Introduction: King Lear
The last word on old age was written in the opening decade of the seventeenth century. Shakespeare’s darkest and wildest play, King Lear draws on the gravity of ancient British myth, to tell the story of a man literally driven to insanity by loneliness and regret after abdicating the English throne on account of his failing faculties.
Unusually, the complex relationship between father and daughter here takes the limelight from more traditional Shakespearean love stories based on lovers’ courtship. And the key moment of an uncommonly biographical play – Act III’s tempest – depicts man and nature losing control in harmony.
Indeed, the most interesting thread in this high Shakespearean saga is the author’s preoccupation with the boundary between order and chaos. As long as we retain a kind of regularity in our human relations, Shakespeare seems to suggest – as long as our house (or in Lear’s case, his court) is in order – we are protected from the cruel disorder of the outside world, the thunderous power of nature, and we retain our senses. When the rules of human relations break down, however, and we leave our literal or figurative castles to face the wind which blows and “crack[s its] cheeks”, cosmic order gives way to the wilderness of the storm, and men once high and mighty can lose their minds and the will to live. Haunting and raw, King Lear is the ultimate literary education in the nature of power and the power of nature.
Contributed by Emma Mustich