by William H. Benson
June 12, 2004
King Lear wanted to retire and divide his kingdom between his three daughters. As a pre-condition to what each would receive, he conducted a test, asking each how much they loved him. Because Regan and Goneril, the two eldest daughters, pledged undying devotion and eternal love to their father, he granted them sizeable estates.
But Cordelia, the youngest and the most sincere, said, “Nothing. I only love you as a good daughter loves a good father, but not more than life. If I ever married, half my love would go to my husband.” King Lear was stunned and hurt by her words, and he cursed Cordelia, saying that she will get nothing. And he divided her share between the two older daughters and then banished Cordelia from his presence.
Immediately, Regan and Goneril turned on their father and took away from him what little he had kept in reserve. Then they drove him outside into the cold into the night into a raging storm. Alone, naked, his heart breaking from sadness, he wandered about the heath, his body strewn with weeds and dirt, not quite in his right mind.
Eventually, Cordelia found him, bathed him, and soothed his tormented body and his bruised soul. He awakened and saw Cordelia, the daughter whom he had cursed and banished, and he said to her, “Pray, do not mock me. I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less.” He simply could not believe that she would treat him so kindly after he had treated her so badly.
To keep the kingdom, Cordelia was forced into a fierce war against her own sisters. Regan and Goneril then captured Cordelia, and immediately they had her executed. The audience learns that this has happened when in the final scene of the play King Lear carries Cordelia’s lifeless body onto the stage and declares, “My poor fool is hanged.” His heart breaking, he too collapses and dies. Audiences are always stunned and shocked by this ending because plays should not end so tragic. We want the heroes to live and to win.
David Denby, the film critic, told the story of a Columbia English professor who was teaching King Lear and who abruptly stopped and with much emotion said, “Nobody can lay a glove on this play. This is the greatest thing written by anyone, anytime, anywhere, and I don’t know what to do with it. In a case like this, no one else knows what to do with it either.” Now why would he consider this play the greatest thing ever written?
For one thing it pits cold-hearted hatred and false words and greed on one side against love and tenderness and truth and satisfaction on the other. But it is more than that. It is about an eighty plus-year-old-man facing retirement and wanting to give his kingdom to his daughters; it is about aging parents, sibling rivalries, homelessness, suffering outside in the cold, murder, madness, and the ultimate form of chaos—war, all because love has been withdrawn.
It is about the deep disappointment and sorrow that a father feels when his daughters turn on him, when he realizes that he has misjudged completely his daughters’ thoughts and feelings. Those whom he believed and trusted he should have feared, and the one whom he dismissed he should have loved. Those things he learned as the play goes on but too late.
David Denby said, “For the two most essential and unfathomable tasks that we face in life—raising our children and lowering our parents into the earth—we have no rules, no guidelines, no training, no expertise. King Lear brings us back to the inescapable struggle for power between the generations, and it suggests that the basic human relations in begetting and dying can be intolerable.”
A mother and her daughters. A mother and her sons. A father and his sons. Each of those are special and yet somehow different relationships. But William Shakespeare, I believe, rightly understood how “foolish and fond” and prone to error and misinterpretation a father can be when dealing with his daughters.
On Sunday have a great Fathers’ Day!