Alex's Reviews > King Lear

King Lear by William Shakespeare
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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2014, rth-lifetime, farts

Here is Shakespeare's biggest bummer in a long career of bummers. Remember that catch phrase kids thought was clever in like 7th grade as they were discovering the joys of nihilism: "Life sucks, then you die"? That's the actual and entire message of King Lear. "Nothing will come of nothing," rages the doddering King, and there is nothing, and nothing comes of it.

And along the way, don't forget, we get maybe Shakespeare's most disturbing scene, the outing of the vile jelly, Marlovian in its gruesomeness.

Shakespeare liked the word "nothing", only partly because it's vaginas. He has some dark fun with it in Lear - check him out as he offers the disinherited Cordelia to Burgundy in marriage:
If aught within that little seeming substance,
Or all of it, with our displeasure pieced,
And nothing more, may fitly like your grace,
She's there, and she is yours.
Burgundy's like nah, I'm good. But this play is about something less pleasant than vaginas: it's about the real nothing, entropy, death.

Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World points out that Shakespeare has this weird tendency to excise the motive from his plots, which is part of what makes them so endlessly interesting and open to interpretation. Shakespeare's source for Othello has Iago acting out of jealousy, because he has a crush on Desdemona. But Shakespeare more or less chops that out; Iago's motives are left murky. "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know," he says as he leaves the stage, and there's that word again.

And Shakespeare mucks with his source again in Lear. His main source (this is an oft-told tale) has Lear staging the whole "Who loves me?" thing so as to get Cordelia to marry who he wants. (It sortof makes sense in context.) Shakespeare once again trims it out; in his version, the game seems like no more than an old asshole who likes to be flattered. He changes the ending, too, which is happy in most of the sources. His Lear starts and ends in chaos and meaningless tragedy: nothing from nothing.

Lear isn't perfect. That fake suicide scene has never worked for me, and the mock trial doesn't really either, and frankly there's less in the way of glorious wordplay than there is in Hamlet or Tempest, and the parallel plots work together but also make it seem less focused than Macbeth or Othello. But it's a storm of nihilism, a dark night of literature, a virtuoso depiction of despair without glimmer. As an exploration of the emptiest corners of the world, the bleak and barren heath of your soul...nothing beats it.
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Reading Progress

February 27, 2010 – Shelved
August 15, 2014 – Started Reading
August 16, 2014 – Finished Reading
August 20, 2014 – Shelved as: 2014
January 2, 2015 – Shelved as: rth-lifetime
September 12, 2017 – Shelved as: farts

Comments Showing 1-27 of 27 (27 new)

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David Sarkies It is still one of my top Shakespearian plays, simply because we never looked at it in High School. I never considered that by removing the motive Shakespeare adds some murkiness to his tragedies. It certainly does add a new dimension to them.


Alex Yeah, isn't that interesting? But once Greenblatt pointed it out, there are lots of cases of murky motives. The whole fun of Hamlet is debating why he's muddling about nuttily instead of doing something, right? "Why is he acting like that?" And it's so much more fun that you don't know.

I doubt Greenblatt is the first to make that case - it's probably, like, totally well-known among Shakespeare scholars. But it was new to me.


message 3: by Eric (new)

Eric Wojcik I appreciate the reference to Greenblatt. I'll have to check that out.


Alex Lenny wrote: "I appreciate the reference to Greenblatt. I'll have to check that out."

Lenny, the first half or so is your standard Shakespeare bio - not much new to say there. In the latter half I gets to what I think is some great discussion of a bunch of Shakespeare's plays; that's where it gets worthwhile.

So my advice is either to skip the first part altogether or not to lose faith. :)


Jason Woo hoo! This play is so great. I still think it's better than Othello but maybe not better than Hamlet or Macbeth.

By the way, tell me what you mean about "fake suicide" ? My brain isn't working right now.


message 6: by Alex (last edited Aug 20, 2014 01:11PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Yo Jason! Yeah, I've been just-about-to-reread-Lear for like five years now. I finally got to it!

I think it's better than Othello too, actually, despite the fact that its plot isn't as easily grasped. I'm still trying to reshuffle my favorites in my head.

Fake suicide: Okay, (view spoiler) "Well, I guess the gods want me to live then!"

To me, it sounds about that lame in the play too. Like, how dumb is Gloucester? I know he just had his eyeballs ground out and everything, but srsly dude.


message 7: by Eric (last edited Aug 20, 2014 01:06PM) (new)

Eric Wojcik The fake suicide is the Cliffs of Dover scene, right? Where Gloucester[Edited] is tricked into thinking he's throwing himself from a great height. I admit it doesn't really work (it seems too unlikely) but it's really beautiful to me.

I find Lear, as great as it is, bleak almost past the point of reason. Othello has become more dreadful to me, because Iago himself feels so real, so threatening.


message 8: by Jason (last edited Aug 20, 2014 01:18PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jason Haha! It's very true about Gloucester not recognizing his kid. Stuff like that always seems to happens with Shakespeare, though. People in his plays can be WICKED dumb. (Anyone who is confused by Viola/Cesario, for example?)


Katherine Tallent Brilliant review as always!

I actually quite liked the fake-suicide bit, but purely because it confused me.
It showed how valuable mime can be on an empty stage - for a second the suicide kind of did happen and also definitely didn't.
I think the lack of decisiveness (both the men are at the top of the cliff for one second then with a few words of Edgar's are suddenly at the bottom) shows how pointless life is.

So I saw the fake suicide bit as a quite nice (albeit annoying) example of what the whole play is arguably about: Nothing coming from Nothing.


message 10: by Alex (last edited Aug 21, 2015 05:17AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Hi again Katherine! And thank you!

That's a good point, I hadn't thought of that. So Shakespeare might be continuing to play around with this idea of staged vs real death, huh? Just like he does in Hamlet.

We start from "I'm going to get on stage and pretend to die," which is what's literally happening, and then he thinks that's a super weird thing to do so he packs layers on top of it. Here Lear is pretending to pretend to die, and in the end of Hamlet (Romeo & Juliet, too) we've kindof got people pretending to pretend to pretend to die.

And he basically does the same thing with gender in the comedies, right? He's just as agitated by the fact of men pretending to be women on stage, so he messes with that too - men pretending to be women pretending to be men, and I think there's at least a scene or two where he adds even another layer. (I'm shit with the comedies so I can't remember.)

You just totally helped me sort that fake suicide out! Now I get it! Thank you! You're great.


Jason Alex, what do you mean about characters pretending to die at the end of Hamlet?


message 12: by Alex (last edited Aug 21, 2015 05:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I mean, like - Hamlet spoilers? (view spoiler) So it's...it's not exactly the same, but maybe a related idea? It feels like Shakespeare messing around with the reality of death again.

I realized right after I posted that it wasn't a great example and Romeo & Juliet works better.


message 13: by Jason (last edited Aug 21, 2015 06:11AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jason Yeah but I see your point. Or Katherine's point which you then proceeded to steal. (Stop! Thief!) I'm trying to think if Shakespeare messes around with the concept of death/reality in Macbeth or Othello but I can't get it to work in those instances.


message 14: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Yeah, me neither, so it seems fair to say that sometimes Shakespeare was capable of writing plays without muttering on about the nature of reality. So we have the obvious meta plays: Hamlet and whichever one of the comedies is the one where cross-dressing gets really out of hand. (Verona? whatever) And Tempest, that one's always felt super meta to me. The less obvious ones: Lear thanks to Katherine, and Romeo & Juliet, and various other cross-dressing things. And As You Like It because "All the world's a stage." And then the more or less straight ones like Othello and Macbeth, although I suspect you could get somewhere with the banquet scene if you remembered the details better than I do.

And yeah, everyone already knew Shakespeare was hella meta, so basically the only original point in this whole discussion was Katherine's about the suicide, and I didn't even pick up her secondary point about the meaninglessness of life, the distance between life and death turning out to be nothing, the leap doesn't exist.


Jason The cross dressing one was Twelfth Night, I think. Hey, I forgot to tell you about king Lear this summer! It was fucking long, man. I had forgotten how long that play is. Lear was good, though.


message 16: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Fuckin' Shakespeare, with his not shutting up. It is one of the longer ones, huh? I want to say, like, third-longest? (I don't know.)


Jason Hamlet is definitely longer but I'd say maybe second or third longest.


message 19: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Whoa, and I thought Othello was one of the shorter ones. We suck at this.


message 20: by LdyGray (last edited Nov 13, 2018 06:43AM) (new)

LdyGray Your review popped up in my daily Goodreads email today, so I will Kool-Aid Man this thread to say: I recently dragged my hus-beast to a live showing of the National Theatre’s production of King Lear, starring Ian McKellan. And listen, it is hell of long, almost four hours, pity my poor partner. But also it was gorgeous and moving and impeccably cast. McKellan was incredible, of course, and they cast Sinéad Cusack as Kent, which lent some interesting color to the character. And the daughters were all three incredible. Some of it was a bit on-the-nose (the blindness parallels, for example). It was incredible, though, and if you have a chance to see the encore I highly recommend it. Here's a video.


message 21: by Alex (last edited Nov 13, 2018 06:56AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Yes! Kool-Aid me baby! But what you don't know is that you owe it all to me, Gray. I personally emailed Ian McKellen like....twenty years ago, maybe? Back in the day, when I was just a pup and the internet was still something about which people said things like "this is a silly idea" and "what is it even good for," McKellen was famous for Being Online, and you could just email him. So I sent him an email - I'd just seen Richard III, in which as you no doubt know he was amazing - and I was like when are you going to do Lear? because he was already old, he's always been old, and what old Shakespeare people do is Lear. And he emailed me back in all caps: "I'M SURE I WILL DO IT SOMEDAY." Still one of my top five favorite celebrity interactions, out of a total pool of two. The other was Willem Dafoe, and it's a long story (it isn't) but the end of it is he bought me a copy of Continental Drift and I still haven't read it.

Anyway, you're welcome!


message 22: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue K H Great review. I read this earlier in the year and just recently watched the Amazon Prime modern version (which takes place in modern times) with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and many other great actors. I loved it. If you have Prime, you should give it a try


message 23: by LdyGray (new)

LdyGray Alex wrote: "Yes! Kool-Aid me baby! But what you don't know is that you owe it all to me, Gray. I personally emailed Ian McKellen like....twenty years ago, maybe? Back in the day, when I was just a pup and the ..."

No. Way.

That's completely awesome, and thank you for sending that email!


message 24: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex And thank you Sue! I didn't even know there was an Amazon modern version; I'll put it on my list (and probably never watch it because I'm not super good at watching things these days, I just never do seem to get around to it).


message 25: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue K H Alex wrote: "And thank you Sue! I didn't even know there was an Amazon modern version; I'll put it on my list (and probably never watch it because I'm not super good at watching things these days, I just never ..."

I'm the same way! Endless lists of movies, TV shows and books that I can't get to. Some friends and I watched this together which made it happen.


message 26: by Joanne (new) - added it

Joanne Fate I've read a bunch of Shakespeare's plays, but don't know why I've missed this. Putting it on the list which just keeps getting longer


message 27: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Oh it's so good!


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