With this piece, we introduce a series of occasional articles in which contemporary writers look back at classic works of literature. Here, Jack Lynch, the author of "Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright Into the Bard" revisits "King Lear," which continues its run this week at UCLA with Ian McKellen in the title role.
Some were frustrated by its inconsistencies and contradictions: It's not an easy play to understand. When, in the final scene, Lear laments, "My poor fool is hanged," is he saying that the Fool, who disappeared without explanation in Act 3, has been swept up in the massacre of Lear's forces? Or is the old king calling his dead daughter Cordelia a fool? If the latter, is it a term of affection, as critics have argued, or is the demented Lear confusing the two? Was Shakespeare himself confused?
Some have praised "Lear" as literature but thought it a mess on stage: It's not easy to watch. Essayist Charles Lamb argued in 1811 that "to see Lear acted . . . has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. . . . Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage."
In 1904, distinguished critic A.C. Bradley agreed, calling it "the least successful" of the tragedies in the theater. Actors still struggle to live up to the grandeur of the text, and when a performance fails, it fails terribly. Shakespeare's larger-than-life monarch facing a world-destroying storm becomes a mere actor surrounded by strobe lights and cheap sound effects. "King Lear," many have said, is too grand for the stage.
The biggest complaints, though, are stirred by the almost sadistic cruelty that pervades the text: It's not an easy play to stomach. "I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death," Samuel Johnson once confessed, "that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play" -- until, that is, he had to edit Shakespeare's collected works.
Thackeray, Johnson and Lamb weren't out of the mainstream; in fact, so considerable were the reservations about "Lear" that the play was rewritten to make it palatable.
In 1681 an Irish playwright named Nahum Tate replaced Shakespeare's ending with one in which Lear wards off the would-be killers, Cordelia marries Edgar, and all live happily ever after. For a century and a half, theatergoers saw only Tate's version. Shakespeare's "Lear" was too much to take.
If "King Lear" is a difficult play to like, though, it's a much harder play to hate, and something irresistible has kept it high on our lists of great works. Johnson, for all his complaints about the ending, admitted that no other play "keeps the attention so strongly fixed" or "agitates our passions and interests our curiosity" to the same degree.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge included it among "the greatest works of our immortal poet," and Percy Bysshe Shelley called it "the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world."
As for contemporary audiences, "Lear" makes special demands because it is the most intense of Shakespeare's great tragedies, and few moderns know what to make of such works.
Hollywood still turns out comedies based on Shakespearean models, and even the history plays have modern progeny in History Channel documentaries and classy costume dramas. But we have nothing like Shakespeare's tragedies. Our age's sensibility is far from that of "Lear," and this contributes to the pain we feel as we experience it.
Among other things, we have trouble with the sheer degree of evil in the play, which makes it distinct even from other Shakespearean tragedies.
There's no villain in "Romeo and Juliet"; prejudices, misunderstandings and rotten timing lead to the deaths of the star-crossed lovers. Iago's missed promotion made him take revenge on Othello and Cassio. Claudius killed Hamlet's father to usurp his throne and his bride.
Even Lady Macbeth, for all her wickedness, is easily understood; although she cries out to the spirits to "fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty," we know she has her eyes set on the throne. Such wickedness makes sense.
Not so in "Lear," in which villains abound and their cruelty seems purely gratuitous. In the play's most painful scene, Cornwall interrogates Gloucester about an approaching invasion and threatens him with bodily harm: "Upon these eyes of thine I'll set my foot."
"Give me some help!" shrieks the old man as Cornwall puts out his eye; "O cruel! O you gods!"
A servant offers assistance, but Cornwall murders the upstart and turns his wrath back on the miserable Gloucester. All that remains is savagery, torture for the love of inflicting pain. As he puts out Gloucester's other eye, he speaks one of the most gruesome lines in all of English literature: "Out, vile jelly!"
"King Lear" is teeming with sadists -- not only Cornwall but Edmund, Goneril and Regan -- and we're not allowed to hope for goodness from humankind.
But not all the play's misery is produced by villains -- an angry universe seems set against the possibility of human happiness, as well. "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" cries the old king in the storm. "You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples!"
It's a sublime apocalyptic vision of a world in which we are the playthings of the gods: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods," says Gloucester. "They kill us for their sport."
Lear, the "poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man" on the heath, embodies the bleakest vision of human nature in the history of the theater -- the once-powerful king has been reduced to "the thing itself."
And in that "unaccommodated man" we see a kind of tragic dignity, which continues to draw us to the play, despite all its difficulties.
"King Lear" remains a hard play to enjoy, but "enjoy" may the wrong word -- it's a work we endure in the hope that it will show us something about who we are. No other play has the same tragic power, the same ability to inflict pain on its audience: In the entire history of literature, only Sophocles gives a comparable portrait of suffering.
Audiences have repeatedly turned to it in turbulent ages, as in the aftermath of World War II, and again today. When our own world seems to be filled with the war, torture and gratuitous cruelty that crowded Shakespeare's imagination, we look to "Lear" to be reminded of what it is to be human.
Jack Lynch teaches at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.