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King Lear

af William Shakespeare

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King Lear, one of Shakespeare's darkest and most savage plays, tells the story of the foolish and Job-like Lear, who divides his kingdom, as he does his affections, according to vanity and whim. Lear's failure as a father engulfs himself and his world in turmoil and tragedy.
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Edition: Arkangel Shakespeare

King Lear had been one of my favorite Shakespeare dramas ever since I read it for the first time in my early teens in Bulgarian (I read it a few years later in English as well) Back then I never realized that there is a problem with its texts - for all intents and purposes, there are two separate King Lear plays - while most of the plays suffer from this, Kind Lear has the largest differences (or one of the largest) between its Quatro1 and Folio texts (in addition to the inevitable changes and rewrites the Q has 285 lines that the F does not have and F has 115 completely new lines). And they are not just fillers - there are crucial differences between the two - including the end (oh, Lear dies - that does not change but what he believes when he dies is a different story). Each editor picks up their own way through the two texts although a conflated text had become the norm -- but that conflation can be very different between editions.

But let's talk about the play itself: Shakespeare takes a existing story from various sources (including Holinshed's Chronicles) and gives it a new life - and a new ending.

The king of Britain is getting old and has no sons so he decides to split the kingdom between his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia - nothing unusual in this and for anyone in 1606 that would have sounded absolutely correct - primogeniture had been the law of the land and when there is no son, the daughters are equal heiresses under the law. Except that Lear decides to test his daughters and asks them how much they love him - and as his youngest, Cordelia, refuses to pay lip service to him, she is disinherited and leaves with her new husband for France. Except that as usual, lip service and real attachment are different things and as soon as they get the power, the two older daughters try to take away everything else from Lear - who is not very happy about that and flees.

But the play is not just the story of one family - it is the story of two of them - Gloucester and his sons (the legitimate Edgar and the illegitimate Edmund) and the dynamic between them is parallel to the dissolving of Lear's family. The two sons of Gloucester and the 3 daughters of Lear exist in parallel but scarily similar lines. Evil and choices become important for the downfalls of both men - the betrayals always having their own blood. But so do the redeemers.

And that's where the story of the two men diverge - Gloucester gets his son back early on (even if he does not know it), Lear needs to wait a lot longer. Both learn about their mistakes before they die and both try to make up for them but at the end just one of the children will be still standing.

I used to think of King Lear as the play where everyone dies. Not that this does not happen in other Shakespeare dramas but here the number of the survivors at the end is extremely low, even for Shakespeare and a lot lower than it is in the sources of this play.

The double end I was talking about earlier comes almost at the end - when Lear dies. In one version he is the cause for Cordelia's death, he knows and he knows that he had not managed to save her; in the other he dies before the final confirmation that she is dead, just when he thinks he sees her moving. One of the ends hints at redemption (Lear is the one who saves her even if he is also the reason for her being killed to start it), the other one is eternal damnation. While this may mean like not much of a difference now, the 17th century drama goer would have considered that a huge difference. The rest of the differences between the versions of the play are less impactful (even though some well known scenes such as the fake trial of the daughters is nowhere to be seen in the later versions). And then there is of course the Victorian version of the play that decided that the play is too dark so gave it a happy end...

The two older sisters and Edmund are evil personified - and in the case of the sisters, it has no explanation. The sources do - so one wonders if Shakespeare had relied on people knowing the story so decided not to add the scenes needed to explain it. And at the same time some of the positive characters (Kent, Edgar and even the Fool (who is the moral compass of the story for the first part of it... and then disappears altogether)) are almost one-tone as well - too good to be true. But then... it is a play, what more can you do in such a short time. The play works -- especially because being good or bad does not spell your end - you are as likely to have a "he dies" queue regardless of where you are on the good/bad scale...

Almost 3 centuries later, a novel will begin with a now well known sentence: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". King Lear makes me think about that exact sentiment.

The Arkangel Shakespeare version of the play uses the Pelican text of the play (the one from the now older edition - they are reissuing again and I am not sure how much the current text is changed compared to the old one). It is a conflated text so most of the missing scenes are added and the end is the one with hope - Lear thinks that Cordelia may be alive. It is a masterful performance led by Trevor Peacock and with a host of other known actors including David Tennant as Edgar, Samantha Bond as Regan and Clive Merrison as Gloucester. If you had never listened to the play before, this is a good version although if you do not know the play, it can get a bit confusing - too many characters with somewhat intersecting goals can lead to confusion.

And if you are going to listen and read along, picking up the correct version of the printed play is crucial, especially in this play - or you may get a bit lost. ( )
  AnnieMod | Jan 25, 2021 |
Posiblemente deberia ser 5 estrellas pero lo he leido en el ingles de Shakespeare y me he perdido gran parte de lo que estaba ocurriendo.
Creo que lo releere en algun momento de mi vida y le dare 5 estrellas entonces. ( )
  trusmis | Nov 28, 2020 |
A very enjoyable edition. Unlike most of the Arden editions, Foakes comes across more as an educator than an academic-among-friends. This does mean occasionally that he'll cover ground most professional-level readers already understand, but it makes this a really well-rounded introduction to the play.

The decision here is to incorporate both Quarto and Folio texts in one, with the differences clearly delineated. It's probably the best possible option for this play, and well done. ( )
  therebelprince | Nov 15, 2020 |
My least favorite of the tragedies I've read for my Shakespeare class so far, because I don't buy the way the characters escalate to extremes against each other, and I wanted to read more about Cordelia than I got. Still excellent though, of course, because it's Shakespeare. ( )
  askannakarenina | Sep 16, 2020 |
My least favorite of the tragedies I've read for my Shakespeare class so far, because I don't buy the way the characters escalate to extremes against each other, and I wanted to read more about Cordelia than I got. Still excellent though, of course, because it's Shakespeare. ( )
  askannakarenina | Sep 16, 2020 |
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King Lear, one of Shakespeare's darkest and most savage plays, tells the story of the foolish and Job-like Lear, who divides his kingdom, as he does his affections, according to vanity and whim. Lear's failure as a father engulfs himself and his world in turmoil and tragedy.

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