King Lear: From Poetry to Prose and Back

By: Michael Fridman

Prefaced with an accurate description of the play, and an ahistorical account of its production.

In a time of paramount chaos and unheralded misfortune, Britain underwent a state of dire crisis, bearing the unmitigated brunt of a ferocious frontal assault from an unexpected nemesis. The fate of an empire appeared wrested away from the gods themselves, to be subjected instead to the corrosive and deceitful schemes of barbaric and beastly men, the terrible and unforgivable acts of betrayal committed by traitors, scoundrels, adulteresses and their ilk. Parents mercilessly dismissed their dutiful children, but the revenge of disloyal children upon their parents proved yet more devastating. In like manner, subjects ruthlessly sought to disempower and disgrace their rulers, while the erring fathers of the illegitimate were blindly betrayed even by the very bastard-folk they accepted into their homes. Gazing with complete clarity upon this scene, powerfully conceiving even the smallest detail in his mind, one man— a poet by trade and a master of fictions himself—took up his quill and set out to render the vision in script and in doing so impacted meaningfully upon character, content, and the broader constructions of genre and theme. The man’s name was Shakespeare—and he had something to say on the subject. Known to a few as a fellow with some skill in writing, his friends occasionally referred to him with reverence as the “Bard of Avon,” but more often they casually called him Bill. In his senior yearbook page, his classmates wrote “Bill doth possess far more ambition yet far less hair than his fellow Stratford-Upon-Avoners. Get ye forth Stratford Bear-Baiters, thrice victors 1566, 1574, 1575!” Sitting in solitude with quill and parchment before him, other times standing in a local tavern scrawling upon half-used handkerchiefs, Shakespeare would write words. In this latter venue, Shakespeare wrote King Lear on a night remembered somewhat dubiously as a particularly rowdy yet amusing one. No one present at the time could confidently conjecture afterwards whether Shakespeare intended the work as a history or tragedy, but most people agreed that it did not matter much. Later that week, a janitor discovered separate versions of the play etched on half-burnt napkins lying about an uncomfortable bar stool with a thatched roof, constructed and often sat upon by the village idiot. A local scholar and bartender—incidentally the same person but not by definition—determined that a judicious mixing of the two versions into a single conflated text would, in fact, do nicely. Later upon redaction, an experienced publisher rechristened the play King Lear—changed from Loony Lear—characteristically averting all things abundantly alliterative. How fortunate for Shakespeare, too! This self-same publisher later had categorically refused to print Love’s Labor Lost. In some measure of empathy for the unpopularity of that unfortunate play—he agreed to publish Love’s Labor Won, but reluctantly, and only as a brief account. With much thanks for your audience I anticipate you derived a modicum of merriment from the above brief introduction and narrative. Now with your permission I will discuss King Lear as one of Shakespeare’s finest plays and a masterful yet tragic portrayal of the human condition.

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