What I love about this play: I was tempted to say it’s about the end of the world, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s about the passing of an old world and the birth of a new one, with all of the attendant blood and agony, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
And it’s also tempting to see nothing but anarchy and chaos once those old social orders and loyalties collapse, as Gloucester does: “We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.” But I don’t think that’s entirely right either. Edgar, that young man of a half-dozen roles and disguises, represents the best of the new world; so does the politic and practical Albany; so too, I think, does Cornwall’s nameless servant, who defies power and hierarchy to stand up for justice.
I’m inclined to think that Kent also belongs in this world, even though he doesn’t want to live in it. He, too, is very good with the disguises, and I don’t see any reason to think he is really dying at the end of the play; “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go” strikes me as wishful thinking rather than a literal statement of truth. Or maybe I just want him to survive because he’s such a great character. “What wouldst thou do, old man” is such a gut-punch, and it’s also the most respectful thing anybody says to Lear in that first scene, even though he doesn’t see it. And he’s also got some of the best insults ever: “You base football-player.” “Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter!”
On the other side, there’s Edmund, one of my favorite Shakespearean villains ever (and you can probably tell by now that he’s got a lot of competition). The whole “Gods, stand up for bastards!” speech is delicious – fast-paced, witty, when it’s delivered well it carries you along until you find yourself agreeing with him without stopping to think about what you’re endorsing. I’m glad that he makes good – or tries to – in the end, even though it comes to nothing.
Favorite moment: Edgar transforming himself into Poor Tom. This is one of those short scenes that could so easily be a throwaway – Shakespeare needs to put it in so we know Poor Tom is Edgar and not just the same actor playing a different character, but in his hands, it becomes something so much bigger. This soliloquy grapples with the big questions of the play: What is a man? How close can we come to beasts and still be human? What’s left of us when we lose everything? It also offers some striking answers – the crucifixion imagery of “Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices / Strike in their numbed and mortified bare arms / Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary.” (Rosemary for remembrance?) And this spectacle, Edgar says, “enforce[s] ... charity.” Which is an amazing idea, really – there’s something essentially redemptive about the “basest and most poorest shape” he’s adopting, something that can bring out the decency in people, a glimmer of the sacred.
Is this too optimistic a reading for Lear? I don’t know; but to me, this play feels like an almost-romance, the same way Othello is an almost-comedy, and the late romances are all about, in Lear’s words, the “chance which does redeem all sorrows.”