On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death


King Lear“Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Bad’ Shakespeare Play?” asks a recent article on the Smithsonian website. It adds,

“Shakespeare, despite the efforts of notable dissenting critics and writers to forcibly eject him, has occupied the position of world’s greatest playwright since his star was re-affixed to the firmament in the late 18th century. No other playwright is as universally revered. No other playwright has had countless theses and courses and books and articles speculative novels and so many buckets and buckets of ink devoted to him. And while to works of other playwrights of the era are still performed today – Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson spring to mind – Shakespeare is far and away the most recognized.”

Yes, of course there can be. Bad isn’t an objective analysis: it’s a subjective association. What seems good to me might appear bad to you, and vice versa.

April 23, 1616. The day both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died. Two literary giants.*

Shakespeare was a working writer who matured into his art over the years. Some of his plots are thin, some of his dialogue clumsy and some of his poems cloying. He wasn’t perfect. When we talk of Shakespeare as the greatest author, we are commenting on his entire output, and its effect on literature, art and culture over four centuries, not specific lines or even plays.

Good or bad is simply a small judgment we pass on fragments, not the whole. As Hamlet says to Rosencrantz, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” If by bad it means unpopular – what has popularity ever had to do with quality? Consider, for example, Justin Bieber…

The example of a ‘bad’ play that opens this article is King Lear – today seen as a great, dramatic tragedy. Equally, it’s a play of despair, bad endings, greed unpunished, madness, delusion, arrogance, cruelty and suffering. Great stuff, you will agree.

It wasn’t always viewed as such. It was written between 1603 and 06, when it was first performed. It is one of the few plays we have in multiple original publications: two quartos and the First Folio. As Wikipedia points out, having multiple sources is problematic because the differences between them are “significant.” Any version you read or watch is an edited collation of these three.

Coincidentally, I started rereading Lear last week, the first time I have opened that play in more than 25 years. It’s deliciously dark and troubling. Suitable for our times, I suppose.

Lear is actually two similar stories entwined: that of Lear and of Gloucester; a double tragedy, but with different endings and lessons in each. It was so troublesome to some folks that it was rewritten in the century after Shakespeare’s death to have a happy ending (spoiler: Cordelia lives…). That was the popular version performed on stage for 150 years, not Shakespeare’s.

But the original Lear was revived in the 19th century, and has since become a perennial favourite. Times and tastes change, like I said.

The violence and the misery we see in Lear are not uncommon in today’s movies and literature, and not shocking to us. The whole notion of deposing a monarch, going against the divine order and the established way of things… well, that’s old fashioned politics that bother few of us nowadays.

Loosely set in ancient Britain, Lear – originally spelled Leir – is a mythical king first written of in chapters 11-15 of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain or more properly, the Historia Regum Britanniae. Geoffrey dedicated his book to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, but that part of Shakespeare’s play isn’t in Geoffrey’s tale. It comes from contemporary poet Philip Sidney’s work, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Shakespeare cunningly interwove the two tales into one, while simultaneously changing each to fit his theme (Cordelia’s death was his particular, dramatic invention).

Despite the ancient setting, it’s full of anachronisms. It’s also a play with dual themes: nature (sometimes expressed as superstition) versus reason or rationality, old order versus new politics (the latter sometimes referred to as Machiavellianism), conformity versus individualism, emotion versus its lack. There’s also a religious comparison: Job’s suffering versus Lear’s (and Gloucester’s). Then there’s the contrast of families and affection, of children for their fathers: Cordelia’s love for Lear versus Edmund’s disdain for Gloucester.

And, as Linda Rodriguez McRobbie points out in the Smithsonian article, it has a modern theme many of us can relate to:

The play portrays children dealing with an aging parent suffering from dementia, a topic now very much at the fore of our social conscious.

Towards the end of the play, the broken Lear comments to the blinded Gloucester that, “When we are born, we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools.” It pretty much sums up much of the play: folly, madness and tears.

Lear’s fool seems the only one who really recognizes this – the fool is a great character role, even though he only has 58 lines (and disappears halfway through). He asks in Act 1 Sc 4, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?” That’s a question we can ask today, when viewing modern politics, both of local council and the American presidential circus.

To accompany my reading, I also opened Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. The two-volumes were first published in 1970 and remain an essential, even indispensable guide to the Bard’s main works. I have relied on this guide to give me a wide range of historical, social, religious, philosophical and linguistic background on the Bard. Brilliant polymath that he was, Isaac Asimov put his wide-ranging interests to work when annotating the plays, making his guide perhaps the best non-academic work on Shakespeare in my library.

I love this book. Asimov writes for the everyman, and is often wry or even funny. He tells me something about every play I didn’t know, every time I read him. And it helps me get through the more quixotic sections of every Shakespeare play. With which, I exit, pursued by a bear, to continue my reading…
* Although his exact date of birth is unknown, Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564. Since baptism on the third day after birth is traditional, April 23 is also celebrated as his birthday; in this case, 454 years ago. April 23 is also St. George’s Day.

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