Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1392
Though all of Shakespeare's tragedies are unique in their way, King Lear perhaps presents special obstacles to our understanding that paradoxically are a sign of its greatness. Of all the plays, the plot and the motivations of the characters are probably the most difficult for the audience to make sense of as a plain story. At the same time, King Lear could be the tragedy most admired by specialists. It also has been considered the most “timeless” of his plays because much of it can be likened to the literature of the modernist period and specifically the Theater of the Absurd.
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King Lear is also the drama in which the nature, or source, of the “evil” that victimizes the characters is the hardest to isolate or identify in one character or another, or in an action by those characters. In Hamlet, most readers would consider the murder of Hamlet's father by Claudius as the wrongful act that precipitates the tragedy; in Othello, it's the relentless hatred of Iago; and in Macbeth, it’s the blind ambition of Macbeth and his wife which are responsible for all the death and destruction. King Lear is different. The tendency of people to commit cruelties and injustices is even more in evidence, but it is scattered around, present in a majority of the characters and situations that propel the story. More than in other plays, the reader or audience is bewildered by the behavior of people in King Lear, including the protagonists, the characters who have the most claim on our sympathy. And both Shakespeare's detractors and his greatest admirers have pointed out numerous inconsistencies and improbabilities in the play's plot, asking how this or that could possibly happen in “real life” as it does in the play.
The setting of King Lear in time and place is ambiguous and unreal as well. The story of King Leir (as the name was spelled in earlier versions) is a legend that takes place in ancient Britain as related by the chroniclers Geoffrey of Monmouth and, later, Raphael Holinshed. The more exact time is usually presumed to be about 800 BCE. That no attempt is made by Shakespeare to recreate the period in terms of place names and other details is unsurprising, given the frequent anachronisms in his work and the lack, in any event, of anyone's specific knowledge of such a remote period in the history of Britain. But even in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, it would have been known that the names France, Burgundy, Albany, and Cornwall date from the Middle Ages, not remote antiquity, and that “knights” fighting in armor with visors and other trappings of the story make little sense with regard to the period depicted. Rather than attempt to include anything genuinely historical, Shakespeare treats the material as a kind of timeless fairytale, almost in the manner of present-day science fiction and fantasy literature and film. Most commentators would agree that this nonspecific quality enhances the universality of the drama and its themes. Lear and the other characters become more explicitly symbols of humanity through the ages rather than being anchored in the kind of particularity of Hamlet, as a medieval Danish prince; Othello in sixteenth-century Venice; and Macbeth in Scotland during the eleventh century.
But that said, the actual “message” conveyed by King Lear, assuming it is the most timeless and universal of the tragedies, is more uncertain and open to interpretation than that of the other plays. Some have found explicit absurdism and nihilism in it, not with a view to censuring the play, but as praise. In the book Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, the scholar Jan Kott compares King Lear with Samuel Beckett's dramas, stating that it is only in the twentieth century that the absurdist vision of Shakespeare can finally be understood. Yet George Orwell, in his essay “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool,” argues that King Lear is one of a minority of Shakespeare’s dramas that are definitely “about something,” that it has a definite theme relating to morality and to right and wrong, to an extent perhaps lacking from the other tragedies.
Paradoxically, both views are valid. On the one hand, King Lear presents a bizarre world in which people's motives and actions are often incomprehensible. Why, for example, does Cordelia speak with such chilly indifference when asked to tell her father how much she loves him? The wish to avoid the exaggerated displays made by Goneril and Regan isn't a sufficient explanation. It is similarly a mystery that Edgar makes no attempt to defend himself against the ludicrous charges brought against him by Edmund. Gloucester's immediate acceptance of Edmund's lies makes as little sense as Lear's violently negative reaction to Cordelia, the ultimate cause of the whole tragic spectacle which then unfolds, and to Kent as well.
These aren't the only points straining credibility. In his pathbreaking early twentieth-century work Shakespearean Tragedy, A. C. Bradley enumerates a whole series of plot elements that make little sense, acknowledging that these are “disadvantageous” to the drama and that they are the result of simple carelessness on Shakespeare's part, that in King Lear he was “less concerned than usual with dramatic fitness.” Such are the letter Edmund forges from his brother, when the two live in the same house and obviously could simply talk to each other rather than writing, and the fact that Gloucester, after being blinded, decides to “wander painfully all the way to Dover simply in order to destroy himself” rather than committing suicide where he is. All of this is chalked up by Bradley to the assumption that in King Lear, Shakespeare was “exceptionally careless of probability, clearness and consistency in small matters.”
Yet it's a paradox that these alleged flaws aren't destructive of the dramatic power of the tragedy. The absence of both logistical and psychological “realism” can be seen not as a defect but as an expression of that very “message” that even some of Shakespeare's admirers may have missed, or rather, misinterpreted. The subtext of King Lear is that the world, or at least the way it manifests itself to people under circumstances of conflict and violence, is irrational. In the modernist and postmodernist periods, the theme is so commonplace that it comes across as a cliché. But what matters in literature is not whether a theme or a “message” is original so much as the way it's presented. King Lear resonates with audiences and readers precisely because its anarchic and absurdist worldview is shown so memorably, so strikingly. The desperate, crazed way in which the abandoned Lear, the disguised Kent and Edgar, and the Fool behave embodies a kind of truth that a conventional drama cannot express. To say the atmosphere of these scenes in the open, especially amidst an apocalyptic storm, is surreal and psychotic is an understatement. The nearly incomprehensible jokes and riddles in which the Fool, the disguised Edgar, and perhaps above all Lear himself speak are emblematic of the general miscommunication and misunderstanding that underpin the tragedy.
But in spite of this chaos, insanity, and terrifying brutality and sadism enacted in King Lear, to say that the overall message of the play is a nihilistic one is false. On the contrary, a kind of redemption emerges from the tragedy when Albany declares that Kent and Edgar will, as a result of the virtue and service they have rendered, rule Britain jointly. If anything, the ending shows the forces of evil defeated: Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril, and Regan are all dead, as well as the hapless but morally erring Gloucester. Even the death of Lear represents a kind of retributive justice, the result of his mistakes, his folly in having disowned his daughter and been unfair and cruel to Kent as well. In this respect, Lear, and perhaps even more so Cordelia, are Christ figures whose death means salvation for those who have survived. The conclusion of the play is therefore more hopeful, more positive arguably than that of Hamlet, Othello, and perhaps even Macbeth. Paradoxically, King Lear, of the four greatest tragedies, is the least pessimistic even as it presents the cruelest and most destructive kind of evil and anarchy Shakespeare was ever to depict. It is a study in extremes, in exaggeration, but also one in which opposite forces are arrayed that symbolize a massive contradiction governing the cosmos.