Program notes: King Lear

Thanks to everyone (actors, audience, and crew) who made Wednesday’s reading a success. Program notes below.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is about the inexpressible. What can a child say to an unruly parent? What can a king say once he’s given away his crown? What can we say once we’ve seen “unaccommodated man?” King Lear is an apocalypse of language, the final revelation of the parent who holds the speechless body of his dead child: “Look there! Look there!”

The tragedy of the play lies not in what is said (or unsaid), but in what is heard and seen.  The shock of King Lear 1.1 comes not from the abdication, nor from the love test, nor from Cordelia’s refusal or inability to play the game.  The shock comes from Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s words: “Let it be so.  Thy truth then be thy dower.”  There is a gap at this moment, a chasm between Cordelia’s words and Lear’s reaction to them, and through that gap spills the Apocalypse: here it is that Lear first calls upon the heavens and the gods, here he first invokes the end of time, here he first conjures up cannibalistic images of the family in the “barbarous Scythian” who eats his own children.  What does Lear hear in Cordelia’s words that leads to this response?  Could she have said anything to avoid it?  Here communication breaks down not on the side of the message but on the side of interpretation.  Propriety is not enough to fill the gap, nor is self-expression.  All the sympathy of Albany, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent, and the Fool is not enough to stop the downward spiral, which continues until Lear holds Cordelia’s corpse in his arms, only moments from his own death: “I might have saved her” (5.2.268).  But how?  Lear leaves us with a question rather than an answer.

At the play’s end, we are left with the “image of that horror,” a parent holding his dead child and looking into her eyes: “Do you see this?  Look on her: look, her lips, / Look there, look there!”  The question is not: what does Lear see?  The question is: what do you see?


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