In his introduction to the Oxford edition of King Lear, editor Stanley Wells remarks on the difficulty of the play’s reception even in its own time, the early 17th century:
[There] must … have been a profound creative urge that impelled [Shakespeare] to write so intellectually ambitious and passionately expressed a play, one that makes fewer concessions to the need to entertain, in any easy sense of the word, than anything he wrote before or after. … To its early audiences, the language of King Lear must have seemed very strange, as original in its day as that of James Joyce or Dylan Thomas in theirs. The commentary to this edition notes over a hundred words or compounds which either represent or predate OED‘s first recorded use (absolutely or in this sense), and though this is not entirely reliable it gives some idea of the innovativeness of the play’s vocabulary.
And then there is the message (if such it can be said to be) of the play itself. One possible interpretation is contained in a precis that I recently read, the source of which escapes me for the moment; to paraphrase, it is that “if the play teaches us anything, it’s that suffering teaches us nothing.” What is one to do with such knowledge — not in the instrumental sense of the word, since there is no practical utility to such a message, but how does it color one’s perceptions of the world and the self once recognized? Especially if, as the play explicitly demonstrates, suffering and cruelty are the ultimate conditions of both man and nature? There is no sentimentalization of either man or nature in King Lear, no environmentally correct interpretation of the natural world or “humanistic” (in one sense of the word) interpretation of man. “Stripped of the consolations of received religion,” Wells writes, “it gains in mystery, in the sense of life as a battle with the elements, a struggle for survival against wind and rain in a world where humanity has to compete with animal forces both within and outside itself. Shakespeare turns the play into a kind of anti-pastoral by his addition of the storm that is external to Lear and of the tempest that rages in his mind. As in As You Like It, the ‘winter wind’ is ‘not so unkind | As man’s ingratitude.’” Nature is not merely the beauty of the landscape; it is the ugliness of Gloucester’s empty eye sockets, just as natural as any tree.
Both in style and in content, then, King Lear attempts to elicit from the spectator a recognition and knowledge of the suffering and cruelty inherent in both nature and man. This can easily be interpreted as a nihilistic interpretation, but not necessarily so; in a wider sense, it is also a humanistic interpretation, but from the perspective of a humanism that grants pessimism as vital a dimension as its opposite. For the end of the play is drenched with love and compassion: Lear and Gloucester are both reunited with the children who truly love them and reconciliation is achieved; but this is a very temporary state, for death follows near. Rather uniquely among Shakespeare’s tragedies, Lear and Gloucester both die not from poison or at the point of a sword or knife, but of what must be called “natural” causes. Edgar describes how Gloucester’s heart exploded in his chest once the full knowledge of the love of his son is achieved:
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I asked his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage; but his flawed heart –
Alack, too weak the conflict to support –
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
And Lear bears Cordelia’s dead body onto the stage only minutes after their powerful reconciliation before succumbing.
As Freud noted in his notes on the play, “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.” Indeed, to conclude that all the play has to offer are those Polonius-like lessons are to ignore its dense and ambivalent fabric.
What knowledge there is in the play seems to be this: that, far from man’s true estate, love and compassion are rare qualities in existence, granted by grace to a race which does not deserve them. The source of this love and compassion remains Shakespeare’s secret and the play’s mystery. It is only fortune that grants them; they are by no means assured in this existence. With this knowledge, the spectator can then turn eyes inward as well as to the world without, praying for this love and compassion and hoping against hope for this state of grace. It engenders compassion for this inescapable suffering and those who are crippled by it. For the love and compassion that close King Lear do not eradicate the horrors that come before; indeed, the horrors are magnified by them. Far more complex, this, than the simplifications of the text that Nahum Tate undertook when the play was revived after the Restoration, with its triumphant Lear, happy Cordelia and Edgar, and absent Fool. And far more complex than those who would consider the play merely misanthropic nihilism, even if it provides no assurance of comfort.
Below, a scene from Peter Brook’s 1971 film of King Lear, with Paul Scofield as Lear and Jack MacGowran (one of Samuel Beckett’s favorite actors) as the Fool: