Friday, November 28, 2014

King Lear: One Play, Two Views

"King Lear and Cordelia" by Edward Matthew Ward
Photographed by Sofi
One of the joys of aging occurs when I revisit works of literature after a decade or two. I find that rereading a novel, poem, short story or play gleans new insights based on generational perspective.

Shakespeare's Hamlet, Williams' Streetcar Named Desire, Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illych" and Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" are just a few of the works that look different to me when I reread them at midlife.

Most notably, my perspective on Shakespeare's  King Lear changed when I reread it in my fifties.

Initially, I found King Lear to be arrogant, controlling, and self-indulgent.  He unwittingly reduces his power base when granting the throne to his daughters.  This puts his daughters Goneril and Regan in a position to reduce his entourage and criticize his expensive habits.

As a twentysomething, I felt as though his daughters were well within their bounds to reign him in; at midlife I view Goneril and Regan's treatment as ungrateful, exploitative and abusive.

After a quarter of a century between readings, I identified much more with Lear than with his daughters.  The scenes on the moor depict raw vulnerability I felt at midlife when decades' long plans started to crumble.  I wasn't a regent losing power as Lear is, but I was the queen of my world and suddenly feeling dethroned by hitting a brick wall after years of working as a college English teacher.

Photo by tsaiproject.
The term "midlife crisis" might be too narrow to describe Lear's situation--or mine. However, I do feel as though his breakdown is age-correlated because he had held so tightly to a view of reality that shifted on him unexpectedly. I didn't realize how disorienting this shift could be when reading the play in my twenties.

[Read Rohr's book Falling Upward for an insightful treatment of spiritual growth born out of hardships that often happen at midlife.]

I didn't have a full appreciation for Lear's predicament until I had to let go of my identity of "college English teacher" or risk losing my sanity. I had to view my self-worth as independent from my career.  While riding out a storm on the moor, dethroned and devoid of family, Lear had to find a way to value himself as a man before God, equal to others wandering without the benefit of shelter.

If you've never seen King Lear, I invite you to rent a video or find a live performance. He's not just a king who loses his kingdom; he represents anyone who has discovered that control over one's life is an illusion.


Novels about Men Facing Death
Falling Upward: Book Review

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this post. It, and this quote in particular, make me want to re-read Lear again: "[H]e represents anyone who has discovered that control over one's life is an illusion." I have only read it once, in college. At that point in my life, I felt very confident about my future plans. Life's curveballs have made me learn to loosen the iron grip I tried to have on my life. I want to read this work again with wiser, older eyes. I think it would speak to me much differently now, too.