If you talk literature a lot, you’re liable to occasionally get asked what your favorite book is. It’s been many years since I hesitated when answering the question myself. For me, there is always a space between any literary work and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Reading, studying, teaching or seeing it, I’ve never failed to find something new or be bowled over by what it has to say. I’ve heard it said that it is less philosophical and more emotional than Hamlet. That makes some sense but mostly on a superficial level. King Lear does not lack profound philosophical depth, it just doesn’t proclaim it as much. In fact, there aren’t many truths and paradoxes of human existence the play DOESN’T touch on. It also manages to be a brilliant piece of theater. Shakespeare’s ability to write great art that is just as weighty as any modern work, yet carries that weight lightly enough to also be great entertainment, is one of his most underrated qualities as a writer.
It is difficult for me to know what to discuss in regards to King Lear. One of the moments which strikes me the most is the short scene between Lear and the Fool after they leave Goneril’s house. Lear is going on a journey we’re all going to have to take, one way or another. Then there is Lear’s first speech after he and Cordelia are captured. Sometimes, when reading it, I can’t think anything other than that it is the greatest poetry ever written. Finally, I just want to mention the finale. When I first taught the play, a student used the words “science fiction” when commenting on the end. At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant. Later, however, he explained that it reminded him of post-apocalyptic works. I think he was right. King Lear leaves us not knowing where we are or what we should do. That student showed me something new in the play. Next time, I know I’ll find even more.