King Lear has remained one of Shakespeare’s best works, and one of the best tragedies of all time, since the beginning of the 17th century; however, some early critics believe that certain elements of the story do not satisfy the criteria for a proper tragedy. The two plot elements under speculation are the subplot and the catastrophic ending. The primary focus of the story is set on the elderly King Lear, whose pride and greed blinds him, causing him to banish his only pure daughter, Cordelia, along with his most loyal subject, Kent.
He bestows his power and land upon his ungrateful daughters Regan and Goneril, who immediately plot to strip him of the remainder of his power as well as his pride. A similar subplot emerges where the Earl of Gloucester is duped by his Don John-esque bastard son, Edmund, into banishing his real son, Edgar. Both fathers realize their misjudgments before the end, but not before their downfalls. The play ends with the gradual insanity and death of Lear, as well as the deaths of Cordelia, Regan, Goneril, Gloucester, and Edmund.
The happy ending or “poetic justice” is never achieved and the only exception to the seeming lack of justice is the pronouncement of the loyal Edgar as King, and the inferred bright future. The earliest record of a criticism of King Lear is a letter from the Irish playwright Nahum Tate to a friend, written in 1681. In the letter, Tate describes King Lear as “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht.
He describes in detail how he plans to rework several major elements of the story, adding a love affair between Edgar and Cordelia, rescuing Lear and Cordelia from execution, omitting The Fool (a source of wisdom as well as comic relief), and establishing “poetic justice” at the plays end. Tate proposes these changes in order to “rectifie what was wanting in the Regularity and Probability” of King Lear. He also reasoned that the audience would like a happy ending where justice and virtue prevailed.
His reworking of the tale complies with the strict Neoclassical formula that was expected at the time. Tate’s predictions proved correct when his altered version overshadowed the original for over a century. (Tate 344-45) (SC2 92) During the 18th Century, the controversy over the ending of King Lear continues as well as new controversy over Tate’s rewritten ending. Critic Joseph Addison criticizes Tate’s adaptation, claiming that it didn’t have “half [the original’s] beauty. He discredits the idea that virtue being victorious over corruption is obligatory in a tragedy and says that poetic justice has no foundation in nature or reason. Addison also argues that Shakespeare’s work cannot be evaluated within classical guidelines. (Addison) Critic George Coleman later adds to the idea that a genius such as Shakespeare should be exempt from these guidelines. However most critics during the time period disagree with this approach, favoring Tate’s rectification.
They believe that the play should be assessed based on Neoclassical standards, and failure to adhere to the standards is viewed as “Ignorance of Mechanical Rules and the Constitution of his Story. (Theobald 72) It is generally agreed by these critics that the deaths of Lear and Cordelia contradict the “natural ideas of justice. ” (Johnson 705) The appropriateness of the Gloucester subplot is also questioned by Neoclassical standards because it is not immediately relevant to the primary plot of the story. Over the next century, Addison’s perspective of the play becomes more widely accepted.
The Romantic Movement brought about this change in the way the story of King Lear would be viewed structurally. The strict Neoclassical guidelines would be pushed aside by the less systematic Romantic interpretation. August Wilhelm Schlegel, a leader in the new Romantic interpretation, contests the notion that King Lear lacks dramatic form. He, along with other Romantic critics such as Charles Lamb, believes that the death of King Lear is essential and unavoidable on the grounds that “after surviving so many sufferings, Lear can only die. (Schlegel 413) Schlegel goes on to say that Cordelia must die in order to bring a just end to Lear. A majority of the play is based on Lear’s suffering, and this principal theme would be lost in a happy ending.
It is later argued that not only was such a catastrophic end necessary, but that even the virtuous characters brought death upon themselves, Lear and Gloucester by mistrusting their bonds between their children and Cordelia by refusing to humor Lear in the first scene, and responding with harshness even in his elder state. Ulrici 203) The previously contested Gloucester subplot is also justified as it “contributes to the intrigue or denouement. (Schlegel 412) The subplot is further validated because it is thought to prepare the audience for the greater misfortune of Lear. It serves as a control that appears almost commonplace when compared with Lear’s situation. (Dowden 235) The 19th century is the most influential period in the criticism of King Lear because it marks the transition from a predominantly Neoclassical view of the structure of the play to the more flexible Romantic interpretation.
Plot elements that were formerly criticized for their structure or lack of structure are analyzed with more depth at the turn of the century. The viewpoints expressed in this century largely constitute the contemporary interpretation of King Lear. Although the structure of King Lear is a largely debated issue in the 18th and 19th centuries, by the 20th century the structure of the play is generally accepted. However, critics continue to invent new possibilities that alter the meaning of certain structural elements.
A. C. Bradley envisions that Lear may have died from joy, his insanity putting him under the impression that Cordelia still lives. Later it is proposed that Lear represents the “victory of spirit over the worst that fate can do against it. ” (Wilson 125) These ideas would conflict with other more accepted conclusions such as Schlegel’s notion that Cordelia’s death is Lear’s final suffering, and also the more pessimistic ending where evil triumphs over good.
Bradley 291) It is later proposed that Lear’s suffering serves as his redemption, increasing his self-knowledge until he can regain the love of Cordelia. (Ribner 35) This ending that stresses King Lear’s spiritual growth through his suffering is contested by J. Stamper, who concludes that the catastrophic ending emphasizes that the nature of destruction makes it unstoppable once it has been let loose. (Stampfer 3) The 20th century marked a period of speculation of the intent behind plot elements, specifically the ending.
The style and structure of Shakespeare’s writing is no longer questioned as it is in earlier criticisms of King Lear. King Lear is one of the most debatable plays ever written because the situations that arise are the result of the complex relationships between characters and the judgments that these characters make. The structure, especially the unexpected ending, is ahead of it’s time, and the meaning behind the ending is arguable. King Lear’s unique character relationships and structure are the reasons that it is still a popular topic in literary criticism.