“The Tragedy of King Lear” by William Shakespeare

King Lear Mourns Cordelia's Death

Is Shakespeare a Synonym for Greek?

I’m amazed how much Shakespeare reminds me of the ancient Greek poets, both in the themes and the dialogues of the plays.

Firstly, the style of the dialogues, which I’d call “contrapuntal”, with one high-flown voice of oratory and another plainer often ironic voice acting as commentary and counterpoint, is strikingly reminiscent of Aristophanes. The witty fool, who is wiser than the King, seems to have come straight from him.

If we combine Sophocles’ psychological introspection, Aeschylus’ solemn sometimes frenzied invocation of divine retribution, Euripides’ compassionate plea for reason and justice, and Aristophanes’ irony and witticism (sans the indecent jokes), the mixture becomes Shakespeare.

Secondly, the themes in Shakespearean tragedies are typical in Greek tragedies, with the possible exception of sororicide (sisters killing sisters). There are parricide, filicide (parents against children), fatricide (brothers against brothers), adultery, mariticide (wives against husbands), regicide (subjects against their kings), guests against their hosts.

The world of King Lear is a world turned upside down, where the wicked rule and the righteous mourn, where “freedom lives hence, and banishment is here”, “most choice forsaken, and most loved despised”, kings become fools and parents become babes. In short, just about everyone shall end up in one of the circles in Dante’s Inferno. What a rotten lot!

A Reflection on Easter

Perhaps it was a coincidence that I finished King Lear on Easter weekend, which led me to compare the Tragedy of King Lear with the Gospels.

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”

People are accustomed to say “Happy Birthday”, and “Merry Christmas”. But if we dwell upon the injustices and sufferings, as King Lear did, how can anyone, let alone God, be happy being born into this cesspool? Would He not be tempted to say, “Beam me up, Father. There’s no intelligent life down here”? No. He stayed, for our sake. “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” He did bear with His people, until they crucified Him on the cross.

“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?”

Why should a worthless murderous sinner have life, and a blameless man, the only begotten Son of God die? It is “a dreadful trade” (to borrow the words of Shakespeare). I wondered whether God the Father ever asked Himself that question. Why should He give His only begotten Son for the faithless, perverse and ungrateful world?

Thankfully, the Gospel is not a tragedy. The story doesn’t end with Crucifixion, the story ends with Resurrection and Ascension. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.””I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”

Quotes:

Alb. Where have you hid yourself?
How have you known the miseries of your father?
Edg. By nursing them, my lord. List a brief tale;
And when ’tis told, oh, that my heart would burst!
The bloody proclamation to escape,
That follow’d me so near,—oh, our lives’ sweetness!
That we the pain of death would hourly die
Rather than die at once!—taught me to shift
Into a madman’s rags, to assume a semblance
That very dogs disdain’d; and in this habit
Met I my father with his bleeding rings,
Their precious stones new lost; became his guide,
Led him, begg’d for him, sav’d him from despair;
Never,—O fault!—reveal’d myself unto him,
Until some half-hour past, when I was arm’d.
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him our pilgrimage; but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

References:

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6 thoughts on ““The Tragedy of King Lear” by William Shakespeare

  1. I suppose one could say that Cordelia is the Christ figure for Lear and her sacrifice, like Christ’s, is a redemptive element that rights his twisted perspective of love and brings him back from madness. Have a blessed Easter.

    1. Cordelia’s love is redemptive for Lear. But I don’t see her death as a sacrifice like Christ’s. She invaded her own country with a foreign army, and lost in the battle, “with best meaning, have incurred the worst”.

    1. I don’t know whether Shakespeare was of Italian descent, or anything else about the man behind the writings, except that he seemed to be extremely well-read. Having said that, however, his works do have a lyrical quality, so he is an Italian in that sense. 🙂

      1. Thank you, but I just wonder how come he knew so well Italy, that almost a third of his plays were set partly or wholly in Italy, that appears more than just a coincidence. I simply find it extraordinary. Years ago BBC broadcasted the documentary to trace Shakespeare’s origin up to Sicily that also fascinated me.

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