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How a Pandemic Shaped Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

The author of "Lady Romeo" on one of Shakespeare's most confounding plays.

Tana Wojczuk is the author of Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity, out now on Avid Reader Press.

Legend has it that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine from the plague. But the real story may be more complicated. According to The Guardian there were many plague years while Shakespeare was writing his plays, and historian James Shapiro points out that Lear was first acted in private for King James I in the middle of a plague outbreak in 1606 that closed London’s theatres. Even less known is the effect that the quarantine had on the bard’s writing of the play. Sheltering in place with just a handful of books, he turned again and again to the same source materials–stories that his contemporaries would have been deeply familiar with, but which are largely unknown by audiences today. That’s why Lear is so problematic.

In fact, Lear has always been my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Its script poses so many problems most companies resort to melodrama: eye-gouging, full-frontal wandering in the wilderness, and many failed attempts to emulate a storm. The closest I’ve seen to a successful Lear starred John Lithgow outdoors at Shakespeare in the Park in New York City, where Lear’s final tempest-tossed scene took place in an actual deluge, Lear’s tears mingling with the rain like the end of Blade Runner.

King Lear is one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, but also one of his most nonsensical. Even Winter’s Tale with it’s “exit, pursued by a bear” and miraculous Pygmalion storyline, a statue coming to life, is less ridiculous than Lear. Lear is often thought of as the story of a foolish old man who gives away his power. It is also sometimes understood as a tale about a woman punished for telling the truth. But what that truth is, exactly, is often misunderstood. The story just doesn’t make sense. 

As the play opens, King Lear is in his dotage, no longer spry enough to deal with the day-to-day management of his kingdom. He decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Regan, the unfortunately-named Goneril, and Cordelia. He has not divided his kingdom equally, however: the choicest cut will go to the daughter who loves him best. As proof of their love, each daughter must give a speech praising their father. The two eldest daughters deliver flowery, meaningless speeches that please Lear greatly, but Cordelia? “Love, and be silent,” she tells herself. When she says nothing, Lear becomes enraged and demands she speak. “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,” she protests, and when pressed can only say “I love my father according to my bond. No more, no less.” It goes hard for Cordelia from here on out, beginning with immediate banishment from the kingdom. It also goes hard for Lear, who, having exiled his youngest daughter, is tormented by Regan and Goneril who can’t wait to be rid of him. 

But why? What motivates these daughters to be so hateful? Why doesn’t Cordelia say something to save her skin? The play as we produce it now seems to ask audiences to swallow quite a lot of broad good and evil characterization that isn’t like Shakespeare at all. This makes the play seem like melodrama rather than the character studies Shakespeare is better known for. Even in bloody Macbeth the murderers are given plenty of soliloquies to help them articulate their reasons and later their tormented souls. Even “bad Dicky,” Richard III, speaks of his crimes with such delight that we are sometimes tempted to take his side. But after Cordelia is exiled she disappears for much of the play, and Lear is left to complain and howl until his last scenery-chewing scene. Regan and Goneril fulfill their bad-gal roles with aplomb, but with essentially no characterization, their decisions are snoozingly predictable, and Lear himself is so one-note we look on his situation with intellectual distaste rather than moral revulsion. (With the exception of his final scene, which we’ll get to in a moment). 

I took a friend to see a highly-lauded production of Lear at a major New York institution. The set design was HBO-level elaborate, like something out of Game of Thrones. Lear, burrowed in a fur coat, sat on a throne perched upon a plexiglass box many feet in the air, as if sitting atop a block of ice. I could tell my friend was not enjoying herself. She kept sinking lower and lower in her seat. At one point she leaned over to whisper to me, “do they always shout so much? Will they keep shouting?” Yes and yes. We got drunk at intermission and by the third act my friend was much happier. She was asleep.

The worst part of the play, however, is Cordelia, who seems to have no motivation and comes across as a goody two shoes. What kind of person loves her father but won’t say so? Why is she so against flattering him if she actually does love him? Her words would not be false. It’s never clear what keeps her from heaving her heart into her mouth, and audiences are asked to believe she would make herself an exile out of prudery alone. 

Lear isn’t a bad play, just misunderstood. Shakespeare’s plays may be eternal, but important details are sometimes lost in translation. For example, recent scholarship has unearthed what Shakespeareans call “OP” or “original pronunciation.” Research by father-son team David Crystal, a linguist, and  his son Ben, an actor, reveals that we miss much of Shakespeare’s ribald humor because we have been pronouncing his lines wrong. In OP Jaques’ line in As You Like It, “Hour to hour we ripe and ripe / and then from hour to hour we rot and rot” becomes “whore to whore we ripe and ripe / and then from whore to whore we rot and rot.” Referring of course to venereal disease. 

The main stumbling-block to Lear, however, isn’t pronunciation but our lack of context. It’s likely that Shakespeare’s audiences understood the play in a very different way than we do today. Like much of his work, Shakespeare cribbed heavily from holinshead chronicles for King Lear. Owning few books, he would have read and re-read it during quarantine. Though the Holinshead story is much like the play, give or take madness and eye-gouging, it also draws on a deeper well of mythology. 

The folktale that shares the most DNA with both Holinshead and Shakespeare’s stories is the old tale “Allerleirauh” or “thousandfurs,” which predates both Lear and Holinshead. Folklorist Maria Tatar’s research reveals many versions of this story, which all feature an aging monarch who requires a demonstration of love from his daughters. In each story, when the youngest daughter (the character Shakespeare named Cordelia) fails to flatter her father he casts her out. Their most important difference, however, is the youngest daughter’s motive. In several versions of this tale the King is besotted with his wife. When she dies, the king, possibly senile, looks at his daughter and sees his wife’s mirror image. He begins to court her as if he would marry her, something he could easily do as king. In another version the king actually molests his youngest daughter, and she must find a way out before this incest is formalized through marriage. 

These alternate stories were widespread, and widely-known during Shakespeare’s time, and audiences would have known her as a daughter trying to escape her father’s house. They would have understood Shakespeare’s Cordelia in the context of the old tales, as complex, a loving daughter who is horrified when her father’s attentions become romantic and sexual. We might even imagine that Regan and Goneril have either been molested themselves, or that they see their father’s new attention toward Cordelia as rejection and hate him for it.When Cordelia reminds her father “You have begot me, bred me, loved me” she may be trying to make him see her as a daughter, not a wife.  

In all but Shakespeare’s Lear the Cordelia characters win their freedom without losing their lives, exchanging a dress for a coat made of many furred-creatures, sometimes working as a kitchen maid and eventually marrying a prince or ruling her own kingdom. Historically, some scholars believe Cordelia was a real person, the first Celtic queen, a warrior who raises her own army and claims the throne herself. Hardly milquetoast. If we’re going to keep talking about Lear and producing it over and over again, let’s at least give Cordelia the chance to grow beyond her Tracy Flick-like origins.

Though we can’t rewrite the ending, as Nahum Tate did in the 17th century, so that Cordelia lives, we can reimagine her: a woman struggling against the claustrophobic confines of her home life and her era. When we do the play opens up, like turning a key in a lock and letting in fresh air. Though Shakespeare may have been quarantined when he wrote it, King Lear takes place in the wilderness, and is secretly the story of Cordelia rewilding herself.

Author of Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America's First Celebrity (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster). She has also written for The New York Times, New Yorker, Tin House, The Believer, Vice and elsewhere. She is an editor at Guernica Magazine and teaches at NYU.

6 comments on “How a Pandemic Shaped Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

  1. Interesting… but… after reading Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, I tend to think that his Hamlet was also influenced by a pandemic.

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  2. I couldn’t disagree more. King Lear is the most powerful and moving of all the plays. Unfortunately, it’s also the saddest with a universal Nay, It has more negatives —no’s, nothings, nevers —than any of the other plays. No surprise that he wrote it during a pandemic.

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  3. Michael Sargent

    Interesting, but hardly plausible. Shakespeare and his audience would certainly have known Holinshead, but were unlikely to have been familiar with the folklore versions dug up by Maria Tatar.
    Sorry you don’t like the play.

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  4. The suggestion of incest is more than that in Jane Smiley’s 1991 reworking of “Lear” in her Pulitzer Prize winning A THOUSAND ACRES.

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  5. Jane Taylor McDonnell

    Interesting — but I think the play is far more subtle than this. We might characterize the relationship of Lear and Cordelia as a kind of emotional incest, a relationship that is so deep it goes beyond words and sometimes causes bafflement on both sides. Cordelia could be played as someone who is appalled that her father needs so much reassurance, and Lear, for his part, is traumatized by old age and the losses that heap up all around him. Any daughter who has had a close emotional relationship with a father and any old person who suffers the losses of old age in a very conscious way will surely understand Shakespeare’s play far better. I count myself as belonging to both of these categories. Living longer and living in a particularly gendered way both yield insights.

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  6. Donald Wright

    (A very minor comment compared to the substance of the article, but … do please fix the punctuation typo in the third paragraph, i.e., “Even Winter’s Tale with it’s [sic] ‘exit, pursued by a bear’ and miraculous Pygmalion …”)

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