Here’s the thing about Shakespeare: you’ve got your objective greats, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear. But I think that each person’s subjective favorite says a lot about them as a person. Like, I think that objectively speaking, Hamlet’s the best play and the most has been written on it in western canon, even more than the bible interestingly enough. But personally, King Lear is my favorite play. It’s a lot less commonly read at the high school level and even the college level (though I haven’t taken a specifically Shakespearean English class yet so maybe it is) but it just gets me really excited for some reason and I love talking about it.
So, to me, Lear concerns the fallibility of the human soul in a way that Hamlet is as well but Hamlet is a lot more Romantic with a capital R than anybody in Lear and you would think I’d gravitate towards that but not really at this point for some reason. Hamlet’s value to me is about the concept of life after death, the constant battle in the mind between whether it’s better to deal with the world we live in or to give it up and journey to life after death and as a young teenager that was all really important to me.
And I definitely read Hamlet as a young man, in his late teens most likely because here’s the thing: If he’s older, there’s no way some of his antics would fly, and I’d want to slap him even more than I already do for soliloquizing while Ophelia drowns herself sigh. I do have the “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy memorized though because senior year English with a real life J. Alfred Prufrock. Hamlet as a character is brilliant I don’t deny it, but I find myself extremely frustrated with him as I read the play and I’m far more interested in the archetypes and constructions surrounding the play, Rosencratz and Guildenstern as players, Ophelia as a precursor to the Sylvia Plath/Virginia Woolf/Lana del Rey aesthetic of near voyeuristic sadness (Woolf drowned herself in a very similar way to Ophelia it’s extremely chilling if you think about it), and the relationship of the former king and Gertrude more than in Hamlet and his angsting, no matter how intelligent and articulate it may be.
But “King Lear” on the other hand is about people just really messing everything up when they really really should know better and I love that frustration. You’ve got Lear who can’t see through his daughters’ manipulations, you’ve got Edmund who’s a bastard (in more ways than one) who is extremely righteous in his avarice so that he almost convinces the audience of the validity of his actions, and then you’ve got Gonreil and Regan who are two halves of this horrible whole, Gonreil as the instigator of violence and viciousness who kills her sister out of jealousy and in the end, is the only person capable of getting rid of herself, and Regan who just magnifies everybody else’s pain, and then you’ve got Cordelia. Light of the play, sun of my heart, I actually want to name my daughter after her and I’m pretty serious about that actually. Plus Cordelia Chase from Buffy other light of my life even if she was created by Joss Whedon the literal waste of space.
Cordelia is honest, and she’s true, and she is forthright about her convictions to her own demise. Her father doesn’t admire her, because Lear is a weak man and swayed by what’s on the surface but Cordelia is like a prophetess almost, she knows the true nature of her sisters and has no part in it. She becomes Lear’s caretaker almost when he goes mad, going from maiden to mother and this quote oh my god “My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty / According to my bond; no more nor less.” SHE LOVES HIM FOR HIM REGARDLESS OF PROPERTY. That’s just so important to me because the play brings up the question of whether money buys happiness and the crux of it is that it resolutely does NOT, security and pride but not happiness. Lear is alone, he’s being cuckholded by his daughters that claim to falsely love him and he’s banished the daughter that flat out tells him “love and be silent” because she understands that no amount of flowery words can prove her love as much as her actions which people today still don’t comprehend. Don’t propose to me on a jumbotron, ask me when I’m searching for bobby pins to pin back my dutch braided bangs you know?
And Cordelia shows him her love doesn’t she? She forgives her father because sometimes in love we have to accept apologies we’re never going to get, she takes care of him and she dies for him. Cordelia is so important to me, “King Lear” is so important to me, and I’m again sort of laughing at myself for how much I care about this because nobody in my life actually cares this much about these things. (Partially because I hang out with lots of STEM majors who pretend that anything humanities based is inherently dumb but still.)
Go read “King Lear” and try to love it as much as I do. I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s comedies except Pericles and the Two Noble Kinsmen, all the tragedies except Coriolanus and Richard III. I was planning to tackle the Tetralogies this August on the beach because I do know the history behind it all reasonably well but alas, that didn’t exactly happen. Either way, Shakespeare wrote for the common man since he was the common man (reject any idea that Shakespeare was secretly a nobleman because that is rooted in the classist idea that someone who wasn’t born wealthy could be that intelligent), and the edification of his work as the ultimate literary genius won’t ever stop being ironic to me.