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Five stars for the play
on October 18, 2003
The rating of four stars is for the edition (R.A. Foakes's); the play is one of the greatest tragedies ever written, and of course deserves at least five stars.
It is not easy to find a a truly satisfactory edition of this play. An advantage of R.A. Foakes's is that he offers us a "conflated" text, i.e. one that aims to reconstruct something like what Shakespeare originally wrote by taking elements from the best two early printings rather than giving us those separately or by settling for the one rather than the other. I don't think, though, that Foakes's reconstruction is nearly as convincing as that of earlier editors who presented conflated texts. I am often unhappy about his glosses, too, and about his rather "trendy" introduction. Even so, the introduction and the notes do give us most of what we need, so long as we approach this material with independence of mind.
The PLAY is the thing, and whichever text we read it in (even, for example, in a text based just on that in the Folio), it is a great and moving work. Lear is an ageing king (about 80+), whose life has been sheltered and pampered. Although this equips him badly for "real" life, he is not intrinsically the evil tyrant that much current criticism tends to suggest - even his authoritarianism seems a matter of habit rather than anything else. At the beginning of the play he foolishly decides that he will give each of his three daughters a part of his kingdom. His intention had been to give the youngest daughter, Cordelia, with whom he planned to spend his "retirement", the biggest portion. However, rather than simply proceeding with his plan, he asks his daughters to declare the degree of their love for him, and this is where tangible trouble starts.
Goneril and Regan, both flatterers who seek their own interest at all times, butter him up, but Cordelia, who is honest, offends Lear's ego by refusing to follow her sisters' phoney example. He then offers the two eldest daughters 50% each, and disinherits Cordelia. Soon Goneril and Regan, contrary to what had been arranged, refuse to give him hospitality, and plan his death. Cordelia, though badly treated by him, tries to rescue her father, and the two are reconciled in a most moving scene, but she is killed and carried onto the stage in an immensely painful way by Lear, whose sanity had been temporarily destroyed by his daughters' and his own behaviour but who paradoxically gains new insight into life as a result of everything he experiences during the course of his suffering.
His story is paralleled by that of the Earl of Gloucester, who similarly wrongly prefers a bad child to one who is good, yet is treated well by the good child, Edgar, who like Cordelia shows that love consists of forgiveness and generosity rather than anything else. Just as Lear learned wisdom through madness, Gloucester acquires it after he has been blinded by some of the most evil people in the play.
It is in many ways a "bleak" play, not giving us any reason to hope that there is a God who looks after us in this life or one hereafter, and showing plenty of evil in humankind - amongst both women and men - but which also leaves no doubt as to what it means to be good, and provides consolation by showing us how good, and love, can endure even in the face of great provocation and suffering. - Joost Daalder