divide his kingdom in three amongst his daughters and their husbands – ostensibly so he can retire to Boca. In three? And as if that doesn’t set up enough conflict, he decides to determine the gerrymandered lines not based on fairness, concern for his subjects, or political strategy, but by which daughter fawns over and expresses her love for him loudest. He makes his daughters contestants in a twisted game show where the prizes behind the doors are their share of the kingdom. This is just patently bad parenting – both of his daughters and of his subjects. It puts the girls in an impossible situation, pits them against one another, and leaves the fate of his country to this ill-conceived succession plan. I cannot imagine lining my boys up, dangling some prize in front of them and making them do tricks like dogs vying for a treat.

Regan and Goneril jump at the bait and accommodate Lear with a can-you-top-this pissing contest about how much they love him. But Cordelia won’t play, and loses big time as a result. No Door Number Three for her. Not even a year’s supply of OxyClean. Lear disowns and banishes her. Fortunately, one of the husband hopefuls, the King of France, accepts her despite, or perhaps because of, her integrity and lack of dowry.

Regan and Goneril’s “praise” is so superficial. Nary a word about what a great parent Lear is, and as we’ll see later, they clearly don’t believe that. Cordelia acknowledges his parenting only perfunctorily in her refusal to speak: “you have begot me, bred me, lov’d me.” (I,i,96). Lear sweeps away those who strive to make him see the situation more clearly including his friend and counselor, Kent, who warns him “See better, Lear,” (I,i,157). Even his fool admonishes him for his actions, but he will not see, now or ever. R & G’s dog and pony show takes the day.

R & G are the evil older sister’s to C’s Cinderella, who they treat as dismissively as that scullery maid. They are happy to be rid of her and their gushing fountains of love dry up quickly with her departure. They revert to and reveal their true selves as Lear literally rends his crown in two to pass the mantle to them. “Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever/but slenderly known himself,” (I,i,293-4) says R. And G chimes in, “The best and soundest of his time hath been/but rash; then must we look from his age to receive not/alone the imperfections of long-ingraft’d condition,/but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm him/and choleric years bring with them.” (I,i,259-9). Wow. This is the pivotal point for me. Not only don’t they love him; they don’t even like him. He’s always been this annoying, they say; he’s just gotten worse with age. They go on to conspire to “manage” him by disallowing him to visit them, swatting him away like an annoying fly (or an emasculated, abdicated king…). They quickly relieve him of his identity as both a king and a father and reduce him to a “shadow” of himself (I,iv,231); to nothing. To his most feral, basic form.

This is where we’d hope to see some major introspection and epiphanies. But we see none. He rails and laments their treatment of him and never asks how his own actions might warrant it: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child!” (I,iv,288-9), but never elucidates what they have to be thankful for. He claims to be “so kind a father” (I,v,32) but doesn’t elaborate, and we see no evidence of it.

When he goes to visit R and her husband Cornwall and they turn him away, he protests, as if to Sam I Am,: “They durst not do’t;/They could not, would not do’t.” (II,iv,23). But this Green Eggs and Ham conundrum prevents him once again examining the reason for the refusal. He reiterates his shock to Gloucester: How dare they not speak to me?, as if it’s his divine right to have an audience with them. He may have divine right to the throne, but he gives that away. He needs to earn an audience as a father. He is indignant, but again, challenges them, not himself: “The King would speak with Cornwall, the dear father/ Would with his daughter speak,commands, tends/service.” (II,iii,101-2) and “Go tell the Duke, and’s wife, I’ld speak with them-/Now, presently. Bid them come forth and hear me.” (II,iii,116-1). You can practically hear him stamping his feet on the ground.

He is understandably aggrieved and stunned at being turned down and away by the daughters who, on the heels of such loud pronouncements of love, bat him about like a ping pong ball. The skies open and the storm breaks and he’s out in it as it is in him. R hints that some introspection might have served him well “to willful men,/The injuries that they themselves procure/Must be their schoolmasters.”(II,iv,303-4), but he’s not in class today. He rages in the storm as it rages, but it’s all woe-is-me, breast beating, ululating about how wronged he is. He is not looking up at the angry skies, shaking his fist, and enumerating the ways he’s served them. He merely notes that he has “call’d them children.” (III,i,17); in name only. A title. Like King. He claims “I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning,” but again, this seems like an awful lot of wallowing (I can just hear a collective gasp here. I’m not saying that his daughters haven’t been horrid. I’m just saying there are two sides to every story and we’ve simply not seen both). What evidence have we seen to back up the latter part of his assertion?

According to Professor Cubeta, Act III, Scene iv is the “most impossible scene he’s written to stage.” This is the height of the storm. The depth of despair. But the epiphany, which should come right about now, is glaring in its absence. “This tempest in my mind/Doth from my senses take all feeling else,” (III,iv,12-3) I hear narcissistic self-pity. He’s made his bed and is quite unhappy lying in it. He has taught R & G to value property and power more than relationships. He is Harry Chapin in Cats in the Cradle wondering why his son has no time for him when he gave him none as he grew up. Gloucester may have had his eyes poked out, but it’s Lear who doesn’t see.

Cordelia, Lear’s youngest, who refused to play the game, has more empathy for Lear. We have no evidence for what in her upbringing might have influenced this difference from her sisters. Did an older Lear parent her with more attention and compassion? Had she no memory of the loss of her mother which might have impacted the older girls more? While she does show more empathy and concern, she does nothing to clarify or expound on what Lear has done to earn them.

Ironically, Lear notes that “A man may see how this/world goes with no eyes.” (Iv,vi,150-1). He has eyes, but does not see. The fool, his constant companion, and sage observer and doler of acerbic, witty, insightful commentary, never once laments about how badly Lear has been treated. Nor does he ever wax poetic about Lear’s parenting or ruling prowess. He tells him he’s a dolt. Cordelia thinks the girls have driven him mad: “this child-changed father!”(IV,vii,16). But I’m not so sure he’s crazy, although he quite resembles the distraught Ophelia with his wildflower and weed poor substitute for a crown. Is his age alone enough to merit respect?

I believe Lear is caught in a tortuous Karma wheel. Purgatory. Personal hell. Because like every good Shakespearean tragic hero, he knows something’s amiss but because he can’t quite ‘see’ what, he is condemned to suffer the ‘slings and arrows’ of what he sees as ‘outrageous fortune’ over and over. “I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.” (IV,vii,45-7) He is living in his own ego; his own and only reality. He cannot escape it until he sees. After he’s literally caught, he’s led offstage with Cordelia (V,iii,8-19)in what can only be described as a state of complete denial. He creates a new fantastical reality because he cannot bear the one in which he is stuck. Edmund notes, “The wheel is come full circle.” (V,iii,175). Lear dies unhappy, with issues unresolved and love unrequited.

Here’s the bottom line for me: In some cases, blindness is a good thing. Justice is blindfolded so her vision does not bias her judgement. Love is blind: we see the best in those we love and forgive their foibles. But “There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.” (Attributed to John Heywood, 1546, Jeremiah 5:21, Matthew Henry late 1600s, and Jonathan Swift, 1738) Lear drowns in his vision – or lack thereof. There is no question that R & G act horribly in their rampant, runaway pursuit of land and power. But I just see no evidence in the play of anything Lear has done to earn or deserve their love and respect. And their trespasses are the only evidence of what he’s modeled as good and acceptable behavior. The play opens with an act of idiotic parental and political stupidity. With that act, and what has gone before it, Lear has laid the foundation for his retirement home, or lack thereof.

I remember, as a child, one of my grandmother’s constant admonitions. To any and everyone within earshot. She deserved more than we gave. We never gave enough. Enough time, attention, gratitude, or affection. She deserved it; she sacrificed so much for us. I remember, too, in the innocent haze of youth, thinking naively, “but you don’t deserve it. You are mean and nasty all the time and you haven’t done anything for any of us but nag and complain.” I look back at her now, and realize that she was pathetic. She, like Lear, didn’t see that it’s not just enough to say, “you owe me this.” You have to earn love and respect through actions. So I cringe at the similar thoughts I’ve had… the words that have spilled, unthinkingly, out of my own mouth: “After all I’ve done for you…” or “I carried you for nine months – I gave you life!”.

Well, you know what? That’s not enough. Every life form does that, and I did it voluntarily and would happily do it again. I have unconditional love for my boys, and will forever, no matter how unrequited. But I realize, as they grow to be amazing human beings with excellent moral compasses and strong minds of their own, that to have that love and respect requited is a privilege I need to earn, not a right. And I need to do that on an ongoing basis with my words, deeds, and actions toward them and to the world at large. I need to be an unselfish role model. I need to treat them with love, respect, and compassion if I hope to receive those gifts from them. It’s about them, not me. I hope they don’t throw me, unclad, out into the storm or poke my eyes out, but I can’t take anything for granted.

I just don’t see Lear thinking in that way as a parent, and I think that’s his tragic flaw. He makes assumptions and takes things for granted. Perhaps he confuses king-ing and parenting. Perhaps he just doesn’t know better. Maya Angelou said “when you know better, you do better.” The real tragedy is that Lear seems neither to know, nor attempt to learn, better.

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