King Lear: A Guide to the Play

King Lear: A Guide to the Play

King Lear: A Guide to the Play

King Lear: A Guide to the Play

Synopsis

In its timeless exploration of familial and political dissolution, and in its relentless questioning of the apparent moral indifference of the universe, King Lear is Shakespeare's darkest tragedy. It is also one of his most timely, for many of the issues it raises resonate loudly within our own era. This reference lucidly overviews King Lear's textual history and intellectual background, its issues and themes, its scholarly and critical reception, and its life in several different productions.

Excerpt

“Criticism risks irrelevance if it evades confronting greatness directly,” Harold Bloom says, “and Lear perpetually challenges the limits of criticism.” He is here speaking of King Lear, the character, not the play, but elsewhere in his essay he makes it clear that he has the play very much in mind as one of the greatest works of art that Shakespeare—or anyone else—has penned. And so it is. This book is a modest attempt, not to encompass the greatness of King Lear, for that defies criticism, but to confront its greatness and describe as many aspects of its nature as possible.

Accordingly, a many-faceted approach is requisite to this endeavor. To begin, one must understand its textual history. That Shakespeare took extraordinary pains in the composition of King Lear is apparent from the number and quality of his revisions, first during the initial composition, then later after the play had first been published in the quarto of 1608. While we cannot prove that Shakespeare was the reviser, much of the evidence available points in that direction. Hence, the other authoritative text of the play, in the great Folio of 1623, presents a considerably altered version, so that what we have, in effect, is two different plays: The History of King Lear, as the quarto was called, and The Tragedy of King Lear, as the Folio named it.

While some scholars still maintain that both quarto and Folio represent imperfect representations of a lost Shakespearean original, many today accept this two-text theory. The editors of the Oxford Complete Works, for example, print both the quarto and Folio versions in their edition. In Taylor and Warren’s collection of essays, The Division of the Kingdoms,

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