Image is everything. Our nature compels us to associate a meaningful image or perhaps some discreet symbol to a concept for the sake of summary or categorization. Human nature is also the central theme of William Shakespeare’s play, “King Lear”. Of his many great literary works, Lear is arguably most deserving of the label, magnum opus, and therefore should be the image or symbol that best encapsulates the work of the “Bard of Avon”.
The notion of choosing one Shakespearian play as a defining image of The Bard is technically absurd. However, in the case of the literary layman, the quintessential Shakespearian play is typically selected from one of two popular options, either ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Indeed the humble layman may be hard pressed to name any works outside of this esteemed pair.
Far be it for me to denounce the qualities of these two unique and powerful tragedies. The conjecture remains that they have outstayed their welcome in the realm of public consciousness as the flag bearers of Shakespeare’s worth. King Lear tends to be nominated as the logical successor to Hamlet among Shakespearian enthusiasts and scholars. The reason lies in the concept of a transcendental work; the idea that a work of art can speak to us from across the ages.
Lear is both Shakespeare’s bleakest play and also, perhaps, his most insightful. The titular King Lear is driven to madness by the betrayal of his two, ambitious, elder daughters. Despite opportunities for redemption, his foolishness tragically renders him unable to tell friend from foe. The antagonists, meanwhile, achieve their goals through mental and physical brutality, devoid of remorse. Shakespeare explicitly questions the true meaning of human nature. The relative lack of hope in the play suggests he had a very dark interpretation of that question indeed. Shakespeare’s despairing thesis is alluded to in the line: “Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep.” (IV,ii,54-55)
For centuries Lear was either politically suppressed or performed in modified form. As with many great works, the value of Lear was not fully appreciated until many years after its composition. In particular, the 20th century provided bountiful evidence of the true alignment of man’s nature. King Lear stands as a testament to Shakespeare’s ability to uncomfortably expose man’s subtle but very real weaknesses.
The greatness of King Lear cannot be denied and yet Hamlet ostensibly remains the centrepiece of Shakespearian canon. It has been the case for centuries and perhaps deservedly so. Hamlet is grand in scope and complexity. It is a work of legendary intrigue and populated by many memorable and tragically realised characters. Its prestige will not wane but can it match the sobering, personal introspection that Lear does?
Hamlet is the incumbent symbol of Shakespeare’s genius. It is an image that does not do him justice. People remain largely unaware of the uncanny achievement that is King Lear. If we are to evolve as a thoughtful species we need to evolve our sensibilities. King Lear, in all its doom and gloom, deserves to be the defining image of English writing’s finest exponent.