Reading Shakespeare’s King Lear in the context of Erasmus’ amazing Praise of Folly brings the depth of this play into focus. Erasmus, writing about the state of the world in the 16th Century, could be writing about the world today and Shakespeare really seems to pick up on these insights:
“ Now, what else is the whole life of man but a sort of play? Actors come on wearing their different masks and all play their parts until the producer orders them off the stage, and he can often tell the same man to appear in different costume, so that now he plays a king in purple and now a humble slave in rags. It’s all a sort of pretence, but it’s the only way to act out this farce… the comedy of life”
“To sum up, if you could look down from the moon… on the countless hordes of mortals, you’d think you saw a swarm of flies or gnats quarrelling amongst themselves, fighting, plotting, stealing, playing, making love, being born, growing old and dying. It’s hard to believe how much trouble and tragedy this tiny little creature can stir up, shortlived as he is, for sometimes a brief war on an outbreak of plague can carry off and destroy many thousands at once.”
Shakespeare clearly inherits this tragi-comedic view of the human situation as he has his crazy King Lear asserting his manic authority and then being brought to heal becoming an outcast to his daughters. It is the fool who provides the path to some kind of redemption for Lear, some glimmers of insight into the mess he has made by allowing his egotism to rule.
But most important is Shakespeare’s insight, through Lear, of how it is a recognition of the suffering of others that brings balance and some kind of order into a person’s life:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
It was John Vanier in our own time who demonstrated this most amazingly in his description of working with the poor and disadvantaged: Click Here.
Blog questions arising from this amazing play:
You are the youngest daughter in your family. Your father is demanding that you tell him how much you love him. In your own words, tell him what you really feel about his question. What are you prepared to say in response to his demand?
Write a short appraisal of Poor Tom as he appears on the heath. What sort of a person is he? Why does he behave in the way he does?
From the perspective of the moon, in a paragraph, describe the current situation on earth as you see it.
From the point of view of a literary historian, explain simply and briefly what is different about the times in which Richard III was written, compared to the times in which King Lear was written? Are there any contemporary circumstances that may have impacted on the subjects of these two plays?
CREATIVE/CRITICAL– Create your own Critical or Creative topic that connects with King Lear and perhaps with your own experience of life.