The noted critic and English professor digs deep to uncover what makes this play so profound.
After books on Falstaff and Cleopatra, the third installment in Bloom’s (Humanities/Yale Univ.) Shakespeare’s Personalities series takes on King Lear, who, along with Prince Hamlet, is one of “Shakespeare’s most challenging personalities.” These two plays are the “ultimate dramas yet conceived by humankind.” High praise indeed from the prolific author who, now in his late 80s, wrestles with the complexities of another man also in his 80s. Bloom brings this dark tale of a king in search of love to life via his incisive close reading of the text. As he writes, King Lear is the “most ironic of all tragedies, surpassing even Hamlet.” Noting all the times the word “nothing” is used, this “nihilistic play” leaps “beyond hope, into nothingness.” Lear has an “enormous need to be loved,” especially by his youngest daughter, Cordelia. Her sisters, Goneril and Regan, Bloom writes, are “monsters of the deep, preying upon their victims, and at last on one another.” The author does a fine job of explicating Edgar, the “just and rational avenger.” In the first two quartos of the play, Bloom notes, Edgar is given special prominence in the play’s lengthy title. After Lear, he’s the “crucial personality in the drama.” From Poor Tom to serving man to peasant to messenger to masked knight, “in all of Shakespeare, there is nothing like these astonishing metamorphoses.” The “ultimate atrocities” in the play are Cornwall’s gouging of Gloucester’s eyes, enacted before us, and the hanging of Cordelia, done offstage. “In what must be the shattering beyond all measure,” writes Bloom, “in Shakespeare and indeed all Western literature, Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms.”
A measured, thoughtful assessment of a key play in the Shakespeare canon.