The Reactionary Utopian
If you ask me, King Lear is a very good play, even better than The Odd Couple. This is not an original opinion, I admit; earlier critics, some more reputable than I, have said much the same thing. But I would call your notice to some fine details.
Everyone knows that the scene in which Lear and his daughter Cordelia are reconciled is one of the most moving things ever written. I cant even quote it with dry eyes, and Ive been reading it since I was about 16. The final scene, a pinnacle of tragedy, may even surpass it. Yet the play owes much of its grandeur and emotional power to the homely character of Lears Fool, who is quite unnecessary to the plot. I love him like an old friend.
In the opening scene, the old king flies into a rage when Cordelia, his youngest and favorite daughter, refuses to flatter him like her two evil sisters, Goneril and Regan. He disinherits and banishes her, but the king of France, recognizing that she is herself a dowry, takes her as his queen. The kingdom of Britain is divided between Lears other two daughters. At the age of fourscore and upwards, Lear is still remarkably immature, whiling away his time hunting with his rowdy knights.
Then, unexpectedly, Shakespeare inserts a magical touch only he could have conceived. After a days hunting, the self-indulgent Lear wants to be amused by his Fool. He complains, I have not seen him this two days. One of his knights hesitantly explains the Fools absence: Since my young ladys going into France, sir, the Fool hath much pined away.
Sheer genius. You hardly notice that simple line the first time you see or read the play, but as you grow familiar with it you get the import: it tells you how much the Fool adores Cordelia and how deeply he is hurt by what his master has done to her.
The insolent Fool is one of Shakespeares most inspired creations. Throughout the first half of the play, he takes his revenge on Lear with bitter, wounding humor. Lear threatens to have him whipped, but the Fool wont lay off, and for some reason Lear puts up with his taunts. Like Cordelia, the Fool is a truth-teller. (Goneril hates him.)
Gradually we realize that the Fool is Cordelias surrogate during her absence. The two never appear in the same scene and hardly even refer to each other, but we have been casually, and very subtly, made aware of their mutual love.
Shortly afterward, Lear angrily falls out with the heartless Goneril and, taking his entire retinue, leaves her household to move in with the equally heartless Regan (who will soon be the target of another of his furies). Along the way, the Fool continues to bait Lear for his folly.
Then Shakespeare plants another of his tremendous subtleties. As the Fool keeps teasing him, Lear mutters to himself, I did her wrong. We immediately realize that by her he means Cordelia.
In those four simple syllables we learn that Lears stubborn pride is beginning to crack. There will be more curses and tantrums, but his redemption has begun.
Despite her absence, Cordelia is present to him in his Fool. Instead of threatening him with whipping, Lear, in the midst of his own suffering and madness, treats him with the utmost tenderness, affectionately calling him my boy. Its his indirect way of expressing his love and regret for his cruelty to his only true-hearted daughter.
All these tiny touches prepare us for the matchless scene of reconciliation, when Lear, totally transformed (though still half-insane), tearfully begs Cordelia to forgive him. Instead, she weeps too and tells him there is nothing to forgive.
King Lear is certainly Shakespeares grimmest play, with no cerebral hero like Hamlet, but its gallery of good and evil characters makes it unique. Those who remain loyal to Lear as the little Fool, in spite of his own anger, always does prevail, when the others have been consumed by their own depravity.
The Fool mysteriously disappears halfway through the play. We are left uncertain whether he is even still alive. But before he vanishes, he has helped give King Lear its incomparable emotional depth.
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