The Story of the Month I’m about to present to you, I confess, is not one of my all-time favorites. I probably shouldn’t start out my review by admitting that, but I don’t want to lead you on–because, after all, you have stuck with me for almost two years now! To be honest, I don’t particularly like the characters and some of the plot makes my innards swirl like spaghetti. But even through all that, I have to admit that the story has merit. It has value. It has survived for over 400 years and that must mean something. So let’s take a look at this month’s Story (or Play) of the Month and see what wisdom and brilliance we can glean from it. So here it is, my whole-hearted selection for the Story of the Month for August 2010: King Lear by the illustrious William Shakespeare.
King Lear is perhaps, aside from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet and Macbeth, one of the more well-known plays of Shakespeare’s canon. What is so interesting about it is that it has two plot lines: one major and one only-slightly-less-major.
The major plotline is that of King Lear and his three daughters. King Lear is a steadfastly vain king. He asks his daughters to profess their love for him, and only then will he carve his kingdom into three equal parts and pass them on for each daughter to rule. His eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, are evil to the core and declare false love for the sheer purpose of securing their inheritance. They try to outdo each other, saying that they love their father more than the other ever could. Though clearly false, the professions satisfy the vanity of Lear. Cordelia, however, who is one of the truest and most “good” characters I’ve ever encountered in literature, refuses to outdo her sisters by saying that she could only give all her love to her father until the day she gets married, when she’d have to split her love between him and her husband. She even criticizes her elder, married sisters for declaring all their love to Lear, sparing none for their spouses. While Cordelia’s honestly should have been rewarded handsomely, instead it brings about her banishment. Lear disowns her and then forces his other daughters to take him in…much to their chagrin.
The second plotline is that of the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons: Edgar, who is good, and Edmund, who is evil. (See a similarity in the plotlines yet?) Edmund is actually the illegitimate son of Gloucester, and is therefore entitled to nothing of his father’s inheritance. He is, clearly, envious of his good-natured brother who is set to inherit everything because he is the only legitimate son. And, in true Shakespeare-villain fashion, Edmund immediately sets out to bring about the downfall of both his unassuming brother and his ignorant father.
In case we couldn’t see the similarity in the relationships between the two fathers and the children, Shakespeare makes a point of unraveling both stories simultaneously. Both plotlines are set up for failure almost immediately, and the children’s deceitful natures are revealed at the same time. Goneril and Regan swindle and reject their father just as Edmund turns his father against Edgar and leaves the former to the cruelty of Regan and her husband (who, in the most graphic and disgusting display I’ve encountered in literature, gouge out the poor earl’s eyes) and the latter to the harshness of the elements. And, ultimately, the evil will all fall at the same time, as will all those they plotted against. (Not that I’m trying to give away the ending. It is a Shakespeare tragedy after all, so you can assume most of the cast of characters will die!)
So why did I chose this tragedy as the Story of the Month? Allow me to quote from a journal entry I wrote a couple years ago when I read this play in a college-level Shakespeare class:
Usually, in Shakespeare’s plays, there seems to only be one malevolent character, or at least one character that stands out as being the most evil of them all. But in King Lear, there are multiple villainous characters. In fact, there are three: Gloucester’s [illegitimate] son Edmund and Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all equally evil.
And, plot-wise, we need all three of these characters. Really, King Lear compares the relationship between Lear and his daughters and that between Gloucester and his sons, and how the child that each father should love and trust most is the one he is convinced to turn against (convinced by his [remaining] evil children, no less). Lear should respect his daughter Cordelia’s desire to love first her future husband and second her father, as it is the honorable thing for a woman to do, but he instead condemns her for being disloyal. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan falsely declare their love for their father, and thus by their falsehood they turn their father against their true and good youngest sister.
Similarly, Edmund turns his father against Edgar, Gloucester’s good son, so that he might be the only heir of Gloucester’s estate. His motivation, though, differs greatly from Goneril and Regan. Although all three seek to increase their fortune through their fathers’ demise, Goneril and Regan already have a decent inheritance after falsely professing their primary love for Lear; by their falsehood and trickery they hope to inherit and split Cordelia’s share of the inheritance.
Edmund, on the other hand, being the eldest son, but still [an illegitimate] son, stands to inherit nothing from Gloucester. By getting Edgar out of the way, Edmund would become Gloucester’s sole heir and thus would inherit everything. His desire to get Edgar out of the picture is far more understandable than Goneril and Regan’s seemingly unnecessary need to get rid of Cordelia, especially since they could have used her to pawn their father off on (since neither of them actually love him, but Cordelia truly does).
But common sense is something that Shakespeare’s characters often lack. In fact, they are rather passionate and impulsive, quick to act on inklings and fleeting emotions. Even though the three evil characters could be considered guilty of such a [reckless] crime, there is no doubt that all three of them are necessary and integral parts of King Lear, and that they are the most important catalysts of this story. Really, without their plotting and successful trickery, then none of this play would be as it is.
After reading that, for the first time in two years, something struck me. There is something in Edmund that is reminiscent of Othello’s Iago. He is the quiet conspirator that lurks in the shadows and uses wit to plant paranoia in the minds of those he wants to suffer. But unlike Iago, who is the only true villain in Othello other than the paranoid Othello himself, Edmund isn’t the only–or even the main–antagonist in this play. Goneril and Regan are the true evil villains, the super villains, whose diabolical actions bring about the downfall of everyone in the entire story. Sure, Edmund’s plotting affects Gloucester, Edgar, and even Edmund himself.
But Goneril and Regan’s betrayal extends beyond themselves and their father to Cordelia, her new husband, their own husbands, their servants, Lear’s knights, the Earl of Kent, Edgar, Edmund, Gloucester…literally everyone. While Edmund’s plot against Gloucester is–simply put–evil, it is nothing more than a jealous reaction to his brother’s social station and disappointment and sadness caused by his father’s neglect. But Goneril and Regan’s deceit is just downright inexcusable and completely unwarranted. If anyone should feel dissatisfied, it’s Cordelia! Yet she accepts her maniacal father’s wishes and is banished, but all the while she still maintains love for her father. To me, Goneril and Regan are so evil that they become almost one-dimensional; they exist solely to offset the kindness and gentility of Cordelia. That being said, they are the true catalysts of change in the storyline and set about the entire turn of events culminating in the positive development and evolution of half a dozen critical characters.
Unfortunately, not even that is enough to save them. But it is a Shakespearean tragedy, so what do you expect? But think about Romeo and Juliet: Even though we know what happens at the end, don’t we read and re-read the play, and cherish it all the more with each read? Apply that same mentality to King Lear and, even though the characters might never win you over, and the eye-gouging might send your stomach juices into a whirlwind, the intricate plot will certainly be enough to capture your attention and hold your interest. And, if you give it a chance, you might even be surprised what you (begrudgingly) can glean from it.