The Play’s the Thing: King Lear is getting old and allocating his kingdom to his three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia) based on how much they say they love him with Cordelia ending up cut off because she won’t lie like her older sisters who really pour it on thick. Goneril and Regan almost immediately turn on Lear and treat him horribly causing him to go mad. Goneril and Regan also backbite with each other, both trying to get rid of their current husbands for Edmund (the manipulative bastard son of Gloster; see subplot) and eventually with one sister poisoning the other and then killing herself. Cordelia returns to England, helps her father recover a bit but is murdered by an assassin sent by Goneril and Edmund. Cordelia’s death drives Lear off the deep end and he dies of shock.
Subplot Edmund is the bastard son of Gloster who masterminds a plot to knock Edgar (Gloster’s legitimate son) out of the position of heir by causing Gloster to believe Edgar is going to kill him. Edgar goes into hiding and pretends to be a crazy man and hangs out with Lear’s entourage during Lear’s crazy phase. Gloster is blinded by Regan’s husband. He eventually joins up with Edgar (not knowing who he is) and Edgar prevents him from committing suicide. Gloster eventually joins up with Lear and he and Edgar reconcile, while Edmund is injured in battle (did I mention there’s a war going on in Act V?) and dies just before Lear.
Heroes and Villains: Cordelia really is the only likable and sane human being in this play so she wins the prize this time around.
Insults with Style:
- “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 wouldst be bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou denyest the least syllable of addition.” (II.ii)
- “thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter” (II.ii)
- “although the last, not least” (I.i)
- “take her or leave her” (I.i)
- “more sinned against, than sinning” (III.ii)
- “that way madness lies” (III.iv)
Speech to Know: There’s no speeches in King Lear that I found super impressive, but there’s a brief moment of dialogue when Lear appears on stage in Act V carrying Cordelia’s dead body that brilliantly evokes the intensity of his grief.
“Howl, howl, howl, howl! – O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. – She’s gone for ever!” (V.iii)
View from the Pit: King Lear is fascinating study of madness and family relations. Lear himself goes really far round the bend and big chunks of his dialogue are truly batty. The parallel plots of Goneril and Regan betraying their father for more extensive power while Edmund does the same to Gloster provides for some truly heinous actions from some repulsive human beings. Admittedly, I have issues keeping Edmund and Edgar straight (dear Shakespeare, couldn’t you make their names a little more distinctive?) but Edgar is intriguing as one of the more heroic characters as he doesn’t just reveal himself to his father or Lear right away but maintains his disguise of madmen for much of the play after his banishment. And of course Cordelia is just the lovely human being who loves her father the right amount, is punished for not lying and saying she loves him more, still gets to marry a French royal, but ends up dead after doing her daughterly duty. Really, King Lear is all about the daughters and Cordelia is the best of them in the intriguing but horrifying mess that her sisters create.