Behind ‘King Lear’: The History Revealed

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Dulwich Picture Gallery, London/Bridgeman Images (left)
King James I of England, in a portrait attributed to John de Critz, circa 1606; William Shakespeare, in a portrait attributed to John Taylor, circa 1610

Even by its own standards of extremity, King Lear ends on a note of extraordinary bleakness. The audience has just been through the most devastating scene in all of theater: Lear’s entrance with his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms and the words “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” coming from somewhere deep inside him. All is, as Kent puts it, “cheerless, dark, and deadly.”

Albany, the weak, widowed, and childless man who is all that remains of political authority, goes through the ritual end-of-play motions of rewarding the good and punishing the bad, but these motions are self-consciously perfunctory. When he says, “What comfort to this great decay may come/Shall be applied,” we know that the comfort will be small and cold. Albany promises to restore Lear to his abandoned kingship, but the old king utterly ignores the offer of power, and promptly dies.

Albany then tries to appoint Edgar and Kent as joint rulers, but Kent replies that he, too, intends to die shortly. No one, it seems, is willing to perform the necessary theatrical rites of closure, to present even the pretense that order has been restored. And so the only possible ending is the big one. Because the play cannot end, the world must end. In the original version that Shakespeare completed in 1606, the last lines are Albany’s:

The oldest have borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Why will the young not live to be old? Because the end of the world is coming. The bad news does not end there. This is not even the Christian apocalypse, in which the bad are damned to Hell and the good ascend into the eternal bliss of Heaven. We’ve just seen a version of that last judgment, with the rather pitiful Albany playing God the Father:

              All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings….

This assurance of just deserts is immediately undercut by one of the most terrifying images of injustice, Lear’s raging at a universe in which dogs, horses, and even rats have life but his daughter will never have any again, in this world or the next: “Never, never, never.” This is why King Lear was so unbearable that it was Nahum Tate’s infamous version, with its happy ending for Lear, Cordelia, and Edgar, that held the stage from 1681 to 1843, and why a critic as discerning as Samuel Johnson supported Tate’s alterations on the grounds that Shakespeare’s ending violates the natural human desire for justice. Johnson admitted to finding the original ending so upsetting that he did not reread…


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