King Lear is famous enough not to need a review, and is considered by many people better acquainted with Shakespeare’s plays to be his best. I thought so too when I had first read it years ago, but this time around I believe that I like some of his others more. It is no matter, one must eventually read them all, as they form part of our collective literary inheritance. These are stories everyone should know.
Of King Lear it may be said that Shakespeare took his inspiration from a story in the Gesta Romanorum about a king with three daughters. He asks his girls how much they love him, and then decides to whom he will marry them. Those who know this story, already know that the youngest daughter is true. It has a happy ending. Anyone who recognizes the older story in the first act of King Lear, cannot but find his expectations shattered and the unexpected ending of King Lear completely devastating.
“King Lear” is the most profound play ever written. Whenever I come back to it, I discover it’s about something else. In the most obvious sense, it’s a family melodrama, a generational conflict. But that’s just the framework for Shakespeare to explore and illuminate the eternal questions: Are we basically good or evil? Are there moral absolutes? Does God exist? Why is there evil in the world? Or, for that matter, good? Over 400 years old, it’s a very modern play in spirit and yet at times it reads like an ancient oracular text.
Like all of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, it is a work of literature to be studied and meditated upon, limitlessly rewarding.