Two nights ago, I sat down and read 'King Lear' for the first time in my life. I fell head over heels in love with it. Yes I am aware that it's mid June now, and am also aware that the curious and cynical might go, "How have you been passing your tests and homework then?" Don't ask.
I have never read a Shakespeare book before. Even though I took 'Measure for Measure' last year, I rendered the book into a useless decorative item and shiny trophy of my empty intelligence. The words, as poetic as they were, felt difficult and hard to swallow down. I couldn't understand a single sentence of it, and there were so many lofty expressions, speeches with pompous words and long stretches of descriptions. It made me sleep. So I flipped through Sparknotes, one of the main mothers of all destruction of passion for literature, and went to take the exam.
I hate myself for not reading 'King Lear' earlier. There is something so tragic and painful about "a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man" who carries such an enormous weight of power and authority in his hands, and yet who is willing to give it all away to whoever answers a single question of his best. Most people who read Act 1 will hate this selfish bastard. He demonstrates so many appalling flaws at the beginning that he's guaranteed to alienate even the most sympathetic of audiences. But if you have the patience, if you give this book a chance, it will leap upon you suddenly as you flip the pages and it will grow on you and your heart.
"Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" or rather, in modern context, "Just how much do you love me?" Lear asks. That's all he wants to know. And if you give him the answer he wants so much to have, he will give you everything he has.
If you pause to consider the motives behind such a question, it just goes to show how incredibly insecure and desperately greedy he is- and that alone is a potent recipe towards pitying him and liking him a little more. Unlike other protagonists who are perfectly perfect or who fall simply because of one sole flaw, we have here an extremely complex character possessing very human qualities both good and bad. Lear is just like the average person. He could be your father or your grandfather. The only difference is that Lear is a King. And with that grand title comes the mighty ability, or rather, the assumed 'mighty ability' to act like a God; to think that anything can be commanded to appear within a whim or a fancy.
So very very foolishly, Lear demands for love to appear outwardly, in the form of sugared words discharging out of his two daughters' hypocritical mouths. His most beloved third and youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to take part in this sick and disgusting love test, telling him she loves him only as her duty as a daughter allows her to, and that when she marries, she will have to give a part of her love to her husband. Naturally this infuriates King Lear and before we know it, she's banished for good.
Most people think that Lear is childish and impulsive, but I was thinking to myself, if I had a daughter, whom I loved and cherished tremendously, and if I had the guts to ask her how much she loved me, I would like to hear a lovely and false answer back, like "With all my heart" or something like that. I don't want a morally upright, politically correct answer. Just think about it. Everybody knows that using words to measure love is the most stupid thing to do, but that's what everybody does anyway. Most of the time you hear some girl or some boy asking, "Do you love me?" or saying the words "I love you" without really meaning it. Can we really blame him? Can you really say that you don't understand his reasons behind this?
Of course Lear doesn't learn his lesson. He still thinks that love can be forced to materialize physically. So from words he moves on to numbers. He wants to keep a hundred knights with him. Whoever of his two evil daughters, Gonoril and Regan, allows him to keep the most number of knights with him, must surely love him most. Of course he won't get his way. The downward spiral of degeneration and humiliation starts taking place as his daughters reduce his number of knights slowly and agonizingly:
GONORIL: 50 knights.
REGAN: No. 25 knights.
"I entreat you
To bring but five and twenty: to no more
Will I give place or notice.
I gave you all
And in good time you gave it.
Made you my guardians, my depositaries;
But kept a reservation to be follow'd
With such a number. What, must I come to you
With five and twenty, Regan? said you so?
And speak't again, my lord; no more with me.
Those wicked creatures yet do look well-favour'd,
When others are more wicked: not being the worst
Stands in some rank of praise.
I'll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.
Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
What need one?
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm.
But, for true need,--
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall--I will do such things,--
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I'll weep
No, I'll not weep: I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!"
And I found myself near tears at the end of this scene.
There is something so riveting and so frighteningly terrible about the way a majestic and royal King is reduced into nothing, nothing at all, so quickly and so instantly. How cruel and insulting of his daughters. It seems as though they were relishing and savouring every second of it. Just observe how fast they were speaking, how confidently and brazenly they were ranting, overpowering and overwhelming him with such great pleasure. From 100 knights to 50 to 25 to 15 to 10 to 5 to 1 to nothing. His hundred knights, and all the symbolisms of manhood, pride, dignity, and power behind it, was stripped from him, number by number, word by word, until there was nothing left for him to cling on to. For a King to have to accept a compromisation, for a King to be denied what he wants, is as good as robbing him of his rights as a ruler- but the thing is, he no longer was a ruler. He gave everything away to his two daughters. He was so very silly, and now he had to pay the consequences of it.
Outside, there is a storm raging wildly. There is a storm raging wildly inside of him as well. He says he won't cry, but we can tell that he is clearly crying. We see him struggling to hold on to even the tiniest morsel of power left, but it is undeniably slipping away from him. He tries to use the most powerful of words to make up for his diminishing authority, feebly tries to draw on the strength of words and its array of colours, to sound brave and stoic, to incite fear and obedience. But words, are just words, no matter how vicious they may sound. He stumbles and stammers, "I will do such things,-- / What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be / The terrors of the earth." Every word he says establishes the fact that he is weak and powerless. I cannot help but feel attached to him, cannot help but feel sorry for him. Even if he is self-piteous, he is rightfully so. The way he tries to defend himself is almost heroic even.
Oh dear, I think I've been blabbered far too much. For more of the story, go read 'King Lear'. But anyway, this is one remarkable book that you should not judge by it's cover at all. It has everything that you would want in a play- betrayal, adultery, love, family, divine justice, death, redemption, Christian ideologies, one good-looking witty villain and one pretty virtuous babe, a twisted striptease, suggestively sexual connotations hidden practically everywhere... ... (I sound sarcastic but I'm really just trying to look at everything in the light of the hilarious modern context.)
At the end of it all, this play really took me by sheer surprise and filled me with such immense passion and respect. I hope I inspired you even a little to want to read the play. And you know what? I'm definitely going back to read 'Measure for Measure' when I have the time. :D