Through my elementary and middle school education, Shakespeare has always been a topic that’s been talked around. In my various language arts and English classes, whenever his plays have been brought up, they were always followed by, “But you’ll read that in high school”. Because of this, Shakespeare had always seemed intimidating to me, like a forbidden grown-up thing that was too sophisticated for a child like me to understand. Now that I am a high schooler who just read King Lear with my own eyes for the first time, I still stand by my original impression of Shakespeare. Much of the writing was incomprehensible to me, and I barely grasped the storyline, even with the help of all two-hundred-and-two footnotes. On the other hand, once I wrapped my brain around the story, it was definitely different than what I expected. William Shakespeare’s King Lear is a clever yet gruesome play that exhibits important themes through its contrasting storylines.
Even through my limited understanding of the language and the unfortunate circumstance in which I binge-read the play, I gleaned a vague understanding of the plot and theme. The play follows two mirrored storylines - one of King Lear himself and his three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia), and one of the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons (Edmund and Edgar). In the first act of the play, both families are facing issues; Lear is upset that Cordelia will not flatter him, and Gloucester is upset because he believes Edgar is trying to overthrow him. Lear ends up disinheriting Cordelia, and visits Goneril and Regan, desperate for their help.
This part of the play reminded me of the fable The Three Little Pigs, except the wolf can’t blow down the houses of the first two little pigs, because all three of their houses are made of bricks. The wolf just keeps running to each house and knocking on the door, begging to be let in. However, when they refuse to, he descends down the metaphorical chimney of madness that leaves him wandering alone in a storm, abandoned by everyone.
While Lear is busy visiting his daughters and going mad, Gloucester disinherits Edgar to the delight of Edmund, who seeks to take his place as the next Earl of Gloucester. Edgar later disguises himself as a beggar and meets Lear as he stumbles around in the storm. He talks with him and helps him realize his shortcomings as a king. Later, Edgar, still disguised, meets his father, who has been blinded by Regan and Cornwall when they realize he has been helping Lear. He tricks his father into surviving his suicide attempt, but never reveals himself.
The two storylines are very similar in many ways, but complete opposites in others. For example, both fathers end up disinheriting their children. However, Lear and Cordelia reconcile after the former realizes his mistakes, while Edgar never reconciles with his father. This sort of overlapping/diverging jumble allows for the illustration of two differing perspectives on each conflict that is introduced to the story - the above example implies that reconciliation is possible if one sees the error of their ways through Lear and Cordelia, while also saying that reconciliation is not possible if one disregards their past actions and does not make an effort to through Gloucester and Edgar.
Another prominent event in terms of the plot of the play is the rather violent denouement. Lear, Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Gloucester, and Edmund all perish. The only character left standing is Edgar, who was originally painted as the “villain” of the play. Though it is reminiscent of the endings of the stories I used to make up as a child (“and they all died, the end”), I think that it drives home the message and grand scheme of the play. The characters’ deaths are harsh reminders of their previous misdeeds, or as some people might say, karma. Though Edmund, Cordelia, and Lear all attempted to make up for their mistakes, they ended up being killed anyway, which suggests that realizing and even trying to fix your misgivings is not enough.
In terms of the writing and prose itself, there is much to say. Shakespearean English is a style I am not yet accustomed to reading, so my many misunderstandings are probably more my fault and less Shakespeare’s. Nevertheless, there were countless little details I enjoyed. Particularly, the insults. Now, this could’ve just been the style, as I have no idea whether clever insults were just a normal part of seventeenth-century English, but I cannot describe how much reading those insults entertained me. One of my favorites is when Kent calls Oswald ‘you base football player’ (1.4.80), because apparently football was considered a “vulgar amusement” in Shakespeare’s day (Watts 135). Another fun threat that Kent tells Oswald is ‘I’ll make a sop o’th’moonshine of you,, you whoreson cullionly barber-monger’ (2.2.29-30), which, according to the footnotes, translates into “I’ll make you into a bit of sodden toast, so perforated that the moonlight will soak into you and shine through you, you bastard” (Watts 137).
Toast-related insults notwithstanding, there were also other comedic moments I enjoyed. A standout character that I was amused by as a whole was Lear’s Fool, who immediately makes every scene he’s in ten times better. Not only are his lines and roasts (especially toward Lear) hilarious, Shakespeare also delivers important advice in the form of the Fool’s seemingly nonsense songs. This use of the Fool is incredibly clever, providing comic relief while also adding to and guiding the plot through his songs.
All in all, for my first experience reading Shakespeare, King Lear was not a bad choice. Its mirrored storylines succeed in portraying different perspectives on the themes of forgiveness and family, among others, the poetic prose and sharp, quick-witted jokes make it enjoyable to read, once you look past the vague language. Shakespeare’s King Lear is a classic play that, despite its abundance of apostrophes, continues to be relevant today.