Sunday, May 8, 2011

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

Oh, forsooth!  A few months ago, I hoisted myself up and admitted to reading Jane Eyre for the first time, but this...  Oh, the shame.  When I look back at my primary and secondary schools, located in the northern woods, I wager that the bears were more literate than most of the faculty.  How I managed to weasel through Wellesley College without reading King Lear is more perplexing.  But never mind.  I've read it now, although in a more cursory fashion than it deserves.

I assigned myself this classic tragedy as a prerequisite to reading a novel, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, which is, I believe, a modern telling of Lear set in Iowa.  I figured I would miss a lot of references if I'd never read the Shakespeare.

A number of things struck me about this play.  No, I'd not read it before nor seen it performed, yet I knew the basic plot and recognised some of the lines.  It makes me very aware of the pervasive influence that Shakespeare has had upon our Anglophone culture.  He shows up in 20th-century novels, on the cinema screen, in advertisements, and in Loony Tunes, with Elmer Fudd calling Bugs Bunny a "lily-livered rascal" (or a wiwy-wivered wascaw, to quote him directly).  Lily-livered is only one of the thousands of words and phrases that Shakespeare coined, and because it has become so famous, thanks to Elmer, et al., we tend to overlook its brilliance.  Who would think to pair a delicately scented flower with a large internal organ for an alliterative description of cowardice?  A very, very creative writer.

I must say, it was the language of this play that absorbed me most.  To read Shakespeare well, you really need access to the complete Oxford English Dictionary.  The big one, with all the etymologies.  Some words had different connotations or even different meanings when the Bard used them than they have today.  Varlet is one such -- today it refers to a male servant.  In the early 17th century,  a varlet was a scoundrel or a villain. Other words have simply dropped out of use, and most lexicographers have given up their spots in dictionaries to newer words.  The Kindle has the Oxford American Dictionary built-in, and it's blissfully easy to look up an unfamiliar word at the moment you encounter it in the text.  It doesn't have the depth of etymology nor the word-count of the enormous OED, but I was impressed at the number of words I did find.  As for cullionly and carbonado, I can get a pretty fair idea from the context:  "Draw, you whoreson cullionly barbermonger! ... Draw, you rogue, or I'll so carbonado your shanks!"   Honestly, compare that to the dialogue in the last Hollywood action film you saw.   The deterioration of our vocabulary is a tragedy it itself.

So now let's see how well Lear, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia assimilate into Jane Smiley's Iowa.


  1. I had to study Lear, and sadly, the only phrase I remember from it is "You mongrel bitch!" :-) King Lear is not nearly as good as Hamlet & Macbeth, IMHO...

  2. I LOVE King Lear! Even as a teenager, when I was more giddily drawn to Midsummer NIght's Dream and Comedy of Errors, Lear drew me in. It's on a grand scale, and the tension and the inevitability of tragedy still draw me in from the first scene. However, my introduction to Lear was seeing it performed, in an excellent production. That may have colored the view I have held of it ever since.


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