King Lear

The Teacher Introduction to my King Lear activity pack in preparation for publication by Zig Zag Publications

It is the moment when Lear returns to the stage in Act V that gets me every time. Shakespeare has just held out the possibility of a happy ending, the ending we are expecting from this fairy tale of a foolish father and his daughters: Edmund the bastard has just confessed to sending a murderer to the prison to kill Cordelia and Lear. Edgar, the valiant, honest and brave son of Gloucester is dispatched to save Cordelia and Lear and the audience wish, above all, for their survival.

Lear appears at just the point when the audience are about to achieve their deserved catharsis after suffering alongside Lear and Gloucester. But all is not as the audience hope: Lear is bearing the dead body of Cordelia, howling with animal emotion. I know I have seen this same scene countless times since I first saw it thirty years ago, but every time I see the play I wish it will end differently. I know that, despite being a hardened, middle-aged English teacher, I will cry. I can honestly say that no other play of Shakespeare’s has ever reduced me to tears: I sit dry eyed through the accumulation of bodies at the end of Hamlet; shed not a tear at the suicides of Lady Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra; and remain as dry as a stone during the shaming of Hero. But there is something about Lear’s suffering that appeals to my humanity. Kent says it best: ‘Is this the promised end?’

And no, it isn’t what we had expected from this fairy tale. In fact the ending so troubled the audience that sixty years following its first performance and fifty years after Shakespeare’s death Nahum Tate rewrote the ending so that Cordelia survived and married Edgar. It was this version of Lear that dominated performances for the next 150 years. But this happy ending effectively neuters the play turning it back into the folk tale from whence it originated.

King Lear’s rejection of happy endings is liberating to us as teachers. The play is clearly not about giving the audience what they want so what is Shakespeare exploring? This is the point at which the play explodes with possibilities: family; social class; ideology; gender roles; fate; truth ………………….. It is an endless and continuously expanding list of possibilities.

Peter Tomkins

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