King Lear is King

For fifteen years I have unswervingly held that Richard II is Shakespeare’s best play. My reasoning was this:

1. There is not one wasted word in Richard II. Every line of every speech contributes to building up the tragedy.

2. No one has ever defended the idea that kings rule by divine right so beautifully as King Richard does.

3. Even though he comes out of the gate at the beginning of the play as an insufferable, self-deluded madman, Richard winds up winning your sympathy anyway. At first he seems to be fatally flawed by delusions of grandeur, but in fact his grand illusions turn out to be truly noble.

These are really solid reasons for thinking that Richard II is best, and there are more reasons which I could offer. But I have to admit that I was wrong. I was totally wrong. Richard II is not the best.

This change of heart has been building for a couple of years. King Lear has always intrigued me. Harold Bloom, a formidable commentator, does not hesitate to choose King Lear as the best. Two summers ago I finally started to get a real grip on the play, when I watched the 1974 Central Park performance, with Raul Julia as Edmund and James Earl Jones as King Lear.

As I drove down to the seashore for my day off yesterday, I listened to the Arkangel King Lear for the fourth time. It utterly crushed me. I will never be the same.

I have always thought that the opening scene of King Lear has even more drama than Alfred Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre. And I would have freely acknowledged years ago that King Lear also does what Richard II does: makes you fall in love with a king who seems insane—who is insane—but who turns out to be the one who really understands things.

The storm scene on the heath, however, has finally conquered me altogether. Don’t get me wrong: it left me breathless before. King Lear raging against the forces of chaos and dissolution, with his Fool under his cloak, is more powerful than all of twentieth-century poetry and philosophy rolled-up together. But yesterday afternoon I felt for the first time the second-part of that scene’s one-two punch: just when you are in the grips of this existential reverie on human solitude, Shakespeare sneaks up and daggers your heart with Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, seeing his beloved father, who has unjustly condemned him.

I am not given to weeping. I have been accused on being machine-like, emotionally austere. I did not, in fact, weep in the car yesterday afternoon. But I was darn close.

Please allow me to reiterate that it has taken me years of effort to attain the appreciation of King Lear that I now have. (I am rather slow…) King Lear is not exactly easy to deal with. But it is worth it! It is worth it! King Lear is best.

2 thoughts on “King Lear is King

  1. Of course, when using the form “X is best”, you actually intend to say: “X feels best for me”. Allright, the shorthand is easeily forgiven, since – see – most of us seem to be using the abridged is-form most of the time.
    However, how about considering the following possibility?
    Neither Lear, nor Richard II “is best”, it is you, yourself, who is developing, as a human being normally would do. At some stage in your life “Richard II felt best”, now this has changed into “Lear feeld best”, both times, of course, again, for you.
    If you could agree for even just the most tiniest bit, that some sort of the most tiniest version of a truth might be hiding in the latter evaluation of your situation, then still I’d need to urge you to not jump to the conclusion that, now, having arrived in a later stage of your life, your ‘best’ feeling should be held superior to the one you formerly were holding in the earlier stage of your life. Nothing of the kind would apply, of course. Both feelings are equally valid, and will remain so for ever. You own them both.
    Maybe the word ‘best’ could best not have been used at all.

  2. I disagree with Eli’s view, which makes everything personal and everything equal. It is psychological reductionism.

    1) About anything, a more mature view is better, i.e. it is more helpful to others and to oneself.

    2) About Shakespeare, the view of a person who has studied the plays and cares about them is not just personal — it affects all the rest of us who care about the plays and what they mean to humankind. The better, the more mature, the more incisive one person’s view — the better that person can help others to see the truth about life that Shakespeare gives us. Years ago I read a short piece by Francine Prose about how the scene on the heath moved her. She thought King Lear was the best, and her writing moved me to want to struggle with that play. Now it is fascinating to me to read that Mark has come to the same conclusion; what he has written will drive me back to the play. Eli, your psychological reductionism completely ignores the great community of readers and viewers of Shakespeare’s plays.

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