King Lear – A World too Cruel?
King Lear is at once the most highly praised and intensely criticized of all Shakespeare’s works. Samuel Johnson said it is “deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare” yet at the same time he supported the changes made in the text by Tate in which Cordelia is allowed to retire with victory and felicity. “Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles.”1 A.C. Bradley’s judgement is that King Lear is “Shakespare’s greatest work, but it is not…the best of his plays.”2 He would wish that “the deaths of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloucester should be followed by the escape of Lear and Cordelia from death,” and even goes so far as to say: “I believe Shakespeare would have ended his play thus had he taken the subject in hand a few years later….”3
Many critics have sworn that the story is too fantastic and cruel to be true and that it should be viewed only as an allegory or fantasy. Yet Johnson called it a “just representation of the common events of human life” and C.J. Sisson has cited historical evidence from the lives of several men which closely resembled Lear’s division of his kingdom and tragic rejection by his daughters.
Despite its undeniable greatness, throughout the last four centuries King Lear has left audiences, readers and critics alike emotionally exhausted and mentally unsatisfied by its conclusion. Shakespeare seems to have created a world too cruel and unmerciful to be true to life and too filled with horror and unrelieved suffering to be true to the art of tragedy. These divergent impressions arise from the fact that of all Shakespeare’s works, King Lear expresses human existence in its most universal aspect and in its profoundest depths. A psychological analysis of the characters such as Bradley undertook cannot by itself resolve or place in proper perspective all the elements which contribute to these impressions because there is much here beyond the normal scope of psychology and the conscious or unconscious motivations in men.