Every few years I turn to King Lear again, and recently did so one more time (in the Stanley Wells Oxford Shakespeare edition). In his essay on the play, A.C. Bradley noted that of the other three great tragedies it was, to his mind, unique: “When I am feeling that it is greater than any of these, and the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power, I find I am not regarding it simply as a drama, but am grouping it in my mind with works like the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.” What precedes this statement, however, is a rather interesting disclaimer: “When I regard it strictly as a drama, it appears to me, though in certain parts overwhelming, decidedly inferior as a whole to Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth.”
Bradley was not alone. It does not, in Shakespeare’s lifetime, appear to have had the success of his other plays. The only recorded performance during the Jacobean years was for the court of James I on 26 December 1606. While Shakespeare often “tried out” plays at the Globe before these frequent court presentations, Stephen Orgel notes in his introduction to the Penguin edition that during 1606 the London theatres were closed due to the plague, making it quite possible that the performance for the king was the premiere and that it was only performed for the general public the following year; this seems likely, since the role appears in the list of those that Burbage played at the Globe, though there is no more specific contemporary record of a public performance.  What’s more, after the Restoration the most common text used for production was that prepared by Nahum Tate in 1681, which gave the play a happy ending with the restoration of Lear to the throne and the marriage of Cordelia to Edgar. It wasn’t until 1838 that William Charles Macready restored the text and the play as Shakespeare conceived it returned to the British stage.
In his introduction to the Oxford text, Wells touches on a few notes that may have led to Bradley’s ambivalence, not the least of which is the play’s thematic and structural resemblance to the morality plays that preceded the drama of the 17th century. Characters are quite consciously emblems (father/king, parent/child, private individual/public subject, kindness/cruelty, legitimacy/illegitimacy, nature/humanity), and the play’s setting in the distant, even Stonehengian past of England lends to it an otherworldly quality. In this, and in its misanthropic pessimism, it is quite the most Schopenhauerian of Shakespeare’s plays along with Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens, which were written at about the same time. Schopenhauer’s aesthetics granted to the individual artist an epiphany, an insight into the Platonic Ideals not only of concrete objects (trees, stones, bodies) but also of abstract qualities (suffering, duty), which the artist then through discipline and talent rendered as an aesthetic object in the phenomenal world. The emblems of the morality play are shorn of individualism and approach instead these Platonic figures, which are then presented to the spectator for disinterested contemplation. Nor is that all, for much of the imagery of King Lear — its obsession with nothingness, its repeated motifs of the wheel (of fate, cyclic movement and Ixion) and the condition of torture, of individual life as a pensum to be endured — is also reflected in The World as Will and Representation.
The play has had a special appeal to the dramatists of the New Expressionism explored here before. James Knowlson notes that Beckett studied the play again during the last decade of his life, but there’s far more than this. Each of the New Expressionists, in fact, has devoted individual plays to the reexamination of Shakespeare’s tragedy: David Rudkin (Will’s Way), Howard Barker (Seven Lears), David Ian Rabey (The Wye Plays) and Sarah Kane (Blasted).  And though he can’t be counted among the New Expressionists, Edward Bond also rewrote the play for his 1971 Lear.
All of these writers explore the drives of death and eros and appear to locate one of the earliest expressions of their relationship in King Lear. But to close today, I want to offer a particularly sensitive reading of the play from Sigmund Freud, who in his 1913 paper “The Theme of the Three Caskets” suggested not only a perspective on the emblematic significance of Cordelia but also went some way to consider the conspicuous absence of a mother figure in the play:
To avoid misunderstandings, I should like to say that it is not my purpose to deny that King Lear’s dramatic story is intended to inculcate two wise lessons: that one should not give up one’s possessions and rights during one’s lifetime, and that one must guard against accepting flattery at its face value. These and similar warnings are undoubtedly brought out by the play; but it seems to me quite impossible to explain the overpowering effect of King Lear from the impression that such a train of thought would produce, or to suppose that the dramatist’s personal motives did not go beyond the intention of teaching these lessons. …
Lear is an old man. It is for this reason, as we have already said, that the three sisters appear as his daughters. The relationship of a father to his children, which might be a fruitful source of many dramatic situations, is not turned to further account in the play. But Lear is not only an old man: he is a dying man. In this way the extraordinary premises of the division of his inheritance loses all its strangeness. But the doomed man is not willing to renounce the love of women; he insists on hearing how much he is loved. Let us now recall the moving final scene, one of the culminating points of tragedy in modern drama. Lear carries Cordelia’s dead body on to the stage. Cordelia is Death. If we reverse the situation it becomes intelligible and familiar to us. She is the Death-goddess who, like the Valkyrie in German mythology, carries away the dead hero from the battlefield. Eternal wisdom, clothed in the primaeval myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.
The dramatist brings us nearer to the ancient theme by representing the man who makes the choice between the three sisters as aged and dying. The regressive revision which he has thus applied to the myth, distorted as it was by wishful transformation, allows us enough glimpses of its original meaning to enable us perhaps to reach as well a superficial allegorical interpretation of the three female figures in the theme. We might argue that what is represented here are the three inevitable relations that a man has with a woman — the woman who bears him, the woman who is his mate and the woman who destroys him; or that they are the three forms taken by the figure of the mother in the course of a man’s life — the mother herself, the beloved one who is chosen after her pattern, and lastly the Mother Earth who receives him once more. But it is in vain that an old man yearns for the love of woman as he had it first from his mother; the third of the Fates alone, the silent Goddess of Death, will take him into her arms.
- This has led to the current controversy regarding the provenance of the 1608 Quarto and the 1623 First Folio texts, which differ in significant ways. I’m inclined to believe that the 1608 Quarto reflects the play as performed for James I and the 1623 First Folio the play as revised once the theatres reopened. [↩]
- For more on the extensive and deliberate indebtedness of Kane’s play to Shakespeare’s tragedy, see Graham Saunders’ Love Me or Kill Me. [↩]