Once upon a time, an old king had three children; he unwisely divided his kingdom between his two ungrateful daughters, who eventually killed the third daughter and caused their father’s death.
Within this simple, almost mythic narrative, the parable of King Lear reaches through the centuries and invites modern audiences to consider a number of complex and intriguing themes that are just as provocative today as they were four hundred years ago when Shakespeare wrote his play (1605) and five hundred years before that when the ancient and well-known legend was first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (1136). Chief among these recurring motifs are the relationship between parents and children, the virtue of suffering, the need for reconciliation and forgiveness, the seductiveness of evil, the search for meaning and wisdom in life, the “second childhood” of old age, and the indifference of the gods to human misery.
Perhaps the play’s most compelling theme, however, involves the symbolic journey taken by its central character through the unfamiliar territory of the human heart. As in such medieval morality plays as Everyman and Mankind, in which the protagonist’s pilgrimage along the road to salvation is beset with temptations at every turn, the aged king moves through the literary landscape of the play on three different allegorical levels—physical, psychological, and spiritual—which will each be on display at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this summer in its production of King Lear.
LEAR’S PHYSICAL PROGRESS. On the physical level, Lear’s progress through the play begins with his abdication of the throne in the first scene and accelerates when he disowns his good daughter, Cordelia, and is then rejected by Goneril and Regan, the two ungrateful daughters to whom he has unwisely given his kingdom. Cast into the storm like a beggar, Lear wanders through the barren heath accompanied only by a fool, a madman, and a faithful friend. After railing angrily at the heavens and the cruelty of his children, the frail and exhausted king falls asleep.
He awakens restored not only to his right wits, but also to the love of his devoted daughter, Cordelia, who has returned from France to save him from her evil sisters. This joyful reunion is short lived, however, since the two are soon captured by the sisters’ army and die before help arrives.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL JOURNEY. Although Lear’s physical journey moves tragically from the loss of his kingdom to the loss of his life, on the second level, his psychological progress in the play charts a more optimistic upward path. Pampered and indulged for over eighty years as a royal monarch, Lear has become separated from his own humanity. He behaves with imperial disdain towards his subjects, including his own daughters, whom he treats as if they were servants. Insulated from the world around him, Lear is rudely awakened to its cruelty when he gives up his crown to Goneril and Regan, who then reject him because they no longer have reason to indulge the irritating behavior of their aged and useless father.
When Lear is cast out into the storm, the tempest in the heavens echoes the tempest in his mind. In his isolation, confusion, and anger, he must learn again how to be a human being; he must regain his lost ability to empathize with all living creatures, no matter how wretched and ignoble they seem. His psychological journey, therefore, takes him from being a king to being a man, which ironically confers on him self-knowledge and insight lacking in his royal condition. The layers of courtly clothing he strips off in the wilderness represent decades of kingship encrusted with pride, self-indulgence, and arrogance that must be shed for him to emerge as an “unaccommodated man . . . a poor, bare, forked animal” who has come to terms with his own humanity.
This self-awareness gained through suffering enables Lear to reconcile with Cordelia—not as a king condescending to his subject, but as a father embracing his devoted daughter. Awakened from his restorative sleep, he looks deeply into her eyes and discovers his proper place in the world around him: “as I am a man, I think this lady / To be my child, Cordelia.” Lear’s psychological journey in the play has finally made him worthy of Cordelia’s unconditional love, which he could only experience and appreciate as a man, not as a king.
At the same time, this journey has provided a dramatic surrogate through whose redemption the audience gains insight into its own moral and ethical condition. We suffer greatly with Lear; and when he begins to know himself, we are edified by our self-knowledge, which follows and parallels his own.
FROM PURGATORY TO A HEAVENLY REUNION. On the third and final level, Lear’s progress takes him on a spiritual journey through death and purgatory, which concludes in a heavenly reunion with the beatific Cordelia. When Lear gives up his throne at the outset of the play, he dies as a king so that he can be reborn as a man. His agony in the storm which follows this “death” is purgatorial in nature because it punishes him for his sins and also purifies him for the eventual reunion with his daughter, whom he describes in celestial terms after awakening from his sleep: “You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave. / Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead.” Lear’s purgatorial torment, complete with imagined instruments of torture, has so thoroughly cleansed his spirit that he can finally experience, at the very end of his life, the regenerative love of his angelic Cordelia.
Through tragic irony, this sweet and long-awaited moment of heavenly reconciliation is followed immediately by the cruel deaths of both Lear and Cordelia. Shakespeare has been careful, however, to counterbalance defeat on the physical level with victory on the psychological and spiritual realms. Lear dies, but only after he has gained wisdom through suffering and heavenly compassion through the redemptive grace of Cordelia.
Our journey as spectators has been productive, just as this old man’s progress through the play has been. Most people go through life without ever truly knowing themselves or being assured of eternal bliss. As a result of following in Lear’s footsteps, we may have moved a little closer to each of these distant goals.