Perhaps William Hazlitt said it best: "We all wish that we could pass this play over, and say nothing about it. All that we can say must fall far short of the subject; or even of what we ourselves conceive of it. To attempt to give a description of the play itself or of its effect upon the mind, is mere impertinence" (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, ed. Harold Bloom [Chelsea House, 1983], 108).
King Lear, considered by many to be Shakespeare's greatest work, has confounded and fascinated critics and theatre-goers for centuries. G. K. Hunter called the play "some Stonehenge of the mind" (King Lear [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972], 7). Keats aptly described the compulsion to re-experience the play: "once again . . . / Must I burn through" (The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Keats [New York: The Modern Library, 1951], 168).
Other critics, overwhelmed by the play's darkness and complexity, have thrown up their hands and called it unstageable. Charles Lamb was one such, certain that no theatrical company could adequately render the "grandeur" of the storms within Lear's mind and on the heath; what the audience was more likely to see was "an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out-of-doors by his daughters in a rainy night" (The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb [New York: The Modern Library, 1935], 298-99). Harley Granville-Barker effectively refuted Lamb's argument, and even while he conceded that "Shakespeare may . . . have set himself an impossible task," he quite rightly pointed out that even when a particular production falls short of perfection, Shakespeare succeeds: "This contrast and reconciliation of grandeur and simplicity, this setting of vision in terms of actuality, this inarticulate passion which breaks now and again into memorable phrases—does not even the seeming failure of expression give us a sense of the helplessness of humanity pitted against higher power?" (Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol 1 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946], 265, 283).
But however successful the play may be, it is still perplexing. King Lear is a bit reminiscent of Titus Andronicus, though it hasn't nearly as many atrocities, and its commentary on human nature is every bit as scathing as that in Timon of Athens. It is not a tragedy like Hamlet, in which the audience cheers on the revenger as he struggles to complete his quest before he dies, or even a tragedy like Macbeth or Richard III, in which the virtuous (or, at any rate, those characters still alive in act 5) vanquish the murderous tyrant with a very satisfying thump. In these plays, though the struggle takes its toll in lives, the audience is left feeling that justice has been served and order restored by the conclusion.
At the end of King Lear, although Goneril, Regan and their accomplices are just as dead as Macbeth or Richard III, so is Cordelia and, with her, innocence and hope for the future. No number of slain villains can alleviate the accumulated devastation: "The last two acts of the play . . . are constructed of a series of advances and repudiations of visions of hope. . . . Edgar sees his blinded father immediately after claiming that . . . 'the worst is not / So long as we can say 'this is the worst.' Gloucester's stoic resolution to abjure suicide is followed by the sight of Lear too mad for any moral choice" (Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare: King Lear [London: Edward Arnold, 1963], 58).
Shakespeare doesn't allow his audience to dismiss the horror and suffering in the play as matters of fate. Edmund's speech about human vice in the play's second scene squashes such interpretations: "This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on" (1.2.128-36).
Nor can blame be heaped upon a single character. Blustering Gloucester and irrational Lear—blind to the true natures of their offspring—and Goneril, Regan, and Edmund—jealous of their fathers' wealth and power and possessing all the filial affection of vipers—are the most obvious culprits. But even the innocent Cordelia contributes to the tragedy. While Cordelia's unbending honesty and reticence in act 1 is admirable, it is also selfish. She is understandably repulsed by her sisters' fawning lies and the spectacle of her father doling out portions of his kingdom in exchange for her sisters' patently false declarations of love. That Cordelia genuinely and deeply loves her father is made clear by the play's end as she fights and eventually dies for him. Is it too much to ask, despite her claim that her "love's / More ponderous than [her] tongue" (1.1.79-80), that she honestly and warmly express that love at the beginning of the play? Instead, all she manages is "I love your Majesty / According to my bond, no more no less" (1.1.94-5).
The characters inhabit a bleak world, one in which villainies alternately flourish and fail and in which virtue goes almost entirely unrewarded. Cordelia, the third and most worthy of Lear's daughters, is banished for her honesty and condemnation of hypocrisy and finally dies in loving defense of her father; Edgar, Gloucester's honorable son, is likewise forced to flee his father's unjustified wrath and his brother's machinations. "The final sense is that all moral structures, whether of natural order or Christian redemption, are invalidated by the naked fact of experience" (Brooke 59-60).
However, while King Lear may be painful to watch, it nonetheless evokes that odd exultation that Shakespeare's tragedies bring, though for slightly different reasons. As Nicholas Brooke explains it: "The resurgence of feeling as we leave the theatre is free of uncertainty, because the fact has really been faced. Nature has no moral order; and we can no longer wish for one. Cordelia dies, and Lear retreats into insanity. It would be naive to call this pessimistic, when any effort at optimism would be patently false, and therefore more 'depressing'" (60).
Finally, any analysis of King Lear must be, as Hazlitt puts it, "mere impertinence." But perhaps the reasons for King Lear's impact are less important than the fact of the play's power; ultimately, audiences and critics alike will continue to puzzle over the play and the pleasure and pain it evokes, eager once more to "burn through."