Summer Shakespeare I

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2015: Wednesdays, 1:00-3:00 p.m. Eastern Time
June 17 - Aug. 19

June 17:
A Midsummer Night's Dream

June 24:
Romeo and Juliet

July 8:
The Taming of the Shrew

July 15:
Richard II

July 22:
As You Like It

July 29:
Julius Caesar

August 5:
The Merchant of Venice

August 12:
King Lear

August 19:
Twelfth Night

King Lear

Things to consider while reading King Lear

King Lear is, according to the seasoned Shakespeare critic and scholar Maurice Charney, “the most savage and unredeemed of Shakespeare’s tragedies”, while he considers the character of Lear himself to be “the most fully developed of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists”. At the same time he finds the play very didactic — even preachy — at times. Such contradictions are part of what leads Harold Bloom to confess (in his commentary on the play) that “King Lear, together with Hamlet, ultimately baffles commentary”.

It is one of those tragedies that keep the reader or viewer off balance. Its curious construction and apparent disproportions are bewildering. It is nearly impossible to figure out whether there is anyone who has the whole picture or who holds the moral high ground. It is not an easy play, therefore, in any respect.

For all that, the basic story of the play is remarkably straightforward and devoid of complications. Lear foolishly determines to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters, and in so doing, is swayed too little by plain but honest speech (that of Cordelia) and instead actively seeks and rewards flattery. The rest of the play is the consequence of this initial folly. Lear himself, of course, winds up paying the price for his capriciousness; but other characters in the play — none of them entirely good or wise — are also ensnared in the brutal consequences of his blindness as well.

A narrative retelling of King Lear from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.

King Lear and what has come before

We noted that, for good or ill, The Merchant of Venice is a very social play. King Lear is just the opposite. It is devoid of any really profound theorizing about the nature of political reality, or the kingship in particular. It concentrates instead on the personal reality of a man who "hath ever but slenderly known himself." This, I would argue, is the source of the dynamic of the play: the acquisition of self-knowledge through grievous loss, as presented in the parallel cases of both Lear and Gloucester, is the goal to which the drama strives.

Symbolism in Shakespeare’s Plays

Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)

Symmetries in the play

Problems in the play